Your Small Business Website Looks Better than it Works

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Why Your Small Business Website may be Failing

Small Business Website Frustration

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A small business website must be many things if it is to be considered successful, be it 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, as a balance between functionality, usability, marketability, and necessity is sought, but there will always be some features that are all but universal, mechanically and operationally speaking.

It doesn’t matter what type of small business website you are, 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 are external factors that can influence how successful a small business website is regardless of the type of company.

To many successful small business owners, their primary concern is that their website “looks good.”

It’s a priority I’ve heard many times over the years, and is often the first thing out of a client’s mouth when they talk to their website designer. Sure, they’ll also (maybe) mention things it being easy to use, but appearance is often at the top of the list. This is because most small business owners confuse how people look at consumer product branding in “real space” (in person) versus “digital space” (online.) That is to say, they think 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.

This is not necessarily so because the nature of e-commerce makes many customers more discerning because they cannot touch the product before they buy. Similarly, the speed of a typical online experience will make them less willing to wait around for the sales pitch to end — ever quicker customer gratification is the constantly shifting goalpost every online business faces.

A good looking website that does not work well or that cannot market the product effectively would be like walking into a clean, beautiful looking store that just so happens to be without any staff and where all of the product is kept within locked, opaque cupboards, out of reach and out of sight.

What does it matter if a small business website is attractive if no one can get to your product and make a purchase because your website is too slow to load or traffic cannot navigate through your website design? Beyond how a small business website looks — even beyond how it functions mechanically — is a serious need to assess how well it operates in all required aspects as a whole.

This includes how capable a small business website is at serving as the hub for your marketing efforts. It is not enough that your website is able to service traffic — you have to get the traffic to your site in the first place. This also goes for those of you who use blogs to market yourselves and your work instead of going with 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 elements needed to make a thorough assessment, 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 that most people simply are not qualified to do. Despite the variety of free and for-pay tools available online, even most specialists will get in over their heads because they are not skilled in all aspects of what is required of a proper small business website assessment.

For example, a small business website designer may be trained and capable at coding a website in such a way that is effective for the mechanical needs of their client, but they typically don’t consider the value of content. This means how content must effectively be presented on the website for best SEO results (or even just plain old readability and making sense to visitors) is overlooked in pursuit of performing the business-oriented tasks, such as e-commerce functionality.

Aside from possibly sacrificing the chance to draw in new traffic to their small business website, such a shortcoming can also increase bounce rates by not effectively using content to push visitors into a conversion funnel (e.g., making a sale, obtaining social media attention, gathering emails.)

On the other hand, an expert of SEO best practices regarding content will likely know little about coding and small business website design beyond knowing the how, where, why, and what of on-site content usage. This means they will push for ways to present content that are ideal for search engine indexing but can be detrimental to aspects of performance, such as increasing loading times.

Such a focus on SEO may also not otherwise fit into the company’s overall online marketing strategy once the content has to be melded into the website’s layout and usability because, although it may make sense to search engines, the presentation of content may be confusing to real people visiting the site.

To strike a balance between these specializations, you may have to gather a team of people qualified in their respective areas, and then throw them into a locked room together to hash it out. Be prepared for compromise 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.

Although I am myself knowledgeable and experienced in both small business website design issues and those of optimizing content, my own websites are examples of such compromises.

There are ways my websites (http://www.trustrum.com and http://www.misfit-studios.com) necessarily fall short of where I would ideally like them to be — I have had to make sacrifices regarding some things to get other aspects of each respective small business website to perform as intended. Ultimately, even the experts are limited by the technology they have to work with and the necessities of their priorities and objectives.

(And here comes my sales pitch …)

Because I have long noted how even the most popular small business website I visit under-performs in this or that way (some of which may be critical concerns), I came up with the idea of preparing a small business website analysis report product. This product examines these various issues and makes the client aware of how their small business website is suffering in terms of its functionality, usability, content effectiveness, social media campaigning, and so on.

As I’ll soon explain, the service my report (and other companies’ resources) provides is invaluable if a small business website is to meet its full potential. Unfortunately, convincing the companies who own these websites of the value of such a service — of how much money and potential they are flushing down the drain every second their small business website continues operating in its current state — is incredibly difficult.

Some websites with massive failings succeed by the momentum of the company’s market shares alone. This means 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 — people are not coming across the small business website through online search results that are not specific to the company in question.

Similarly, functionality and usability problems may be forgiven by customers because of the appeal of what the large or small business website has to offer, such as its product. However, despite current success, there remains the fact that addressing existing problems would improve this success by allowing the large or small business website to move beyond the obstacles that have been restricting it to this comfort zone.

Let’s look at an example of a website of a popular, successful business to see what I’m talking about. The example business enjoys plenty of daily traffic despite its many shortcoming, but it could be doing a lot better with a bit of work (or 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; correction: I previously said WotC produced the Pokemon TCG — I had a brain fart and meant to refer to their newer game, Kaijudo, but no longer produces the Pokemon TCG. In no way did my brain subliminally get its wires crossed because of how much Kaijudo seems to want to look like Pokemon … cough), is owned by a parent company, Hasbro (that name should be familiar.)

The first impression of most visitors will be that they have a clean, good looking site. It is PageRank 5, has indexed several thousand links, has an Alexa rank under 5,000, and 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 the site’s design or content

The immediately obvious issues include a lack of content (meaning there is little of value to help with indexing), and it is image-heavy. Indeed, most of the words that 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. Which also leads us to the fact that this site breaks one of the most important rules of (current) SEO best practices: avoid sliders on your homepage.

Sliders are a big obstacle for most SEO purposes, and have to be used with precision and care. On the WotC website, these issues clearly were not dealt with properly.

Other simple problems that even a small business website could easily avoid include:

  • no meta-description (or meta-keywords, for what it’s worth)
  • no keyword strategy; the most often used keywords are “retailer,” “wpn,” “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%)
  • no detectable sitemap.xml or sitemap.xml.gz file (a big problem for such a big company to miss out on)
  • no language meta setting
  • no detectable RSS feed
  • 144 HTML objects are used, way more than the recommended maximum of 20 or so
  • 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 resources this company has available, I imagine the issues are more a matter of the designers prioritizing aesthetics and a quick push for traffic to go to the various sub-sites the primary website acts as a gateway for rather than worrying about the previous issues. Then again, 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 (they are at the top of their various markets, if not the market leader.) They probably aren’t too concerned with SEO because the popularity of their product and market shares bring the online customers and social media attention they desire to them instead of them having to chase it.

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 if they approached their website design process with more care for even just the small, easily remedied issues they suffer from?

Now that I’ve shown that even the biggest, most successful companies can have major issues with their websites, let’s look at a small business website I recently scrutinized via my small business website analysis report process.

Unlike WotC, this company does not have the weight of market shares to help them plow over any of their small business website mistakes, making even the smallest mistake all the more detrimental to their 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.)

When I first rolled-out my small business website analysis report, I asked for volunteers in the gaming community so that I could put my process through its paces and use the results to help illustrate why even sole-proprietorships need to carefully look at their small business website for issues that could be hindering their online presence’s effectiveness.

In the case of my volunteer, Trip West Games, their issues were actually crippling their online marketing efforts. Trip West Games asked that I analyze the small business website they operated for their upcoming board game release, Ars Victor. Before I had even begun the process, I gave them the chance to back out because my preliminary look at their website revealed a catastrophic issue that I wasn’t sure they wanted going public. After assuring me they still wanted the analysis done (perhaps now more than before after I indicated their problem), I dove in.

This initial issue I discovered was the result of a coding change the company made roughly three months previous. In order to try something new and 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.

Most websites host all their relevant files on their account’s web server, pushing the data therein through their domain in order to make it viewable through a visitor’s browser and accessible by search engine crawlers, such as Google. What Trip West Games had attempted was 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.)

The company’s web server would be responsible for hosting the code that would then call the data from this other party whenever a visitor came to their domain. So far as the end user — be it a person or web crawler — is concerned, there is no difference between the two methods when executed without a hitch.

Unfortunately for Trip West Games, there had been a hitch with their small business website.

Trip West Games Website Data FlowBecause of how it was coded, the Trip West Games website was pulling the intended data from both their web server and their third party data source improperly. It was being pushed through as intended visually to a visitor’s browser, but so far as search engine crawlers were concerned, their small business website had nothing on it except the code that was meant to call and control this relevant data.

This meant that during those three months since the coding change, Trip West Games‘ had not been indexing any content.

So far as Google and other search engines were concerned, there was nothing of value located at their domain. This resulted in this particular small business website not even being afforded a PageRank of 0 — they were ranked “NA” for non-applicable.

Google effectively didn’t even consider there to be a website located at the company’s domain.

Yikes!

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 soon afterwards?

Everything they had done to get their small business website noticed by search engines — to “spread the word” — had been entirely wasted.

The diagram to the right better illustrates the problem. Once the red arrow — the web server code telling a visitor’s browser (or other interface) 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 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, but none of that really mattered in the face of such an enormous problem. After all, what did it matter how keywords were being used if the website wasn’t able to index with search engines in the first place?

(Note: This is a common problem small business websites made using free online design services such as Wix encounter. If you plan to conduct any serious online marketing or care about your small business website PageRank, avoid using these services unless you are 100% certain you know what you are doing and understanding how they function.)

As you can now see, I was not understating the matter when I said the website was crippled.

The Ars Victor small business website is a good looking site, don’t get me wrong. And, once its coding issues are fixed so it can begin indexing, I fully believe their overall site design philosophy will prove very successful for their marketing efforts, especially 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 — with their small business website simply because they are fooled by what they are seeing on their screen looking good and seeming to be functioning fine. (Now consider for a moment that this was just the first small business website I examined with my analysis process!)

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.

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