In this day and age, a business website is a prerequisite for even the most basic of services. It also serves as a valuable first impression to potential customers - sloppy website designs lead to negative assumptions about the professionalism of your business. Overly designed, memory-intensive flash websites filled with background music and tiny text frustrate visitors with haughty pompousness. How can you decide which approach is the best for your company? What are the steps necessary to establish a coherent, appropriate website?

Photo by dakno

Getting Started

In the late 1990s, most website design only required a simple knowledge of HTML and Javascript. Since then, websites have evolved greatly, and a working knowledge of Flash and HTML 5.0 are required for the most professional of websites. Most website designers use publishing software such as Adobe Dreamweaver to simplify tasks considerably. Fortunately, most publishing suites have simple templates for a basic site and may prove enough for most small businesses seeking a simple web presence. At the bare minimum, your website should consist of the following:
  • Contact information - your phone number, e-mail and address clearly visible on the first page.
  • For eCommerce sites:
    • A clearly designed product catalog, with your most current, news-worthy products on the first page. Promotions should also be clearly visible on the first page.
    • An online shopping cart system.
    • If pertinent to your products, you should add downloadable content - such as software or PDF manuals.
  • For corporate or events sites, a clear company calendar with upcoming events, which can also be synced to the iCal standard or Google Calendar.
There are also some common pitfalls to avoid.
  • Garish or common clip art - these make your website appear unprofessional and outdated. Use made from scratch graphic designs, if possible.
  • Tiny text in an attempt to create a minimalistic look. This can often be unreadable on some smaller displays.
  • Overly extravagant Flash introductions with background music. These often slow down older computers and frustrate customers who are only seeking basic information about the company. Create launch pages which give the user the option of selecting a HTML or Flash version of the site.
  • Poor frequency of updates. When a visitor to your site sees the last update occurring half a year ago, what does that say about your response time to customer issues?

Upgrading a Basic Website for the New Web

Now, with a basic foundation, your website should be spruced up further. Visitors these days expect a certain degree of interaction with the website. These are some things you can add to your website to enhance the user's experience.
  • Real-time tech support - many websites now offer Java or AJAX based web chat with tech support. Of course this means you need to have several members of your staff assigned to field these questions. These can be connected to their work stations. Some websites also offer real-time chat via Windows Messenger.
  • Social networking integration via Facebook or Twitter. These allow your company to bring your customers closer without the use of old-time mailing lists.
  • A wise use of multimedia. For example, Apple's website uses Quicktime VR to allow the user to grab and rotate the product in any way they desire to mimic a physical shopping experience.
  • RSS feeds, to allow users to subscribe to your company's posts or updates.

Tweaking Your Design Sensibilities

Bear in mind that websites should be designed to reflect their businesses. Hotels and restaurants should not look like electronics websites, and vice versa. If your staff lacks the artistic eye for cohesion, it may be wise to hire a contract web designer in order to achieve this. However, here are some simple tips to maintain a clean design.
  • Fonts - many websites are created with the simple Times New Roman font in garish colors over clip art backgrounds. These are ugly and discourage customers from purchasing your products. Professionally made banners and cleaner fonts such as Lucida Grande or Arial reflect well on your business.
  • Use CSS or AJAX in order to keep your site looking lean and modern; without these your website will appear clunky, loading like a 1990s website being viewed on Netscape.
  • Use cross-browser compatible standards which can be viewed on the widest assortment of browsers and operating systems. Many designers make the mistake of making fancy websites without the consideration that many customers may be using outdated browsers without Flash.

Finishing Touches

The important thing to remember about starting a business website is that design should be clear, to the point and informative. Cross-compatibility is much more important than aesthetic beauty. Each customer who can't load your site or find the pertinent contact information is a lost customer. Here are some final things to consider.
  • Does your website have a mobile version? With the increasing adoption of smartphones, mobile-optimized websites can help widen your company's exposure and promote a forward-thinking image.
  • Has your company launched mobile applications, as many companies have done, to allow easier, one-click access to your website and services?
  • Is your website search engine optimized? There are many articles instructing web designers in the proper way to phrase search terms to increase hits from major search engines.
  • Will your website use advertising as a means to gain revenue? If so, you can consider using Google AdSense as a free way to gain extra funds from page views and click-thrus.
These are some ideas to help you get started. In business web design, your first impression upon the customer can often be your last if your website is poorly designed, so be sensible with your approach.