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Web sites that work, Part 1

Sep 20, 20044 mins

One man’s list of do’s and don’ts.

There are two kinds of home-based businesses: those with a Web site, and those that need one.

Sadly, I fall into the latter category. Despite having owned the domain since 1995, I have yet to create and launch the site. This is foolish. In my line of work, people no longer talk about “clips” (old articles cut from magazines and used as resume pieces), but rather about links. I know I’ve lost business by not having a site that potential clients can examine.

Why? Blame stage fright and the cobbler’s-children effect. But that’s going to change, and soon. In the next three months, I vow to create and publish my Web site. Along the way, I’ll research tools and providers and report back to you.

But first, I’m thinking about what content I find pleasing and helpful in sites run by very small businesses. Here’s a list of what I like (and don’t like) to see; advice I plan to follow in creating my own site: 

* Do put contact information on the home page. The whole point is to persuade people to call or e-mail, correct? So make it as easy as possible. Include your geographic location – in some industries, this can make a big difference to potential customers. If you can’t bring yourself to put contact info on the home page, at least put it on a clearly marked page just one click away. There’s nothing I hate more than digging around “About us” pages for a phone number.

* Don’t use generic e-mail addresses such as “info” or “sales.” I hesitate sending mail to such generics, even at large corporations, feeling as if my message will get tossed in a vast miscellaneous pile, to be answered by a temp or assistant whenever they get around to it. I want to send e-mail to a specific person, and so do your prospects.

* Do write about yourself in the first person if you’re a sole practitioner. This was an early dilemma for me, so I studied sites belonging to folks in my industry. What I found was that third-person writing (“Joe Schmoe is an award-winning widget maker with over two decades of experience”) tends to be off-putting when you know full well that Joe Schmoe wrote it himself. Contrast that with modest first-person writing: “I’ve been making widgets for 20 years, and my work has won several industry awards.”

* Don’t pretend to be bigger than you are. Some love to say the Internet lets small fry compete with much larger businesses. But that’s not the whole truth. You might have a terrific home-based gourmet-food store, but if your Web site tries to make you look like General Mills, people will see right through it. Moreover, your potential customers don’t want General Mills.

* Do post pictures of yourself and your staff. I know from my experience with this column that it’s a bit horrifying to have your photo up on the Internet. Nevertheless, with so much business transacted electronically today, posting your picture (a high quality, flattering one) establishes an immediate connection between you and your customers that’s hard to achieve through e-mail and telephone.

* Don’t link to personal, hobby or family pages – it makes you look unprofessional. While potential clients do want a glimpse of you, they don’t want to know about your massive collection of Love, American Style memorabilia or the big SchmoeFest Family Reunion held up at the lake. Trust me.

There’s my list. Got anything to add or contest? In my next column I’ll address design. Most small-business Web sites either look hopelessly amateurish or feature bells, whistles, fonts, colors and other gimcrackery that gives me a headache. We’ll search for something in between.