The next time you visit Silicon Valley (or any of the fastest-growing tech cities in the US) and are standing in line at Pete’s Coffee waiting to place your order, ask the person behind you how they feel about net neutrality.1 I will Venmo you the cost of your coffee if their response is anything but 100% pure unadulterated support (email me at catherine at bigdropinc dot com).
The reason why the topic of net neutrality invokes fiery responses from the tech community is the same reason why any business, regardless of size, revenue, or type, can use their website as a powerful marketing tool: the internet (and much of the open source code that powers it) was created as a global public resource that is open and accessible to all, making it the great equalizer. Whether you consider your business part of Wall Street or Main Street, all websites are ranked in search engines by a nonpartisan algorithm.
At this point in the conversation, it’s important to point out that I am referring to “organic” or “natural” search engine results — not online advertising. When I wrote “nonpartisan” in the previous paragraph, many of you probably raised your eyebrows because Google, the largest search engine in the US, is the tech giant it is today because of AdWords.
While Google’s AdWords algorithm was built in auction-style format and, therefore, designed to give preference toward certain advertiser characteristics, Google’s search engine algorithm operates around different parameters. There are certainly pros to using pay-per-click (PPC) as a part of a website marketing strategy, but the fact remains that it is a form of online advertising and can be cost-prohibitive for younger or smaller businesses.
Understanding a few basic features about Google’s organic search algorithm, combined with web design best practices, will put your small business on even ground with your bigger business counterparts and create an unbiased playing field (just like those in favor of net neutrality believe it should be).
Website strategies that you can use to compete with your bigger business counterparts
Follow SEO and website design best practices
When it comes to your small business’s website design, the first question is always around budget and “how much is it going to cost?” As a marketer who has led (and participated in) website design and development projects for businesses big and small, you can spend $250 for a DIY service or $250,000 for a professional web design agency to do the heavy lifting for you.
One caveat that I do want to make is around the $250,000 website design and development price tag. Many businesses incorrectly equate a big price tag with being delivered a brand new shiny website that incorporates digital and SEO best practices. After all, ranking on the first page of Google with a beautiful and sleek website is certainly worth $250,000…right? Yes and no.
While you might be an honest businessperson, there are dishonest online marketing agencies out there who are more than willing to take your money by overcomplicating a simple website request (and charging you for it). I sit near the sales department here at Big Drop and hear daily phone conversations around the (often unnecessary) features and high price tag that another digital agency is quoting for a straightforward website design and development project.
For example, I would be hard-pressed to think of situation where a medium-sized law firm (a few locations, approx. 100 employees, has a small marketing team that would be maintaining the website post-launch) would require a custom-built content management platform behind their website that cost $250,000. Yet, this was a conversation I was eavesdropping on last Friday.
To weed out the bad apples, here’s a few strategies you can use when it comes to picking a web development company:
- Online reviews aren’t just for restaurants on Yelp anymore; check out an agency’s Google reviews. If they don’t have any available, ask them for a few references from clients that are similar to your small business. Any digital web agency worth your time and money will be more than happy to supply you with this information.
- Request project quotes from multiple different marketing agencies. If one is significantly out-of-line with the others, ask why and do some more research. If you’re in the process of gathering website development quotes, we’ll be happy to provide you with one. Get in touch with us.
- One would assume that a digital marketing agency that understands SEO best practices would have a website that ranks for their own keywords. While not showing up in the #1 spot on Google for “best web development company” shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, a search for the agency’s name that doesn’t show up until page five should set off some alarms for you.
- As a general rule, websites built using custom (or proprietary) content management systems benefit only one party: the agency that owns or creates the code.*As a devotee to the bus theory, I am a firm believer that more than one person should understand and be able to make changes/update your website. While that person might not be you (or even work at your small business), the website code and content management system that a website agency builds for you should be easily manipulated by a different web agency (or developer). Websites using WordPress themes or Magento are universal standards and any coder can step in and help, should your agency be hit by a bus (knock on wood!).
* If you are going the DIY route with your website, it is to be expected that you’ll use a content management system owned by your host — and this is normal. DIY website providers (like GoDaddy or Squarespace) build their backend framework so that they can serve a large volume of customers at lower price point.
If you are a small business that falls into the DIY category, you’re in luck: there is no shortage of technology that makes quality web design that is beautiful, intuitive, and user-friendly available at very reasonable price points. Many of these DIY web design services are extremely innovative when it comes to cutting-edge web development and design.
Small businesses are structured to build relationships with today’s customer
A recently released Harvard Business Review ebook, Designing a Marketing Organization for the Digital Age, discusses how enterprise organizations should structure the different business units within a marketing department (product, advertising, partnerships, events, customer service, etc.) to adapt to a customer journey that is unpredictable and no longer linear. One of the CMO’s interviewed recommended that enterprise organizations to restructure so they are more nimble and can move quickly; this will help them capitalize on customer opportunities when presented.
Sounds a lot like the structure of a small business to me, no?
Moreover, multinational corporations are slowed down by their sheer size and hierarchical structure. Your small business can react to market changes very quickly because you aren’t slowed down by structure and processes; the leader makes a decision and it is executed, often within hours. Large companies often require multiple meetings, stakeholder buy in, and sign-off from legal…all of which take time. By the time a large company is able to react to a market opportunity, it’s come and gone.
When you’re a small business owner it’s easy to look at the relationships that dominant brands have with their customers and assume that they’re playing an entirely different sport than you. They have widespread name recognition, cultivate powerful feelings of attachment with their customers, and have massive PR machines at work that keep their names in the headlines for better or worse. While it’s true that there are many advantages that come with a high level of recognition, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t always this way for them, and that at some point every customer found out about them for the first time.
Babies don’t come out of the womb knowing that Apple designs slick tech products. It’s not until consumers begin to process advertising that we formulate a relationship with even the most famous brands in the world. Small companies, of course, have this moment with their customers as well. These days it will likely occur digitally, which is why the way your brand is presented to the customer via your website is so crucial. When someone’s first experience with your business is defined by the design and information offered on your site, you have an opportunity to engage them the same way that Fortune 500 companies do.
Build a web strategy using evergreen design principles
There’s a subtle distinction between staying relevant and being trendy: staying relevant means you are plugged into the world around you and understand what your customers are looking for in an experience; being trendy means chasing fads in an attempt to gain attention.
Too often small business owners fall victim to chasing website design and development trends, in hopes that they will stand out in a crowded market and snag customers at the right moment. Unfortunately, this strategy often backfires because would-be customers don’t understand how to navigate throughout the website and simply abandon (instead visiting your competitor who has a website with a good user experience).
Evergreen web design, on the other hand, is based on timeless aesthetics and logical navigation that will keep your customers engaged on your site for longer periods of time. When you build your brand around a design scheme that can stand the test of time, you’ll likely only require minor tweaks and content updates in the years to come to keep your brand’s digital image relatable and relevant.
If you are unsure whether a website design feature is trendy or here to stay, you can always email your question to us at [email protected] and we’ll get you an answer.
An exceptional user experience creates loyal customers
Increasingly, along with core components such as product use and customer service, the user experience of your website plays an important role in shaping the customer’s overall relationship with your company. This may be where the bulk of their interaction with your brand is confined to, making it more important than ever that you deliver an outstanding experience that they will want to return for time and time again.
After all, it’s no secret that repeat customers are willing to pay a premium for products/services. And, recent research shows that customers are actually willing to pay nearly 15% more for a product on a website that has a great user experience, too.2
Build your small business’s authority (with customers and search engines) via content marketing
Content marketing (noun) is a type of marketing that involves the creation and sharing of online materials )such as videos, blog posts, and social media posts) that do not explicitly promote a brand, but has the intention of generating interest in its products or services.
Both customers and search engines love content marketing because it helps them understand your small business’s authority in the marketplace.
Building credibility sans national or global name recognition is a challenge for small businesses who are hoping to compete with established companies for market share. Thankfully, your website can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you in this regard, provided that you incorporate content that gives the reader valuable information.
When you know which of your customers’ pain points your product is suited to resolve, you can create content that explains how your offering can fulfill their needs. Testimonials and customer reviews give your prospects the opportunity to hear from others who were once in a similar situation to them. They also transmit your sales talking points into the mouths of actual users, and they work to substantiate your own claims made about your products.
In terms of using content marketing to build authority with search engines, I will reference my net neutrality point from earlier: search engine algorithms only rank the factors that a website provides to them. Both you and your bigger business counterpart are on the same playing field when it comes to marketing your website and ranking in search engines.
Myth: search engines discriminate against small brands
Google’s search engine algorithm doesn’t care that Walmart is nearly a $500 billion company when it returns results. It also doesn’t give weight to the fact that Microsoft has the third-highest market cap of any company in existence. It doesn’t need to. What it does know is that these companies feature well-designed websites with scores of internal and external links, high-quality content, and an established base of visitors.3
By devising an effective digital marketing strategy for consistently producing value-added content, creating a system of relevant internal links, including specific, long-tail keywords throughout your website — and utilizing other SEO best practices — you can compete in the same realm as the mega-corporations.
The principles of strong SEO are the same whether you sell $10 billion or $10,000 worth of product per year, and increasing your traffic through organic search can open numerous doors for your organization.
Your website = another customer touchpoint
Just like your print marketing materials, sales collateral, and customer service process, your website exists for the purpose of delivering value to your customers first and foremost. In this regard, you’re no different than the multinational corporations who buy advertising time during the Super Bowl. As long as your website design is based around this principle, people will find it and want to use it.
It doesn’t take a six-figure budget to create a website that makes intelligent use of content integration, SEO, aesthetically-pleasing design, and features a fantastic user experience. These are the strategies that established brands employ to keep their customers engaged online, and they’re available to any company that seeks them out.