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Building small business websites
An overview of the basic concepts
Nick_W




msg:393382
 10:02 am on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

[big]Building small business websites[/big]

An overview of the basic concepts

Here are some ideas on how to go about building websites for the average small business. Many of us do this all day every day and some of the stuff here is very obvious, but I thought it might be useful to get some basic concepts outlined and perhaps you guys could add to it?

[big]Intention and concept[/big]

Clients often have no idea of what they want; they don't really know what they could do because they often have little experience with computers. Besides, if they were experts, they wouldn't need you right?

Meet with the client and simply ask them what, in an ideal world, would they want their website to do for their company. Invariably it would be something along the lines of:

  • Increase sales of my products/services
  • Tell people about my business
  • Show people what we do and how it can help them

By the end of the discussion you should have a fairly clear idea of the expectations they have for your work. At this point you should start expanding upon those ideas and suggesting ways in which you can add to and expand upon what they want.

[big]Content is king[/big]

If you're like me then you've explained to clients till you're blue in the face that they need content for thier website and it is not just a matter of putting a few pages up with tons of 'about us' stuff and little else.

If they sell products or services, which they surely do, try to ask questions that will solicit the kind of response that might give you a fighting chance with the content. Questions like:

  • Do you have any existing brochures?
  • Does the actual manufacturer of this product have a site?
  • Do you have any technical material?
  • Are there any organizations that relate to this field?
  • Do they currently produce any kind of written periodicals?
  • Can you see their advertising?

Yep, it's often an uphill struggle to find content for your average Small biz site, but a little investigation often turns up some unexpected sources for you to work with. There is an excellent discussion on business content [webmasterworld.com] right here [webmasterworld.com]

[big]Keywords and site structure[/big]

Once you've got an idea of what the content will be you can start talking about keywords [webmasterworld.com] and search terms. I find that's it's best to ask the client how he thinks people would search for what he does and take that with a large pinch of salt ;) You're the expert remember. There is a ton of stuff here on Webmaster World so if you're new to this, just hang out in the search engine forums for a while, it will be time well spent, I guarantee it!

Once you know your top search terms and phrases you can begin to actually work on a site plan. The general plan will fall under 2 main regions:

  • Company specific sections
  • Common sections/elements

Common sections would include the folowing to greater of lesser degree depending on the company:

  • About us
  • Company profile
  • Contact forms
  • Physical address details
  • Mission statement

You get the idea right?

Company specific sections are clearly unique to the company you're working for but if you just follow a few basic rules then you'll find this just as simple as the common sections:

  • Divide content into logical sections
  • Most general first then sub-sections for more specific content
  • Use keywords to good effect when naming directories like
    /cars/fords/sierras/upholstery/

[big]Navigation[/big]

Now that you've got your content and organized it, you'll need to think about the way users will navigate through it. I find that it pays to be simplistic. Okay, it's dull to do the same kind of navigation schemes again and again but users are monumentally stupid and if you sart messing with what they expect your site will be a disaster. Here are a few general points to bear in mind:

  • Keep major site sections down to a maximum of 7-8
  • Put clear links to those sections at the top of the page beneath the logo
  • Put section specific links on the left-hand side and use white space to your advantage, IE: keep it quite seperate from the content.
  • Avoid graphical links at all costs; if you must use them put text alternatives at the bottom of each page.
  • Consistency is the key. Design your navigation and repeat it on every page in the site. Don't even change the color if you can help it.
  • Put contextual links from keywords in the body text to the appropriate pages. People follow contextual links far more than anything else!

There, that should get us started ;) Feel free to pick it to pieces guys, I didn't write it just so I could see my stuff on here. I want to know what you think and how you go about all of this. We all learn from each other here at Webmaster World, so let's here what you think ;-)

Nick

 

papabaer




msg:393383
 10:23 am on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

Great post Nick! Some very intersting material for us to consider. I totally agree with keeping the navigation scheme simple, though at times it is not always easy, especially if their are many sub-categories.

From a design standpoint I always find myself torn between two divergent philosopies: first, I want my sites to look unique... not like something off an assembly line. BUT! as you say, and rightfully so, If we vary too far from the norm, we lose useability AND site visitors who get lost trying to figure out our "unique" design scheme.

So after gathering all the important information, how do we create a site that meets the following criteria: #1 Effectively and immediately, communicates the purpose of the BUSINESS it features, #2 Invites exploration, #3 Incorporates features that will motivate to a desired goal.

The more I learn, the more I find myself falling back on basic priciples of presentation, i.e. headings, section text, text boxes and blockquotes. And of course, text links.

Clients may not always know what they want, but one thing they all need is a responsive site. Not one that just "sits there." I'm not talking about flying banners or flashing text, I'm referring to a site that invokes a positive reaction.

We have lots to talk about here.... Thanks again for the great post Nick!

The Contractor




msg:393384
 10:24 am on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

Nick_W,

Very nice post :)

About Us and Company profile seem to overlap in content in my opinion.

Nick << Content is King >>
I think where small business sites fall short is they do not lend themselves as a authority/expert in their type of business/field. They need to add "original" content that makes them the expert in their field. Service based businesses need to have tips, how-to's, common misconceptions about their line of business asked/answered, FAQ's pages, common mistakes, or just some specific information on the subject of their business.

Example: If a company did catering of food to parties/events. Have some information pertaining to the planning of the event, how to avoid common pitfalls, how much food to plan on per person, what types of food to avoid that people are commonly allergic to, how to choose a caterer, etc.

These would all be seperate pages that would lend authority to the business and make them the "expert".

My 2-cents

brotherhood of LAN




msg:393385
 10:32 am on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

great post nick, good to see such authorative competent stuff going on that we can aspire to ;)

>>Put section specific links on the left-hand side and use white space
to your advantage, IE: keep it quite seperate from the content.

I want to split a hair here? There was a thread a while ago in here about either/or left/right sided navigation. I believe the argument for right sided navigation (at least) is that it gets all those generic keywords for navigation over to the right and more page specific keywords further up the page. On the flip side, I gather that this "prob" can be overrun by using divs or absolute positioning???

Its only a grain of what was mentioned in the thread, but just wanted to see what the heads up is :) Im going to look for that left / right side nav thread

/added - the thread (just in case you wanted to side track and peak)
[webmasterworld.com...]

papabaer




msg:393386
 10:47 am on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

About Us and Company profile

Interesting point Contractor. It also leads to a decision: which to use? About Us is informal, almost "folksy," while Company Profile communicates professionalism.

The choice should be made depending on the nature of the site. What sort of "persona" do you wish to communicate? The type of language used (professional/informal) is very important. It goes towards building identity and should be consistant throuhout.

SmallTime




msg:393387
 10:49 am on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

Blue in the face is about right - I tell them repeatedly that the web is a poor at advertising, but great at information.

I like to get a good overview and feeling for their business, - gather my own impressions of their strengths, how they see themselves, and who their customers are.

A common issue is logo and photos - many small business have little graphic identity, or stuff more suitable for print than web. Photos are another issue, done well they can really help that important first impression, and break up pages of text throughout the site. When pressed, I will point out that on the web they will be competing for attention with sites costing 10-50 times their budget, and a good photo can make the difference. For local or regional sites, local photos are a plus - if a business is not photogenic, find some local scenery.

Good overview, Nick

Nick_W




msg:393388
 10:57 am on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

I believe the argument for right sided navigation (at least) is that it gets all those generic keywords for navigation over to the right and more page specific keywords further up the page. On the flip side, I gather that this "prob" can be overrun by using divs or absolute positioning???

Yes, absolutely.

Ideally I'd say a 2 column layout should be marked up in this order:


  • Header (logo and headline)
  • Main section navigation
  • Body text
  • Section specific navigation
  • Footer

About the company profile/about us:

I agree: I blundered, I meant to mean company profile should go under about us.

I like about us, I don't think it too 'folksy', rather, I think it adds a nice 'human touch' to a site.

Cheers

Nick

Nick_W




msg:393389
 11:02 am on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

Photos are another issue, done well they can really help that important first impression, and break up pages of text throughout the site.

Yes, for a classic example of what kind of photos not to use you should see one of my client sites, very poor quality but what can you do? They love it ;)

Nick

The Contractor




msg:393390
 11:02 am on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

papabaer,

Good point <<The type of language used (professional/informal) is very important. >>

I think this depends on the average audience of the site and who you are trying to reach/average customer.
If you are "B2B" you need the professional "feel" to the site and content/terms used. You can use industry specific jargon etc.

If you are servicing/catering to the "average consumer" you need to keep industry specific jargon out of the picture. Consumers will find it confusing. You need to touch base on personal terms with your user.

What thoughts/fears go through the consumers mind when seeking your services or products.
If you were selling used automobiles you need to have pages like " 200-point inspection on all of our vehicles" and "1-year warranty included".

Squelch their fears and gain a customer :)

papabaer




msg:393391
 11:09 am on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

Absolutely! And it is very important to initiate the style of language in elements of high visibility, e.g. headings, text links and section titles. Lay the foundation quickly!

<added>
Something just came to mind and it ties in with digitalghost's Real World Accessibility thread: [webmasterworld.com...]

Why is it that many "business websites" do NOT take accessibiliy into consideration? Javascript links, imagemaps and convoluted table layouts are some of the abuses. Isn't it in a businesses best interest to include accessibility into the design scheme? Of course, following some of the recommendations being made here, accessibility can bw easily incorporated. But! Is it only done passively... or as part of the overall plan?
</added>

tedster




msg:393392
 4:29 pm on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

very poor quality but what can you do? They love it

I'm becoming very tuned in to something my partner describes as "Slick Isn't Sticky".

There's something about the folksy, down-home page that engages people, and something about the slick presentation that is just, well, slippery for the attention.

We're evolving a style for small business sites that is intentionally played down, not quite so "clean" in general. Something about it makes the pages more approachable and keeps people hanging on.

Nick_W




msg:393393
 4:36 pm on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

Well I'll be okay then, I have to fight almost eveyone I do something for on the issues of 'spinning logos' and 'hit counters'

Well, not really but it sure feels like it ;)

Nick

ssih




msg:393394
 5:06 pm on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

Avoid graphical links at all costs, if you must use them put text alternatives at the bottom of each page.

Why is this? On nearly all of my small business pages, I create graphic links to sub-pages. I make sure that they are obviously buttons, include the alt tags, and have text links at the bottom of the page. I find that buttons designate major links ("contact us", "products") as opposed to minor links ("press release #16", "widget now available in blue", etc.)

corey




msg:393395
 5:06 pm on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

Nice work Nick. Hey, one favor. Can you email one of the URL's for a client you have. I want to check out one of your sites. Actually, can you send me the URL that you like the most ....structurally and mechanically?

Nick_W




msg:393396
 5:29 pm on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

Hi Corey,
unfortuantely their is none that I'm soooo proud of, athough they all look quite nice. My own site is my favourite small business site. You can check it out and clients in the site in my profile.

Clients tend to have odd opinions of web designers, they hire an expert and then instruct them on how to build the site. Sheeesh, I wouldn't hire a mechanic to fix my car and then give him instructions!

Seriously though, none are that bad because as soon as they push me a little to far I just give them a gentle slap and get on with it ;)

graphical links

Well, I dislike them, I think they can usually be done nicely with text, css and background images. It makes for a cleaner feel to the markup and better food for spiders.

Just a personal opinion, not all of my ravings are based on much more than personal preference ;)

Nick

madcat




msg:393397
 5:34 pm on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

Avoid graphical links at all costs, if you must use them put text alternatives at the bottom of each page.

ssih: Done right I think you'll be alright. They might mean that some people turn off images while they surf...so you could be limiting aspects of your navigation for some users. That's just a thought.

Nick...once again great post, great information.

argument for right sided navigation

What about the fact that the majority of people are right-handed. They may find it easier to navigate with a right-side navbar and read pure content on the left. It's much better for me and makes sense.

Nick_W




msg:393398
 5:49 pm on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

Hi madcat

Couldn't agree more with the right navigation. It's just that users aren't used to it and they're notoriusly short on attention.

I prefer not to mess with it for the time being on business sites.

I'm working on a personal project though and am seriously considering a smooth looking right nav panel ;=)

Nick

pleeker




msg:393399
 1:23 am on Jun 12, 2002 (gmt 0)

Avoid graphical links at all costs, if you must use them put text alternatives at the bottom of each page.

I wouldn't say "at all costs" - I can't imagine there are many people surfing in this day and age with images turned off, and from a design perspective, sometimes the design demands graphical buttons. Listen to the design! :) But yes, most definitely be sure to have text links in the footer if nowhere else -- the search engines like them best.

Put contextual links from keywords in the body text to the appropriate pages, people follow contextual links far more than anything else!

Is that true? I must be the exception. I never follow contextual links. Well, I do follow them on rare occasions, but only in a new browser window so I can pickup where I was on the previous page.

Clients tend to have odd opinions of web designers, they hire an expert and then instruct them on how to build the site. Sheeesh, I wouldn't hire a mechanic to fix my car and then give him instructions!

That's because you can't shake a dead cat these days without hitting a web designer. Everyone's son/brother/nephew/niece is a web designer, and by golly, if they can do it for me, why do I need a professional?

Anyway, enjoying this thread. Thanks Nick.

martinibuster




msg:393400
 2:43 am on Jun 12, 2002 (gmt 0)

Regarding surfing with graphics off: My intuition tells me that anyone doing that is surfing on less than a 56k modem, or is on an old computer that can't handle the computational effort; and by extension is too poor or too tightwad to be a customer for me or any of my clients. In other words, they don't concern me.

They say, "You'll be amazed at what kind of boxes people are surfing on in middle america" but my logs tell me that most people are surfing from work on Windows NT or at home with IE 5.5 and 6 and that Netscape 6 is making a comeback. Plus, lots of DSL audience out there.

Perhaps I'm being contemptuous or jumping the gun, but I think we've finally turned the corner about having to worry about those "graphics turned off" people and it's time to forget about it.

What we REALLY should worry about is people who surf with monitors tuned to 16 bit or thousands of color, which is the default setting that many folks never think about changing.

buckworks




msg:393401
 2:50 am on Jun 12, 2002 (gmt 0)

In a lot of rural areas the limiting factor is not computers or wallets, it's that the only internet connection available is slow. Don't write rural folks off, because depending on what you're selling, the further they live from a mall, the better prospects they are for buying online!

Birdman




msg:393402
 5:06 am on Jun 12, 2002 (gmt 0)

Hello Nick_W. This is a very nice thread. I imagine you will be a moderator soon if you keep this up! I actually was thinking of starting a thread about the process of creating a site for a small business, since I want to make the transition to full-time web dev.

Here is my idea:
*Create quite a few templates for your potential customers to view.
*Explain search engine philosophy to client.(very important)
*They must be involved.(content and graphics)
*Testimonials.

BTW: Thinking about trying to design profesionally myself soon. When I do, I will post an excellent thank you thread to WW, because I couldn't have done it w/out you! :)

martinibuster




msg:393403
 5:11 am on Jun 12, 2002 (gmt 0)

buckworks,
I agree with you, but my logs show that the majority of my visitors are not in the sticks.
Maybe it's my and my client's industry and it doesn't speak for the web at large.

Nick_W




msg:393404
 6:41 am on Jun 12, 2002 (gmt 0)

Perhaps I'm being contemptuous or jumping the gun, but I think we've finally turned the corner about having to worry about those "graphics turned off" people and it's time to forget about it.

I tend to agree, but don't forget screen readers, wirelsess devices and the like.

Stylesheets, stylesheets, stylesheets! ;)

Nick

Xoc




msg:393405
 8:28 am on Jun 12, 2002 (gmt 0)

On some wireless devices using cell phone technology, you pay by the kilobyte downloaded. One graphic can ruin your entire budget.

ssih




msg:393406
 1:01 pm on Jun 12, 2002 (gmt 0)

As recently as this past February, the absolute fastest speed available to me was 26k. I was too far for DSL, there was no cable modem access, hills and trees blocked me from the satellites, and the phone wiring in the streets was so degraded that I couldn't even get a speed of 28.8.

So I'd often turn off images when I was going to graphics heavy sites.

However... I think that anyone who browses with images turned off understands the ramifications of this and realizes that there are likely graphic buttons that they're not seeing. But any half-decent website will have the alt tags populated, and it should still be simple to navigate.

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