The Small Business: Bridging the Digital Divide

April 21, 2009

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  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.


The Small Business and the Digital Divide

April 20, 2009

Cartoons by Andertoons

Today, AxisPortals has been pondering this article on the ways in which small businesses are often either entirely missing out on online opportunities, or are growing frustrated by their early marketing efforts in this sphere.   Consider these facts:

Though less than half of small businesses do have a website, the ones that do are not necessarily seeking to get traffic to it, and are not happy overall with their online marketing. Among those small businesses that have a website:

  • 51% believe both the quality and ability of their site to acquire new customers is only “fair” or “poor.”
  • 30% of business owners feel that they typically do a better job of marketing than a close competitor.
  • 78% believe they advertise in the same places as their competitors.
  • Only 7% of small business owners say their primary marketing goal is to get more visitors to their website.
  • 61% spend less than three hours a week marketing their website.
  • 99% of small business owners are directly involved in the marketing.
  • 65% believe it is very important to know where their customers come from.
  • Only 9% are satisfied with their online marketing efforts. 
  • 78% of small business owners dedicate 10% or less of their budget to marketing. Of those, half spend less than 10% of their marketing budget on internet advertising, while 30% do no Internet advertising.

The upshot?  Small businesses (which aren’t always all that small in terms of either income or number of employees) are missing important online opportunities.  Local businesses, in particular, need to consider the reality of consumer behavior today:  when current clients and colleagues  and potential customers and connections are looking for you, they will inevitably begin their search online, and this is true even when their initial contact with you or awareness of your name or service has come in another forum.  When these folks enter your name, the names of your key team members, and/or your company name in a search engine, it’s crucial to ensure that they not only find you, but find rich, appealing, informative, polished, and positive information about you.  When a search yields either limited information or shoddy information, you lose important opportunities to extend your success.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Small businesses can’t afford to make web presence an afterthought.  

Tomorrow:  Towards Bridging the Divide

Back to Basics: Logical Site Navigation

March 31, 2009

Crafting a logical navigational structure is one of the most effective ways of making your web site inviting, user friendly, and useful. 

Navigational cues like this? Not helpful!

The following approaches help ensure that visitors can readily find pertinent information on your site:

  1. Make your navigational categories clear, consistent, and descriptive.  Sounds obvious, but AxisPortals too often sees sites that include “Contact Us” links that offer very little in the way of contact information, “About Us” links that shed precious little light on the purpose or philosophy of the organization, and “Our Products” links that offer practically every sort of advice and reflection under the sun, but do not lead to a helpful list of actual products.  Clarity matters.  Think of your navigational links or buttons as road signs, and proceed accordingly.  If a road sign says “Our Team,” then it should lead to pictures and descriptions of your team members.  If it says “Our Products,” then product pictures and descriptions should surely be in the offing.  Navigation is all about predictability.  “Main Street” should include the Post Office, the Barber Shop, a Drug Store, and maybe the Hardware Store.  “Industrial Way” should include foundries, factories, and heavier industries than those found on Main Street.  Just so with navigation.  When it comes to finding our way around in new places, we’re all traditionalists.  Stick with the clear and predictable when devising the road signs for your site.
  2. Ensure that visual devices such as rollover and flash effects are used sparingly and complemented with  accessible textual cues and pointers.  Sometimes, we create flashy effects because we can, because they’re new and attention getting, and because bells and whistles so neatly demonstrate our technical skill.  AxisPortals has, historically, been quite as guilty of this as anyone.   Ultimately, though, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as a visually appealing site that’s nigh on impossible to navigate successfully.  Indeed, we’ve known for a long time that fussy splash pages and flash features tend to annoy web readers, driving them away in droves.  So, it’s best to keep things simple.  Non-fussy CSS text rollovers with color changes help readers keep tabs on where they are and where they’re going, look sharp, and don’t detract from the clarity of text markers.  When we do choose to employ somewhat fancier effects, we should work to ensure that their basic navigational function is never diluted.   Usability and accessibility trump bling.
  3. Include a site index, map, or table of contents:  As a student, AxisPortals was always extraordinarily fond of books that included detailed TOC’s and indices.  These remarkable tools meant that AxisPortals could very quickly find precisely the information she needed to complete a project or a paper, and wouldn’t have to page laboriously through an entire tome to find them.  Any content container of significant length that actually helps you find your way through it is a thing to treasure.  Indeed, the very best of these references rapidly become indespensible.  When they are books, we keep them always at hand, growing fonder and fonder of them as they grow ever more dilapidated from lovingly regular use.  When they are websites, we bookmark them, turn to them often, and pass them along to others.    Whether your site is about movies or pizza, social networking or healthcare managment, baseball or vintage records, the users who visit it are looking for something specific.  Provide them with the tools that make sorting through your content and locating their desired information as simple as possible, and your site could easily become a much loved, often returned to favorite.
  4. Consider embedding a site specific search tool.  Many free, easily embeddable search tools (e.g. Google Site Search) are readily available.  A site search feature is particularly appealing on large sites, but can enhance a small to medium sized site, as well.  Why not make it easy for your web visitors to locate the particular person, product, or phrase they are after? 
  5. Check your site statistics periodically to determine how users are actually navigating your site, and make ongoing changes accordingly.  Once you’ve cleaned and polished your navigational structure and tools, be sure to routinely reconsider and update them as your site evolves.  The nested menus and deep structures that wouldn’t make sense or be at all user friendly for relatively small sites might make perfect sense as your site grows to encompass upwards of a hundred pages.  The keyword that visitors often search for on your site might deserve a page of its own, and a prominent place in the navigation scheme.  Keep in mind that just as a web site is never really done, a website’s navigation is never entirely final.  Your site will best support your business, your team, and your clients when it is organized in logical, easily navigable fashion that evolves along with the site.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  The easier you make it for site visitors to find exactly what they’re looking for, the more likely they are to hang around and explore the rest.

Well, thanks--that narrows it down!

Well, thanks--that narrows it down!






Health 2.0

February 9, 2009

The February issue of Healthcare Informatics surveys the top tech trends for 2009.  Take particular note of the “Health 2.0” sidebar in the patient portals section:

“[H]ealthcare companies are looking at how other Web technologies–such as blogs, Wikis, and social networking sites–can play a role in patient interactions . . .Web-savvy healthcare organizations are studying ways to adopt technology to interact with patients to self-manage, and to interact with one another in social networking situations . . .’This is about being inclusive, and allowing people and providers to collaborate in new ways.'”

This is the sort of observation that tends to make AxisPortals very happy, because it promotes general business understanding that Web 2.0 technologies and approaches aren’t strictly social and aren’t just for kids (more on that in my next post), but are fundamentally part of the way we live now, and must therefore be fundamentally part of how we concieve of business now, as well.

Web 2.0 Central Concepts

Web 2.0 Central Concepts

AxisPortals Aphorism: Web 2.0 is good for healthcare, and it’s good for the health of every business.

Why a Website is Never Done

February 7, 2009


Web Publication vs. Print Publication: Click for larger image.

A colleague who has  been working very hard on guiding the development of a new website for his company recently mentioned to AxisPortals that he can’t wait for the project to be finished, once and for all.

AxisPortals appreciates, applauds, and at every opportunity wholly encourages administrative involvement in crafting and maintaining an effective web presence.  Without administrative support and enthusiasm, after all, the project quickly withers:  content grows stale, styles and features get outdated, and opportunities for growth and improvement are missed. 

On the other hand, this conversation reminded AxisPortals of one of the essential truths about crafting a web identity:  this is not a task that can be checked off on a list.  You can never really be done developing your online presence, which includes not only your website but all of your related  material, connections, and relationships.  Web presence does and should evolve right along with you and your company. 

Crafting a brand new, totally overhauled web site is of course a huge job, and so in some sense it’s perfectly natural and understandable to look eagerly forward to the day when that site is finally launched.  In many respects, though, the day of a website’s launch is like the day a student graduates:  it marks the end of one process, but the beginning of another.  In the case of a website, launch day is day one of what should be the ongoing process of updating, refreshing, tracking use, interacting with users, and so forth. 

Perhaps this little fact of web life should go without saying, but too often businesses approach a website in the same way that they might approach a print publication.  On the day that a print piece is published, the process of composing it is over, and the process of distributing it begins.  Not so with a website or any sort of web presence.  Online, we are always composing our presence.  A website is never done being written.  Just so with a blog or a microblog.  Instead, these continue to emerge over time, and are continuously in the process of being composed.

AxisPortals Aphorism One :  Digital composition is not equivalent to print composition.  Online, the process of composing is continuous. 

AxisPortals Aphorism Two:  A website is never done.