Small Business Website Blog

Welcome to the Boost Your Small Business Website blog from Sole Control Solutions. From design, to marketing, content generation, search engine optimisation and useability, we discuss the issues that will help you make your small business website a success.

How Would Mozart Design a Website?

March 6th, 2009 by Brian

What has Mozart got to do with website design?  Having got my wrist slapped last week for going too far off piste I hope to make it clear fairly soon lest there be trouble in the board room.  One reason for choosing Mozart here is that his claim to the title of genius is so uniquely uncontested that any comparisons with the efforts of a humble web designer will be laughably  ridiculous.  Mozart was working at a time when composer’s were subject to very clear expectations.  Music had very precise if uncodified rules and he, like his contemporaries, held to those rules in surprisingly precise ways.  So why the adulation? 

It would be possible to choose a Mozart piece,  say a Serenade, and compare it with a simlar work by a contemporary and spot very few obvious differences in technique.  Listen to both pieces and everyone from the professional to the first time buyer finds there to be a gulf in the quality of the effect.  To find the reasons for that gulf you have to look very closely indeed.  Even then there will be the inexplicable that makes human endeavour and particularly music so fascinating.

Amazingly there is a serenade by Mozart that is still a household tune.  I am hoping we can imbed a sound or video clip to remind you how it sounds.  People who would not recognise the language of its name (Eine kleine nachtmusik) will merrily whistle the opening bars.  la     la la     la la la la la la   la     la la     la la la la la la.  Now I am desperately hoping we find a suitable clip!!

As it happens these opening bars follow a very common pattern for the beginning of a piece of music at the time.  I could find you many hundreds of pieces which follow the same pattern.  The pattern depends on the underlying chords so it lays the foundations for the music.  Mozart would not have changed it without a very good reason and to the best of my knowledge never did.  I can only imagine the language had a student decided to make an offering based on an arbitrarily chosen alternative.

Comand over the rules means knowing when and how to bend them, it never means arbitrarily scrapping them for the sake of difference.  Real interest comes when expectations are met but not quite, if ever, exactly as expected.  It is obvious that mere adherence to rules and expectations is going to be deadly dull and send your listener/visitor away.  See I am talking about websites really.

What do you expect to find on a home page?  Where do you expect to find it?  What does it feel like when you are researching and you cannot find the navigation in the usual place?  Of course the answer depends on where and how easily you do find it?  But if it irritates you there is a reason for it, if it makes you smile there is a reason for that too.  Much has been said on this blog about the need for a website to have a purpose, to have goals.  The expectations of your visitors are hugely important to the achievement of those goals.

The genius of Mozart is that he can meet his listeners expectations and yet push and pull them in delightful and challenging ways making you want to go back for more and more.  If enough expectations are not met, and much music falls into this trap, then there will be a break down in communication, the listener gets lost.  Literally in the case of many websites.

If business is about customers, finding them and keeping them, then business is about communication and your website is one of the most powerful means of communication you have.  Our aim should be to meet our visitors’ expectations but not just quite in the way they might have expected.


How Google Adwords Can Help Your Website

March 4th, 2009 by Alastair

Google Adwords can help a small business website in many ways. There is the obvious, of course. It can bring you visitors. That’s not what I’m going to talk about right now though. What I’m going to talk about is the ways in which Adwords, and other marketing efforts, can help you improve your site so that it brings you more custom.

If you have been living in the back of a field with your head covered by a blanket, you may never have heard of Adwords. Alternatively, if you have been living on Mars and your TV was also broken, you may not have heard of Google. Or, you may just be new to this notion of marketing your website and not be certain what Adwords is, so I’ll explain it just in case.

Adwords is Google’s advertising programme. It allows advertisers to purchase pay per performance advertising on Google’s search network. The system allows you to bid on particular key phrases and ads show as sponsored links either above, or to the right of the editorial search results. Usually you pay for every visitor that clicks through to your site. Adwords also provides advertising space on a content network of third party sites that sell their adspace through Google in a programme called Adsense. For right now, we aren’t worried about that and it’s the search ads that I’m interested in.


If you run a small business, how is Adwords going to help improve your website?

Google is the biggest search property in the world by a country mile. The first major advantage that I’d like to talk about when you run your Adwords campaign is accurate information on what terms people search for and in what numbers.

For many small business websites, setting up an Adwords campaign is the first time they have considered the keywords people will use to search for their products or services. Or, rather, the first time they have considered their keywords objectively, backed by data and with suggestions. In the initial steps of setting up your adwords campaign you will use Google’s keyword suggestion tool to find keywords you want to bid on.

This is a good start but when your ad campaign has been running for a while you will accumulate a real sense of the volume of people that are searching on various terms. You will gradually expand your list of target terms and in some cases, take them away. You will learn which terms are more relevant to what you do and you may begin to sense alternative intent in some terms that originally seemed relevant. In short, you have accurate info on actual searches. You are getting to know what your potential customers are looking for and the language they use.

The language that customers use and the language that providers use to describe the same products and services is not always the same. In fact, while there is obviously crossover, there are almost always substantial differences. It is common for people that are new to this to assume that they understand what people will search for from their offline activities and that visitors will understand the language of the company’s offline marketing material. This is, in fact, rarely the case. Customers will almost always understand the marketing language and jargon that we create to sell our products or services (they aren’t thick after all) but rarely is that marketing language and jargon part of how they think about your service. Rarely is it what they are searching for.

Paying for visits tends to focus the mind of the small business website owner. You should have done your keyword research while planning the content for your site and it should be an ongoing process. It should be backed by a search engine optimisation campaign (whether run internally or by consultants). If it isn’t, then often the paid ad campaign is the point at which you learn these things.

All of a sudden, you have figures on what people are actually looking for. You realise that your ad gets more clicks when you are speaking the language of your customers.

… And we’ve taken a step.

We’ve started to understand the language of our customers and think in terms of their needs.

Once you have visitors clicking through to your site the accountant in your brain will really start working. Now these visitors have cost you money, it is time for your site to do its stuff. Now you need a landing page (the page the visitor sees when they click your ad) that can convert (create contacts or sales or whatever is the purpose of your site).

All of a sudden, you need to start thinking about some of these things:

  • You need content relevant to the searches you are targeting.  Relevant content converts better.
  • You need content that targets an actual need that your prospect perceives.
  • You need to talk in the prospect’s language and often you find that the jargon and the impressive marketing language you put so much store in when writing your brochure is less impressive to real customers than you might think.
  • You want visitors to take some action and you realise that you need a “call to action” in your page(s).
  • You need to think about defining a sales funnel or mapping what steps will take your visitor from arriving at your site to buying your product, or contacting your company or whatever your end goal is.

That’s a start. 

You also find that new search information gives you ideas for related key phrases that you think you should be targeting.  This new search information expands into related areas of content and can give you new ideas on how you can serve your visitors.

Basically an adwords campaign can focus the activities of a small business website.  It’s amazing what spending a little bit of money can do to how professionally you approach your site.  Often the adwords campaign is spurring you to do a lot of things that you should have been doing all along.

You read these, right?

Planning your website design: Goals

Planning your website design: Target Audience

Planning your website design: Content


Caveat Emptor

February 28th, 2009 by Brian

Let the buyer beware! If you are anything like me you tend to remember this when it’s too late.  Buying can be such an emotional business as shown by the increasing number of situations in which the law now demands an official cooling off period.  Sales techniques can play on our emotions and our dreams and we allow them to. Caveat emptor reminds us that we can only be manipulated if we allow it.  Plato insisted (please tell me if I have remembered incorrectly, I am writing long hand and nowhere near Google!) that there is no such thing as an unfair price.  If I agree to pay then I cannot claim it to be unfair.  I remember arguing against this with a student philosopher friend when I had just parted with a fiver for a cold drink on a particularly hot day in London.  I lost! 

Of course the real issue is between price and value and this is where caveat emptor becomes serious business.  It tells us that there can be only one judge of value and that is the buyer.  The story of Ratner’s jewellery proved that we very often actively buy into emotional manipulation and that it is not automatically a bad thing.  Their low cost range of jewellery told people they did not need to spend a million dollars in order to look a million dollars.  The fashion industry regularly and accurately uses this ploy.  Buying into it has huge psychological benefits and as such can be said to have value. Value is indeed a subtle and delicate concept.  Ratner’s catastrophic mistake, and it should be said valuable lesson to all, was to smash the dream.  All value gone.  Proof that the only judge of value is the buyer.

There are certain public sector situations where organisations are required to tender for services and bound to accept the cheapest bid.  Total nonsense!  The cheapest bid may be the best value; it may simply be cheap.  Remove the power to make that judgement and the chances of it being merely cheap soar.  This is so obvious that I am almost embarrassed to have written it.  Not obvious enough, it seems, to prevent such a ridiculous system emerging.

Like most people I have, over recent years, parted with crazy amounts of money to buy food in Ireland when I knew there was ‘better value’ (and I should write lower prices) to be had a short drive away.  Because I spend a significant amount of time in another European country I was very much aware and often irritated.  Rarely irritated enough to make that short drive!  Before we reach for past copies ‘rip-off Ireland’, caveat emptor jumps in to insist that my inaction was putting a value on convenience.  I agreed the prices by paying them.

There has suddenly been a huge shift in the perception of value. The pendulum has swung and people are counting pennies again. We should never have stopped counting pennies and now we must be careful not to overdo it. The cheapest available may add just that to your business; ‘cheapness’. The best value will, by definition, add value. What I find stressful about shopping is that only I can decide the difference. Caveat emptor!


What is Content Management?

February 20th, 2009 by Brian

editor2I was wondering how many different answers I would get if I asked 20 people - ‘What is content management?’   I am absolutely certain that many responses would imply the changing of content on a website from one version of static information to the next, a bit like printing next year’s brochure.   This is understandable, given the way many view their websites, but it grossly underestimates what a successful website can do for your business.  One huge advantage of a website over printed material is that it can react immediately to any change in your company’s position.  It can only do this if you have control over the content on a day to day basis.

I propose this is a an answer to my own question - ‘Content management is editing, developing and generating content so that your website keeps pace with your organisation’s needs.’  If we accept that customers buy goods and services in response to a perceived need then keeping in touch with that perception of need is going to be crucial to maintaining sales, particularly in difficult times.  An obvious example would be that selling luxury items must be pretty tricky at the moment, so companies everywhere are trying to react to changing attitudes.  Do you change your products?  Do you change the emphasis of your sales approach? 

You may have been selling a product on its time-saving benefits or its ease of use, knowing that customers had the money to spend on making their lives, or their employees’ lives, easier.  You know that saving time and even making peoples’ lives easier ultimately saves money but now you need to convince your customers so everything about your sales language will change.  Changes like this do not happen over night and if your website is going to perform for you it needs to change with you.

Once you have decided your approach you have, as always, a list of things which need to happen to reflect the new approach no matter how subtle that change is.  This is why large companies find it so difficult to react to fast changing circumstances.  Whether your website is your front line sales medium or there to back up your sales team, it is crucial that it accurately reflects your current thinking.  Real control over your content where you can make changes in real time allows you do this.

After a meeting at which you decide, for example, to adjust prices, change the emphasis from one range of products or services to another and offer a number of special deals, it is immediately clear what must be done.  The question is, how long will it take?

Printing takes time, postage is expensive and cannot be done until the printing is done, most forms of printed advertising are extremely expensive and less and less effective.  With the Internet and with a genuine content management system you can change your website that same morning and email your database of customers to alert them to your new approach.

When I first worked with a company that realised generating business on the web was its only future, we had huge problems with content management.  The same old story of waiting for changes and changes to changes, the expense and more important the cost to efficiency and the lack of control.  

I did not even know that content management by the ‘lay’ person was possible.  Once I did, I needed no persuading.  The benefits to our organisation were obvious.  Just think!  If every time you got a reaction to your marketing material that you agreed with, you could immediately adjust it, how much advantage would that bring?  That is before we talk about all the other ways in which a dynamic website can help you to communicate with your customers.


Humour and Internet Marketing

February 19th, 2009 by Alastair

I’ve been tied up on a project all week and must apologise because I’ve got behind on the blog.  This post is going to be short.  It’s probably going to seem frivolous.  I’d suggest you have a read anyway.

Last week sometime, I came across this post from a real estate site.  You may not be interested in real estate blogs from America but you should take a look anyway, cause it might brighten up your day a little.

Now I can’t remember how I came across this page but I bookmarked it because I found it funny.  I decided I might share it with some people (maybe on the blog, maybe on Facebook or elsewhere) because I found it funny.  I thought I’d post it here because it might brighten your day a little, because it’s funny.

There was another reason I bookmarked it and thought I might post about it and it might be relevant for a mention in the blog.  Consider these:

  • There are 9 or 10 comments at the bottom of the post so it looks like it has engaged people’s interest.  Probably because they found it funny. 
  • I’ve just linked to the article telling visitors and the search engines that I think that site has some interesting content.  I think you already know why.
  • I can’t remember how I found the article but I’m guessing I followed a link from someone else who linked to it because they found it funny.

I don’t have the time or the space say everything I would like to say on this subject in one post, so I expect I will return to it in future posts.

Link building is an important aspect in your Internet marketing activities.  It brings traffic and it improves search engine rankings.  There’s no telling how many inbound links this guy generated just by posting something amusing.

Engaging your visitor base with interesting content is an important aspect of your Internet marketing activities.  There’s no telling how many of this guy’s visitors will return to his site just to see if he has something else interesting to say in the future.

The Internet is a viral medium.  That is to say that there is the potential for people to carry your message and spread it for you, way beyond how far you could spread it yourself.  Everytime you recommend a product or service to a friend or tell them about a blog post, you are carrying forward a message from someone. 

People are doing this all the time and word (positive or negative) has always spread about companies or events.  The Internet accelerates this process.

The Internet creates the potential for you to have others share your message with their own friends and contacts.  Think about that and whether your business could do with a few hundred thousand bucks worth of free advertising.

What would motivate someone to share your message for you?

Well, humour is one of the classics.  There are others and I’m sure it’s a topic I’ll return to.


Planning Your Website Design: Content

February 13th, 2009 by Alastair

OK.  So you have already considered the goals for your website and its target audience.  Now it’s time to consider what content your audience(s) will respond to in order to further those goals.  If you already have a site design, this can still be a very beneficial process.

Content is the single most important aspect of your site.  Content is what will engage your audience.  Content is what will build trust.  Content is a vital part of getting that search engine traffic you want.

With the goals and target audiences of your website defined, now is the time to consider what content can serve the needs of your audience.  Your goals and the target audience will affect the language you use, the way you present the content visually, the architecture of the site (where the content goes).

If you put up or developed the content before you seriously considered the goals of your site and who your target audiences are, then go back.  Look at it afresh and see whether that content will further your goals, will serve your audience. 

You want to make more sales / contacts / fans / members, right? 

You want more happy customers?

Content is what calls people to action and furthers your goals.  Content is what sells.  Content is what fills informational needs for customers looking for support.  It is content that delivers for you and your site’s visitors.

Don’t just put up sections of your website because it’s the done thing…

… And don’t leave them there, just because they are there.

Develop content and put it online because it is of interest to your target audience.  Write it in a style they can understand and identify with.  Deliver it visually in a way that fits.  Use the language they use.

What are your visitors looking for when they come to your site? 

How will they find it? 

How will you use your website to interact?


Where Were You When the Page Was Empty?

February 9th, 2009 by Brian

Many years ago I heard a script editor being interviewed on the radio.  He told a story about a meeting he remembered between an experienced writer and a group of editors.  A script was presented and the then young editor immediately whipped out the scalpel of his incisive mind and set to work on proving his worth.   He was, after all, paid good money to ‘edit’.  His colleagues clearly felt similarly and a series of Why didn’t you……..? What made you…………? Would ……… not have been better? type questions ensued.  An apparently calm writer eventually vented his growing inner frustration with: “Where the …. were you lot when the page  was empty?”. The editor never forgot the experience and I have never forgotten the story.  Reminding yourself that you were not there when the page was empty is a good starting point in many situations.

But what if you were there when the page was empty?  In my opinion fees are earned and justified and quality and professionalism are established at three important times during the creative process.  Attention to detail at the final stage, not being prepared to stop until it is right, knowing when that ‘right’ has been achieved.  When confidence and courage are needed to throw out even much loved ideas when they are just not working and most importantly when the page is empty.

In most forms of design work there is a crucial relationship between client and designer.  I recently approached a designer for a poster for an arts event.  The designer knew our work well yet asked for a list of adjectives to describe the event. Easy?  No way!  Not even after ten years.  Perhaps particularly after ten years.

There is something very challenging about the relationship between design and business.  It is no accident that you so often hear: “We spent a fortune on our logo and have never been happy with it.”  Brochures, headed paper, signs, the colour of the chairs all say something about a company even if the company refuses to admit it.  Here I could say that blaming the designer just won’t do, but then I would, wouldn’t I, so instead I will say that the best time to make sure that you never feel the need to is when the page is empty.  The best time to get good chairs is when you don’t have any and no one can argue that you don’t need them.

You do your research, find a designer, look at a portfolio, provide the information you are used to seeing on a poster, in a brochure, on a website or whatever.  You agree a fee, set a completion date.  Ask yourself how often you then feel that your part of the process is over.

So where are you when the page is empty?  It is obvious where the designer is; staring at it, praying for a good idea in time to make the deadline.  Possibly waiting for a list of adjectives which show more initiative than the last or a description of the organisation’s requirements that does not use words like just and ordinary.  Aha!  So let’s get away from the whole client-designer tension thing and look at where they should both be when the page is empty.

To design something effective for your organisation you need to articulate the same things which need to be articulated in order to create a successful organisation.  It is challenging, frustrating, open to the business equivalent of psychobabble …. it cannot be avoided.  ’Over to you’, ‘That’s your job’, ‘I’m paying a designer for that’, simply won’t and don’t work.

‘I’ll think of something for you’ from the designer won’t do either, by the way.  It’s the designer’s job to get clear answers to these questions and work should not begin without them.

  • How would you describe your company?
  • How would you like to describe your company?
  • What is the purpose of your website?
  • What do you want it to achieve?
  • Who do you expect to visit it?
  • Who do you want to visit it?
  • What do you want them to do when they get there?
  • How are you going to encourage them to stay/return?
  • What might make them ‘tell a friend’ or setup a link?
  • You’ve heard about ‘Search engine optimisation’. What to you expect potential visitors to be searching for?

You should ban all words like just, ordinary, normal etc. from your answers.  If you are feeling this is a stupid waste of time then push through it.  It is an essential use of time.  Without clear answers to these questions a designer might as well just keep staring for all the good it will do.


The Internet is Important to your Potential Customers

February 5th, 2009 by Alastair

Many people running brick and mortar companies just don’t get how the Internet is important to their business.  They see their site as a brochure of sorts.  For some, it’s a relatively successful add-on.  Others are somewhat disappointed.  Many sites went up a few years ago when every business magazine, advisor and even the odd development agency were promising that the Internet would change how you do business. 

“Build it and they will come”.

Some of that advice forgot to mention that just putting a website up isn’t going to have customers beating down your door and I can understand how some business people got disillusioned.  Some of them have jumped to the dangerous conclusion that the Internet isn’t really a factor in their line of work.

This is 2009.  The gold rush is over and I’m not here to tell you that you have to have a website or that it will change your life.  I’m going to try to explain why today’s companies probably can’t afford to “not get” the Internet for much longer.

The Internet is important to potential customers.

In April 2007, Accenture published a study about online product research.   They found that 67% of respondents preferred to purchase goods in physical stores.  They also found that:

  • 69% of consumers research product features online.
  • 58% use the Internet to locate items online before going to a store to purchase.
  • Only 13% said the Internet has not improved their shopping experience.

The vast, vast majority of purchases in today’s world are influenced by online activity.  What’s more, consumers are consistently proving to be more interested in recommendation than any other means of assessing companies and their products / services.  And they are getting those recommendations from the Internet.

Here are some more thoughts from SearchEngineWatch:

  • Online reviews are second only to word of mouth when it comes to influencing purchasing decisions.
  • After user manuals, the Internet is the second ranked source for customer support information.  Above calling the manufacturer.

Purchasers are looking to find out more about your company and the products or services you offer and they are looking for that information online.  The Internet is important to your potential customers and it had better get important to you.  The Internet needs to be a place where potential customers can find out about your products or services and get to know you a little bit better.


Your Website and the Competition

February 3rd, 2009 by Alastair

Want to improve your website and how it works for your business?  If so, I have a question that I think might help.

One of the exercises often undertaken as part of web design projects is to take a look at the sites that are already in the client’s market to make sure that the new site will enter on a strong footing, relative to their competition.  This could be a useful exercise for anyone to undertake and it makes me think of a question that could help you improve your website.


Let’s imagine that in the near future 100 people are going to visit your site.  Let’s also imagine that those 100 people are going to visit the websites of some of your main competitors.

The question is fairly simple really.  How does that make you feel?

To answer it, you will probably need to take a fresh look at your own website and take a look at some of your main competitors. 

An honest answer will tell you a lot about your site and how it is serving your needs.  Try to look at the sites with the eye of a dispassionate consumer.  

Are you feeling confident?

If so, why?

If not, why not?


Marketing in a Downturn

January 30th, 2009 by Alastair

Earlier today I was posting on what a small business website can do or be in a recession.  I thought I’d add this quick post just to point to a couple of different articles I’ve found interesting on subjects relating to marketing in this climate.

The MarketingProfs Daily Fix blog talks about identifying the Pretty Girl at the Ball and earlier in the month, Frank Fullard spoke about Keeping your pants on in the recession and holding your pricing.

I don’t know whether either of these folks would have any sympathy at all for what I have to say but I find their advice very useful on these points and I hope you get something from them.  When we go to the ball, things may not always be as we’d like them but we’re going to have to dance with someone.  I just love the MarketingProfs analogy because there is always going to be a pretty girl at the ball.  Even if they aren’t as pretty as last year.