Maintaining a robust online presence has become requisite to succeed in today’s digital-centric landscape. In fact, 2017 saw a record 1.5 billion-plus consumers purchase goods online. The bottom line: if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur or running a small- to medium-sized business, you’re probably not going to make it without an effective website.
But figuring out where to start is not always an easy process. When I launched my first website (what seems like a million years ago, now), I had no idea where to begin. I had been crafting and selling custom skateboard decks as a hobby and had built up a good local customer base; however, I was having trouble just breaking even on materials in such a limited market. The solution was obvious—go online and reach a wider audience.
Being naive about how the web worked, I thought all I had to do was cobble together a few photos of my products and put them online with a free eCommerce hosting plan and a non brand-specific domain name and the orders would start pouring in.
I was obviously wrong. But, luckily, I’ve learned a few things since then. Over the years, I’ve helped a number of organizations and trade associations build and maintain a far-reaching presence online. And, surprisingly, many of these organizations started out making the same mistakes I did when I launched my first site. Let’s take a look at how to do it right.
#1 - Effective Branding Starts With a Good Domain Name
When Shakespeare’s Juliet said “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” she was professing that Romeo’s surname would have no effect on her feelings for him. But, if you’re a small business owner looking to win the hearts of customers online, everything’s in a name.
A domain name is usually the first interaction a consumer has with a brand online. And, as any business owner knows, first impressions matter when it comes to securing conversions. That’s why it’s imperative to choose a domain name that’s easy to remember and identifies your brand.
The domain Webnames.ca is a great example of a nicely branded domain name that follows all the rules. First, it’s obviously the company’s name and is short and memorable. No brainer, right? But the name also employs a TLD (top-level domain) extension (.ca) that gives users even more information on the brand. The name communicates “We provide domain names to website owners in Canada!”
With the millions of sites online today, finding the perfect domain name can be tough. But don’t fret if your desired domain isn’t available on a .com or .net. There are literally hundreds of domain name options out there and many new TLDs can speak directly to your brand’s mission. Explore your options by entering your desired domain name in Webnames.ca’s search field, and you’ll be presented with a diversity of TLDs—from .com and .ca to .shop, .clothing, .bike, and so on.
Again, the idea is to pick a name and TLD that gives your site the best name recognition and credibility.
#2 - Hosts Don’t Just Throw Dinner Parties
Once you have your perfect domain in place, it’s time to get a site up and running. And the first step is choosing a web host to power your online property. If you’re a beginner, consulting some guides about what constitutes a good hosting plan is probably a good bet. But I’ll give you the short version here.
Most hosting providers offer a number of packages, and it’s important to choose one that fits your budget and business plan. Once you start shopping around, you’ll quickly notice the prevalence of free or super low cost hosting options on the market. While these can sometimes be good for personal users to, say, host a résumé or family photo album, these accounts usually come with the caveat that users employ a host-specific domain name (e.g. www.hostname.com/yourcompany) and don’t include much in the way of storage or security — and this is not good for businesses.
For SMBs and beginning web entrepreneurs, starting with a cost-efficient shared hosting plan is a good bet. These packages are affordable, easy to manage, and most allow site owners to attach branded domain names at no additional cost.
The idea behind shared hosting is pretty straightforward. Basically, site owners share space and resources on a server, which is why the service is so budget friendly. Shared hosting is usually more than sufficient to handle the small traffic startups require. However, if you’re looking to scale operations and anticipate receiving more than 100,000 visitors each month, moving to a virtual private server (VPS) or dedicated server hosting solution might be the way to go.This will ensure your site’s performance won’t be diminished when other users on a shared server are using more than their fair share of resources.
#3 - Design Your Website and Your Mission Around User Experience
UX (or user experience) is more than buzzword in marketing circles for good reason. Delivering an aesthetically pleasing design and streamlining digital journeys for customers has a proven positive impact on conversion rates.
So it’s smart to keep the end user in mind when you’re wireframing ideas for your site’s overall layout and appeal. Align your goals with those of your customers and design a click-through journey that gets them to the desired result—whether that’s an eCommerce sale or an email list signup.
I know. I know. What about entrepreneurs without four-year degrees in web design and development? With minimal experience, crafting a professional-grade website from the ground up can seem an insurmountable task. But it doesn’t have to be. Today, there are a number of tools, including Webnames.ca’s Web Presence Builder, with no-code, drag-and-drop environments that can make a designer out of anyone.
And then there’s the popular CMS (content management system) WordPress. The platform provides thousands of themes site owners can use to get up and running quickly. Today’s users of the CMS can easily get the scoop on how to install a WordPress theme manually. These templates are perfect for beginners and many hosting providers offer plans built specifically to run them.
#4 - Performance and Availability Are Crucial for Success!
No matter what you’re looking to sell online, odds are good someone else has beaten you to the punch. Today’s e-commerce space is extremely crowded, and it can be a tall order to stand out from the competition.
As noted, your domain name choice, hosting provider, and website design all play a big role in determining how well you differentiate yourself. However, just as important is how your site performs and if it’s available when customers visit.
The leading hosting providers provide high uptime guarantees that promise your site will be available to visitors a certain percentage of time each month. Since 100% uptime is near impossible to achieve, industry average percentages come in at around 99.9%. If a host comes in at anything below that, you may want to look elsewhere.
Site performance has big impacts on conversion rates. If a site is lagging, customers are more likely to bounce to a competitor. This is why many SMBs are shelling out the extra dough to move their hosting infrastructure from HDDs (hard disk drives) to high-performing SSDs (solid-state drives). When it comes to performance, looking at a comparison of SSD vs HDD storage options can help determine how to craft your hosting architecture.
HDDs work fine for smaller sites because they’re economical and within the budget ranges of many SMBs. But, since the goal for most businesses is to scale in size and revenue, spending a bit more on an SSD solution might provide a bigger return on investment long term. A better performing site ensures that customers are able to seamlessly navigate their way to a conversion, and the optimal UX means they’re likely to return.
#5 - Give Yourself and Your Users Peace of Mind—Don’t Skimp on Security
There’s no shortage of news stories about data breaches these days. While every day there is a new high profile expose concerning stolen identities and fraud, small businesses are also being increasingly targeted for data theft because they are less security savvy. That’s why it’s essential to lock down your site’s customer and proprietary information with solid web security and a trusted SSL certificate.
Webnames.ca offers SSL packages through RapidSSL, GeoTrust, and Comodo that allow site owners to safeguard user data and ensure secure transactions. Each of these SSL brands offer fundamental protections for login information, credit card transactions, and customer data. And with the web's biggest browsers pushing for universal encryption, you'll soon need to be HTTPS compliant to stay in Chrome's good books.
Security is also an important factor to consider deciding on a hosting provider. And it’s easy to learn how to choose a secure hosting company even if you’re not a veteran site owner. Make sure your host has a solid backup and restore policy so you’re able to retrieve lost or corrupted files. Network monitoring, firewalls, DDoS protection, and malware scanning should also top the list on what to look for to keep your site and its users safe from threats online.
Hopefully, these tips will help you lay the foundations for building an effective web presence that will allow you to reach audiences far and wide. Whether you’re selling skateboards or widgets, the recipe is simple, really. If you have a good domain name, a reliable host, and sound design, performance, and security, the deck will be stacked in your favor.
Sean Garrity is a Managing Editor at HostingAdvice.com with more than 10 years of experience researching, writing, and editing for numerous industry-specific trade publications.