Sunday Business Post – Computers in Business Magazine – November 2 2008
See this article on the Sunday Business Post’s website by clicking here.
As the public tighten their belts, surfing online when considering a purchase will become more popular, so companies should ensure they have an attractive website, writes Dermot Corrigan.
Hard times are upon us, according to the experts. Even if they aren’t, the perception is such that they may as well be. This means that customers are going to start looking to reduce costs. And many of them will start to spend more time online, given its association with cut-price products and services.
So the smart company preparing for an extended downturn should think of investing in a proper website now.
“When people are looking for cheaper products or services, whether it is airline flights or lawnmowers, they are going to go online,” said Martin Casey, managing director of web design and internet consultancy firm Arekibo.
“When things are tighter and they have less money in their pockets, they are going to start looking more and more online to get the best deal.”
Casey said that nowadays most customers look to the internet first when considering any kind of purchase, therefore companies should ensure they present the best possible online image.
“The internet has become the de facto reference point for people to find services,” he said. “Everyone is going to Google or Yahoo. The website is your virtual front door, it gives the customer an insight into who you are, what you do, and how you treat people. It is vital in times like these that your internet is very much at the front of what you are trying to achieve with your business.”
Developing a website as an alternative sales channel should be a key objective for many businesses faced with challenging markets, according to Casey.
“A website is not more important than having more sales people, because the internet site is a channel for introducing customers to your team,” he said. “But it has to be part and parcel of supporting your organisation to sell your services. If you have fewer people to do the selling, then the internet site is there to support that.”
Michele Neylon, managing director of hosting services provider Blacknight Solutions, said that not all Irish businesses, of all shapes and sizes, had yet realised the importance of their web presence to their business.
“There are still a lot of Irish businesses who have not yet fully understood what the internet is, and what they can do with it,” said Neylon. “We get people contacting us who still do not understand the difference between an e-mail address and a domain name. The general level of knowledge has improved, but there is still a surprising level of misunderstanding.
“It is not just small businesses; for example, it is still impossible for customers to e-mail their local AIB branch, as the AIB branch network does not have access to e-mail. Within that environment it is hard to expect small businesses to get a handle on all the possibilities of ecommerce.”
Maryrose Lyons, managing director of Brightspark Consulting, said that, while some very bad websites still existed, most Irish companies now had reasonably well-designed and well-thought out sites.
“I am happy to say that most Irish company websites have improved over the last half decade,’’ said Lyons. “I run a web writing training course and part of the preparation for that is to find examples of what not to do. “And I have to say it’s getting harder and harder to find some real whammies. That said, there are some shocking sites out there – many from larger companies that ought to know better. I can not understand how some businesses that understand the importance of design in their own products can allow themselves to be portrayed online with this kind of thing you sometimes see.”
Fiachra O’Marcaigh, director of online consultancy Amas, said that smaller organisations often had better websites than larger competitors. “Smaller companies are often more innovative and more energetic in their use of online channels than larger ones,” said O’Marcaigh. “Most companies now recognise that a good website is not a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity.”
What makes a good site
O’Marcaigh said that companies should think carefully about what exactly they wanted their website to do for them. “Clear thinking about what your messages or selling points are is vital,” he said. “Without this, you simply cannot create an effective site. Once you know your own goals and messages clearly, focus on your users and what they want, need and know. Design your site for your users, not for yourself or your peers.”
Companies should consider what business objectives they want their website to meet, according to Gary Cosgrave, sales director with Webtrade. “The most important thing for a website is to lead the searcher to a completed action in the shortest time possible,” he said.
“That completed action depends on what your business type is, or what your business model is. It might be to get the customer to the piece of furniture that they want to buy as quickly as possible and purchase it online. “You have to make sure that the user interface design and the information architecture are structured in a certain way that people get what they want, what you want, and so that they do not get lost on the site.”
Casey advised businesses to work out criteria for measuring a site’s success “We want to set an understanding of how they are going to measure success from the start,” he said. “When we are planning the site that is very important. Is it more queries or people calling you, more sales online, is it helping you to represent your organisation better? These are things that help the client understand and measure what their investment means.”
Lyons said that businesses should not try to use their websites to just store as much content and sales material as possible.
“Most businesses have an abundance of content lying around in sales material, proposals, strategic plans, product specs and the like,” she said. “The trick here is not to simply dump all of this information on to your website. We read 25 per cent less off a computer screen, so write 50 per cent less. Be ruthless about culling your content. Rewrite it in a web friendly way. Use bullets instead of paragraphs. Use short sentences and no jargon.” Different companies will want to promote different aspects of their business, and hence use different types of content, according to O ¨ Marcaigh.
“The kind of content that an SME publishes should be valuable to its online audiences and support the goals of the business, as set out in its online strategy,” he said. “This will vary widely, from one business to another. For example, a bicycle shop may sponsor local races and post news and results to its website. A legal firm might publish a newsletter of legal news from the areas of law that it specialises in.”
Fergal O’Byrne, chief executive of the Irish Internet Association, said that all business websites should be regularly updated. “Updating content on a website is key to keeping it fresh and interesting,” he said. “It also ensures that users have confidence that the company behind the site is still in business! How many times have you been turned off a site because the last news item was two years old? Search engines also reward content that is updated regularly.
Search engine optimisation
Ensuring that your site is ranked high in Google or other search engine searches is a key consideration for all business websites, according to O’Byrne.
“Ideally, search engine optimisation (SEO) should be considered when the site is being designed,” he said. “Most of the good web design companies build sites that are search engine friendly and stand the best chance of being found in the main search engines (Google, Yahoo, MSN). SEO is an on-going process and companies need to constantly check where they are showing in the search engines and for what search terms.”
Lyons outlined a number of SEO strategies. “Search engine optimisation has always been a bit of a black art,” she said. “With the advent of Google, it has evolved to become a very specialised and technical part of the industry. The days of sticking a few keywords into your metadata are long over.
“Today’s number one rankings are more a result of detailed keyword and competitive analysis, followed by labour-intensive, time-consuming link building activity. As a result, search engine optimisation is not cheap. For certain competitive keywords, you can almost expect to spend the same amount on optimising the site as you spent on building it.”
E-commerce options and functionality figure prominently in many web strategies, O ¨ Marcaigh said. “Not every company needs e-commerce, but they certainly need to consider it carefully,” he said.
“Consumers and businesses in a business to business context value the convenience of sourcing goods and services online. Increasingly, they want to be able to transact and buy online also. “Provided that the business is possible to carry out online, then companies should look carefully at the benefits, such as greater reach, lower cost of sales and other, as well as the downsides: set-up cost, fraud risk and the need to manage the channel.” Lyons said there were various e-commerce systems available to suit the requirements of the company.
“If your business is involved in selling product and you are considering developing an e-commerce website, you can begin by offering payment with Paypal,” she said. “This is the lowest fee level, good for very small businesses where brand is not an issue. If you are already a retailer and have credit card processing facilities then you can go for manual processing of transactions. “If you are really serious about e-commerce and are getting the volumes, then automatic card processing is a must. I recommend Realex because their systems are robust and the team there is super helpful and easy to deal with.” O’Byrne said that some companies do not need an e-commerce element to their site.
“A company must establish whether the investment in an online booking or payments system will make a return on their investment,” he said. “For example for a small B&B it may not be prudent to spend their budget on a real-time booking system. A simple availability calendar might be more useful and the remaining budget could be spent on an online marketing campaign via a service like Google Adwords, for example.” However, that did not mean the website should be not be designed to encourage the browser in a particular direction, Cosgrave said.
“Some companies do not need a transactional element, so we can just make sure that it is an information rich, brochure type site,” he said. “With that kind of site we are trying to lead the searcher to complete the contact us form to make direct contact with the customer, rather than actually making a purchase.”
Bells and whistles
Recent years have seen increased interest in so-called Web 2.0 or interactive website features, such as blogs, forums, podcasts, really simple syndication (RSS), regular newsletters, etc, all of which allow businesses to communicate directly with their customers. However, Lyons advised businesses against adding too many unfocused bells and whistles to their sites.
“Only introduce elements that your target audience will use,” she said. “If you are marketing to a youth audience for example, it’s likely they will all have iPods, so a podcast might be a better way to get your message across than an e-mail newsletter. “However, e-mail newsletters remain one of the most effective ways to communicate with a business audience. Blogs are also great and as more people are using RSS, this will continue to be so. The ideal is to have a blog and then repackage the popular posts as the content for your newsletter. You can use Google Maps instead of a picture of the building.
“Use functionality that will make the visitor’s experience easier and richer, not functionality that has no purpose – like those awful ‘skip intro’ pages.” O’Byrne said that smaller companies could use innovative websites to compete in larger global markets. “One of the best SME examples of embracing all these elements is worldwidecycles.com,” he said.
“This Clonmel based specialist cycling shop allows potential customers from al l around the world to take a Virtual Tour of the physical shop via an embedded YouTube video, promotes an active blog, and utilises the photo sharing facility, Flickr. The end result is a sense of engagement and interactivity for the potential customer and returning client alike.” Lyons said that the next few years would see even smaller websites evolving their websites to incorporate less text and more multimedia.
“We are seeing an increase in video content across many industries,” she said. “If you need to communicate a message with an audience who are used to using websites and are perhaps a little tired of being presented with large amounts of text, then a short video can carrying your key messages can be more effective. “There will be a move away from the large 50-100 page sites that were driven by content management systems, back to short, punchy five or ten page sites using a mix of video, text and imagery to convey a message. Kanchi.org is a good example of that.”
Nuts and bolts
O’Byrne said that most Irish companies now managed the day to day updating and maintenance of their website using simple content management systems (CMS).
“ACMS is an easy to use tool that allows a nontechnical user to update content, often text on the pages of a site and other elements like photos or pictures,” he said. “In most cases it does not allow the user to break the site or interfere with the design template, which is a good thing.” Gary Cosgrave, sales director of Webtrade, said that web design companies generally trained their customers on how to update their own sites using customised CMSs.
“Our CMS is designed specifically for the non technical users, and we train people to use it,” he said. “It means you are not reliant either on internal technical staff or external consultants.
“You log in using your username and password, and you are actually editing what you see on the website. You click on a navigational button to add a page, edit a page et cetera. You get into a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) or text editor, which is pretty much the same as Word. If you can use Word, you can use the CMS.” Often the updating of a company’s website is not done by an IT expert, Casey said. “The fundamental change that has happened over the last few years is that marketing people have begun to look after the websites,” he said.
“These people do not have time to be sent on a course to learn HTML. We would have a client trained up in two to three hours maximum, and they would be able to manage every aspect of the website, add pages, extra products, news and events et cetera.” Neylon said that companies could benefit from analytics tools that let them see exactly how visitors are interacting with the website, including which pages and elements of the site were most popular.
“You can see which pages of your website people have visited, which elements within those pages that they have clicked on, where they spent more time,” he said. “You can really see which things are working well and which things are not.”
Most Irish companies now outsource the hosting of their websites, according to Neylon. “Only very big companies would host their website in house,” he said.
“Realistically speaking to do your own hosting, you need technical expertise and the infrastructure in place with a server connected to the internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week.You need stable internet connections, backups et cetera, it is not something that most small businesses are going to deal with.” While Irish sites can be hosted on servers anywhere in the world, O’Byrne advised Irish companies to deal with local hosting companies.
“We always advise companies doing business in Ireland to host their websites here,” he said.’ ‘It is reassuring to know that there is a physical presence behind the hosting company, that is contactable during your normal office hours.” Hosting costs have fallen dramatically in recent years, according to Neylon. “The price has been pushed down on the hosting packages, and the services are being increased all the time,” he said. “For €50 a year you can get a huge amount of disk space and oodles of everything else.”
Whether to go for a dot.ie or dotcom web address can be a poser for companies, O ¨ Marcaigh said. “If possible, companies should register both and then decide which domain to focus on for marketing themselves,” he said. “To generalise, the .com domain presents a more international air, while .ie is clearly Irish-oriented.
“For a company focused in the first place on the home market, using .ie puts them closer to their Irish customers. That helps to establish trust more readily. They should also consider registering the .co.uk domain name and look at any other markets that may be relevant to them in the future.” Neylon said that his customers chose a mixture of .ie and .com addresses, however .ie addresses, only available from the IEDR (.ie Domain Registry), were sometimes more difficult to register and set up.
“You can register and get a .com or .co.uk up and running in about half an hour if the name is available,” he said. “To get a .ie you have to be a registered business, or a limited company with a business name the same or close to the domain you want to register, or you have to contact them and persuade them to allow you to have the name.”