PART ONE: NEXT STEPS FOR YOUR WEBSITE

Take your website to the next level

Special to The Globe and Mail

(PHOTOS.COM)

So you've got a website. Now what?

It wasn't that long ago that "being online" meant having a website. No longer.

The list of online expedients that small businesses can pile onto their Web presences just keeps growing, from Twitter feeds to having someone build them an app.

Some of these ideas are valuable, others, distinctly less so. Given the shifting shape of the online landscape in 2011, what's the next step for a small business that already has a website but is wondering where to look now? Let's step through some of the pros and cons of the options before us today:

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A MOBILE-FRIENDLY SITE

Why

Smart phones are ubiquitous. Mobile web browsing accounts for more and more Web traffic every month; small handheld screens are inexorably becoming more important than big ones.

But websites that work well on full-sized screens aren't the same as ones that are useful on a four-inch handheld. So why is it that so few websites have optimized themselves for mobile browsers?

There are a number design considerations that go into building a mobiles site: Flash-based animations don't work on Apple's phones and tablets, and big graphics are a bad fit for small handheld screens. (Yes, that picture of a pie slice is nice, but now I'm madly pinching in to try to read your phone number in small print at the bottom.)

A mobile-friendly site is a one-off investment that can be developed with a minimum of fuss. When a user visits your site from a mobile browser, he or she automatically sees the mobile site instead of the full one. Technically, mobile sites are just like regular websites, but designed to look good at a small size and put viewers in touch with the information they're most likely to be looking for while on the go. The routine updating of information notwithstanding, they're low-maintenance in the long run.

Why not

Unless you have a desire to drive off smart phone users, it's hard to argue against making sure your site works well for them.

E-COMMERCE

Why

Selling directly from your website is getting easier and easier. On a basic level, adding a PayPal widget to your site is so easy, it can be a DIY endeavour; setting up a PayPal account is similarly painless.

Alternatively, online storefront services like Shopify.com make creating a full online store into a point-and-click task. Online sales can connect you with new markets, in new regions. Consumers are increasingly comfortable with purchasing goods online, and are looking to retailers to make it easy to connect with their wares.

Why not

Technology can simplify the act of setting up an online store. But customer service is customer service: Putting your wares for sale online means committing time and money to answering e-mails, handling queries, and managing a shipping operation.

TWITTER AND FACEBOOK INTEGRATION

Why

One increasingly popular trend in business website design is a Twitter feed running down the side, putting the businesses' latest Twitter posts right on the homepage.

Building a Twitter feed onto a homepage can be a practical expedient: It's a free way of pushing out the latest news - say, changes to opening hours; holiday closures; sales and offers.

Twitter feeds also tend to rank high on Google, and can help to boost a business' visibility there.

And, of course, starting up a Twitter feed opens the door to the strange, alchemic world of social media, which is rich in possibility, if a bit fuzzy on the ROI.

A Facebook presence is another option, but one that's less complementary to an existing website than Twitter. (You can always add a Facebook widget and entreat visitors to "like" you, though.)

In fact, a Facebook page amounts to a whole second website, catering to a slightly different audience - a kind of fan group complement to an informational website.

Why not

Social network feeds are like puppies at Christmas: They're not just a gift; they're for life. Once you start one, you'll have to keep feeding it with content and engaging with others, or it will end up looking desolate and reflect badly on your business.

A BLOG

Why

Blogs might have been the Web 2.0 poster children of the mid-2000's, but don't count them out yet. A maintained blog keeps a website up-to-date and can communicate business news. And if your business operates in the service sector - especially in the technology or idea-driven sector - a blog with fresh content will both boost your visibility on Google and enhance your credibility with web searchers.

Why not

You actually have to write the thing. Enough said.

APPS

Why

There's still a lot of interest in custom apps for mobile devices. Proponents of building custom apps argue that they can help keep a business on customers' minds by appearing as a dedicated button on their phones, and can, in theory, offer a richer browsing experience.

Why not

Having a custom app built can be extraordinarily expensive, on top of being a high-maintenance, energy-intensive, long-term process.

App makers have to contend with at least four major platforms that each require custom solutions. And while apps can perform spiffy, interactive tasks that websites can't, the outlay to create an app that does more than simply present information grows sharply.

If the appeal of an app is mostly promotional, it's hard to justify the expense, especially since the same goals can be met with a mobile-optimized site. Better to go that route instead.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website.

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