Ten years ago, having a website was quite a big deal. Helped in no small part by the dotcom bubble, websites became the essential business accessories, but the barrier to entry remained fairly high for most non-tech savvy business owners. I recall a close friend of mine paying out over £ 1500 for a two-page flat HTML website which, even in the late nineties, looked embarrassingly amateurish. In fact, it had been put together in Microsoft Frontpage, a piece of software which cost around £ 100 in those days. But there was so much mystique around the web that people were willing – if not necessarily happy – to pay high prices in order to get themselves "online".
Since then, the mystique surrounding web design has declined dramatically in the face of increased competition in the web design community, and something approaching a fair open market has emerged. A small business can now buy a bespoke website for as little as £ 100, and with the advent of blogs (such as Blogspot), individuals have discovered a medium for expression without the constraints of having to understand how to put a website together. Ignoring the issue of domain name paucity (thanks to the domain name trade which has emerged in recent years), nowdays getting online is both easy and very affordable.
On the face of it, this should be good news for small business owners. But in reality, the web landscape has become Tougher than ever before, and knowing exactly how to tackle it has become a mystery again to most business owners I speak to. Let's examine the problems:
Increased competition in the web design field has made it harder – not easier – to choose a provider:
If you are not a tech-head, it is hard to distinguish between the thousands of web designers selling their services online. One claims to be an SEO expert while the other preaches expertise in "Ajax environments" … but without becoming deeply immersed yourself in this weird and wonderful world, it is practically impossible to tell which designer is better than the other. Choosing a provider has been reduced to an exercise in portfolio-browsing and price wars, resulting in most small businesses plumping for either: someone who is local; someone who has done websites in the same sector; or someone who is cheaper than everyone else for ostensibly the same level of quality.
Saturation of the online market has made it very difficult to get noticed:
Google, for its many qualities, has perpetuated such a myth around its search algorithms that it has ignited an entire industry: Search Engine Optimization. In the good old days of the Dotcom Bubble, you set up a website and then spend a ludicrous amount of money on promoting it through the traditional channels of TV and press advertising. Nowadays, everyone is looking for magical ways of getting a piece of the powerful Google audience through "optimization", which seems to have replaced traditional advertising channels for the online sector. It is possible to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on search engine optimization, and again you are faced with an intense swathe of providers all falling over themselves to help you get a sniff at the top ten in Google.
The problem with this new sector is transparency. A client I recently worked with was very impressed when an SEO company sent them a "keyword cloud" to highlight which keywords were prominent on their page. The SEO company did not explain where this "cloud" came from or really what it meant, but it impressed the hell out of my client, who understood very little about the whole concept. When I showed them that a keyword cloud could be produced very quickly for no money whatever, the impression was off … but I just saved the company from spending an awful amount of money on the back of being impressed by a single piece of technical jargon. SEO is unduly very important, but it has been commoditized by a sometimes exploitative industry using technical elitism to its advantage.
New phenomena such as Social Networking and Web 2.0 are entirely new and scary business models:
There is some thoughtful fanaticism surrounding the "new" Web today – which, loosely, revolves around the concept that content is king and everyone needs to connect and interact (Social Networking). I read an article not too long ago entitled "Free – Why $ 0.00 Is The Future Of Business" which sparked a lot of hysterical debate among the business community on sites like LinkedIn.com about how business was going to change forever (act now or miss out !!!). People are genuinely in a panic about keeping up to speed with this new economy, a panic made more acute by a general lack of understanding about how it all works.
Let's get one thing absolutely clear: economics rests essentially on the concept of humans transacting goods or services between themselves. This concept has not changed in thousands of years, and although technological advances have widened the channels through which we can trade, even on the Internet the basic laws of economics are in full force. For example, how does Google, an entirely free service to the consumer, make money? Through selling the opportunity for advertisers to reach their huge audience. Sure, the technology is extremely advanced, but fundamentally the transaction is between human beings buying and selling a service. Nothing has changed. The same applies to Facebook, Yahoo, MySpace, and all the other consumer-facing "web 2.0" businesses.
If you think of the internet in comparison to television, you will quickly see that the principles are very similar: television holds large audiences captive through spelling content offered for free (in most cases), and businesses sell to that audience via advertising. There is a direct 21st century comparable in the rapid rise of YouTube, which has a huge captive audience due to its compelling content, but advertising is what will make it profitable.
The greatest misconception about the current wave of dotcom mania is that something extremely new and world-changing is taking place. While there have been some extremely significant and exciting technological shifts (which I will discuss in a different article), what is in fact happening is that the internet has figured out how to make money, and has turned into business models that have implemented for a long, long time in order to achieve that.
So, where does that leave the small business owner? Well, although the internet has settled something into a more traditional playing field, with large companies dominating the user-base as well as the revenue, the thing that made the internet so extraordinary in the first place still remains: accessibility. If you open a business in Reading, you are unquestionably to attract customers from Texas on a regular basis, no matter how compelling your product or service. On the internet, this is entirely possible still. But, like any potential market, you have to work in order to reach out to it, and simply putting up any old website just is not going to do that.
People are attracted to sites like YouTube and Google because both sites do something quite basic extremely well. As a small business, it is usually unrealistic to expect to grow at anything like the pace of those two companies, but the principles on which all great websites are based should still be applied to your own. Think of your website in terms of owning a shop, and apply the principles that retailers have been using for years in order to entice people to walk in. And then, once they're in your shop, think about how you are going to entice them to actually buy.
There's a reason why supermarkets put milk and bread at the back of the shop – it is so that customers coming in for milk and bread (which are basic, repeat purchase items), will have to walk past all the other aisles bristling with tempting products in order to get to the milk and bread section. On the internet, the milk and bread equivalent is Google, which some 75% of people online use as a first point of entry into the web (many having it as their browser homepage). Things like GoogleAds are the other aisles that tempt you along the way. The principle is very similar.
As a small business owner, you need to think about your website in commercial terms and forget about the scary technical aspects. Rather than just putting a website up for the sake of it, think of it as buying retail space and how you are going to make that retail space work for you. If you were setting up a shop, would you simply buy any old unit and then sit there waiting for customers to walk in? No, you would look at ways of proactively marketing your shop and maximizing on user behavior once they have walked in. If you do not, then you are simply paying out on a pointless overhead and leaving the rest to chance.
On the web, you need to find your market as well as helping it find you. SEO helps with the latter, but the former requires a marketing strategy all on its own. This may seem daunting, but the rewards are potentially huge. Do not let your website remain an overhead.