According to Internet World Stats, more than 1.3 billion people worldwide have Internet access, and in North America, more than 71 percent of the population is online. With more people each day using the Internet to find information, compare and purchase products, and make important business decisions, having a competitive Web site is vital for businesses both large and small.
Should every company have a Web site? “If you had asked me that five years ago, I would have said no, but now it’s absolutely a necessity,” said Jarrod Lopicolo, business director for Noble Studios, a marketing and Web development firm based in Carson City. “The Internet is the No. 1 place for research before doing business with anyone, whether it’s choosing a dentist for a root canal or someone to provide a service for your company.”
Mark Cenicola, CEO and president of Cenicola-Helvin Enterprises in Las Vegas, agreed that having a Web site today is “critical” for all businesses. “Even if you’re a small operation like an auto mechanic, a Web site is a way for you to build credibility and enhance your image,” he said. “It also helps generate new business via search engines.” Cenicola’s company publishes a variety of Web sites ranging from technology news to classified advertising.
Both these experts agreed that it has become more difficult for the average business to create and maintain its own Web site, because visitors expect more functionality in a site today than they did just a few years ago, when a static “brochure site” containing basic information was the norm. Some of the functions visitors have come to expect on Web sites include event calendars, feedback forms, member directories, blogs and message boards, RSVP functions, shopping carts, search functionality and video clips. “Tools help people stay on your site longer and build up the retention rate,” said Lopicolo. However, learning how to program and maintain each of these features can be a daunting task for a non-professional.
“I don’t think it’s possible these days to implement an effective Web site without going to a Web development company,” he said. “It’s possible to download a Web site design template and populate it with content, but it wouldn’t have the impact you need to compete in today’s market. It would be like handing someone a business card with perforated edges. They would immediately know that you did it yourself, and your image would suffer. It’s hard to do your own site and have it not look amateurish.”
Cenicola remarked, “If you’re not an expert at Web site design, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. You could buy a set of plans and try to construct your own house, but if you’re not a building contractor, think of the learning curve, all the time it would take and all the mistakes you’d make. Then you’d have to worry whether the foundation was really solid.”
Content: Text is Just the Beginning
Managers at many companies today are wondering if they should feature a blog on their Web site. Cenicola noted, “Message boards and blogs are a growing trend, but they aren’t yet business-critical.” Blogs not only present another way to bring visitors into a site, but they also give professionals like attorneys or financial planners a chance to be seen as experts in their field.
According to Ding Communications’ art director, Erik Flippo, who also designs Web sites for the Reno-based advertising and marketing firm, “A blog can drive people to your site if it has good content that people are interested in. You can get repeat visitors that way,” he said. “However, if you don’t have anything relevant or timely to say, it doesn’t make any sense. It can be labor-intensive: somebody has to write the content, and you also have to make sure it’s timely and constantly updated. If you’re not willing to make the investment in manpower, you should think twice about starting up a blog or adding Web 2.0 functionality to your site just because you think everybody else is doing it.”
Videos are another popular feature on many Web sites, since most people now have high-speed Internet connections allowing them to easily download and view larger digital files. Many people prefer to spend four minutes watching a video or slide show instead of reading printed text to get the information.
Constantly reviewing and updating the content on your site is important for items like calendars and blogs, as well as traditional features like press releases or news sections. If visitors to your site see a bulletin announcing that the company president will speak at the upcoming 2006 Chamber of Commerce meeting, they will know you don’t make much of an investment in your Web presence, and your image will suffer.
Your Web Site as a Marketing Tool
David LaPlante, CEO of Twelve Horses, remarked, “Everyone’s waking up to the fact that the Internet starting line is Google. More and more people are realizing that if they aren’t as relevant online as they are in the real world, they have a problem.” LaPlante’s Reno-based marketing and messaging company provides services that include Web site design and development, search engine optimization (SEO) and multi-channel marketing.
SEO is a technique that arranges content within a site to make it appear in the best possible ranking on results pages when online visitors use search engines like Google and Yahoo. Since people naturally read a page from top to bottom, a site appearing near the top of the first results page is more likely to be visited than a site at the bottom, or on a later page.
Search engines routinely “crawl” Web sites looking for key words or phrases, and use complicated algorithms to determine how to rank sites according to how often these words and phrases appear, either in the content that is readable on the site or in the underlying codes or tags.
“When optimizing a site, it’s important to select your key words carefully,” Flippo noted. “You don’t want to be competing for general key words. If you have a travel agency, it would be crazy to optimize your site for the word ‘travel’ because there are so many other sites that reference that word. Yours would never appear near the top among all those thousands of results. You want to go after keywords that are two or three words long, like ‘Hawaii cruise’ or ‘Lake Tahoe skiing.’ The more specific you can be, the more likely it is you will be listed high in the search engine. You will also target the customer who’s more likely to result in a sale.”
Flippo warned against adding key words to a site only to get better search engine rankings. “It has to be good content that makes sense,” he said. “Search engines can tell if you’re just repeating key words, and they will punish you for the technique, which is called ‘keyword spamming.’”
SEO results in what is called an “organic” search, as opposed to paid placement on search engine pages. “The organic part means that it’s free – you’re not paying for it,” Flippo explained. “Once you make the initial investment of optimizing your site, you don’t have to pay for anything else.”
SEO is only one component of Search Engine Marketing (SEM), which has grown into a multi-billion dollar business. Although organic searches are free, they don’t guarantee results, and companies eager to grab their share of the market are willing to pay search engines to have their sites mentioned on results pages. According to the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, spending on SEM grew from $9.4 billion in 2006 to $12.2 billion in 2007, with spending projected to grow to $25.2 billion in 2011. The largest SEM vendors are Google AdWords, Yahoo! Search Marketing and Microsoft adCenter.
According to LaPlante, more businesses have come to realize the importance of Web searches in bringing in revenue. “There is also more competition for your customer’s or prospect’s ‘eyeballs’ and attention,” he noted. “Internet content until about three years ago was composed chiefly of branded sites and news media. There weren’t many compelling reasons for Internet users to spend the majority of their online time on sites that were not brand-specific. Now we have interactive social sites like MySpace, YouTube and Flickr, and people are blogging, consuming video and chatting. They are viewing content that is not created by the brands themselves, but by fellow consumers. The coming together of these two trends has caused many companies to hit the proverbial panic button, asking, ‘Why is our Web site visitation going down or flattening? Where are our visitors going, what are they doing, and why aren’t they staying on our site?’”
LaPlante said the popularity of all these new online channels has created a paradigm shift for companies wanting to advertise their products or services on the Internet. Instead of trying to drive everyone into one site that they can control, they may have to decentralize and spread their brand out into other online areas.
Companies whose customers are more likely to be younger and more tech-oriented are among the first to investigate alternate means of reaching them, according to Flippo. “You have to target the medium to your audience,” he noted. “If your potential customers are not technologically savvy, then why invest in text messaging or a MySpace page? Your audience won’t be there. On the other hand, there’s a nightclub in Reno whose audience skews very young – people in their 20s and 30s – and their only Web presence is their MySpace page. The acts that come to perform there, and special guests like Ultimate Fighting Championship stars, all have MySpace pages, so it creates a kind of synergy, using the ‘friends’ function on MySpace. It presents cross-promotional opportunities that works for them, but their marketing strategy wouldn’t work for most traditional businesses.”
Making the most of a company’s online presence can produce a good return on investment, but experts note that the initial investment does need to made if a firm expects to compete in the 21st century market, which is increasingly moving to the Internet.