How to make a small business website

“Join the rest of the world online and launch your business!”

Sounds easy, right? Sounds terrifying? Well, it’s neither.

With a little bit of structure and some basic know-how, you can get your small business website up and running in a matter of days.

Back in the old days, to get your business up and running, all you needed was a landline and a fax machine. Well, times have changed a lot and the expectation from your customers is going to be quite different. No matter what your business, be it a brick-and-mortar store, a craft business that ships custom widgets around the globe, or remote technology consulting, you should have a well-designed and easy to navigate website.

Your website will show the world your professional ‘face’ and provide every bit of information to make it easy for your customers to get in contact. You’ll need a clear mission statement, on-page SEO, and a mobile-friendly presence online.

Appearing professional and reliable on the global stage of the Internet is a must these days. With a well-designed online presence, combined with strong SEO, your website can act as a 24-hour marketing campaign. By taking the time to craft a professional website, you’re putting your best foot forward in presenting a polished image to the world. Take the time to go through all the stages of building your small business website properly, and you’ll have in the end a solid marketing and sales tool at your fingertips.

Follow our simple guidelines to help take the pressure off, and lead you through the steps in a clear and easy-to-follow manner.

What is a domain?

Have you ever asked yourself, "What is a domain, anyway?" Well, take a look up there at the top of the screen. See that part at the top of your browser window in the URL bar? It's the part that starts with "http://" in the address bar. The second part of the URL is the domain. In our case, it's namecheap.com.

Registering a domain reserves it so no one else can register it. It might be smart to snatch up a domain now—your personal name, company name, or other things you're involved with, like a book title, band name, or hobby—just to take it "off the market".

Recommended reading: What is a domain? →

Names names names

Have you decided on a name for your website? Be careful not to get too clever with your domain name. Remember, you want to make it easy for customers to find and remember you! Your domain name is a major part of your brand identity.

Your domain name should be easy to pronounce. Imagine you’re at a loud networking event and your new potential business partner or customer or publicist asks the name of your website. Do you have to spell it out for them and trust they’ll remember what you said? Make it bold and easy. Avoid dashes, punctuations and numbers. Include a relevant keyword into your domain name for SEO purposes.

Your website name should have a ring to it, like a brand name that is unique and stands out from the competition. It should feel intuitive and, like we mentioned, easy to pronounce. If it sounds too good to be too true, take a look and see if it is already trademarked. You don’t want to go to all the trouble of brainstorming the perfect name only to have to change it later!

Think about the long-term when it comes to choosing a name. Will your business change, or is the name you’ve chosen trendy? Think about the future and try to choose a timeless name for your website that will be in fashion no matter the trends of the day.

Recommended reading: How to choose the best domain →

Dot what?

So you decided on your domain name, now what? Well, there are a few steps to consider. If your domain name is available, you’ll want to purchase it immediately.

Help, my domain name is taken, what do I do?!

Don’t panic, go to your fallback hierarchy. What is that? When your preferred domain name is already taken, your fallback hierarchy is a strategy of 2nd, 3rd, 4th choices in case you can’t get the name you want.

You can alter your original choice by playing with word order in a way that isn’t too complicated — “GuitarsByJohnSmith” could become “JohnSmithGuitars”, for example —, and see if it is available as a .com. Tinker with your original idea but don’t stray too far. At a certain point you will have to come to terms with the fact that your .com name is already taken.

Obviously you want to choose an effective domain name with (ideally) a .com TLD (Top Level Domain). However, we suggest you make a list in advance of this of subsequent choices like:

  • JohnSmithGuitars.com

  • JohnSmithGuitars.biz

  • JohnSmithGuitars.net

Namecheap has a huge selection of new TLDs to choose from to get you started.

Recommended reading: What is a TLD? →

What kind of website do you need?

Not all small business websites are the same. You can tailor the structure of your site to specifically direct your customers to purchase pages, information, or contact resources. While there are universal basics for websites (such as a description of your business, contact information, and images), from there you’ll branch off into more specific territory. Remember, you want your website to be customer-friendly, so people keep coming back to your business.

Types of Business Websites

Standard - Offices, retail stores, local businesses, service professionals

The standard business website is one that can designed in a very simple manner, not needing many bells and whistles. If your services do not involve shipping physical products, but rather presenting your portfolio and expertise, you’ll want to go with a standard model.

eCommerce - Sales directly to consumer through the internet.

An eCommerce website is where you’ll be able to sell and ship your products online. It will be necessary to create a website that is secure and safe for users to share their addresses and credit card or PayPal information.

Affiliate - Sites with content created to drive clicks through affiliate programs.

An affiliate website is a place that creates reviews and uses affiliate programs from sites (such as Amazon) to generate passive income. The ecommerce site pays the affiliate website business a commission based on the business it receives from their site. These sites also frequently use other forms of advertising, such as banners, and Google AdWords to supplement their income further.

Get real about your business needs and craft a clear mission statement

What is your business about anyway? The answer to this question will frame the entire structure of your website. How you guide visitors to becoming customers is all in the site architecture, so let’s begin with the vital answer to this simple question.

If your business is selling widgets, you’ll want to feature your physical product clearly on each page, starting with the homepage. Think about making it as easy as possible to get to the checkout page, and consider your own experience when purchasing items online.

Is your business a consultancy? This is something a bit more abstract since you’re selling your professional expertise and not a physical product. In this case, you’ll want to feature case-studies, portfolio pieces, and other examples of your work to convince future clients that you are the only genius for the job.

Affiliate businesses rely on the creation of strong content. To make a profit, you’ll be reliant on well-crafted content that really grabs the reader and holds their attention. Standing out from the rest of the competition is key, so your website should be of high quality design and navigation. You’ll want to inspire readers to consider you a trusted source or reviews and commentary, returning again and again to click more outbound links to stores that are paying you for the traffic.

Study the competition

What are your competitors up to? Who in the widget world is the highest rated among your industry? Find out and study their sites.

Here’s where it can get tricky. Just because a brand name is successful doesn’t mean it has a good website. They might already have a popular brand name which wouldn’t rely on a new website to generate sales. If you’re looking at a product such as Oreos or Coca-Cola, they’re using their websites for brand awareness and not the checkout counter. Remember that you’re a *small* business (for now), so look to those businesses online that are modestly successful and dependent on Internet sales.

This advice goes for all small businesses, be they law firms, graphic designers, consulting or carpentry. Spend the time on your research and you’ll learn a lot about what to do, and what not to do.

When looking at a competitor’s site, look for a few key things such as :

  • What are they selling?

  • What do their customers say, and where are the testimonials?

  • Where are they located?

  • How do I purchase?

  • Where is the checkout / basket?

  • How do I contact them?

If you find yourself frustrated in trying to answer these questions, you are probably getting ideas for how to make your small business website better and stronger than your competition!

Get inspired

Here’s the fun part before we get into the nitty-gritty of putting the pieces together. Get inspired, this is your time to surf the web and not call it procrastination. Take a look at everything that you find pleasing to your eye and your mind. Imagine what those websites would look like as a page that features your business endeavors.

Take screenshots and notes on their navigation, types of images, inspirational mission statements, etc. Everything that makes you feel excited to stay on a website and learn more is a source for inspiration.

Think of this process like an artist who goes to a museum seeking a spark of creativity for their own work. Be open to ideas that you may not have considered. Compare and contrast websites that seem to work in different ways using different platforms.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What immediately catches my eye?

  • What takes too long to load?

  • What is my favorite bit of content on this site and why?

  • How easy is this website to navigate for first-time users?

  • Is the URL memorable?

How to build your website

Now that you’ve studied the competition and are inspired by great examples online, you’re ready to get started. Don’t panic, it’s relatively easy to build a small business website all on your own. Get acquainted with the terminology and be clear on your goals, and you’ll be up and running in no time at all.

Get down to basics with a brief glossary.

There’s a lot of terminology associated with creating websites, but it doesn’t have to be intimidating. Let’s break down these definitions of what it all means.. Take a look through these terms and explanations and you’ll see that it’s very self-explanatory. These are the terms you’ll want to be familiar with to get going.

HTML: Hypertext Markup Language

This is the structure of the website, the common coding language for text fonts and styles. (While advanced coding skills aren’t necessary, it’s always good to have a basic knowledge of the ‘backend’ of what your website is based upon.)

Nearly all webpages are made up of HTML with a structure that you might recognize from early guides on how to write a formal letter or paper for school. They consist of tags such as <header>, <body> and <footer>, which help the designer or programmer to visualize what the page will look like. When you think about it in terms of homework, it really starts to make more sense beyond, what can be for some, overwhelming coding language.

By using the names header, footer, section, etc, HTML guides the programmer by suggesting the meaning outright. This makes it possible for the layman to go into the HTML and understand the basics of your webpage’s structure, even if you’re not writing it from scratch.

As you grow and learn through this process, these skills will be valuable when you become ready to update and add to your small business website.

CSS: Cascading Style Sheet

Used to layout web pages, CSS is the language for describing the presentation of Web pages, including colors, layout, and fonts. CSS allows you to adapt the visual presentation of your website to different types of devices, such as large screens, small screens, or printers.

CMS: Content Management System

This is the tool you’ll be using to make it easy for you upload and update the content on your website. CMS is software that allows you to create and maintain your website using a graphical interface similar to a word processor. Simply put, less technically inclined people can manage their website easily without needing a degree in a computer science or years of coding experience.

From our Knowledge Base:

“A content management system (CMS) gives users an intuitive interface for adding and modifying content on a website. All content appearing on a WordPress site, from the text to the visual elements are created and optimized with the help of its CMS. This single piece of software serves as the heart of a website, providing users with the tools to update the look of their digital content without any technical training.
CMS software gives you the power to build your own website in the same DIY spirit you run it. No more waiting on programmers to update your pages or fix a tiny error; you can publish and change the contents of your pages personally. This process saves time and money while giving you full control over your site.”

Website Builders

The choices seem endless, but there are a few major players that most people are using these days. A website builder is software or online program that makes it simple to build and maintain your website. Some builders are simpler than others and this choice depends on the needs of your small business, and what you’re comfortable with in regards to a learning curve.

The most popular solution is WordPress

Open-source content management system, WordPress, simplifies the process for you. The go-to for millions of publishers from all walks of life, WordPress has become a standard in the industry. Roughly 75 million websites use WordPress because of its versatile open-source code. A lot of brand names are built using this platform including Time Magazine, Sony, LinkedIn and CNN.

It’s a fast, efficient tool for online publishing allowing you to get going without any coding skills necessary. WordPress uses a database to store and organize everything which takes the pressure off the everyday website owner. It’s easy to manage your accounts, media, posts and urls from your dashboard and acts similarly to an old-school word processor.

The best part about WordPress is the price, it’s free to use. No annual costs or setup fees, just get down to it with their themes and plugins to guide you. With over 31,000 plugins and 2600 themes to choose from, you can create a unique and easy-to-use website.

Because of its popularity, there are a wealth of forums and help-desks dedicated to WordPress assistance. You’ll easily find a robust community online to answer any of your questions should you need assistance during the setup process, and while your maintain and update your site.

Recommended reading: What is WordPress →

Hire a Pro?

Consider the development cycle; the process for planning, building, testing and launching your website. There are many opinions out there as to how long this should take, but you can average it out to roughly 12-16 weeks depending on complexity.

If you want the most basic websites, theoretically you can finish in a week, but that’s not what we’re aiming for here. In terms of a small business website, you’ll want to take the time to put your best foot forward in presenting yourself to the online world.

The stages of your development cycle all take a certain amount of time, and it is considered best practice to break it down into blocks and measure how long you’re spending (too long?) on any given phase:

  • Concept: from research to outline

  • Design: creating the architecture and look / feel

  • Build: using templates and coding plus testing functionality

  • Live: last review and big public launch

If you are doing all the work yourself and get stuck in a certain stage, finding that you’ve already spent more than originally estimated, it’s time to call the professionals.

When is it time to bring in a professional? Ask yourself a few questions first:

  • What is my time worth?

  • How many hours have I spent already trying to figure out how to do this?

  • Is the website I’m trying to build too complicated for an off-the-shelf website builder?

  • Are ready-made WordPress themes not fitting in with my business needs?

  • Is this process all too overwhelming and could I benefit from a professional creating an easy-to-use website and then training me on how to update it myself?

If you’ve answered an emphatic ‘YES!’ to the last question, it’s time to call in the pros.

Site Architecture

What do we mean by ‘Site Architecture’?

It is the organization and structure of your website which includes the planning and design of all functional and visual aspects prior to implementation.

The building blocks of your business website is like a storyboard for a film, or a flow-chart of an organization. Sketching out the plan for your small business website will help you see things clearly and keep the overwhelm to a minimum. We suggest taking pen to paper and drafting an outline before you get started on your computer.

What pages are needed

Depending on your business model, what pages are absolutely needed for your message to get across to your customers? Every page of your site should have a very clear goal and call to action.

Users should be able to:

  • Know what you’re selling

  • Contact you

  • Sign up for your mailing list

  • Find & follow your social media accounts

  • Buy your products and services

  • View case studies

  • Read Testimonials

For Affiliate sites, users will want fresh content in the form of:

  • Blog posts

  • Hot tips

  • Reviews

  • Recommendations

  • Easy to find links to buy recommended products

  • Reviews & recommendations

  • How-to videos

  • Links to new products & services

For e-commerce sites with product pages, users will expect to see more than one photograph / illustration of your product. Show various angles to the product with well-lit photography.

Does it come in different shapes and sizes? If so, you’ll want to show examples either on the same page, or create a new page for that product with the different colors.

Are you selling clothing? A handy size-chart with a breakdown of measurements is a must if you don’t want to get a lot of returns!

A great way to plan this out is to think about your experience when shopping online, and go to those sites you use the most. What do you like about their product pages that works best in relation to what you’re selling? (Amazon is always a great go-to for examples of this.)

Be real about cutting out what isn’t needed

That vacation you took with your family where the photos came out better than ever is something to share on Facebook, not with your clientele. Leave the fluff and personal blog updates for your family and friends. Customers like a personal touch, but be careful going overboard. Keep your messaging friendly, personal and light on content that doesn’t immediately apply to your business goals.

Site Content

Now that you’ve got the basic building blocks in place, what are you going to fill these empty spaces with?

“Content is king” - Bill Gates 1996

This is a mantra that has been overused by many since ’96, but to break it down it simply refers to the fact that content marketing drives Internet traffic to your site. Good quality content will help drive more traffic to your site, increase the inbound links from prominent websites and blogs, increase your visibility above your competition, and generate revenue flow in the form of new clients and customers.

As Bill Gates pointed out in 1996:

“Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.
The television revolution that began half a century ago spawned a number of industries, including the manufacturing of TV sets, but the long-term winners were those who used the medium to deliver information and entertainment.
When it comes to an interactive network such as the Internet, the definition of “content” becomes very wide. For example, computer software is a form of content - an extremely important one, and the one that, for Microsoft, will remain by far the most important.
But the broad opportunities for most companies involve supplying information or entertainment. No company is too small to participate.”

SEO

Search Engine Optimization makes it easy for users to find your website via applicable keywords used throughout your website. While you want to use keywords where they make sense, try to fit them into numerous places such as:

  • URL

  • Headings

  • Body Copy

  • Meta descriptions

  • Title Tags

Make use of WordPress SEO keyword plugins and other software applications during the build of the website itself.

Content (Writing)

Clear descriptions of your business, and a friendly, relatable writing style are a must! Start with a solid mission statement, and build out your communications from this point. Figure out what you want to tell your customers in an outline first. Think about it in terms of pages:

Homepage

This important page is where you’ll grab your audience and hopefully intrigue them enough to click through your website for more information.

About / Contact

The story of your company and/or yourself is where you can dive into a personal touch to make yourself relatable to your clientele. Include an easy way for customers to contact your business as well.

Products / Service Pages

The real reason you’re creating this small business website! Provide details and pricing on your offerings and a link to a purchase or contact page.

News / Blog / & or Updates

Not everyone is going to sign up for, or read, your marketing emails. Here is where you can update your customers on news, awards, speaking engagements, products updates, etc. Keep this page up-to-date and SEO friendly as a strategy to maintain a good visibility via search engines.

An important thing to remember when creating content is making sure your website is mobile friendly. Users generally don’t want to read long form articles on their phones, just enough to get the gist of what they need. Keep your descriptions of products short and clear and you’ll hold the attention of your customers.

Content (Media)

Content comes in various forms: writing, photography, music, video, etc. What type of media you choose to add to your small business website depends on your goals and the product you are selling.

If your products or services require elaborate explanation, perhaps it is a good idea to add a few demonstration videos.

Are you selling clothing or jewelry? Of course it is a must to include photography, but you might also want to include short clips of models walking down the runway in your latest creations. A key factor to think about is load-time. Websites that are heavy on unnecessary audio, video or Flash animations will take a while to load for a customer that may not have a high-speed broadband connection. Also, these elements may not work as well on mobile. Proceed with caution when adding a lot of media to your website if it is not absolutely necessary for the message you’re seeking to convey.

Make sure your content is useful and relates to your mission statement.

Review

So you’ve completed your masterpiece and think you’re ready to go live? Don’t rush it!

Before you go live

While you’re going through all the steps from planning to execution, you’ll have already purchased your URL. Consider a placeholder page, a one-sheet that says something like ‘Coming Soon’ and a field that captures email addresses future (or current) customers can be informed when your site is live.

Take a few days to review with this checklist:

Proofread Check your writing for spelling and grammar.
Copyedit Reread your messaging. Does it make sense and communicate clearly to your audience?
Readability At a glance, is your website easy to read? Make sure paragraphs and topics are visually spaced out and not run-on text.
Test (desktop & mobile) Surf around your site on both mobile & desktop and check for any issues that need fixing before going live.
Review links Do all your links work and go to the correct page?
Send test messages Send yourself & a colleague a test email from your contact form. Does it work?
Review load times & Image Optimization How long does your website take to load? Test it out from your home and a cafe with WiFi. If the load-time is long, consider resizing your photos and media.
Browser testing Review your site in multiple browsers including Firefox, Chrome, Opera, etc.
Social Media Links Did you remember to link to your social media accounts?
Favicon Include a small icon that represents your website in the address bar to increase your brand awareness. These are a standard among businesses nowadays.
Metadata A basic for being SEO friendly, this is the snippet of information that describes your website which will show up in search engines.

Soft Launch

A soft launch is a preview of your website to a restricted audience before announcing to the general public. This is the phase after beta testing, where you’re almost ready to go public.

Recruit your friends and family to test your site before announcing to the world. Ask a small group of trusted contacts, from tech savvy colleagues to your grandparents. Listen to their feedback and fix any bugs that might’ve escaped your due diligence.

Hit Publish!

It’s finally here! Your big moment to hit publish and go live. You’ve gone through your checklist, read and proofread all the text, double clicked on every link and plugged in the SEO.

Send a broad announcement to your email lists and pin the link to the top of all your social media accounts.

Congratulations, you’ve just joined the global community! Get set on a journey of rocketing your business into the 21st century. From here on out you can reach the rest of world with your products and services. Creating a small business website takes a lot of focus and effort, but worth it in the end.

Need help? We're always here for you.

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