The Small Business: Bridging the Digital Divide

As we have seen, small businesses too often miss opportunities to make good use of websites and other aspects of online presence. Robert Scoble notes that this is an area in which the leading tech bloggers have failed to offer much leadership, and AxisPortals agrees.  There are many blogs devoted to things such as  

But often this advice is aimed at early adopters and current enthusiasts of technology, not at those who are just beginning to explore these spheres.

Only 44% of small businesses have a website.

Where to begin?  With the very basics.  Here are some initial suggestions for small business owners who want to begin bridging the digital divide:

  1. Secure a Domain Name:  If you haven’t already purchased a domain name to match your company, do so immediately.  Because the internet is now a quite a crowded space, your first choice will not always be available.  Use a tool such as Register.com  to search for available names and variations. Choose something relatively brief, descriptive, and easy to remember.  Then, make sure that you fully own and control the name.  This may seem obvious, but AxisPortals has too often worked with business and organizations whose domains were owned and controlled by a former employee or a long-since disappeared web designer. Owning and controlling your own domain name is key.  Keep your ownership current, and your user name and password secure.  Do not pass this responsibility off to an employee or a web designer without ensuring that he or she is putting everything in the company’s name, and without insisting that you can access the account.  
  2. Launch Your Initial Website in a Timely Fashion:  It does take some time to design a good website, but it does not and should not take months and months.  Select a competent designer; provide the designer with key content about your products, services, location, personnel, vision, and goals; review and revise an initial draft or two, and then publish.  For the vast majority of small local businesses, this is not a process that should take months and months of painstaking review and effort.  Review a list of some of the basic qualities of a good website, get those items checked off in a timely manner, and then put your website where it belongs:  online where clients and colleagues can access it, not on the drawing board, where it serves no one.
  3. Continuously Revise and Update Your Site:  Keep in mind that print publication and web publication are entirely different creatures. Once the process of revising a print publication is over, it heads to press, and then distribution can begin.  Not so with a website or any online presence.  Online, texts evolve, and content is constantly refreshed and regenerated.  Move online quickly, then, and make updating and maintenance priorities.  Unless you a) have an internal employee who is very talented in this arena and b) can afford to allow this person to devote a good portion of his or her time to working with your online presence, consider outsourcing this funtion.  It will be most cost-effective for you in the long-run if your web design company also provides ongoing maintenance services, as well.  That way, the integrity of your design will not be compromised by necessary updates.
  4. Track and Analyze User Statistics:     Make sure that your designand maintenace company also provides feedback about your users: How many people are visiting your site?  How often?  Which sections do they most frequently visit?  Which portions of various pages do they click through on?  How loyal are your visitors?  Where are they located?  How do they find your site?  Gather and evaluate this information on a regular basis, and revise your site accordingly to optimize the user experience.
  5. Don’t Mistake the Chassis for What’s Under the Hood: A website is a lot like a car.  We all drive cars.  We know how to get from point A to point B inthem. We know how to keep them fueled, and we know we need to service them regularly to keep them in tip-top running condition.  Most of us, though, aren’t experts on what’s beneath the hood.  Just so with a website.  A very nice lookingcar-red, sporty, and fast looking–might be a perfect lemon beneath the surface,  and this can also be true of a website.  Keep in mind, then, that while looks are important, they aren’t everything. Your website should both look good and fulfill it’s basic purpose, which is to allow users to locate you, learn something about you, and contact you.   Just as you test drive a car, you should test drive your website, approaching it as a user would.  Once the site is up, head to Google and put yourself in the role of a customer or colleague who is looking for you. Then, test the site itself.  How easy is it to navigate?  Do all the features load?  Do all forms and interactive elements work flawlessly? Does the site not only look good but also function well in a variety of browsers (e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome)?  Ask a few trusted colleagues to test drive the site on their computers as well, and to offer you feedback.  Then, bring your questions and concerns to your design and maintenance team, and make sure that they are quickly addressed.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Now is always the best time for a small business to begin bridging the digital divide.

Next Time:  Adding interactive features and social networking elements to your site.

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