I have been running my business Lightly Salted for over a decade now, in that time the web has changed a lot. When I built my first website, in March 2012, there were 644 million websites. Now, in April 2020, there are over 1.2 billion, that's a mind-blowing number.
So, I wanted to distill my experience over the last decade into a single helpful article. You could think of it like a checklist.
In this article you're going to learn about:
- Key Principles
- Domains and Web Hosting
- User Experience (UX) and Design
- Technical Tips
- Headers and Footers
- Essential Small Business pages
Most of us have at least some principles. These principles might shape a lot of our decisions, and conversations with others. I have found it interesting to see the disconnect between people's expectations and reality when it comes to websites.
Many small businesses owners believe that having a website will mean that they start receiving enquires. The web doesn't work like that for most small businesses.
There are so many websites out there, the chances of someone stumbling across your website are very slim. People need a reason and a way of finding your website amongst everyone else's. You need to tick certain boxes to give your website the best chance of being found.
Principle 1: Your website is not about your business, it's about your clients/customers
When I build websites for small businesses I have to help them to understand that their website is not there for them. Their website is for their ideal clients/customers. Their prospect has a problem and they provide a solution to that problem. Your website has to be about your client/customer and the problems you can help them solve.
Principle 2: Form Follows Function
If your website looks good but doesn't function well, it's useless to your prospective customer/client.
This principle follows on from my first principle. Put your users in mind when you evaluate your website. Make sure that your website is a great user experience first, before spending time and money on how it looks.
Principle 3: Keep it simple
Many websites are very busy, complicated and stressful to use. Keep it simple, provide lots of space to allow your content to breathe. Often it’s better to remove than to keep adding.
Check out this quote, I've been using it for years as it sums this up perfectly:
Once, there was an old Indian craftsman who carved the most beautiful elephants from unpromising blocks of timber. Asked how he did it, he simply replied: ‘I just cut away the wood that doesn’t look like an elephant.’
Remove all of the excess until all that remains is your core message.
Principle 4: Think Mobile before Desktop
In 2013, Mobile phones made up 16.2 percent of worldwide traffic, compare that with 2019 where 52.2 percent of traffic came from mobile phones. Design your website so that it works well for mobile users first, then focus on desktop. If you don't, you could be missing out on a massive slice of the internet traffic cake.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is important to ensure you can maximise ranking potential. This practice helps to drive traffic to your website from search engines.
If you're using WordPress then download and install the plugin Yoast from here. Yoast will help you to edit your Title Tag, Meta Description and much more.
You will hear a lot about keywords in the suggestions below. Although not as crucial as they once were, your keyword is an indication as to what your page's content is about. Think of it like a topic. Include it naturally in the text, don't stuff the page.
A title tag should be between 10 and 70 characters (including spaces). Include your keyword in your Title Tag and try to match this to what your audience might be searching for.
Meta Description Tag
A meta description should be between 70 and 320 characters. Make sure your keyword is in here too.
HTML header tags are a way of signalling to search engines the content topics of your page. Make sure that you have the keyword focus of your page in your H1 header tag. Make good use of the other headings tags to structure your content.
Amount of Content
Search engines can interpret a low volume of text content as 'thin content'. It has been well researched that higher text volume leads to better ranking ability.
Image Alt Attributes
Add an Alt tag to your images, that describes what the image is about. It's a good idea to include your keyword in your Alt tags, but include it naturally.
Your page links need to be readable by a human and a search engine. For example, lightlysalted.agency/about is much more readable than lightlysalted.agency/page-22. Include your keyword in the URL too.
Your website should have an XML sitemap. This is a file that holds a structured index of the pages and posts on your website. It's indexed by search engines and helpful in showing how your website fits together.
Domains and Web Hosting
Let's first define domain and web hosting.
A domain name is the name of your website. It is name that a user would put into the address bar in their browser to get to your website. Computers use a collection of numbers, called IP addresses to identify websites. This collection of numbers is not easy to remember. Domain names solve this problem so that users can enter in the name of a website, rather than its IP address.
There are many domain name extensions that show where a business is located (.co.uk, .fr) or what it does (.agency, .club). Think about whether you need to target a local country or if you're going international. If international, think about a .com, .net or any other generic domain name extension.
Web hosting makes it possible to publish a website on the internet. A website needs to be hosted (or served) from a type of computer called a server. When someone puts in your website address, their computer will connect to your server. Your website will then be served to them through your browser.
There are many outstanding hosting companies for small businesses. The problem is that it requires time to manage these hosting companies. Another problem is that hosting companies don't help you with your website, they just host your website on their servers. After working with many small businesses, I learnt that they often wanted everything in one place, managed by one company. We now manage hosting, as well as website building and provide ongoing support whenever it is needed too. This gives peace of mind that we’re always accessible when we need to be.
User Experience (UX) and Design
A user's experience should be carefully considered. Most of us have purchased something on the internet. This experience is almost the same every time:
- Go to the website
- Find what you're looking for
- Add it to a cart
- Go to a checkout, where you provide your address and card details
- The website then confirms your order
- You get an email with further confirmation.
This simple and efficient experience is the result of many small and large decisions. These decisions affect how the site looks, behaves, and what it lets you do. These experiences all build upon each other, informing and influencing the user experience.
If you cover the stages below, it will help you, your business and your users to have an excellent user experience.
The user needs are the goals for the website that come from our customers and our clients. It's important that we understand what it is that our customer/client wants from our website. Remember Principle 1: **Your website is not about your business, it's about your clients/customers.**
The site objectives are our own objectives from within our business. This might be something like: sell £4,000 worth of products from the website in 2 months. Or it could be to increase an email list by 200 people in the next 30 days.
The functional specification or feature set is a detailed explanation of all of the features involved in the website. It helps to label the features and to define the scope of those features with a web expert. This helps both you and the developer you're hiring understand each other's expectations.
The structure is often referred to as Information architecture (IA). This well documented term looks at how content is organised, structured and labelled. It's important to create a system that ensures long-term sustainability.
If you're a blogger, you would want to make sure that you have a good system for tagging and categorising posts. A good system will continue to make it easy for your users to find the content they're looking for in the years to come. The goal is to help users to find information. Understand the big picture of how pages, posts, tags and categories fit together.
Navigation is often a set of links in the top of your website that help users to move around your structure. These links should help users to find the content they are searching for. They should also reflect your business goals. It can be a good idea to include some core elements within the navigation, such as a contact page and an about page.
Next, your visual design. Keeping a website simple and clean will often benefit your business. A user's attention span is short, work hard to produce a compelling design. The design should reflect your brand but don't overcomplicate. Ensure that the design works well across different devices and browsers.
Security is important to ensure your website protects user data. Be diligent here or your website could become compromised or experience data loss. Keep your website's plugins, theme and software, or CMS, up-to-date.
A SSL certificate ensures that the website provider is who they claim to be. It indicates secure connections between personal devices and websites. If you don't have one, or you're not sure, speak to your hosting company to get one of these installed. If you have one installed, you can then make use of HTTPS.
HTTPS is often described as the lock icon in your address bar, or an encrypted connection. HTTPS is more secure than HTTP connection and so you should make sure that you adopt it for your website.
Tip: Having an SSL certificate and HTTPS connection to your website will also help with your ranking too.
Increasing the speed of your website can be a very technical undertaking. We would recommend that you leave this one to the experts in most cases. WordPress users can make use of some great plugins. Here's some that can make a difference without having to get into lots of code!
Plugin to speed up your code
If your website is on WordPress, you can add plugins to speed things up.
Plugin to cache your website
With your code optimised, you can now cache it. Autoptimize and W3 Total Cache are a great combination and work well together. You can find W3 Total Cache here.
Change or upgrade your hosting
Some hosting providers don't help you with the speed of your website at all. If you use WordPress and you have tried the above plugins and it is still slow then try upgrading your hosting or change provider. Both SiteGround and Kinsta specialise in WordPress websites.
It's not crucial to position your logo to the left of your navigation or centred but make sure that your logo sits somewhere near to your navigation. Do consider that the top of your website is valuable real estate. Do you really want to increase the height of your logo and navigation bar? This could push your main page content further down the page. Equally, don't squash your navigation into a thin bar either.
I can't stress enough how important a well considered navigation is. Think of it like a book shop, when you go to a book shop you are often looking for something or browsing, perhaps a guide to Cotswold footpaths...? Where do we look to help us to find this book? We look at the labels on the bookshelves.
Your navigation sits at the top of your website to help users to browse or find exactly what they're looking for. Make your labels clear and try to match them to what users could be searching for, known as search intent. For example, if you run a Financial Planning business then you might have the following pages:
- Financial Planning
- Inheritance Planning
- Later Life Planning
When you consider the size of navigation items, you must think about accessibility. Some of your users may use a screen reader or other accessibility equipment. Give plenty of clickable space around each navigation item for your users to click on.
In the past homepages were a competitive place. Businesses would pack them full of every service they offer in great detail. They would list latest blog posts, events they were running and everything else. Most small businesses still do all of these things.
In 2020, your business homepage should have a lot more clarity, focus and purpose. Search engines understand that your website is about more than what's on your homepage. Your homepage can now focus on the specific people who will be coming directly there.
A homepage used to be full of lots of text to help it to rank for many different pages. Now, we don't need to do this. Web users are much more impatient, so it is now much more important that we communicate quickly. We need to effectively communicate our unique value proposition to our prospects. Video works well but if you can't produce a video then explain the value you are offering through images.
Your homepage used to have to serve the needs of many different visitors. The homepage was the page that most users would come to. Those visitors would rely on this page to take them elsewhere in your site. Now, most of your users will be searching on Google or Bing for different services around your brand. They will go directly to your pages, rather than from your homepage.
Tip: Don't forget that you can use social media to send your audience directly to your other pages.
Your homepage can be much more focussed on those critical prospects. It can be clear and compelling at communicating your value proposition.
It used to be vital to place your most valuable content 'above-the-fold' — in the top section of your page. We now live in a world dominated by mobile browsing. This mean that we scroll a lot more, so the need to keep content 'above-the-fold' is less important. That said, your website users are going to make their first impression very quickly. Whilst the top of your page is still important, try to keep a bit of content at that 'fold-line' so that it tempts your users to start scrolling down.
Right, now I'm going to give you my top tips for an effective homepage in 2020.
Make it visual — convey your unique value proposition right at the top of the page
Don't use lots of text, this page needs to be visual and not complex. If you include a video or image at the top of your page then test it. Show it to someone who doesn't know anything about what you do. If they understand what you do from that video that's great.
Answer some frequently asked questions about your brand or services/product
This is a nice one. Your prospect will hit this page, become aware of what you have to offer, but have some questions. Answer some of those questions in this section. If you don't know what those questions are then make a note of questions that come up. When prospects are evaluating your offer, note down their questions and pain points. You can then include them on your homepage.
Prove that your small business is an expert in your sector
Social proof in the form of testimonials or reviews can be a great way to prove that you are good at what you do. It can be an excellent way to qualify your value proposition. Include reviews that will resonate with your prospects problems, but don't go over the top.
Include one main call to action (CTA)
Flooding your homepage with various buttons is not generally a good idea.
Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, spoke about the art of choosing in a 2010 TED. She said,
“Too many choices can overwhelm us and cause us to not choose at all. For businesses, this means that if they offer us too many choices, we may not buy anything.”
Make the one main action that you want your users to take the most prominent button. You could then relegate secondary actions to a less prominent button. You can and should still have internal links to other areas of your website, but push forward your primary call to action.
Your about page is an essential part of your small business website. If done well, it can actually drive leads and sales. About pages are brilliant for SEO, they show your authority, which is a great ranking factor.
You should see your about page as an opportunity to answer the question: why should your client/customer buy from you?
Just like the rest of your website, the about page is not about your business — it is about your customer/client. They're coming to your about page to understand your tone, to get behind the scenes.
This isn't the place to boast but communicate credibility and your value proposition. If you're a member of an association or have a certification, that shows that you have credibility. Do you have a lot of experience? Communicate that.
Here are my top tips for an effective small business about page.
Keep it concise
It's unlikely that your client/customer is going to read a 1000 word about page, keep it nice and concise. Aim for 250 to 500 words, any longer and it's not going to be read — show off a bit of your personality.
Keep it interesting
Think about how you decide if you like a brand or company. The brand that is honest might be more likely to get your vote. Try to come across as honest and trustworthy in your about page. Allow some personality to come through but keep it appropriate for your audience.
Explain why you are in business too, what is it that makes your business unique?
Keep it client/customer focussed
The more you can use the words 'you' and 'your' the better. This page is not about you, talk about your prospect's problems and how your unique offering can help them.
Use the end of your about page to include a call to action. What is it that you want your prospect to do next? Perhaps you have a great discount or you want to offer a free consultation or an ebook. Think carefully about this offering and try to make it relevant and attractive for your prospect.
Your contact page's primary purpose is to help your users to get in touch with you. You should also match your Google My Business listing, Facebook and elsewhere to your:
- Business name
- Phone number
- Other details
Keep your contact form short and focussed. Limit fields to name, email address and a message. Too many fields can put people off from getting in touch with you.
This is also a page that we expect to find social media accounts so make them nice and easy to find.
A word on analytics. The most obvious option is to install Google Analytics. This option is free, but it is not for the more privacy conscious among us. We use Simple Analytics to handle analytics for most of our clients. Simple Analytics is a paid service but doesn't come with the privacy concerns its competitors do. Most of our clients just want to see their top pages and where traffic is coming from. Simple Analytics does this comfortably. Also, if you want to publicly share your analytics you can do this too with a public dashboard.
There are many great ways to optimise and build a successful website. We've included many of these from a web agency perspective. If you think that there's something missing that you expected in this guide, then let us know.
Implementing the above will improve your website and make it work a lot better for you and your prospects.
Let us know how you get on.