Back to Basics

Building blocksRegular readers of this column know that I like to take “deep dives” into fairly technical subjects like pay-per-click advertising, landing pages and analytics. I firmly believe that none of this is too complex for the average business owner to handle, but the nuts and bolts of marketing and selling on the web aren’t for everyone. Many of you just want to know – at the most basic level – “what do I do with my website?”

It’s a good time to revisit the basics, because while general best practices for marketing and selling online don’t often change, the specifics sometimes do. And with the explosion of mobile access to web sites, it’s become critical to understand and adapt to the growing percentage of users that will be visiting your site on a tablet or smartphone.

These basic rules aren’t meant to dictate how you should approach every detail, but they represent an overview of where you should be now and what you should be aiming for in the coming years. Think of them as guiding principles for a modern website.

Rule #1: Keep it simple.

Websites were once showcases of the web builder’s art form, a place where you could show off the latest technology and gimmicks. Heck, some websites used to play music the moment you landed on their page (for the record, this was always a horrible idea). Over time, the web has evolved into a place to do serious business, rather than a venue to show off your web-building chops.

That means one thing: Don’t get in your customers’ way. If something seems even slightly extraneous or unnecessary, it probably is. Anything that doesn’t directly contribute to an easy, transparent process of shopping and purchasing should be jettisoned. Don’t even give it a second thought; just get rid of it.

Keep your layouts simple and straightforward. Got a ton of content? Vertical scrolling is preferable to more complex methods of getting around, like tabs, drawers or expanding/collapsing sections of content. If it’s a pain for visitor to get to your content, they’ll likely never see it. Keep it out in the open, well-organized and clean. Think Apple Store, not K-Mart.

Rule #2: Get ready for mobile

Your web site doesn’t have to be perfectly mobile-ready the moment you roll out of bed on Monday morning, but you need to get the process rolling, if you haven’t already. Mobile web access via smartphones and tablets is growing every day, and it won’t be long before a third or more of your visitors come in from some kind of mobile device.

And that number will continue to increase, likely for many more years. While you don’t necessarily need to have a mobile-optimized e-commerce experience, you need to make sure that you present at least a mobile-friendly one. What’s the difference? A mobile-optimized distributor site or company store often presents a different experience solely for smaller devices, with less menu choices, simplified layouts and big tap targets (a tap target is a fancy term for a button or link that you tap on with your finger; since your big fingertip isn’t as precise of a pointing device as a mouse, mobile-optimized sites often make the buttons bigger relative to the other content).

A mobile-friendly site, on the other hand, might not change radically for a smartphone or tablet, but it doesn’t present any unusual barriers to those users. What does that mean? Well, there are things you can do on a desktop computer – say, “hovering” your mouse over an item to get some kind of information about it without actually clicking on it – that are impossible in a touch interface (a touch interface is any device where you use your fingers to navigate and press buttons).

These types of features don’t work on touch devices like smartphones and tablets because these devices don’t know that your finger is hovering over something – they only know when you actually touch the screen (this may change as technology improves, but for now, very few touch devices can detect the proximity of your finger and use it in this way). That doesn’t mean you can’t use things like hovers and complex flyout menus, but they won’t be available for mobile users, and they might even get in the way of a good mobile experience.

Mobile-friendly also means not overloading your site with so many images, graphics and other visual assets that a mobile user gives up before a page even downloads. This is a common problem when web site builders don’t test their sites over a cellular connection. If a visitor can’t get a page from your site to load in a few seconds, they will often just give up and go somewhere else.

Rule #3: Build for speed.

Another aspect of mobile-friendliness is speed. Getting your site to load quickly for every kind of visitor is incredibly important, and not just for the reasons above. Sure, no one wants to have visitors bail out on their site because they couldn’t get a page to load in a reasonable amount of time. But, did you know that speed is now an important ranking factor for search engines?

That’s right – if your site is slow, Google may lower your ranking in their search engine results. Google tests mobile-friendliness (they even check the size of your tap targets!) and focuses in particular on page speed – how quickly your pages load. For mobile users of Google’s search engine (millions and millions of them), Google may actually alter the search results shown based on which sites will load quickly over a mobile connection. Speed isn’t everything to Google, but it’s becoming more and important, and if your site is slow, expect to suffer in ranking over time.

Rule #4: Be unique.

I’ve spent many columns evangelizing the importance of unique content, and this continues to hold true. The uniqueness of the content on your site – whether it be product info, specials, your about us page, or any number of custom landing pages you might create for your marketing and advertising campaigns – is the primary ranking factor that you control completely.

This is still the case, and it’s actually become even more important with recent changes to Google’s ranking algorithms. Your site should be an island of cool, unique stuff, as different from your competitor’s as you can reasonably make it. That doesn’t mean you need to rewrite every product description and take all your own pictures. But it does mean that you need to do the best you can to make it unique.

Uniqueness isn’t easy to come by when you’re selling the same products as a lot of other people, but as a business owner, you should be able to communicate what makes your business different from everyone else. Talk about you, your products, your employees, your special services – whatever you can think of. Make it part of your story.

Simplicity, mobile-friendliness, speed, uniqueness – these are the hallmarks of a site that performs well in search engines, is inviting to visitors, and turns visitors into purchasing customers. If you can master these, you’ll be successful online in no time.

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

 

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Doing Real Business in the Cloud, part 4

Clouds

If you’ve followed along for the last six months, I’ve covered the basics of running one or more chunks of your business in the cloud, from sales presentations to accounting to customer relationship management. Maybe you’ve looked at a few of these services but haven’t yet made the leap to any of them. That’s fine. This month, I’m going to wrap up the series with an overview of smaller, more digestible services that might reasonably lure just about any business owner to the cloud.

These little nuggets of cloud goodness might be the best way to step gingerly into the world of things that exist beyond your hard drive. They’re simple services that are easy to set up, inexpensive or free to operate, and present relatively little risk of interrupting the way you do business. Trying them out shouldn’t cause you much consternation or pain. Just toss them if they don’t work for you.

The Google Bonanza

Google is still the king of free cloud goodness, and while their entire ecosystem of services (most of which, to be clear, use your personal information in some way to sell you advertisements) can be overwhelming – any company that has a menu bar that says “More” and then another one under that that reads “Even More” might need to cut back a little – they offer a couple of cloud nuggets that might be of good use to a business owner:

  • Calendars: Google’s shared calendar has what you’d expect in a cloud-based service – simple sharing with other users, either directly (so multiple users can edit the calendar) or indirectly (allowing users to subscribe to calendars). The former is an excellent tool for coordinating schedules, but if you can’t get everyone in your office to agree on anything, the latter is a fine tool for letting everyone else know what you’re doing. Just tell them to subscribe to your calendar – all you have to do is send them the link.

For business owners, Google’s calendar includes a sweet “embed” feature that allows you to take a calendar and put it in a website. If you do events, trade shows or anything of the sort, an embedded Google calendar is a neat shortcut to getting current information on your website. Just grab the embed code using “Embed this Calendar” (available in Calendar Settings) and drop it into a page or widget area on your website. Your embedded calendar stays up to date, all the time.

  • Drive: Google recently consolidated its office suite (word processing, presentations, spreadsheets) under the umbrella of Google Drive, which also includes Dropbox-like file storage. Drive works similarly to Dropbox on your computer; it looks like another folder or drive, and anything you put there is available in short order on the other devices you share with, like your phone or tablet.

If you’re already running Gmail or Google calendar, then Drive is a no-brainer – it’s right there in the same menu, and Google has actually set up Drive to share your overall storage allocation with Gmail. And if you’re just looking for an alternative to Dropbox, Drive is a relative bargain, as the free space is bigger and the upgrades are cheaper.

Moving Projects Online

If you do any kind of project management – most businesses have projects and processes that can benefit from formal project management – you should consider moving your project management into the cloud. Like customer relationship management, overseeing projects is something that positively screams for online sharing and collaboration. A project without good communication isn’t really a project; it’s a mess. What online collaboration tools lack in complex schedule and resource management, they make up for in simplicity and ease of communication. You’ll gleefully forget the days of Microsoft Project after you try a few of these:

  • Basecamp: Probably one of the most popular project management tools around, Basecamp strips project management down to tasks, calendars, documents and conversations. You lose the complex milestone and dependency management of dedicated tools, but now everyone can participate and see where they are. That means less “management” and more work done. Alternatives: Podio, Zoho, Asana.
  • Yammer: If you can suspend your (very reasonable) disbelief for a moment and imagine a social networking-style model that is actually useful for business, you’ve got an idea of what Yammer and similar services offer. Essentially a live feed of what your company is doing, Yammer is a powerful tool for companies with employees that wear many hats. You’re always letting your colleagues know what you’re working on, and they may offer up help or ask you questions about it. It’s a sort of always-on water cooler conversation, but while you’re working. It may be distracting for some companies, but for others (especially geographically dispersed teams) these tools can be a godsend.

In fact, if you use a cloud-based CRM (customer relationship management) service, you’ll find that many of them are incorporating Yammer-like features into their system so that managers and salespeople can quickly see what their colleagues are working on. Salesforce offers their Chatter service (a service very similar to Yammer) for free as part of their package. Alternatives to Yammer or Chatter: Hipchat, Podio, Campfire.

Keeping Safe

Finally, for the business owner that wants peace of mind, there are a slew of cloud services to help you keep your stuff safe. From device location to offsite backups, here are a few services worth considering to aid your restful nights:

  • Find my Phone: Apple was the first out of the gate with a popular device location service, and now it’s expanded to any device you have registered with their cloud service (iCloud). You can locate your iPhone, iPad, laptop or desktop Mac from any other device using this service. If you or one of your employees lose a phone or tablet, you can remotely lock the device, send a message to the device, or even securely erase it if it falls into the wrong hands. Smartphones and tablets are rapidly taking over the business world, but they’re also prime targets for theft. Remote location services can help cut your losses when one of your devices winds up in the wind. Alternatives: Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry all offer similar services.
  • Evernote: Most (sane) business owners agree: paper filing is a drag. While there are numerous cloud-based services out there for storing notes and miscellaneous information, Evernote is the full-featured king of the mountain when it comes to eliminating paper from your life. With its built-in optical character recognition and PDF storage, Evernote is the place you can keep all those wayward receipts, sales orders and quotes. They’re searchable and synced across all your devices. Need to pull up that expense receipt you scanned a year ago? Just search for it and it’s there. With complementary services like Shoeboxed, you can actually ship your paperwork off in the mail and have it all accessible in Evernote within a few days.
  • Cloud Backup: It’s been a year or two since I talked about online backup, and the services have only gotten better – not to mention cheaper. The cost of cloud storage is so low now that backing up your critical files offsite is a no-brainer. Every business owner knows you need to keep backups, and offsite backups are the only way to truly protect against disaster. Take your pick: Carbonite, Mozy, Crashplan – they’re all reliable, inexpensive and they get your critical data backed up offsite. Don’t wait for something bad to happen. Do it now.

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

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Free eBook: Search Engine Optimization for Promotional Products

We’ve been building technology for the promotional products/wearables business for almost 14 years, and we’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way, including how challenging it can be for e-commerce sites to rank well in search engines. We finally decided to distill years of experience practicing and teaching search engine optimization into a free eBook.

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) eBook collage

Sample pages from our new SEO eBook

This easy-to-digest volume includes tips on how to correct problems with your site, how to build original content and how to leverage some of the idiosyncrasies of search traffic to craft a strategy for grabbing more visitors and sales. It’s almost 30 pages of SEO goodness and knowledge and it’s absolutely FREE. Download it here.