If you've ever been horrified by the design of a small or local business website, you're not alone. There are so many aesthetic travesties out there, and worse, many small businesses still don't even have a website. One recent study concluded that a paltry 54 percent of small businesses maintain a home on the web.
Your business doesn't need an elaborate multimedia site, but you do need an eye-pleasing and informative destination. After all, you wouldn't (purposefully) hang an ugly sign on your storefront or office. Why would you present an ugly website to your prospects?
With this in mind, we spoke to some professional web designers about their favorite small business websites. They explained why these sites make sense for each company and why the design is an asset to their business.
Make Business Personal at First Click
"They put a great deal of emphasis towards humanizing the process of buying a home," said Gube. "To most real estate companies, you're customer record ID #67343, budget range $200,000 to $225,200, but to Go Realty, you're the Johnsons with a baby girl named Amy. They convey this personality through their site design."
Gube notes Go Realty's very welcoming website that puts people first and properties second.
"The home page has a beautiful image slider that flips through photos of the people they've dealt with, with short descriptions of their stories. They have a Fan Mail section that flips through messages from happy clients," said Gube. "When you see all that, as a prospective home buyer and client, you'd think, 'Wow, these guys will take care of me.'"
When it comes to something as personal as purchasing a home, this is a smart design choice. While it may be the inclination of many companies to put products front and center, a page of property listings can be less inviting than a satisfied customer.
"I think for a real estate company, they have a truly unique angle and they have a web design that manages to convey their core message," Gube noted.
Accentuate Your Products With Complementary Design
Shopping carts and product galleries have become staples of the e-commerce landscape, but that doesn't mean they have to look stale. If you sell attractive products, make sure they live on an attractive website.
"Their website is beautifully designed, featuring just a couple of products with large, beautiful photographs. They're clearly targeting the more fashion-aware web nerds this way," said Van Damme.
The site sells cases and sleeves for electronics, as well as handbags and wallets. The sleek modern products sit nicely on a clean, modern website. The presentation is complementary, and there's nothing to distract the eye from the merchandise. A site like this expresses organization and straightforwardness -- qualities your customers are always after.
"Their products are pretty expensive, yet every conference I go to I see multiple of them in the audience," Van Damme noted.
Sell to the Right Consumers, Visually
If you're targeting a certain customer demographic, good web design can help.
Kelli Shaver, a web app developer who specializes in user interfaces and experiences, points to Gazel, Inc., purveyors of unique, organic bath towels and robes. Its website evokes a sense of luxury that befits the customers who can afford these products.
"Clearly the site is targeting environmentally conscious consumers with expendable incomes and sophisticated tastes," said Shaver, noting Gazel is not your typical e-commerce website. "The focus seems more on educating customers about the products than simply selling those products. The combined effect of the colors, typography, textures, and photography just feels expensive and high-quality."
In essence, the site "feels" like the products it's selling, and that goes a long way toward user experience, according to Shaver.
"Nearly everything about the site is inviting. Rich, warm colors and earth tones give the visitor a feeling of calm," she said. "The slide show on the landing page, in addition to showcasing some of the company's product, also brings in a lot of texture."
The takeaway here should be that if your customers feel at home on your website, they're more likely to browse and buy. That may seem obvious, but think about who your customers really are as you develop your web presence. Your web designer won't know this, so be sure to communicate it effectively. The branding payoff can be big.
Informational Sites Don't Have to Be Boring
If you thought some small business websites were rough, visit a government agency online sometime. They can be notorious for bad design, poor navigation, and a general disinterest in Web 2.0 functionality.
"The home page is OK, but the site actually gets better and more interesting the deeper you go," said Coyier, noting the exceptional layout of the recreation page, and the pages for individual locations administered by the department.
"The most important part they got right was thinking about what the mindset of an actual user of the site is like -- in this case, me," said Coyier. "It's easy to browse by featured locations, type of activity, and specific regions, all of which were of interest to me, so it was fun to click around."
This site could so easily have gone with black and white bullet lists, but instead went the extra mile to draw the user in with design.
"The aesthetics are totally appropriate for an outdoors kind of site -- tans and greens and browns with flourishes of plant life," said Coyier. "The location-specific pages are amazing. Everything I would want to see: photos, maps, specifics on what you can do, rules, etc. The visuals are great, but the information architecture is the best feature."
Image courtesy of Flickr, Mike Rohde.