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01 Jul 2010

The online world and its capabilities are continually growing. Despite this, many businesses overlook the importance of having an effective website, with a surprisingly large number of New Zealand businesses not having a website at all.

There’s also a big difference between a website that works and an effective website. In the latest MYOB Business Monitor, 24% of respondents want to improve their website and e-commerce facilities.

So, how can a business maximise the potential of its website? “Begin by thinking about the website from a customer’s perspective,” says Julian Smith, general manager of MYOB New Zealand Limited, the country’s largest provider of business management and accounting systems.

“While the layout, information and design may make sense for the developer, is it working for customers? Whether a website is used purely as a point of contact or as a sales tool, it needs to be simple, easy and enjoyable to follow.

Think of a website like an online sales person: it needs to have all the answers in order to make a sale. The moment a potential customer can’t find what they are looking for, or it becomes too difficult, they are going to be looking for an easier alternative that offers them a better experience.” Smith says it makes little difference if a website looks cutting-edge, if it’s too hard to navigate or doesn’t answer all of a customer’s queries. “The same occurs when a website takes a long time to download or has too many distractions.

Confusing or slow website functionality loses business and drives custom to someone with a website that is easy to follow. A successful business website really needs to make the whole process a smooth one for the customer.”

“When it comes to the content of a website, remember nobody knows a business as well as the owner,” Smith says.

“While a technical whizz may be employed for the job, the business owner is the one who knows what their customers want, so should drive the process.

“Make sure the homepage gets across critical messages. When a new person arrives on a page, there’s less than five seconds to grab their attention, so make sure any important information is in a prime position and displayed in an attractive, easy-to-follow way.”

Smith says just having a website isn’t enough – you need to keep the website looking fresh and new.“People won’t stay very long on a page that was last updated years ago. While a website doesn’t have to use every new technique, it pays to spend some time making it look up to date.

Uploading interesting content entices visitors to return to a website and see what’s new for them, because that’s the key – customers want to know what is being offered for them.” Once a website is looking good and is ready for clients, there are ways to attract visitors to the site, Smith says.

“A business needs to appear in search engines such as Google and needs to appear high up the list. Think about the audience being targeted; they need to be given the information they are looking for. Brainstorm all of the possible words people might use to search for the business and make sure that those search terms are used as keywords on the website. Always make sure keywords are used in natural places, like page titles, page headings and the body of text.”

Smith says people should never use unethical methods to get keywords across. “Some developers use methods such as hiding strings of keywords on a page in the same colour as the page background so they are invisible to the eye.

While this used to work, search engines are now onto tricks like this and will bump a business from the top search results, so in the long run it really isn’t worth it. It isn’t going to draw people back to your site either, when they realise it isn’t meeting their requirements.”

Smith says to improve a search ranking, make sure emphasis is placed on keywords or phrases when writing the site’s content.

“Search engines focus on the phrases used on the website and the weight of the key phrase or keywords used. They do this to judge whether the site is much of a resource to others and deserves to be placed higher in the search findings. And remember: sophisticated search engine algorithms also take into account links, news searches, social media references and a range of other content – so being online successfully requires a wide view of your reputation.

“Don’t underestimate the power of an effective website – with so many people using the internet to make an assessment of a business or product, businesses can’t afford to not be a part of it. “If developed well, a website can bring a whole new wave of customers to the door and increase profits at the same time.”