Whether you are a freelance photographer, own a hardware store, or have another type of small business, a great website is essential for your company’s success. As a webmaster who has worked on building or marketing over 100 small business websites, I know what it takes to create great and engaging business websites.
If you are looking to build a new startup website or make your current site more effective, here are 10 key steps to getting started and helping your small business website compete effectively in the online marketplace.
1. Obtain a good domain name
Your domain name, also known as your website address, is often the entry point to your site. It is important that it makes a good impression for usability purposes, as well as for search engine optimization (SEO).
2. Purchase secure, scalable website hosting with good tech support
A website host (or sometimes referred to as a website hosting provider) is a company that offers the technology and services necessary for a website to be viewed on the internet.
You connect your domain name to your hosting provider so that when users visit your website address, they are shown your website that you store on your hosting account.
Hosting services can cost anywhere between $2 to $100+ per month, depending on the kind of technology and support you choose. You can usually get a discount if you purchase a yearly plan as opposed to a monthly plan.
Here are some guidelines for choosing a good website hosting plan:
Although you can get a “shared server” hosting plan for as little as $2 per month, I would typically advise against this. Shared hosting means you are sharing a server and its resources with other customers, which can make the performance of your site suffer. Also, if one of the other websites on your shared server is hacked, it is possible for your website to also be infected.
A “dedicated server” hosting plan is the most expensive option—cost can range from around $100 to $2,000 per month—but it would make your website perform the most optimally. Having a dedicated server plan means that the physical server machine is entirely dedicated to your site; therefore, all the resources are yours and it is more secure than a shared hosting plan, as long as the technology is optimal. However, it is much more expensive than what most small businesses usually are willing to pay. Once you have a very high-performing site, this may be what you need, but it is overkill for most early stage and small businesses.
The compromise I typically recommend is a “virtual private server” (VPS) hosting plan which offers the best of both worlds. The cost ranges from around $20 to $50 per month, which is affordable for the hosting services you will receive. A VPS is one machine that is partitioned to act as multiple machines, which gives it a similar affordability to shared hosting, with similar security and performance potential as a dedicated server hosting plan.
Some popular website hosting companies include:
3. Prominently display a clear description of your business
It is important to let people know who you are and what you do right away so they don’t feel confused when they visit your small business website. Make sure your main homepage banner (also known as a “hero image”) and subsequent banners are visual representations of your services, and also that you have an introductory text blurb near the top of the page that describes who you are and what you do.
Additionally, make sure both your main and footer navigation menus have "About Us" page links easily accessible so people can click them and read more about your business in depth.
4. Implement the best content management system
A content management system (CMS) is a software program or application that is used to create and manage digital content. A good CMS will help you maintain your site, and you don’t need much technical knowledge to use it. You should choose a CMS that is designed for your unique needs; different systems are used for different reasons, such as user-friendliness, extensibility, and budget.
The following are some popular systems with descriptions of their strengths and weaknesses.
WordPress: WordPress is the world’s most popular CMS. It has a vast, active support community and many useful plugins to extend the functionality of your site. (And if you cannot find a plugin that does what you want, it is easy to find a WordPress developer who can make one for you!) WordPress is also free and relatively simple to install. Most website developers are familiar with it so it is not hard to find an individual or agency that can work on your site. I normally recommend that small businesses use WordPress to create their websites, due to its flexibility and extensibility.
Wix: Wix is very similar to Squarespace, but it is a bit more user-friendly. It offers a monthly, but not annual, subscription and includes similar features. Wix is also a drag-and-drop builder—you can freely drag and drop elements anywhere on the page; in comparison, Squarespace is more structured in where you can drag and drop on the page. The learning curve to using Wix is even shorter than Squarespace, so if you need to publish a site quickly, this may be your best option.
Wix has a lot more templates than Squarespace to choose from, but once you choose a template, you must stick with it or be forced to completely rebuild your site. With Squarespace, you can change your template anytime without having to rebuild the entire site.
5. Choose a good e-commerce platform
If you plan on selling goods and/or services through your website, you will need the right technology to do so. (If you do not currently sell anything, you may want to consider doing so since e-commerce could potentially increase your profits.) If you decide to allow users to financially transact with you online, you will need to choose the right platform for your business model.
Here are some popular small business e-commerce platforms:
WooCommerce: WooCommerce is one of the world’s most popular e-commerce platforms—it can turn your WordPress website into an online store. Like WordPress, there are many plugins available, and it attaches to WordPress, which makes it extremely flexible. There are many free and premium themes pre-built for WooCommerce. (As a rule, it is better to use a premium theme from a reputable developer because it will offer better security and support.) If you are not tech-savvy, you will most likely need a WordPress developer to help you set it up and use it. WooCommerce also offers a very high amount of capabilities and scalability that your small business might need.
Shopify: Shopify is a cloud based e-commerce platform that allows you to create and customize an online store, and to manage products, inventory, payments, and shipping. It is not a WordPress extension like WooCommerce—it is a standalone platform that is hosted on the Shopify server—so if you have a main website, your e-commerce site would technically be separate from that. You can link to your Shopify account from your regular website built with WordPress, Drupal, Wix, etc., unless your main website has a Shopify integration plugin.
6. Create an interesting, memorable, and engaging website user interface
Make sure your small business website interface leaves a positive impression that drives results. You can do so by implementing the following suggestions: