I've taken over webmaster responsibility for our consultancy website, and we are trying to figure out what the website should look like. When looking around at other consultants' websites, there is a basic pattern that seems to be right. And there are plenty of examples of things that don't look good.
The first question, though, is what a business should expect the website to do? For a consultancy website, it needs to do a few things:
- Legitimize the business. For at least ten years, nearly all businesses have a website. End of story.
- Help with the marketing process. People come to the website after they hear about the business, either from the owners / employees, from referrals, or any of the places where we've mentioned our name. People might even get there via web search. The website has to round out that initial marketing contact with more information and some sense of what the business does. And of course, a means to contact the business. Note: In our case, we intend the website to be an extension of our outreach or the beginning of the marketing funnel. The actual business deals are done through personal contact (not consummated on the web, for example).
- Provide a means for ongoing contact with customers, associates and other friends of the business. The website might host newsletters, relevant news, events, a blog, forums and the like.
Great. Given that, we still need to think about what the website needs to contain. This is well before we think about layout and colors and other details, though having a basic design to work from helps to spark conversation too. Pardon the cliché, but I can't define a good website, but I know it when I see it. Here are some elements that I'd look for in a business / consultancy website.
- Is it easy to figure out what the business does?
- Are they consultants – what do they do?
- Do they sell a technology – what is it? Why is it great?
- Do they have some affiliation with other organizations?
- Does the website look professional? This is where that subjectivity comes into play.
- Is there a consistent “look” throughout the website, so it’s easy to navigate?
- The colors should be pleasant without being boring. They shouldn't make my eyes bleed.
- Is it all text? All pictures? Photos and other images seem to make the sites a bit more interesting.
- Do images make sense in their context?
- Links to other places on the website (and external) must work!
- Can I contact the business in question? Do they have multiple means of contact (including the ones I happen to use: email, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, phone, ...)
- Content beyond the basics about the business. These all help keep people coming back and provide a wider look at the people behind the business:
- Do they have case studies or testimonials reporting work that the business has done before? This seems to be a requirement of business websites. It's a stretch, but can the case study companies be contacted?
- Do they have some kind of resource library? This could be anything from a set of white papers or publications (written by the members of the business) or commented links to other materials, such as books or other relevant websites. And please don't make me provide my contact information before viewing your resources. (Interesting that many people recommend doing just that to collect sales leads - is this a valuable way to get leads, or do you just make it easy to "contact us"?)
- Do they keep a blog or newsletter? (Or some mechanism for communicating with their clients / potential clients as a group)
- I've seen a lot with a "latest news" or "recent update" on their home page. For a small business, it might be tough to come up with a lot of "news" that would fit. This could obviously be a web feed that combines blogs, recent case studies, events, and other updates.
- Search? Search is relevant if there is going to be a lot of stuff to search for or if the site design obfuscates the materials that might be there. But once there is a lot of stuff on a website, search may not be a bad idea.
- Opinion: I don’t particularly like Flash (or animated graphics in general). This gets in my way of figuring out what the company does. (And search engines don't index the content of the flash animations.)
- Does the website work on mobile devices? If someone gets a link on their smartphone, can they navigate around the website and find everything they can find from a larger computer?
One of the biggest questions I have is whether a small business website needs to have something like a blog or frequently-updated articles and news items - something that would show up in some kind of chronological list of postings and have a web feed. (It might also have categories / tags.) I know that for me and many of my regular readers, there is probably an expectation that the business owners are keeping a blog. Is that a general expectation or need? In our case, I would be doing most of the blogging or other regular content work - though I'd download from my colleagues as much as I could.
This list of items was generated in discussions and from my own experience. There are some experts out there (though I expected to find more). Here are some useful references:
- Web Design Best Practices and Tips from crowdSPRING.
- 10 rules for your small business home page by Sue Polinsky on Download Squad.
- 12 Website Design Decisions Your Business or Organization Will Need to Make Correctly by Web Marketing Today.
- A site review of a plumbing company website from Broad River Creative that has some interesting points. That blog has some interesting commentary too.
- And there are always Web Pages That Suck's highlights, such as The Ugliest / Worst Business Web Sites of 2009, which provides plenty of fodder for what not to do. They also have a self-assessment tool, Does My Website Suck.
Oh, that business is P3 Consulting Group. Feel free to give me some commentary or pointers for improvement. I'd also love some pointers to people who have expressed this information more clearly and who do website design as a profession.
In case you don't already know, I am not a web designer. Just a consumer and the lucky person responsible for the maintenance of the site for now.
[Photo: "When I Asked For Your Opinion..." by The Pack - I was going for a "my two cents" theme]