by Janet Attard
More and more small businesses are realizing that having a web site is no longer an option. It’s a necessity. Consumers, businesses and government buyers all use the web to buy products and services directly and to research those purchases they will eventually make offline through more traditional means.
Having a web site and profiting from it don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, however. In fact, some web sites are so poorly designed and constructed that they drive customers away instead of getting them to open their wallets wide. You can minimize that problem by following these basic principles of sound web site design and navigation.
1. Don’t hide what you sell
In many instances, the “content” that visitors want is information about the product they want to buy. If you make it difficult to find your shopping area, if your pages take a long time to load, or if visitors can’t find your order form, they will either give up or go shop in your competitor’s online store.
To improve the shopping experience for the customer, try to keep each page to no more than 40K. If you use graphics, use thumbnails with the descriptive text. The thumbnail-sized photos can be setup as clickable links to larger versions of the photo for anyone who wants to see them enlarged
If you sell a lot of different items, try to classify them in some way to make them easier to find. For instance if you were selling office supplies, you might have one category called “paper and stationery,” another called “Writing instruments” another called software, etc.
2. Make it look professional
It wasn’t long ago, that just having a web site was enough to make a small businesses and home businesses look more professional. It didn’t much matter what the web site actually looked like. But that’s changing. While there are still some pretty ugly web sites that are relatively successful, customers, for the most part expect a company’s web site to be as neat and professional looking as their printed sales literature and marketing materials. Anything less than a professional façade for your online shop, will make your business look small and unreliable.
3. Make your site easy to navigate
Businesses and consumers today have little time to waste. If they can’t find what they want quickly on your site they’ll move on. To help them find their way around, put a table of content (often called a navigational bar or navbar) on your home page. Include a search function for the web site as well.
4. Encourage browsing and impulse buys
Retail stores get you to purchase more merchandise by putting sale merchandise at some distance from the cash register (so you have to walk through the store and see more things you may want to buy). They also increase sales by putting items that make good impulse buys in places that you pass through to get out of the store. Fast food stores and supermarkets often have candy and magazines near the check out counter. Clothing stores may have socks, jewelry or perfume near the cash register.
You can use similar tactics on your web site to increase product sales. For instance, if you have an article on how to choose digital cameras, create a small ad for digital cameras if you sell them and put it in the margin of the article. If you sell books, write short book reviews and put a link in each book review to a place on your site where the reader can buy the book you are reviewing. Another tactic: run banner ads for your own own products on editorial pages on your web site. These ads will work like ads on the window of your favorite supermarket. They’ll remind visitors of goodies you have in other parts of your web site.
5. Suggest add-on sales
One of the easiest ways to increase sales is to let customers who are about to make a purchase know about related products they may want to buy. If your shopping cart software allows it, include one or two links to related products from the shopping cart screen. If you can’t easily do that, include the link to related products on a thank you page.
6. Give them ordering choices
Not everyone is comfortable giving out credit card information over the Internet, and not everyone likes to shop with a credit card. To maximize your sales, be sure you give customers alternate methods for making a purchase. In addition to your online order form, provide a way for people to order by telephone, by fax and by mail. Make those options easy to find, too. If your customer has to hunt for ways to make a purchase, you’ll lose sales.
If you find too many customers use call, fax or mail their order, consider adding a surcharge for orders that aren’t placed electronically. Or, increase your prices slightly and then offer a discount for ordering online.
7. Tell them how to reach you
Customers want to know who you are and how they can contact after they’ve made a purchase. And they want that information to be easy to find. If it isn’t they may question your honesty or credibility and move on to a competitor’s web site to make their purchase.
You can avoid that trap by by having a “contact us” button on every page of your web site. The “Contact us ” button can lead to a web page that lists your business name, business email address, telephone, fax and other information customers may need to know. If you don’t want to take the calls yourself, have an answering service take them for you.
Tip: Remember the Internet is “on” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. People can and do use it all night long. If you don’t have someone answering phones 24 hours a day, be sure to indicate your hours of operation and your time zone with your contact information.
8. Include a feedback form
A feedback form serves three purposes. First, it gives your customers another way to reach you. Second, it lets you know what customers think about your products and services and what they wanted but can’t find. Finally, the feedback form is good for public relations. Having it on your site will help customers form an impression of your company as one that cares what it’s customers have to say.
Put the feedback form where people can find it easily on your web site. This might be on a navigational menu, or as a text link.
9. Read and answer email at least once a day
One of the leading attractions of the Internet is its immediacy. You can find information, shop for products, send and receive letters, place orders, send invoices, view pictures, and access documents 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But that’s also one of the leading disadvantages of the web – at least for web site owners. Because the web and online services are available 24 hours a day, visitors expect them to be staffed around the clock, too. If they have a question, they expect to get a response in hours, rather than days as they might if they sent a question to your company using traditional mail.
To keep customers happy, therefore, plan to answer all email within 24 hours or less. If you don’t answer your email in a timely fashion, your customers are likely to have little difficulty finding one of your competitors on the web.
10. Help people who stumble into your web site find their way back
When visitors find your web site, they may save or print some of your information to read at a later time. When they find that information later on, they may want to return to your site. To make sure they can find their way back, be sure that every page on your site includes the name of your web site, your phone number and your URL on the bottom of the page. To avoid typing that information in manually on every page include it on the bottom of whatever template you use to create web pages.