Your website is your No. 1 marketing tool. Very few businesses nowadays can succeed without one. It is the face of your business and, just like people, you only get one chance to make a good first impression.
Consumers are very judgemental. If your website looks unprofessional, you’re not only going to lose their business that one time – it would be safe to assume that they’re never coming back. Unless you have a monopoly in your market, this is not something you can afford.
Just 20 years ago, you needed to know how to code to build your own website. Nowadays, content management systems (CMS) like WordPress have made creating a website accessible to everyone.
Instead of using a bunch of loose HTML pages, CMSs such as WordPress have user-friendly platforms (with zero coding involved) which allow users to build and manage their own websites with ease at minimum expense.
Why is a “professional-looking” website so important?
A website is your proprietary online brochure that can be updated anytime you want. It also serves as your shop front, PR machine, business card and visual interface with your customers.
People make judgements about a business through a quick glance at their homepage, business card or brochure cover (if the cover is wrong, they won’t even turn the page). A lot rides on getting this right. Your customers’ “gut” reaction must be the right one or they’ll head straight off to your competitor.
Web design essentials: What does your website need to achieve?
- Visual appeal: If your website looks odd, shabby, disorganised or unprofessional, you won’t be able to draw people in.
- Presentation: Your website is your online brochure – have it put the best foot forward for your business and your products/services.
- Usability: Easy navigation is key. If your site isn’t easy to use, people will lose interest very quickly.
- Technically sound: Make sure it loads quickly, has no/little down time. There’s nothing more annoying than to go to an online shop to have the website hang.
DIY or professional designer?
Your budget really determines this. If you have unlimited budget to develop your website, just the way you want it, then engage a professional design agency. They’ll be able to give you fantastic results but be warned – this will cost you a pretty penny.
Getting a professional design/branding agency to produce your website can set you back anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands, depending on the complexity of what you want to achieve.
A lot of startups simply can’t afford to spend big on one branding/marketing element. And given how easy it is now to set up your website, you may want to give it a go. You’ll be surprised at how simple the process is and you may get results that look like a team of seasoned professionals put your website together.
Depending on the time you have to allocate for website development, you could do everything yourself or project manage the whole thing and leave the execution to freelancers.
So where do you start, if you’re going down the DIY route?
First, find a good hosting provider
Before you make your selection among hundreds and thousands of web-hosting companies, you need to know one thing: the web-hosting business is saturated.
Because of this, most service providers tend to cut corners to bring costs down. That can translate into frequent down time, poor customer support, slow loading speed and massive frustration for you.
The most awesome website won’t get any traffic if the site is down all the time. So choosing the right web-hosting provider is crucial.
Digital Ocean, a New York-based firm, is one used by major players such as Ericsson and Xerox. If you’re very particular about loading speed, you may want to opt for a service like this one.
However, it might be a bit of an overkill if your site is aimed at a local audience.
Here is a list of options, if you are more focused on the local or Southeast Asian market.
Selecting a content management system (CMS)
WordPress is an excellent choice as it is free, totally beginner-friendly and responsive (which means it will work on smartphones and tablets).
WordPress also has a lot of free resources available on Youtube and via their support forum. And because it’s been used by so many people to build websites, there is a massive community to depend on for advice as well.
Layout and theme – Do you go for free or premium?
With WordPress installed, you need to decide on the design element of your website. Fortunately, you don’t have to create it from scratch.
WordPress comes with hundreds of themes you could choose from for free and some premium ones that you need to pay for.
If you are a complete novice at web design, it might be best to go with a paid theme. WordPress provides support for paid themes and this will come in handy as there will be certain elements of customisation that will baffle you.
Also, paying for a theme minimises the probability of another company’s website looking like an exact replica of yours. Paid themes are even highly customisable so you can choose the colour and layout to give it a unique design.
Getting the content right
If you’re not fully outsourcing web development to a professional agency, the design part will be the easier part of the equation, with the help of CMSs.
Content is where you’re entirely on your own. There are no real shortcuts and filling the website with content can be time and energy-consuming, especially when you are just starting up and have actual business issues to deal with.
An option is to engage a copywriter to produce the content. There are many websites out there (such as Elance, Upworks and Freelance.com) that can help you find the right freelancer for the job.
If you’re not pressed for time, you may want to consider creating the content yourself for your very first website. After all, no copywriter will know your business and your vision better than yourself.
Plugins and why you need them
A plug-in is an additional piece of software that specialises in processing particular types of content. For example, users may install a plugin like Adobe Flash Player to view a web page which contains a video.
If you went with WordPress as your CMS, there are literally tons of plugins available for free download from the WordPress.org Plugin Directory.
Some plugins that you may find useful for your business include:
- Advanced Excerpt: This plugin adds several improvements to WordPress’ default way of creating excerpt. It keeps HTML markup in excerpts, trims them o a given length using either character count or word count and completes the last word or sentence in an excerpt (no weird cuts). It also helps add a read-more link to the text.
- Bloom: This is an opt-in email plugin that helps you to gain more subscribers easier and quicker. When someone signs up using the Bloom opt-in form, they get added to your email list. Bloom works with tons of different email marketing software, and allows you to create different types of opt-in forms (such as pop-ups, fly-ins, or normal inline forms) that appear on various areas of your website.
- TinyJPG and TinyPNG: JPEG is the most popular format for images on websites and apps. Many JPEG files do not use optimal compression, wasting valuable bytes. By using services such as TinyJPG and Tiny PNG, you won’t have to worry about balancing quality and small file size. TinyJPG analyses every uploaded image to apply the best possible JPEG encoding. Based on the content of your image, an optimal strategy is chosen and the result is a quality image without wasting storage or bandwidth.
- CoSchedule: CoSchedule is the all-in-one editorial calendar for content marketing and social scheduling. It keeps you and your team insanely organised and is the first (and only) editorial calendar to integrate with WordPress.
- Disqus Comment System: Disqus is a service and tool for web comments and discussions. Disqus makes commenting easier and more interactive, while connecting websites and commenters across a thriving discussion community.
- Google XML Sitemap: The best website still needs to be found to get traffic. Google XML Sitemap will generate a special XML sitemap which will help search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo and Ask.com index your website better. The plugin supports all kinds of WordPress-generated pages as well as custom URLs. Additionally, it notifies all the main search engines every time you create a post about the new content.
- Hyper Cache Extended: Hyper Cache Extended is a new cache system for WordPress, specifically written for people which have their blogs on low resources hosting providers. It makes your website super fast, is easy to configure and has a autoclean system to reduce the disk usage.
- Monarch Social Sharing: Monarch is a social sharing and following plugin built to get you more shares and more followers on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Monarch does this by using various different social sharing integration methods, such as social sharing sidebars, inline sharing buttons, popups and flyin boxes.
- Redirection: Redirection is a WordPress plugin to manage 301 redirections, keep track of 404 errors, and generally tidy up any loose ends your site may have. This is particularly useful if you are migrating pages from an old website, or are changing the directory of your WordPress installation.
- Yoast SEO: Yoast SEO makes search engine optimization (SEO) easy and advises you on how you can make your content better by showing you a rendering of what your post or page will look like in search results, whether your title is too long or too short and your meta description makes sense in the context of a search result.
Website development and business
This is really a chicken and egg situation. You need some money to build a website for your business but your business needs cash to survive.
In the beginning, you’re bootstrapping in every way possible so you may think, “I’ll develop a temporary site first as a placeholder before I build a proper one.”
Don’t make this common mistake as it will impact your business massively. It may rob you of a real chance before your business has a chance to grow.
There are plenty of ways to make a decent website without breaking the bank. It will take time and some investment, but it will be worth it!
One effective way to learn tips and tricks that save you time and hassle is to join a network where you can tap on the brains of your peers for a second opinion, and creative advice.
One example is NTUC’s U Creative network where creative professionals band together and learn the tricks of the trade via creative bootcamps and even Attach-And-Train programmes where aspiring creative freelancers are attached to companies to work and learn.
Don’t suffer alone; expand your network and who knows you may even get more useful tips and leads than you expected.
This is part of my 10-part series that I originally published on The New Savvy