Your first instinct may be to make your site different from everyone else's. After all, trying to differentiate your business is what you've been doing throughout your branding process.
Building a Website is Like Building a Custom Home
When you create a custom house, you can arrange your floor plan however you want, paint the walls as you please and fill the house with furniture you love. Your goal is to create a unique space that stands out from everyone else's.
In the same vein, there are elements of your website where standing out makes sense. For example, the overall look of your site and your copy should be different from other sites - especially those of your competitors.
Differentiating your website is good for your small business - to a point. What you don't want to do is reengineer its basic structure.
Standing Out Isn't Always the Stable Way to Build
Underneath it all, even the most unique custom home has the same foundation and spacing between studs in the wall as every other house on the block.
By following underlying principles of construction, builders help ensure that the house is structurally sound. Why not use the same approach when it comes to your website? That way, your site is far more likely to work well for you.
To use site building rules, of course, you need to know what they are.
Rule 1: Do Competitive Research
Before someone sets out to build a custom house, they'll probably do quite a lot of research—looking at other houses, determining the architectural styles that appeal to them, and perhaps even checking out homes in the neighborhood where they want to build.
The same goes for your website. You need find out what you're up against. Once you're familiar with competitors' sites, you can make sure that your site will not only be different in the right places, such as look and feel and content, but that it will also be comparable in the right places.
Most likely, your competitors have been building their sites for some time - and probably updating them to answer customer questions and market their businesses more strongly. You don't want prospects to pass you by because your site doesn't answer an important question that a competitor has addressed.
Visiting other sites and making notes of basic structure, business information presented, customer questions answered and even relevant tools and articles gives you a jump start on creating a site that facilitates apples-to-apples comparisons.
Rule 2: Plan Your Site Architecture
As you may suspect, planning your site architecture is like drawing up architectural plans for a custom house, where you plan just what you'll include and what will go in each space. For example, do you want a library? A formal dining room? And where will you put the piano?
Similarly, for your website, you must decide the pages you'll include and the information on each page.
When planning your site architecture, think about what you'd like your website to do for your business. Do you want it to bring in clients and close sales? If so, pricing information and even a shopping cart can help do that. Do you need your site to get media attention? Then a Media Room might be the key. Make sure to include the pages and content required to get the job done.
In addition, think about how you plan to expand your website in the future. At the beginning, designing a website of more than 10 pages can overwhelm a small business - both in terms of budget and time required to write the content.
But, if you create an expanded site map at the beginning - a website wish list if you will - then you and your website strategist can determine which pages will be most important in helping you reach your goals. You'll also have a clear roadmap you can use to add on to your website as your budget and schedule allow.
Rule 3: Name Your Pages in a Way That Makes Sense
Have you ever walked into an unfamiliar house and been unable to find your way around? You probably asked the hostess where the kitchen was so you could drop off your pot luck dish or the way to the bathroom.
On a website, though, visitors don't have the luxury of asking where things are. So you want to make it as easy as possible for them to find the information that they need.
Some small businesses want navigation button names to be clever or interesting. But, it's important to think about the website visit from your customers' or prospects' point of view. They often come to your site looking for specific information. Even if they're just browsing, they want an organized way to look around - where clicking a link takes them to the page they expect. Remember that visitors don't have a lot of time or the patience to bumble around your site.
You see the same navigation buttons on every site you visit for a good reason. Established usage conventions have trained visitors to look for names like "Services," "About" and "Contact" when they're out browsing around. Capitalize on this and your visitors will be able to find what they're looking for quickly - keeping your site and your business in their good graces.
Following these three simple rules makes it much more likely that your website is structurally sound and that your visitors will have a great experience there instead of a frustrating one.
About The Author
Erin Ferree is a brand identity designer who creates big visibility for small businesses. Her ebook, "All The News About Email Newsletters" will tell you everything you need to know about desiging, writing, and sending out an email newsletter to stay in touch with your clients and prospects.