Expert Advice on How to Develop a Consumer-Friendly Web Site

For all its high-tech bells and Information Age whistles, the Internet serves an age-old business function. It’s all about marketing. But the key is clicking with your consumers – meeting your clientele’s needs is still job one. By Jason Dehart and Lori Hutzler Eckert

 Making the Web Work for YouExpert Advice on How to Develop a Consumer-Friendly Web SiteBy Jason Dehart and Lori Hutzler Eckert

Whether online selling is the bread and butter of your operation or you just want to showcase your address and phone number, you want to be sure that the Internet is working for you.

For all its high-tech bells and Information Age whistles, the Internet serves an age-old business function. It’s all about marketing. But the key is clicking with your consumers – meeting your clientele’s needs is still job one.

“Everything has a time and place, and (your site) has to be driven by the customer’s need for convenience and for the reason they showed up at your doorstep,” says Charles Hofacker, an electronic and Internet marketing professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “The last thing we want to do is slow them down. They need to get to their task (completed), whatever that is, and we need to stand out of the way.”

Use technology wisely and be wary of using a new trick or technology for its own sake. A movie might be great for a Realtor trying to sell a house, but make sure it’s easy for the user to find your company’s 1-800 number.

“If someone cannot find what they are looking for within about eight seconds, they are gone,” says Doug Harrison of LiquiFusion Studios of Tallahassee, which specializes in Web applications. “It better be very easy to accomplish their objectives, or you will lose them.”

Out-of-date information also is annoying and can likewise drive away visitors and potential customers.

“This is where most small business clients fall down – maintaining the site with fresh information,” Harrison says. “We recommend an easy-to-use content management system that allows users from different areas within the business to each maintain their own area of the site. For most small businesses, one person should be responsible for maintaining the site.”


In Focus

Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort conducted an independent feasibility study to create a site that was as user-friendly as possible.

“We found our site was not as easy to use as we felt it should be from the study,” says Craig Ferris, director of Internet revenue for the resort. “The impetus was to increase awareness of the Internet as a more important channel – a strategy for our business.”

But hiring an outside agency to conduct research on the quality of your site is not the only research option, especially for small businesses operating on a limited marketing budget. Go for easy usability, says Hofacker, who recommends a relatively inexpensive way of doing just that.

“Put a human in front of your Web site, and get him or her to do stuff,” he advises. Give them some tasks and see what happens, see what they think – and get them to talk out loud. “There’s a phenomenally high error rate when you actually put live human beings in front of live Web sites.”


Putting Search Engines to Work

Not only must your Web site be easy for the consumer to use, it also must be easy to find – especially on Google.

Tallahassee Realtor Patti Ketcham and photographer Thomas Eads are savvy about having their respective sites rank high on search engine pages such as Google. Conventional Internet wisdom holds that if your Web site isn’t at the top of the first Google page, there is a strong chance nobody will find you. Most people won’t go past the first three pages of results, according to the search-engine marketing company iProspect and JupiterResearch, a marketing and analysis firm.

According to a 2006 study by Forrester Research, 93 percent of all Internet traffic is generated by search engines – and Google is the most popular U.S. search engine on the Internet. Google logged more than 4.3 billion searches in August 2008 and, according to Nielsen NetRatings, dominated the market with a 60 percent share of searches (a growth of 3 percent over the previous year), compared to second-place finisher Yahoo’s 18.1 percent.

“Google is it,” says Ketcham, whose real estate listings have been on the Web for more than two years. “If you ain’t hitting it in Google, you ain’t hitting it.”

While techno wizards abound to help Web site owners reach high rankings, Eads says he took some simple but sage advice from a marketer friend to help give his Web site a boost with “meta tags.” Those are special Web devices that provide information about a document, often including keywords and descriptions of a Web page’s content. They can be helpful in achieving high rankings.

“In the meta tag, I list every artist and every style of art,” Eads says. “We are near the top of Google listings for most artists that I represent.”


Internet Schooling Helps

Becoming Internet-savvy is important, particularly in Ketcham’s industry. Potential home buyers are using the Internet to shop for homes, and they know exactly what they want before even calling a Realtor. According to the National Association of Realtors, 80 percent of potential home buyers get information from the Web.

“They typically look for approximately six months on the Internet before they intend to buy,” Ketcham says. “In our industry, we have to make it easy for them. We have to make it accessible.”

Ferris, who has worked in Internet technology marketing for 10 years, says that an effort to move to the top of search-engine result listings can be beneficial for business operators.

“They should not overlook the pay-for-click advertising opportunities,” he says. “Your position depends on how much you pay. You pay (search engines) for that positioning, but the key in that is targeting the right words. That is where a company that specializes in pay-for-click can help you.”

Ketcham hired a Web consultant, who caters to real estate agents, to help her manage her Web site.

“I’ve done as much as I can without literally stopping serving my clients and devoting myself entirely to the Internet, which is not what I’m about,” Ketcham says. “I’m more of a techie than I thought I would be, but I’ve reached the point where I need to hire out. I need to get a higher level of help.”

But hiring a professional is not the only means for getting a higher search-engine ranking. FSU’s Hofacker says basic marketing principles apply to the Internet, regardless of the new technology.

“Marketing really is the interface between the firm and the customer,” he says. “And so just because the interface becomes electronic does not really change that fundamental fact.”


Content Counts

Ranking highly in a search-engine search might take care of itself – if you have great content that generates a lot of links.

Eads’ Web site content is so popular that customers aren’t the only ones using it. Museums, cultural institutions and even newspaper reporters view his page all the time, thus ensuring its popularity. That kind of popularity can pay off in Web links that can help search-engine ratings.

“Content is king,” says LiquiFusion’s Harrison. “I would recommend focusing on enhancing/upgrading content rather than trying to trick the search engines into finding your site. Good content – and value to your users – will win out in the end.”