Looking Good Is Not Just for Big Brands

Your small business budget is no excuse for a less than stellar looking website. Take the initiative to look good.
Editor and Technology Evangelist, Smallbiztechnolo, Smallbiztechnology.com
December 15, 2011

How is it that the most obvious things so often escape our attention? Take the typical small business website. Most will get the basics right. There’s the description of the business, the contact information, maybe a photo or two to make the point.

But the site is ugly. Or at least forgettable. The business owner has overlooked the obvious. The internet is first and foremost a visual medium. Before your customers read your page or digest the information, they are going to see it. If they don’t like what they see, they’re going to turn away.

What about your business cards, your blog, the photo on your Twitter profile. Have you taken the time to ensure all of these elements look as good as they can be?

We’re grateful to Web Pages That Suck for two fine examples of pages that, um, come up short. Check out Bear Flag Wine and George Hutchins for Congress. As a starting point, these stinkers offer shining examples of what not to do. They’re cluttered, confusing, difficult to navigate. The wine site doesn’t even fit on the screen. (Try dragging the page left or right.)

For a small business trying to garner attention for itself, a crisp and clean web site and other digital collateral is a must. Professional design makes a business look bigger than it is and, moreover, it establishes a level of trust. A site that is not well designed suggests a sketchy enterprise, one that might not be there when you need it. An aesthetically pleasing site promises a reliable partner.

“Web work that looks amateur says your organization is amateur. Ask yourself how you want to be perceived by your target market, then optimize accordingly,” said Lorrie Thomas Ross, CEO of marketing consultancy Web Marketing Therapy. “Small business owners need to understand that they do not spend on good web design, they are investing in long term collateral that lasts the life of an organization.”

That kind of look and feel isn’t hard to achieve. A few simple rules carry the day.

  • Who are you? People want to know what you offer and who you are. Give them a clear understand upfront with words and images: “This is what we do here.”
  • Design matches the business. A financial management company with a swirly psychedelic background on its page is sunk before it starts. That’s an extreme example but the point holds. Every industry will have a look and feel that resonates with its customers. Find that vibe and go with it.
  • Get in touch. Seems obvious, but people blow it all the time. Contact information needs to be plain as day.
  • Clean and simple. Long paragraphs turn into dense blocks on a web page. Short paragraphs. Bullet points. Text boxes. These keep a site simple and easy to digest.
  • Function. Web design isn’t just about looking good. It’s about functioning effectively. The site map ought to make intuitive sense, with easily visible buttons leading to useful content. Each page in turn ought to link back cleanly to a call to action: “Here’s how to contact us, click here to learn more.”

All these rules hold true in social media as well. Fan pages must follow the same guidelines of clarity and legibility, along with an aesthetic sense that matches both the product and the image on offer by a small business.

One more good reason to focus on design? Because your customers have come to expect it. Coke and IKEA and even the IRS have set the bar high with sites that convey who and what they are. (No, the IRS site is not pretty. Yes, it gets the job done effectively for its audience.)

You can achieve these ends on your own, possibly. There are any number of do-it-yourself packages out there, from the basic templates on Yahoo! Business; to Do It Yourself Website, a software tool from Intellyweb; to the tantalizingly titled How to Build Your Own Web Site with Little or No Money, by Bruce C. Brown.

The trouble with these is, you are not a web designer. You don’t have a background in graphic design and you’re surely not a software programmer. (Stop us if we are wrong.) You hire an accountant to do your accounting, right? How is this different?

We rarely encourage small business owners to part with their cash. This time it is necessary, and not all that expensive. A competent web designer can give you a respectable front page for as little as a few hundred dollars. Others will charge a few thousand. Ensure you are working with a web designer who is an expert in imagery and graphics and not just coding. Or you might want to work with an image or graphics expert and then work with a programmer to help you move the design online. How do you choose the right web designer?

  • Gauge their perspective. Listen to the sorts of questions a designer asks you. That’s a cue to their approach. If they are all about the pretty pictures, beware. Good design starts with great content. A good designer will ask first about your mission and objectives.
  • Reputation. Don’t just look at samples of work. You need to check references on this one, to see whether this person delivers on time, is easy to work with and responds to a customer’s needs. Does their work reflect an understanding of what makes the client’s business unique and valuable, or is it just an online postcard?
  • Geography. There’s no reason a web designer need be local, but there can be advantages. Some people are just more comfortable with a face-to-face meeting, at least at the start of a project. And that personal touch can help to keep a project rolling.