Let’s begin with three simple definitions:
Website Design refers to the visual look and feel of the website, comprising everything from the logo, to the color palette, to the layout of page elements. A high quality local business website makes a professional impression, appropriate to the company’s industry and geography, engaging an instinctive feeling of trustworthiness.
Architecture refers to the structure of the website, including the system of navigation and the way in which certain pages lead to other pages of the site via links. Good local business website architecture creates sensible, intuitive paths for the consumer, ensuring that he can access all elements with ease instead of getting lost.
User Experience refers to the ease with which the consumer can utilize the website. This includes the speed, navigation and functionality of the website, as a whole, and also comprises how easy it is to take specific actions, like finding driving directions, calling the business, or placing an order. An effective user experience drives desired transactions.
All three of these components work together to ensure that consumers choose and use the website to fulfill their needs, ultimately resulting in revenue for the business. Now that we’ve defined these elements, let’s take a closer look at specifics.
What Is Good Local Business Website Design?
Because the world of local commerce includes everything from the mom-and-pop cupcake bakery to the medical enterprise with hundreds of locations, there is no universal standard for how a local business website should look. An independently-owned toy store is not going to want to present itself in the same way a national insurance brand would, and yet, virtually every local business model is unified by the need to make a compelling, user-friendly offering with the website that acts as such a critical vehicle for customer service. Regardless of industry/geography, good local business website design adheres to the following rules of thumb:
- The design renders and functions correctly across both desktop and mobile devices. 2016 was the year in which Google announced mobile-first indexing, clearly signalling to all businesses the dominant importance of mobile search. Use Google’s Mobile Friendly Test Tool to discover any stumbling blocks.
- The design must avoid any technical problems that would prevent it from being fully indexed and ranked. Technologies that aren’t friendly to users or search engines must be avoided.
- The design guides the user towards specific actions. Whether the user is simply looking for information or ready to engage in a transaction, the visual design, layout, navigation, architecture and content of the site must offer ideal support, taking the user from point A to point B as seamlessly as possible, maximizing satisfaction and success.
- The design doesn’t distract the user from taking actions. If a jarring or cluttered layout confuses the user, or if elements like popups or autoplay video frustrate him, the website may be abandoned instead of used. A simple design that empowers the user to make decisions is key, and bells-and-whistles should never be implemented on a website unless they serve a definite user need.
- The design feels current enough to instill trust. An outdated visual design is problematic in that it may indicate a neglected business. It also works against the user who has become accustomed to using more modern websites. While excellence of content can sometimes overcome an outmoded design, failure to keep up with current design practices risks loss of reputation and revenue.
- The design solidifies branding. The logo on the website matches what the consumer sees on street-level signage, and the overall presentation is consistent both online and offline. Even small local businesses should view their websites as an opportunity to foster instant brand recognition.
- The design is appropriate to the industry and geography of the business. As we’ve mentioned, an independently-owned Mexican restaurant will present itself differently than a community credit union, calling up entirely different feelings in the consumer. Nevertheless, local businesses at every level share the goal of being chosen. Good website design offers important cues that the business is trustworthy and deserving.
All of the above general guidelines are applicable to all local businesses, and whether the website is being designed for a small jewelry store or a major outdoor outfitter, it’s appropriate to devote maximum resources of funding, time and thought into developing an asset that truly serves the public.
Good local business websites begin with a good plan
This plan always begins by asking and answering two foundational questions:1. Who will build the website?
Depending on the resources of the business, there are a number of possible answers, including:
- The website for a large enterprise may be built entirely in-house by the design department of the company.
- A large enterprise may choose to outsource the design to a reputable third party design agency.
- The website for a small enterprise may be built in-house if the owner has the time/skills to utilize solutions he can afford, such as free or inexpensive website templates like those built on the WordPress model.
- The website design for the small enterprise may be hired out to a reputable third party design agency.
- In some cases, website design may result from a combination of in-house and outsourced solutions.
In choosing a website design solution, be certain that:
- The necessary skills are present. A ‘homemade’ website can potentially represent a financial savings, but is of no value to the business if it lacks the ability to drive transactions. By the same token, third party agencies may misrepresent their skills, creating websites that deliver little or no ROI. Make an honest and careful assessment of the skills present in all design options being considered, and if choosing a third party agency, it’s generally safer to rely on trusted recommendations instead of cold call offers.
- The solution being chosen won’t limit the growth of the business. Third party design options range from free-to-expensive, but some severely limit the ability of the business to control and grow the property over time, or are built with dubious technologies that hinder search engines from indexing or ranking the website well. Fully research any ‘website builder’ packages or any design agencies to be sure that the platforms and/or contracts don’t limit growth.
2. Who will manage the website?
This second question relates to the ongoing growth of the website. Determine:
- Who will add new content and new pages to the website?
- Who will fix errors or hacks if they arise?
- Who will refresh the design as needed?
- Who will be performing ongoing research and SEO work for the website to inform its growth?
Whether the answer is that these tasks will be managed by designated in-house staff or performed by a third party agency, it’s vital to know that the technical capabilities exist to support website management and growth, and that these roles are clearly defined. Far from being set-and-forget entities, local business websites are publications. In order to compete in the search engines and win transactions, websites have to be managed and grown over time. Because of this, the initial website planning stage should take ongoing stewardship of this major company asset into account.
Choosing a local business website design agency
Local business owners are literally inundated with emails and calls offering design and SEO services. Unfortunately, a wrong choice can prove very costly for the business. Whether you choose a provider based on your own research or select one from a list, here are some tips that could save you from loss of investment:
- The designer must know the basics of SEO friendly website design.
- The designer must understand Local SEO. A local business website must be built on Local SEO principles from the ground up. Many design firms do not possess these skills and should be avoided. Be certain any designer you hire is conversant with the Guidelines for Representing Your Business on Google.
- The designer must be able to show you past work and, ideally, put you in touch with past or current clients as references.
- The designer shouldn’t make unfounded claims or promises. Avoid agencies that promise search engine rankings or make too-good-to-be-true offers. Design agencies don’t control search engines like Google and can’t guarantee numerical rankings.
- The designer should be very comfortable conversing about website usability. If the website isn’t developed with the needs of human users in mind, it will result in little value for the company.
- The designer should offer a written contract that protects your rights as they relate to the ownership of the website. Avoid any contract that causes you to give up your rights to the website design or content if voided. Be sure you own all properties being developed for your business and are provided with all necessary passwords and files.
- The designer should guarantee that the agency has the necessary time to fulfill commitments and meet deadlines. When you hire a designer, you’re entering into a partnership and the other party must be able to hold up their end of the bargain. Sometimes, local business owners experience frustration when choosing very large design agencies, as they may end up with the feeling of being treated like a number rather than a collaborator. At the other end of the scale, a very small designer may overbook himself and fall behind schedule. Most local businesses will be best served by a firm that is large enough to provide all necessary skills but small enough to establish a personal, communicative relationship with each individual client.
- Finally, though not a requirement, an ideal designer should also be an educator. A good sign to look for in choosing a third party agency is whether they are blogging or publishing materials that serve to educate the public about best practices. This can be a helpful signal that lets the local business owner know he will receive clear communications about design options and decisions. The ability to dialog can be critical to the success of the project, and some of the best Local SEO and design firms today are also highly respected educators, blogging, speaking at conferences and promoting their industry.
Next Step: Planning Local Business Website Architecture
Once you’ve settled on a design solution, you’ll be tackling two tasks in tandem. You’ll be planning the site content and architecture simultaneously, in essence, determining what materials will be present on the site and how they will be organized for access and use.
You are serving two audiences in this work: human users and search engine bots, both of whom need to be able to make their way effortlessly through the website without any roadblocks being thrown in their way. Conversions and rankings hinge on usable, technically-clean architecture. And, meanwhile, the architecture of the website hinges on three methods of navigation both consumers and search engines depend on:
1) Main Menus
A website menu is a collection of links, presented in a list. The website menu may run horizontally across the top portion of a website, run vertically to one side of the website or be present in the website footer. On mobile devices, menus are often represented by expandable icons accessed via tapping. Best practices for the main navigation menu of the website is that it’s consistently placed from page to page across the whole site to ensure usability and that it contains links to the most important pages of the site.
On large websites, it is sometimes necessary to have more than one menu. For example, a large auto dealership with 300 locations may have a unique section of content for each of its physical branches, and a submenu may be created for the purpose of ‘siloing’ the content, granting easy access for particular users to content that has been developed for their specific needs. Good website architecture will ensure that the presence of submenu navigation feels sensible to the user, rather than cluttered or confusing.
3) Other Internal Links
Good website architecture will also include links from within the text content of a given page to other relevant pages of the site. For example, a page about pain management on a large medical center website might link within its contents to the profile page of a doctor at the practice who offers pain management classes. Internal linking of this kind creates helpful paths for the user, strengthens the hierarchy of important pages and can also have important SEO benefits in terms of spreading ranking equity from one page to another.
The purpose of good website architecture is to offer both humans and bots a clear path to desired content, whether the site consists of 10 or 10,000 pages.
The complexity of the business model typically dictates the complexity of the website. For example, a one-man plumbing company is typically going to have a much simpler site than a multi-practitioner real estate agency. Regardless of enterprise size, however, forging the easiest possible path for both humans and search engine bots to access your content is a universal goal. If you’ve reached the stage of website design in which you’re organizing your website content, we recommend this Information Architecture for SEO Whiteboard Friday.
Website Usability: the Ultimate Test of Your Architectural Plan
Once you have soft launched a working version of your new website, one of the most powerful investments you can make is in having users test it. Depending on your local business’ resources, you can either ask family and friends to trial the site while you record their actions, or outsource usability testing to an agency that tracks user groups interacting with your website. Objectives of this work can include:
- Understanding how unbiased users respond to your website
- Identifying areas of confusion that interrupt the path to conversions
- Identifying paths that are working well
- Comparing use of your website to use of a competitor’s site
For example, a usability test might focus on the main menu of a local plumbing company’s website. Imagine that one of the tabs in that menu is labeled ‘service areas’, pointing to a page that lists the types of services the plumber will perform (unclog drains, fix water heaters, etc.). A usability test might uncover that users clicking on that menu link expected, instead, to be taken to a page listing out the geographic areas the company serves (San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland). From this test, the company might learn that it would be better to rename that link ‘our services’ and to have a different link entitled ‘cities we serve’ in the main menu. By making a small adjustment, frustration can be decreased and the chance of conversions maximized.
It’s a fact of the digital world that business owners may overlook usability problems with their website, simply because they are so used to looking at it. Given how great an impact the speed and ease with which potential customers navigate and utilize a site can have on conversions, it’s highly sensible to test and track user behavior. Live testing data can then be combined with analytical data to surface roadblocks and clear them away.
Designing a local business website is a major undertaking. Each company needs to create a plan that includes who will design and maintain the website based on an assessment of skills, then plan the content and architecture of the site to ensure optimum accessibility to consumers and search engine bots, and finally, to employ usability testing to maximize conversions potentials.
The quality and power of the finished product will largely depend on how much care is taken in each step of the planning and execution. As a core customer service asset and the central vehicle for achieving search engine visibility, the website is all but unparallelled. In the end, it can have a greater influence on business revenue than almost any other company holding, making it especially deserved of priority financial and creative investments.