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Is your small business website ready for the new year?  It’s often difficult for a small businesses to keep up on the latest web design trends because it has not traditionally been considered a high priority to keep ‘in the know’. If your small business website hasn’t been updated in 2-3 years, or you don’t have a website at all, the time to update (or start) is 2011.  In general, if your website contains any of the horrible aesthetics rampant during the ’90s such as animated images (including an “under construction” / “electronic mail” graphics), glitter text from MySpace, auto-play MIDI music, blinking text, scrolling marquees, a hit counter, a “best viewed in Netscape Navigator” disclaimer, or your brother-in-law designed it for free using FrontPage, the time to pay attention to the public image and brand you give to your customers is NOW.

If updating your website isn’t in your immediate future, take the time over the winter break slowdown to make sure the existing content is up to date and relevant.  We have been to many websites that have incorrect phone numbers, hours, addresses or pricing that has caused us to turn to a competitor.  Have you followed all the links in your website to see that they are still working?  Is your contact information up to date? Are testimonials from clients or employees still relevant to your current products or services?

There are great web design ideas that small businesses should consider incorporating into their sites that are both inexpensive to implement and easy for small business staff to maintain.  Some of the major points you should consider when shopping for a new small business website and company to develop it are:

Future Proof Your Website

While any technology is only good until the next technology comes along, think about using a flexible platform to build your small business website on that will grow with you in the future.  Many older websites are written in such a way that you need to understand coding to change content or update the design.  That is not a practical option for a small business that may not have the expertise – or money – to hire a developer every time they need content updated on their website.  Software platforms called Content Management Systems (CMS) are a low cost and viable solution for most small business needs.  The content and the design structure of a CMS are separate, allowing you to easily update the look and feel of a website while keeping your content in tact.  At the same time, a CMS system allows you to easily input or modify your content in an editor similar to composing an email message or Word document.  Now you can keep your customers up to date without having to hire a programmer every time you need to update your website.

Lights Out For Flash

In the early 2000’s Flash websites were all the rage.  They were visual, interactive, and well, flashy.  Today’s heavy reliance on mobile devices such as iPhones, iPads, Blackberries, and Android devices have left many small businesses in the dust when it comes to accessing information on the go.  If your website is written in Flash, you are essentially invisible to most mobile device users.  Even the mobile devices that do support Flash don’t support it reliably.  Newer websites incorporate technology like HTML5, JavaScript, CSS3 and AJAX to to provide rich user experiences while being about to be navigated from a mobile device.  With that said, Flash is still a great technology to use when developing sites that can capture audio or video, do complex animations or run web games.

Being Social Is No Longer A Luxury

The time has passed for companies both big and small to dismiss the influence of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube.  Even if you aren’t ready to jump in (that is an entirely different article to write for 2011), you need to recognize that your customers *are* actively involved.  Yes, even B2B customers.  When redesigning your small business website, be sure to integrate features such as a Facebook “Like” button, a Twitter “Tweet This” button, or a “Share This” widget so that customers have one-click ability to share your information with their networks.  There is a greater chance of your content getting seen on a social networking platform with 500+ million users than anyplace else on the Internet, so make it as easy as possible to get your content there.

Content Makes Cents

How many times do you go back and look at old marketing brochures or advertisements?  Once you ‘get the message’ you really don’t have a reason to keep going back and re-reading the same piece of content over and over.  There is nothing new to be learned.  Why would your never-updated small business website be any different?  One of the most difficult tasks for small businesses is to keep a steady stream of updated content on their websites.  Developing a solid content strategy is crucial for determining what you should be publishing to your customers on your small business website and social channels.  Fresh content means more repeat visits from customers and that means you position yourself as the expert in your field – and everyone wants to do business with ‘the best’.  Shameless plug, our friend C.C. Chapman co-wrote the book Content Rules with Ann Handley and we highly recommend purchasing it.  Content Rules will help you get you started on developing and identifying the best ways to develop content for your small business website, get involved with your customers and keep them coming back for more.

Pick A Partner Don’t Hire A Vendor

When choosing a company to design and implement your new small business website, think long term.  While it may seem beneficial to go for the dirt-cheap or free option (or worse yet – do it yourself), realize that over the next few years you will likely need updates to your small business website that will require you to work with a website development company again.  The company you decide to work with is developing your brand and image to the outside world – so think about what your reputation and image means to your business, and choose accordingly.  A well run website development company will work with you to design a site that is easy for your company to maintain, easy for customers to find what they are looking for, and is functional and relevant for the next few years.  It should be their job to understand your business not just pick colors and graphics.  They should be as vested in in the process and product of your small business website as you are.

Be Human

There really isn’t any other way to put it.  Be human.  Make sure your small business website is designed for humans.  Not search engines.  Yes, it is undeniable that search engine optimization is a vital tool and tactic to use in helping people find your website, but what happens once they land there? Does your website look and read like it was written by a slick marketing company?  Try this, take a look at your “About Us” page and read it aloud.  Does it feel natural to speak the content and feel like a conversation?  Or is it full of buzz words and jargon not understood or spoken outside your industry?  While proper spelling and grammar rules still apply, the days of uptight written copy are over.  People want to do business with people – not ad copy.  How about the layout and secondary content on your small business website?  It it crammed full of keywords and tags to make search engines love you but turn people off?  Remember this, Google does not buy your products, people do.

Whether you are an independent businessperson, small company, or a small company quickly growing into a large company, it is in your best interest – and your customers best interest – to update your website and put your best image forward for 2011.  Of course Purple Stripe Productions can help you with your website, content, and social strategy and implementation.  We would love to partner with you to help your business – big or small – to get you to the next level right now.