How to set up your website for business

WebsiteIn part five of our series on technology in business, we look at how to launch and optimise your company website in 2015

We’ve come a long way in 20 years. The proportion of people in the world online has grown from just one per cent in 1995 to a staggering 40 per cent in 2015. In other words, your business simply cannot ignore the billions of potential customers on the web any longer – whatever the size of your company, you need a web presence. As daunting as that sounds, it’s something that’s worth doing: if you do it right, you’ll pull in more customers than ever before. Follow our guide and you’ll be just fine – just make sure that anyone else you hire to do the work for you follows these tenets too.

Register your domain name
First thing’s first: your business needs a recognisable address online. That’s probably your business, with the domain of the country you’re in (‘.ke’ for Kenya, for example). Are you international, or do you plan to be? Then maybe ‘.com’ would be better. Domain registrars like GoDaddy.com can let you register these very cheaply; however, you should be prepared for the possibility of your ideal domain name having been purchased already. You may need to pay more to acquire it if the owner is willing to sell, or settle for a variant that is available. Consider also purchasing the domains for various misspellings and acronyms of your business and having them redirect to the correct one so you don’t miss out on any potential visitors.

Choose a website builder
There’s no single, easy solution here, unfortunately. Your requirements will depend on your business. There are expensive solutions which let you plug in your own modules as you see fit and then there are freemium options, which let you create a basic site for free from a selection of templates – but more advanced features will set you back more. Services like WordPress are a good start for basic sites, and are easy to update regularly with new content and blog posts (if you don’t like any of these, many registrars like GoDaddy also offer their own site building tools which are easy to use). Choose your template very carefully: if you’re uncertain, just go with something simple and not distractingly colourful. The important thing is that any information is easy for a visitor to find – remember that every extra click you require is another hurdle in their user journey.

Larger companies will need something more bespoke and professionals to code and maintain their site as their needs and size scale up – but sites like WordPress or Drupal are still a good start, as while both are simple to use for beginners, they offer unrivalled customisability if you know what you’re doing. WordPress alone powers more than 70 million websites, while Drupal powers more than two per cent of all websites on the Internet.

Hosting choices
We talk about the cloud, but the Internet is very much a physical presence, a collection of computers ‘wired together’ all over the world. Somewhere out there, a computer will have to keep your website on its hard drive and deliver it up when anyone enters your web address – and that can cost more money than you might think.

Independent shops and local businesses might get by on the small amount of free or inexpensive hosting offered by site registrars and site building sites. (GoDaddy hosting starts at just US$1.50 per month, while the basic but attractive Weebly service can host small sites for free), but if your business is likely to scale up, you should be aware that your server needs will too. And the more advanced your site gets – with purchase mechanisms, databases etcetera – the more manpower you’ll need to maintain and update them.

Don’t forget mobile
There’s been a trend in recent years towards every company having its own app. It’s unwise to throw money down this rabbit hole – it’s very difficult to persuade somebody that your app is worth installing (it should provide a service, not information) – but you should make absolutely sure that your website is optimised for mobile devices, so that people can find everything they need when they’re out and about.

Most respectable site builder services these days factor this in for you – Weebly in particular does a good job of converting sites for smartphones – but the constraints of smartphones should also guide how you design your pages for desktop computers too.
After all, not only does your site have to be legible on a screen measuring less than four inches wide, it has to be legible on a screen measuring less than four inches wide while the user is walking. Your mobile site should be the same as your desktop site: simple, with clear labelling at the top or along the side, and no fineprint. Videos can be useful if they show what your company does, but they shouldn’t be the centre of your website – nor should slow to load image galleries (unless you sell art or fashion products).

Step up your security
Now, more than ever, security matters. No matter what size your business, you are a target online if you have any presence online at all. To give you an example; Kaspersky Lab found that, in 2014, 38 per cent of all its users’ computers were attacked online at least once.

It’s important to follow best practice at all times: make sure your website is securely hosted. Use difficult passwords and change them regularly, and turn on any two-stage authentication services (which require you to enter a code sent to you by phone as well as a password) that you have available.

If your website is just to convey information about your small, local business such as prices and opening times, this may be enough. But if financial transactions take place on your website – for instance, if you sell products online or capture customer data in any way you need to tread very carefully indeed. Many countries have laws about what you can do with customer data, and heavy penalties for falling foul of them, even if you’re hacked.

It’s for this reason, though, that unless your company is large enough to require its own bespoke best practices and IT department, you should consider outsourcing the handling of sensitive data to trusted companies and services that do it for you. For instance, if your site requires customers to log in or maintain an account, save yourself the problem of storing passwords and consider using OpenID Connect to authorise access. It’s a simple tool with the backing of web giants like Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft and PayPal that lets people log in securely – and your business never sees any of the sensitive data that could land you in hot water. Services like Worldpay and Sage Pay meanwhile do much the same for processing payments.

The art of SEO
Search engine optimisation (SEO) means doing everything you can to make sure your website appears high on web searches for your business, area or industry. Having good SEO can help you draw in many more potential customers, so it’s vital. It’s also something of a dark art since Google and its rivals keep their algorithms confidential.

Back in the early days of the Internet, it was easy to make sure your website appeared at the top of search results – you just had to put the keyword people were searching for at the bottom of your website hundreds of times, preferably in the same colour as the page background. Google changed all of that though, by focusing instead on how many other websites linked to your own to measure and rank its importance, and while things are much more complex nowadays, this is still believed to be a big factor in the results search engines spit out. In other words, things like articles in the press, shout-outs on social networks and hyperlinks back to your business on high ranking review sites that others put there are all helping raise your company’s profile online.

Whatever you do though, do not engage in ‘black hat’ SEO – cynically manipulating this by encouraging others to systematically link to you. If you’re caught, Google will plummet your website to the bottom of the rankings, making it very difficult for anyone to find you, and there’s almost no way to resolve this once it’s happened. You’re much better off focusing on making your business the best it is – the external links will flow from that.

Your web presence
Don’t focus only on your website. Your web presence isn’t just what’s on your website, it’s what others are saying about you elsewhere too. All of the below should be vital considerations for your business:

1 Reviews
Reviews on websites like TripAdvisor are essential to many businesses, since many potential customers will trust independent assessments over anything you say on your own site. It’s not just those in the travel and tourism industry who should be concerned with this, however: it’s all business owners. There are sites that rate everything from tradesmen to doctors, so whatever industry you work in, you can bet your customers will be talking about you online if you’re doing a bad job – or a great one. Don’t forget Google Plus either, as reviews of your business on the search giant’s social network will appear next to your listings on Google Maps whenever somebody searches for your location. Many of these sites will also show their average star ratings for your business or service directly on the results pages of Google or Bing.

2 Location, location, location
Speaking of which, is your business on Google Maps? It’s all very well optimising your website, but there’s a good chance people in the vicinity will look you up through mapping software. Make sure that your listings on Google Maps and Microsoft’s Bing Maps are up to date.

3 Social
It’s not just big businesses who use social media. Facebook and Twitter are great platforms for generating return business: ask satisfied customers to sign up to your pages and you can reach them for free, tempting them with exciting glimpses into what you’re working on next or giving them access to special deals. It’s cheaper than advertising. Speaking of which…

4 Paid marketing
There are lots of ways to advertise online these days, from traditional adverts in search engine results to YouTube pre-roll clips and even paid promotion on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. You’ll need to think carefully about what to spend and where. Google adverts are shown when people search for keywords, which is a very useful way of targeting people who are about to make a purchase – if they’re searching for ‘dry cleaning Nairobi’ for instance. This is particularly helpful if your business is tied to a specific location – such as a chain of stores. Facebook adverts tend to be shown to people who typically have a less immediate intent to buy but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to generate leads from them, and for some companies, it’s all about increasing awareness among consumers. Be sure to experiment.