Beyond Templates: Building a Better Business Website

Are you looking for a more robust and actionable business website? Here experts offer advice to help you move beyond a basic template-based business website.

This probably seems obvious, but it's worth stating: These days, it's crucial to have a website for your business. From brochure-based sites that provide your contact details and store hours to full-fledged ecommerce carts and customer self-service, your website is important—it tells customers what to expect from you. This article offers several tips for building a better business website that will engage existing customers and help you find new ones.

Templates Offer Easy, Professional-Looking Sites for Business

Many businesses begin with inexpensive template sites. Here a service provider offers layout and design choices, hosts the website and provides updates and technical support when required. Businesses typically turn to a template site, and "find it to be a quick way to get a professional-looking site," after trying to do it themselves but failing to get the results they want, said David Rose, CEO of clearString, a Web development software company.

If you're going to use a template site, look for a provider that offers templates for specific vertical markets. While that means any business like yours, using the same base website template, will have a similar site, it will give you the basic features that customers expect to find on a website in your area of expertise.

The obvious reason for using a template site is the lack of IT requirements to get it online. A business can have a template-based site online in no time. In addition, experience with HTML code and website development is not required. Finally, template sites are a low-cost option and can usually be had for hundreds -- not thousands -- of dollars.

Maciej Fita, search engine optimization (SEO) director for Brandignity, a Web marketing company offering custom website consulting services for business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) companies, believes that budget is the biggest obstacle businesses face when developing a website.

"Great design, branding and development typically has some cost behind it, but those who believe in the Web like we do realize that the expenditure will come back if the site is properly leveraged after launch," he says.

Hard to Make Template-Based Business Websites Flexible, Customized

While templates can serve the basic purpose of having a brochure-like business website, you will probably outgrow a template site eventually. Your website is a first-stop destination, and template-based sites often lack the unique features and design elements—what Fita calls the "wow factor"—which will attract customers.

"These days, your website has to stand out within five seconds of a visitor landing on any of your Web pages," Fita says. "That's something a template has a hard time doing if you do not at least put some customization in place."

As the primary point of contact at 3PRIME, a Web marketing and development firm, co-owner Ryan Turner is familiar with template sites and says they often lack important features such as contact forms, search-engine friendly text, brand consistency and clear messaging.

"The website needs to chiefly be flexible and should be designed with the visitor audience experience at the forefront," Turner says. "Every platform has its own limitations, and many solutions aren't chosen based on how [they'll] be used, but by a manager with insufficient background in using the solutions."

Brookside Development
Connecticut-based 3Prime helps companies build websites that appeal to their customer base. Shown here are sites the firm built for a homebuilder (above) and roofer (below). Photos courtesy of 3Prime .
Eagle Rivet Roof Service

For businesses using template sites, there are a number of key indicators that it might be time to try something more advanced. Many reflect marketing needs, Turner says—"the business needs to be able to handle landing pages for advertising, needs to integrate social media, needs to provide access to third parties and needs to upgrade&hosting and email to keep up with the Joneses."

Also, Fita recommends that businesses pay attention to traffic and what visitors do when they land on your website. "When your website produces no actions, it is time to look at a variety of things, including design, branding and development," he says. "If your site receives traffic and no one is really doing anything day in and day out, something is broken."

However, building a better business website without templates isn't easy—and it can be outright painful if you're not familiar with website development. You need to decide if you're going to hire a developer, outsource the project (or parts of it) to a website development shop or keep it in-house. Many of these decisions will be determined by your budget; more on that later.

Turner agrees that there are a number of hurdles that a business will face when developing a website. These include identifying decision makers, working with a developer who can manage the various personalities involved, ensuring distinct design phases prior to locking into development and defining the scope of the project so it can be appropriately managed. The business also needs to identify its audience and the marketing goals for the website.

Can You Develop Your Better Business Website In-House?

For larger businesses, keeping website development in-house is attractive. If this isn't within your area of expertise or budget, though, you can look for software that handles the coding aspect of sites. This lets you improve upon a template-based business website at a lower cost than outsourcing the development to a third party.

ClearString is one example of this. It's a software system that can be used by any business to create unique CMS websites and business applications. By encapsulating "chunks" of complex website functionality into easily configurable components, you can use a product such as clearString to manage domains, hosting and data security without scripting or coding. The video below offers a general introduction to the clearString platform.

CEO Rose says clearString is an option for businesses that need more than just the basics offered in template sites&,dash;user controls, for example, or different websites for different corporate divisions, or other business functions that hit the boundaries of a template website, including ecommerce, custom content and email integration.

"There are always options to take a different price path. You just have to really explore your options and get creative as a business," Fita says. "Developing logos and updating websites in-house should always be choice No. 1 if the major concern is cost."

The pros with finding a quality Web design and development firm is that you know that your design is going to stand out from the crowd, but making sure your business website can be found in search engines is just as important. If the firm doesn't include search engine marketing (SEM) in its service, Fita recommends that you split your budget between design and SEM.

"The most beautiful website in the world will not help you grow if you don't have a way to send traffic to it once it goes live," he adds, describing the drawback of investing all your money in design and nothing in search.

Joyce Weinberg, president of City Food Tours, says experience has taught her that it's important to know a bit about website development yourself when looking for a Web developer. Do your research before hiring anyone, and collect references from other businesses—there is a steep learning curve in going from a hosted template site to one that is developed for your business.

City Food Tours New York
City Food Tours has branded the New York (above) and Philadelphia (below) sections of its website differently. This makes it easy for users to know which city they are looking up.
City Food Tours Philadelphia

Weinberg recommends that a business do its due diligence and make sure the website is designed in such a way that it is very easy to build, change and optimize for search engines.

"You have to know what to ask for to get the right things," she says. "If you don't know, have a friend or business acquaintance look at you proposal so you know what you are buying."

Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vangie Beal has been covering small business, electronic commerce and Internet technology for more than a decade. You can tweet with her online @AuroraGG. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.

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