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Create an Effective Small Business Web Site

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What makes a successful Web site? It's not a matter of spinning logos and funky animation. A strong Web site is one that clearly communicates your purpose to your customers and works in conjunction with your company's strategic plan.

Here are 10 tips for building a better Web site:

Set your goals

What is the purpose of your site? Do you want to sell products? Are you looking to find new customers? Are you trying to provide information for existing customers? Do you want an online brochure, or something more complex? Think about what you're trying to accomplish via the Web and look for ways to reach that goal. Review your business plan and your marketing plan to make sure that your Web efforts accurately reflect your company's vision and image.

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Keep your site up to date

It's important to encourage repeat visits to your site with fresh content. Refresh your Web site on a regular basis, with new images, bits of product or company news, articles of interest to your customers or whatever else you think will both be compelling and useful. Capitalize on your efforts by featuring a "What's New" section which makes new information easy to find.

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Avoid long download times

Web users are renowned for their impatience. If your images take too long to download, surfers will get bored and click right on past your Web site. Use small clusters of graphics, as opposed to one large sheet of color and form. Keep graphics on your home page interesting, but get rid of complex, overdone graphics that take forever to download. The same goes for text -- look out for dense blocks or long lists that are hard to read, or require the user to scroll for a long time to reach the information they need.

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Have a "call to action"

Your Web site should have many, many, many listings of your EMail address, phone number, address, and instructions for ordering if you are selling products or services. Include this information in as many places as possible. Don't make someone search for a way to contact you.

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Don't use "under construction"

If something is not ready to be featured on your site, do not put it up with an "under construction" sign. Users who spend time downloading an under construction graphic will be more than disappointed -- they will be annoyed. Regard your site in the same way you do all marketing materials. If you want to highlight something before you showcase it, use a "coming soon" icon.

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Know your audience

Whether you're marketing CD's to Gen-Xers or selling dentures to older people, your design and content should be suitable for the people you want to reach, just as you would do with any piece of advertising you produce. Remember, your Web site is a form of advertising, whether in-your-face or subtle, and it is a projection of your company image.

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No bugs, no errors

If something doesn't work perfectly, don't put it on your site -- visitors are not beta testers. Look out for missing links -- ones that go nowhere or result in an error message -- since these do little but frustrate users. And be sure to proofread everything; typos, poor grammar and sloppy sentence construction will detract from the professional image you seek to develop.

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Provide a "return to home page" function

Users will be more likely to browse around if they know they can return easily to your home page. Make this feature a part of all pages of your site. Another option: use a map or list of your features to encourage people to find what interests them. You can also try a "return to map" function. Keep navigation simple.

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Make ordering simple and straightforward

If you're selling products, make it easy for your customer to place an order. Product pictures and prices should be clearly displayed, along with available options. Some merchants favor shopping carts, which let shoppers add and subtract items as they go along and keep a running tally. Allow shoppers to order directly from your Web site, but also offer alternatives like phone or fax for people who don't trust online transaction processing.

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Make the visit an enjoyable one

If humor is appropriate, you might consider using it. If you have an interesting company history, include it. People like to attach a face to your business and feel personally connected, so you might even want to include a bio and a picture of yourself and those of other key staff members.

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