Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bad News, Good News About Website Development

Here's a brief primer on how to sleep nights and maximize the return on your investment of time and money when you launch your business on the Internet.

Let's say you are a sole proprietor launching a new business venture. You want a website. So you source web design through a graphics agency you trust. Two years later, what's done is beautiful and functional; but the development is still incomplete. To separate your business from the crowd, you decide to retrofit your website with a compelling message and add new features to enhance your company's visibility.

You've done the design. You finally have the content right. Now someone is talking to you about "search engine optimization, metadata and keyword search terms."

Is this damned thing ever going to be done?

In a word? No. A website is like housekeeping; you're never done. Technology is a moving target. To get and stay highly visible, content needs continuous refreshment. With any luck at all, your value proposition will evolve and your company will grow. All of this has to be embodied in your Internet presence. That's the bad news.

Now, the good news: the pace and scope of technology change means that you can continuously improve your Internet presence.

I have conceptualized and developed many websites in the 12 years since relocating to Austin to lead the branding efforts of a software company. I have worked with big-time web development firms on six-figure websites and tag-teamed with lean, flexible programming resources. I wrote, designed and programmed several websites for my consignment business, teaching myself HTML programming language in the process. I sourced and customized an out-of-the-box e-commerce platform to sell discontinued bridal and formal dresses for salons around the country. This gave me a passing acquaintance with CSS stylesheets and search engine marketing. I also write and publish several blogs on subjects dear to my heart.

Here's what i know for sure. .

1. Form follows function. 

It has been said that advertising is salesmanship in print. If it doesn't sell; it isn't creative. Likewise, your Internet presence is a 24/7 sales crew. What makes it work for you?

It can motivate a prospect to email, call; excite a visitor to browse, shop, buy, refer; engage a prospect with your value proposition and your message - the greater the engagement, the more likely they will try, buy, refer and return to browse and buy again.

Think this through before you begin.

What action do you want your prospect to take after they have found your website? What functionality supports this? What content invites this? How do you track this? What makes you even more visible and desirable to a wider audience?

Make a list of every function that you need and desire. Chances are, there's an out-of-the-box solution out there that can meet your needs with only a little modification.

2. Write content for your target market and for search engine visibility. 

As a wordsmith, I can say that this is perhaps the most challenging aspect of integrating a marketing message into a website.

Keyword search typically nullifies the beauty, precision and persuasive power of language. So on one level, you must write to the audience in words that are music to their ears. On another level, behind the screens, you must simplify the language to a few search words and phrases.

How do you want to be known? What three things distinguish your business? What concomitant search terms ensure that you show up in your league? How many ways can you say the same thing without keyword spamming the search engines?

This is three-dimensional chess; use your head.

3.Program for search-engine visibility. 

Almost any good, graphic design firm can develop a website. Not every design firm will advise you on the architecture you need for search engine visibility. They should.

A knowledgeable design firm will understand the need for search engine optimization and build in the functionality to support it.

At a minimum, every page needs a distinctive title and page description. Keywords should reflect the content on that page. Every image is an opportunity to improve search-engine visibility. ALT Tags tell your story behind the screens.

Of course, there's a great deal more depth to search engine optimization, but this gets you in the game. It's often overlooked because SEO and SEM are specialties. Considering it from the get-go takes expertise and time, thus drives up your expenses upfront.

Trust me. Taking care with this in the first iteration of your website pays for itself many times over. 

4. Plan to evolve. 

Beautifully executed graphical websites with fixed length and width - what I call brochure-ware - are the bane of my existence these days. They just don't grow easily.

If you are an entrepreneur launching a new business through a website, now hear this.Unless you want to recreate the wheel every year, make sure your website accommodates growth. Change is the only constant in life and technology.  This is not a bug; it's a feature.

5. Protect your resources (and sanity.)

Who owns your website? What is the value of your / his / her time? How much time can you afford to lose learning a new technology?

I can tell you as the sole proprietor of an e-commerce business that was highly labor intensive, time is your most precious resource. Every day you stay tangled up in the technical deficiencies or complexities of a poorly designed administrative console represents opportunities lost. And you simply cannot account for lost opportunities nor can you ever recover your time.

If you're subscribing to an out-of-the-box software solution, test drive it hard. Is it easy to manage? Is it intuitive? Does it work like you work?

Do not compromise on this. Life is too damned short to lose in a learning curve that you can avoid.

6. Don't short-change technical support.

All things being equal in terms of functionality, technical support people who answer any dumb question quickly, politely and professionally break the tie in competitive situations.

Unless you are a programmer or very handy, you're going to need technical support. Some out-of-the-box solutions will need minor modifications. You, or someone who works for you, will screw up something in the wee hours and you'll need a quick fix. There's always a little something that will be beyond your experience and wherewithal. This is when you want a back stop - a programmer familiar with your website and responsive to your urgency.

In the final analysis, a dynamic Internet presence that integrates and actualizes a distinctive message is a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional undertaking. You have to think through multiple layers, multiple languages simultaneously. Conceptualizing, writing, designing, programming - all takes longer at the outset. But the forethought, patience and persistence it takes to plan well makes all the difference in your process and the results you get in leads, conversions and building community. 

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