Why Your Small Business Website may be Failing
A small business website must be many things to succeed. This is true for a small press publishing company (yo!), online retailer, daycare, or anything else, really. Some of the particulars will differ from one business to the next, seeking a balance between functionality, usability, marketability, and necessity. But there will always be some all-but-universal mechanical and operational elements business websites must have.
No matter the small business website type, some (vital and preferred) aspects of creating a successful website are based on factors unrelated to the business itself. For example, the type of server you host your website on or how Google indexes web content. Both are external factors that influence a small business website’s success regardless of the type of company.
Looks Aren’t Everything
Many small business owners are primarily concerned with a website that “looks good.” I’ve heard this many times and it is often the first thing told to the website’s designer. Sure, they’ll also (maybe) mention wanting the website to be easy to use and the like, but the appearance is often at the top of the list.
Small business owners often confuse how people look at consumer product branding in “real space” (in person) versus “digital space” (online.) They believe that because an attractive product that doesn’t necessarily work well can still convince someone to make a purchase when they are holding the product in their hands that the same must hold true for the Internet and their website. But e-commerce’s nature generally makes online customers more discerning. They cannot touch the product before they buy so they are more careful. Similarly, the speed of a typical online experience means customers aren’t as willing to wait for the sales pitch to end. Ever faster customer gratification is the constantly shifting goalpost all small business websites face.
Function and Operational Before Appearance
What does it matter if a small business website is attractive if no one can get to your product? What is a good looking website doing for you if it is too slow or difficult to navigate? Beyond how a small business website looks is a serious need to assess how well it operates as a whole in all required aspects.
A small business website must serve as the hub for your marketing efforts. It is not enough that your website is able to service traffic — you have to get people there in the first place. This also goes for using blogs as marketing vehicles instead of opting for a full-blown small business website. Don’t assume that because you’re using a popular, pre-packaged blogging platform that everything is working properly and effectively.
Unfortunately, most businesses look at just one or maybe even a few of the important website elements, but few look into everything.
How to Examine Small Business Website Effectiveness
Digging into a website’s code, content, and performance is a time-consuming, laborious process. Despite the variety of free and for-pay tools available online, even most specialists will sometimes get in over their heads. Not everyone is skilled in all aspects of what is required of a proper small business website assessment.
For example, a designer may be capable of coding a website that effectively matches a client’s operational needs. However, such a focus often means they don’t consider content’s value in their design. The result is a content presentation that overlooks SEO results and readability. Instead, the website is only capable of performing the business-oriented tasks, such as e-commerce functions. Such a shortcoming may sacrifice the chance to draw new traffic to their small business website. It can also increase bounce rates by not using content to push visitors into a conversion funnel (e.g., making a sale, obtaining social media attention, gathering emails.)
On the other hand, SEO and content experts aren’t likely also experts on coding and most small business website UX and UI principles. Their knowledge is likely focused on the how, where, why, and what of on-site content placement. They will push for ways to present content that are ideal for search engine indexing but can be detrimental to performance (e.g., increase load times.) Focusing on content can also be detrimental because, although it makes good SEO sense, it may impede usability and navigation.
Seek the Middle Ground
Gather a team of qualified people who, combined, meet all small business website design demands. Be prepared for compromises because it is unlikely anyone will get absolutely everything they want. Often unavoidably, one aspect of creating an ideal small business website must suffer so that another can shine. I am knowledgeable and experienced at both coding/design and SEO/content, but you’ll note my own websites are examples of such compromises.
There are ways my websites (www.trustrum.com and www.misfit-studios.com) necessarily fall short of the ideal outcomes. I have sacrificed potential regarding some elements to get other aspects of each respective small business website to perform as intended overall. Ultimately, even the experts are limited by the technology they have to work with and their priorities’ and objectives’ necessities.
(And here comes the sales pitch …)
I came up with the idea of preparing a small business website analysis report product after encountering so many under-performing websites. This service digs into all aspects of a website’s design across several weeks, outputting a report. The report informs the client about how their small business website is suffering in terms of its functionality, usability, content effectiveness, social media campaigning, and so on. It’s difficult to convince a client of their website’s failings if the business is doing well, overall. But how can this be?
Some poorly implemented websites succeed because their market share is large enough to create online momentum. Their customers know how to find the website via the company’s branding and marketing strategy because of the company’s popularity in the market, so SEO and the like are not a priority. Similarly, customers may forgive operational and usability problems because of how invested they are in the company’s products. In other words, they are willing to tolerate a horrible website so long as they get what they want. Despite existing successes, however, fixing a successful website’s problems can serve to make a good situation even better. Fixing the website allow it to move beyond the limitations trapping it in a comfort zone.
Let’s look at an example of a popular, successful business’ website to see what I’m talking about. The example business enjoys plenty of daily traffic despite its many shortcomings, but it could be doing a lot better with even a few simple changes.
Small Business Website Case Study: Wizards of the Coast
Wizards of the Coast (WotC), owners of the Dungeons & Dragons and Magic the Gathering brands (among other things) has a very popular website. Most visitors will initially think they have a clean, good-looking website. It is PageRank 5, has indexed several thousand links, has an Alexa rank under 5,000, and has hundreds of various social media backlinks and “likes.” For a commercial site, it would seem to be a great success by any measure. Looking at their website more closely, however, it becomes clear that its success is the result of its products’ market momentum and not of good design.
The immediately obvious issues include a lack of content (meaning there is little of value to help with indexing), and its image-heavy design. Indeed, most of the words this site is capable of using for SEO purposes are limited to those used in menus and links. The images are not optimized, meaning they take longer to load. In some browsers, load times lead to the default white background showing up on the page between image slides.
Other simple problems that even a small business website could easily avoid include:
- no meta-description
- no keyword strategy; the most often used keywords are “retailer,” “weapon,” “support,” “featured,” and “visit,” none of which are at all valuable
- all headings being h2 (yes, no h1 or h3 tags at all)
- missing ALT information for over half the images on the page (30 or so images)
- a detrimentally low text-to-code ration (less than 15%)
- lacks a detectable sitemap.xml or sitemap.xml.gz file (a big problem for such a big company to overlook)
- missing language meta setting
- no detectable RSS feed
- 144 HTML objects are used. This is way more than the recommended maximum of 20 or so.
- lots of broken links
- nearly 100 instances of inline CSS
Two incredibly massive, serious oversights are:
- the lack of a mobile website or a responsive design. The primary website on mobile devices is difficult to navigate and, in some instances, read.
- I won’t provide specifics because I don’t want to send up a beacon, but I found a serious security exploit in the website’s server settings.
Considering the company’s resources, I imagine the issues are more a matter of the designers prioritizing aesthetics and funneling traffic to WotC’s various sub-sites. It is also possible some issues could be a matter of the designers’ hubris. It wouldn’t be the first time it happened with such a large and successful company’s website.
Most of the SEO issues are, I’d wager, a matter of the company knowing it has market momentum on their side. WotC is at the top of their various markets, if not the market leader, after all. They probably aren’t too concerned with SEO because their products’ popularity and market shares bring the online customers and social media attention they desire. It’s very unlikely they are forced to chase after traffic.
Still, if WotC was able to reach PageRank 5 with a website that is so horribly dysfunctional in so many ways, just imagine what they could do with some fixes. What would their website be capable of they approached their website design process with more care? What if they simply fixed the small, easily remedied issues they suffer from? (Update Edit: Pagerank has been discontinued by Google. The theory behind it remains sound, however.)
Moving On from Big to Small Business Design
Now you know that even the biggest, most successful companies can have major issues with their websites. Up next, let’s look at a small business website I recently scrutinized via my small business website analysis report. Unlike WotC, this company does not have the weight of market shares to help them plow over any of their small business website mistakes. This means even the smallest mistake is all the more detrimental to the company’s online objectives.
Small Business Website Case Study: Trip West Games
(Note: Trip West Games has provided permission for me to discuss my findings regarding their website.)
I asked for volunteers in the gaming community when I first rolled-out my small business website analysis report. I wanted to put my process through its paces and use the results before charging money for it. My intent was to illustrate why even sole-proprietorships need to carefully look at their small business website for critical issues.
Trip West Games volunteered and asked that I analyze the small business website they operated for their upcoming board game release, Ars Victor. Turns out, their unknown issues were actually crippling their online marketing efforts. I gave them the chance to back out before I had really dug into the assessment process. Why? Because my preliminary look at their website revealed a catastrophic issue I wasn’t sure they wanted going public. After assuring me they still wanted the analysis done (perhaps now more than before), I dove in.
One Simple Coding Error Almost Killed the Website
This initial issue I discovered was the result of a coding change the company made roughly three months previous. While trying to improve the options they could utilize on their small business website, Trip West Games had switched to a website design data and app service instead of hosting their data locally on their web server. This is where the resulting problem started.
Most websites host their relevant files on their account’s web server, pushing the data therein through their domain to make it viewable through a visitor’s browser. This process also makes the data accessible by search engine crawlers, such as Google. What Trip West Games attempted is an increasingly popular method of taking their data off their web server and having it hosted by a different provider (supposedly with better, faster capabilities.) There is no noticeable difference to visiting traffic when this process is rolled out without any hiccups.
Unfortunately for Trip West Games, there had been a hitch with their small business website.
Is Your Website Invisible to Search Engines?
Because of how it was coded, the Trip West Games website was improperly pulling the intended data from both their web server and their third-party data source. Visually, the data was pushed through as intended to the browser. All good, right? Nope. So far as search engine crawlers were concerned, their small business website had nothing on it except the code meant to call and control this relevant data offsite. This meant that during those three months since the coding change, Trip West Games website didn’t index any content with search engines.
So far as Google and other search engines were concerned, there was nothing of value located at their domain. The company and their product were not showing up in search engine results except when third-parties mentioned them. Google effectively didn’t even consider there to be a website located at the company’s domain.
Can you think of anything more disastrous for a company’s online marketing efforts? Especially considering Trip West Games was preparing to launch Ars Victor mere weeks away?
Everything they had done to get their small business website noticed by search engines — to “spread the word” — had been entirely wasted.
How Your Website is Served to Search Engines and Traffic
The diagram to the right better illustrates the problem. Once the red arrow — the web server code telling a visitor’s browser (or other interfaces) how to pull information from the data source — reached the browser, it (simply put) summoned and interpreted the third-party data, represented by the green arrow. From that point on, the unified small business website for Ars Victor, as represented by both green and red arrows, should have gone to both web visitors (people) and search engines like Google. As the diagram indicates, however, the core content (green arrow) never ended up being seen by the search engines, so it all went to waste.
There were also other issues with Trip West Games‘ small business website, ranging from their keyword use to social media access, lack of a robot.txt file, and over-concentration of content onto single pages. However, none of that really mattered in the face of such an enormous problem. After all, why worry about how keywords were being used if the website wasn’t able to index with search engines in the first place?
It was no understatement to declare the website crippled, as you can now see.
(Note: Small business websites made using free online design services such as Wix frequently encounter this problem. If you plan to conduct any serious online marketing, avoid using these services unless you are 100% certain you know what you are doing and how they function.)
Appearance and Functionality Finally Come to an Agreement
The Ars Victor small business website is a good looking site, don’t get me wrong. And, once its coding issues are fixed, I fully believe their overall site design philosophy will prove very successful for their marketing efforts. I also believe they will be more successful if they incorporate solutions to the other problems I found. However, this case study stands as a clear example of how people can be entirely oblivious to problems — both big and small. Their small business website can suffer because they are fooled by what they are seeing on their screen looking good. If it looks good it must be operating good, right? Well, now we know that’s not necessarily true.
(Now consider this was just the first small business website I examined with my analysis process! How many others like it are operating with such critical deficiencies?)
Look, I know this entire article comes across as a lead-in to a sales pitch for my website analysis service, and in a way it is. (Hey, I’m running a business here!) Still, this does not mean the clear and unavoidable lessons this article brings to light are any less real.
Do not take for granted that your own small business website has reached its peak effectiveness. For that matter, don’t even take for granted that it is running properly. Email us if you want to find out how your site measures up. Or, at the very least, do the research on your own to figure out how your small business website is falling short of your expectations without you realizing it.