Saturday, 26 May 2012

Hide And Seek Or Play For Keeps?

Unless you're a con man or Austin Powers you don't want to be mysterious, you want to be discovered. Failing to engage with your client base (and therefore your clients) will cost you dearly.


I've had dealings with clients who have asked me for difficult things before, and there will always be clients who ask for the impossible. However, clients who ask for the impossible need to understand that I'm not some kind of fairy godmother and the internet works by linking websites to each other on the information superhighway. To make your website work as intended you must first decide what its purpose is, then how you're going to leverage your information and presentation to attract visitors and keep them coming back.


To get your website indexed you need to have links in and out. And to get the website recognised by the search engines you need to use keyword-rich content and have other websites linking to it. To get it up the rankings you need to make it a) popular and b) worth returning to. And that's before you even think of attracting clients.


Purpose


The purpose of most if not all business websites is to attract clients to gain more business. Websites for businesses that don't attract clients look something like linxto.co.uk. I kid you not, it's just a business card. Or they're just decorative and have no real information. In my opinion, the business cards are better. At least they tell you something. Don't get me started on the legacy flash ones. They're just awful.


Okay, let's assume you want to get business from your website. As the SEO people are constantly saying, content is king. Think about this for a moment. I've been banging on about keyword-rich content, but have you actually thought about what this means? The number of websites that actually fail to get this right is astonishing.


Bearing all of the above in mind, consider what needs to go on a website to make it attractive to clients. Here's a list:



  • Distinct logo that is the same on everything related to your company

  • The company name should be clearly defined

  • Your contact details should be visible and in the header or at the top of the sidebar

  • Make it clear what your company does and who your client base is

  • Introduce your company in brief on the home page and in detail on the About page, which ought to have some details about the owners

  • Fully define what your company does in brief on the home page and in detail on the Services page

  • Have a clear call to action on the home page that gets people onto the response page (Services, Contact, Email Newsletter, or Shop) and in contact with you

  • Put brief contact details on the home page above the fold and in detail on a Contact page

  • Post regular updates on a company blog. It's easier if you just build the site in WordPress (or pay me to do it!)

  • Be mobile-ready. Your rivals are

  • Stand out from the crowd. Be specific about what makes your company worth dealing with

  • Engage via social media. Be available


If the purpose of your site is to attract clients, have something for them to see when they arrive. Decorative sites won't tell them what you do or how to get hold of you. Checkable details gain trust. Vague assurances will get you dismissed. Transparency and honesty is valued. Opacity and mystery is not. What you don't say about your business can be as telling as what you do put down. Failing to disclose the most basic information can be a deal-breaker. Basically, if you can't be open about who you are and clear about what you do, you can't and won't get business from your website. Therefore, don't even imagine that you can be anonynous online and run a successful business that's based on gaining the trust of your clients — and large sums of money.


SEO


While SEO is not my main discipline I know enough to know when someone's got it wrong. Do a search on those companies that are likely to be rivals using the search terms you want your website to be found under, i.e. "Manchester-based web designer." I'm on the first page (near the bottom as of today) after almost 18 months of existence. The main reason I'm there is because people visit my site after clicking on links that I've posted with "your website — your way. Manchester-based web designer" in the title everywhere I go (where possible). I've done that on most of the websites I've built and on every website that allowed me to use HTML. "Your website — your way" puts me third on the first page, in case you're interested, because I've been using it for longer. So have my rivals.


Being found is all well and good, but you need to give readers a reason to come back — and bring their friends with them. A pretty site may provide a good example of design, but as Jeffrey Zeldman says, "Design without purpose is empty. It's decoration." Punters want information. This is where your keywords come in handy. I'm a web designer, so on every static page of my admittedly sprawling website (a deliberate choice to showcase my HTML/CSS customisation skills on PHP-based CMS), there are references to the areas involved in either web design or running a business.


Leveraging information


When I choose a theme for a website, particularly a WordPress one, I usually make sure it'll show up on mobile phones. This is something I find increasingly important in light of the fact that more people than ever are using mobile devices to browse the internet. If they can't get onto your site or read it easily, punters will drop your site for one that's more accessible to them.


I usually choose magazine themes, though others are available, because they look lovely on large screens. On my current 1600 x 900px screen, a three-column magazine theme is a thing of beauty. A responsive magazine theme scales down and adjusts to the size of the screen it's being viewed on. That's not what gives a website its overall look, though it does help; it's the content. You know, the words and pictures. They give the site its shape. They fill those little boxes. Deciding where to put each picture and the words that go with them is called information hierarchy.


If you want to win clients via your website, you need to work out which pieces of information are the most important. The more focussed you are in your choice of words and pictures, the more attractive and professional your website will look. Generic pictures from image banks have their place, but the more original an image is, the more trustworthy it is deemed. If your website is for a construction company, you would be better off having pictures of building in progress or completed projects than "smiling white people in suits." Use short sentences that fully describe what you do and avoid padding and repetition. The jury's out on bullet points but you do need stand-out phrases.


Presentation


Now decide which of those pieces of information is the most important. Look at my home page. At the top is my company name and logo, along with my contact details on a crisp white background. Below that is the menu and below that on the left is the intro and on the right there's a slideshow that displays some of my work. In the intro I explain where I am, who my intended audience is, and what I do. People know where they are with me from the start. Below that I go into detail about the main services I provide in clearly illustrated boxes with call to action buttons that lead to the relevant pages. Below that are my blog posts, email newsletter signup form, social media buttons, and Twitter stream so people can see what I'm like online. Below that is the footer, where I've got all my miscellaneous and SEO links, and a sitemap. They're not terribly important but they do need to be there.


Now look at the mobile version. Only the most essential information is there because it's going to be seen on smaller screens. Those layouts are based solely on the information hierarchy. If I had fewer services and less to say I'd have probably only used one column. As it is, on the main version, I've got four because it's important to break it up into manageable chunks and present each piece from left to right in layers in order of importance. Information hierarchy is worth a post to itself. Suffice to say that to present your information most effectively it must be focussed, ordered, and clear.


Exceptions


There will always be exceptions to the anonymity rule. Websites that don't make huge efforts to be contactable are usually online shops selling items or services either via affiliate schemes or directly. Even then, there are protections in place via PayPal or whoever's running the credit handling. Others are services that gain revenue from advertising via Adsense, etc. and aren't directly engaging with clients via the website as a rule.


Always assume, though, that readers may think that if a company appears to have something to hide, they probably do. Remember your own experiences with companies that don't make it easy to find out who's behind them or how to get hold of them directly: isn't the customer service awful? That is how readers are likely to view a site with no clear contact or manager details.


Reputation


Whether you choose to be open online or cloak yourself in mystery you have got to build a reputation for your business somehow. Those people who can get business via word of mouth don't need to worry too much about building a reputation online, but those who want to get business via their websites need to engage with their clients online. Social media accounts are only as effective as you are. If you engage with your customers online, you can demonstrate your approachability and eagerness to do a good job. If people are leaving messages that go unanswered, it's going to make you look bad.


You also need to get other people talking about you in friendly terms. Ratings websites help, but what you really need to do is get yourself noticed on the trade blogs either as a contributor or as a source. Blogging, as I do, on matters pertaining directly or indirectly to your business can get you perceived as a knowledgeable person. This is what gets the punters coming back again and again. Be sure to post links to your blog posts online for maximum benefit.


Either way, sooner or later people will need to connect with someone whether it's online via social media or in real life over the phone. If all they've got is a company name and no person's name to go with it you're going to have to work harder to gain their trust. If, however, you're putting your name and your face to your company, people feel that they know who they're dealing with before they even pick up the phone. Don't put barriers in the way of your company's success. Don't hide. Come out and engage with people or you may find you're not getting as much business as companies that are more open about who's running them.

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