Create an effective Web site

Is it time to upgrade your site past the basic ‘brochure’ stage?

Webefx’s Zi Krostag said the best Web sites do more than just present basic information about a company — they perform a vital service or function that gives them a leg up on their competition.

Heidi Schiller
   Zi Krostag does not own a phone book. If a business is not online, it doesn’t exist to him. And he doesn’t think he’s alone.
    According to an April 2006 Pew/Internet study, 73 percent of American adults use the Internet at least occasionally, and 91 percent of Americans who make more than $75,000 annually use it. A March 2005 study by the same organization found that 78 percent of American adults have researched a product or service online.
   “As the Internet generation ages, businesses that are not on the Web will be left behind,” predicted Krostag, the 27-year-old production manager of Webefx, a local Web design firm. “If a company doesn’t get online with at least something rudimentary, they are going to become obsolete.”

   These days, many businesses have moved beyond the basic “brochure” function of a Web site — providing the public with product and contact information — although this function remains the primary reason most businesses maintain a site, Krostag said.
   Barkley Co. jumped on the online train in 1996 with a brochure-type site, said Stowe Talbot, one of the company’s owners.
   Several versions later, the company has to consider a growing number of audiences who might view the site, including commercial tenants, real estate agents trying to find commercial space for clients, patrons of Barkley Village and potential residential tenants now that the company is developing residential condo units, Talbot said.
   The current site allows viewers to look at updated Web cameras of the Barkley District, view newspaper articles about the company and get updates on the area’s new tenants and upcoming events.
   Increasingly, businesses are using Web sites to provide customers or clients with additional services, Krostag said. For example, insurance companies are allowing customers to post claims online and many businesses have Web sites that allow customers to submit data via their site.
   One of his clients, a fire-engine manufacturer, worked with Webefx to design a site so the company’s customers could view photos documenting the progress of their truck order.
   For another client, a dog daycare business, Krostag set up a Web camera so owners could check on their pets throughout the day.
   For these and other businesses, having a sophisticated Web site gives them a leg up in their industry.
   “A lot of clients will come to us with ideas that will give them a competitive edge over their competition in a marketplace where everybody is essentially providing the same service,” he said.
   Online banking is a good example of how an industry has capitalized on Web-based services and moved away from the standard brochure-type site toward one that performs a useful function, Krostag said.
   Businesses that embrace this trend will be more successful, he said.
   Another consideration is the recent development of user-driven Internet activity, otherwise known as the move toward “Web 2.0” with sites like MySpace and Flickr, said Toolhouse Design Co. flash designer Matthew Bergsma.
   “There is a revolution going on in the Internet with the new Web 2.0 push,” he said. “Businesses are trying to find ways to retain people longer on their sites, so they’re trying to create communities.”
   An example of this type of site function would be an online calendar where patrons of a local venue could post events, or they could post photographs, he said.
   While this type of user-driven site might work well for restaurants or bars, it might not be the best option for other businesses, he said.
   Either way, having any type of Web presence can be an affordable way to promote your business.
   Talbot said Web sites add a convenient, cost-effective solution to getting information to customers, as well as providing an opportunity to show off a company’s level of sophistication and care.
   “If I go to a company Web site, and if I notice they have a fairly run-of-the-mill or unattractive Web site, I think differently of them,” he said.
   The quality of a company’s site can be used as a marketing tool, he said. The better the quality, the better a customer’s perception of the company.

   If a business does not have a Web site at all, the first question is whether someone employed at the business is Web-savvy enough to design, upload and maintain one, or whether it makes more sense to contract a professional Web designer to do it.
   “A lot of clients set up sites for themselves,” Krostag said. “We hear about this when they are not having success (with the site) and then come to us. I wouldn’t recommend (doing it yourself),” he said. “There’s just so much to know. A lot goes on after you’ve developed the site.”
   That’s what Talbot learned after setting up Barkley Company’s original site.
   “In previous incarnations, I would be stuck doing the work because I knew HTML,” he said. The company decided to contract Webefx for what became its current version.
   When a business decides to contract a Web designer, they usually have an idea of what they want the site to look like. The designer develops a plan based on that input, builds a mock-up of the site, and then begins the cut-to-code process.
   In the next step, the designer slices up the site’s images and sections and writes them in HTML — hypertext markup language, the computer code that powers Web sites — and then creates the database the site is based on. This process is done on a development server to which both the designer and the client have private access.
   When the site is finalized, the designer then moves that database to a live server.
   This process is typical of the way most Web designers create a site for clients, Krostag said. But Webefx offers another, more expensive step of making the site “dynamic.” This means the text of the site is configured in a way that the client can update the site anytime, without having to know HTML.
   Barkley Co. went this route and Talbot said he thinks it’s a great idea.
   “It’s a more expensive up-front cost, but if your business is big enough to justify it, it’s a great way to go,” he said.

Elements of an effective site
   When thinking about how their Web sites should look, Krostag said, businesses should be aware of design elements that can either grab your customers or turn them away.
   The most important thing, he said, is to make sure the site is easy to read and contains clear content, otherwise viewers will move on.
   “If you don’t have relevant information on your site, you will lose a client within 30 seconds,” he said.
   Krostag recalled a study showing 90 percent of viewers exit a site on the first page if they don’t see relevant content, and oftentimes the first page they see is not a site’s home page because of the way search engines pick up queries.
   He said a business’s Web site should look professional, with a light-colored background and an easy navigational structure. The site should have subheads placed in navigation bars that run horizontally across the top or along the left side of the screen (because people read from top-to-bottom, left-to-right).
   The home page should only introduce two to four ideas, he said.
   “Think about how someone would logically get to the product,” Krostag said. “You don’t want to force your view on clients, you want to entice them because there is no obligation for them to stay there.”
   As for content, Krostag urges clarity. Information should be short and sweet. Using bullets and bolding words you know customers will be looking for will help customers find information they need, he said.
   But the effectiveness of a Web site does not end with its design. Businesses need to market their sites to ensure people visit them.
   He suggested putting the Web address on everything you’d put your name and phone number on: business cards, letterheads, ads, e-mail signatures and radio spots.
   Also, be sure to write code in a way that the search engines can pick up the site easily, or pay engines like Google or Yahoo a certain amount of money per click so they’ll highlight your site at the top of a search result page.
   “You can build the most dreamy site ever, but if you don’t market it, it’s like building a super mall in the middle of the desert with no roads to it,” Krostag said.



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