Opinion and Web Sites and Return on Technology and Small Business

ALTOM: Is your company's website worth the money, effort?

September 10, 2011

Years ago, I was on a trip with a colleague, driving north into Michigan’s backwoods. As we rolled along the state highway, he waxed exultant about how the little mom-and-pop shops on the route (and some of them undoubtedly just mom or pop alone because both wouldn’t have fit into the place) would someday inevitably all have websites. I agreed that they might, but I said further that most of that money would probably be wasted.

Today, while his vision of quantity has been vindicated, my vision of quality remains intact, too. Too many websites for small and medium-size businesses that don’t sell online are a waste of time and money. Their designs are allowed to get out of date much too quickly, so they look tired. And content is allowed to age until it’s no longer of any value. It’s obvious that nobody gave the purpose of the site much thought. They just knew they had to have one, so they coughed up money to have somebody build and host it.

As my readers already know, I’m a fan of appropriate technology that earns its keep. I admire the point that author, speaker and envelope magnate Harvey Mackay makes when he writes that you should always paint the tops of your delivery trucks. That way, even people high overhead in office buildings can see your company name. His point is that you should never overlook a chance to squeeze nickels out of what you already own. Everything, even the tops of the trucks, should work hard for their living. Furthermore, details matter.

In the case of a website, if you sell product directly from the site, it’s pretty easy to tell if the site is working for you instead of just lying there, but if the site is essentially an online brochure, as smaller ones generally are, it’s a lot harder to determine effectiveness. Yet, I think you should try. Websites have the same purpose as everything else you do in business: making money. If they don’t do that, if they just sit around like idle teenagers accumulating page views but never helping the bottom line, they’re contributing drag rather than lift.

The most fundamental step in this process is probably the hardest one: dropping your ego by the door. Many businessfolk become too attached to their site designs and lose sight of the simple goal the site should have: improving business. If you love your site but your customers hate it, learn to hate it, too. The biggest obstacle to usable design is often the HPPO—the highest-paid person’s opinion. It’s tough to admit that your opinion about your site is irrelevant, but it is. Only the customer’s opinion matters. A little usability testing never hurts.

If nothing else, make sure your site is at least accurate. Menus, hours of operation, phone numbers, associates’ names and photos can become obsolete quickly. Today’s consumers are picky, and a site that isn’t accurate might lead potential customers to wonder if you show such indifference in other aspects of the business. If you’ve received comments on your site, analyze them to find what you need to change on the site and make those changes. Don’t ignore valid criticism.

Then take the next step and ask yourself what you want the site to accomplish. Ideally, your eager visitor should exhibit some kind of behavior that’s favorable to you after he scans one or more pages. This is known in the analytics trade as a “conversion.” It could be a phone call, an e-mail message, or a physical visit to your office, but there should be some kind of outcome you can measure. If it’s a phone call you want, have the office staff ask where each caller got your number. Then if it’s from your site, rejoice. If it’s never from your site, revisit the design. Something’s not working. If you’ve earmarked e-mails as a conversion, track how many first-contact e-mails are coming from the site. Again, if that number is too small, revisit the site and see where you can improve your conversion rate.

You may already be tracking page views and such, but that’s nowhere near enough. Page views that don’t drive business are not worth paying for, and you’re paying for every one of them. Make them count.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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