By Janet Attard
Running a business today without a collateral website isn't an option. Having a website is a necessity whether you are a speech pathologist or own a party goods store. Consumers and business owners alike use the web to research purchases as well as to make them. So, even if a buyer ends up inside your brick and mortar store to make the purchase, chances are good the sale began at your website. Having a website and profiting from it aren't necessarily a sure thing, however. In fact, some websites are so poorly designed and constructed that they drive customers away instead of getting them to open their wallets.You can minimize that problem by following these basic principles of sound website design and navigation:

1. Show what you have to sell
Visitors want information about the product they seek. If you make it difficult to find your shopping arena, if your pages take a long time to load, or if visitors can't find your order form, they will likely give up or go shop in your competitor's online store. Keep each page to no more than 40K. Don't be graphic heavy your website; use thumbnails with descriptive text of items. If you feel more detail or incentive will help your message, make your thumbnails clickable for more graphics or item-specific information. If you have a lot of offerings, bundle them in sensible categories. For instance if you sell office supplies, you might group similar or related items under "paper and stationery" or perhaps "writing instruments" or "software," etc.

2. Look professional
It wasn't long ago that just having a website was avant-garde, and it didn't much matter what the site actually looked like. That's no longer the case. While there are still some pretty ugly websites that are relatively successful, customers for the most part expect a company's website to be as professional-looking as their printed sales literature and marketing materials. Anything less than a professional facade for your online shop makes your business look small and unreliable.

3. Make your site easy to navigate
Time still means money and businesses operators and consumers today have little time to waste. If customers can't find what they want quickly and easily on your site they'll move on. Include a sensible and easily understood table of contents (often called a navigational bar or navbar) on your home page and include a search function for the website as well.

4. Encourage browsing and impulse buys
Historically, retail stores tempt your buying impulses by putting sale merchandise at some distance from the cash register, requiring you to walk the gauntlet of items that may pique your interest and in turn tweak your wallet. Fast food stores and supermarkets often have candy, batteries, sundries and magazines near the checkout counter. Clothing stores may have socks, jewelry or perfume near the cash register. Promotional displays on your website also can increase product sales. For instance, if you run an article on how to choose digital cameras, create a small clickable ad for digital cameras if you sell them and put it in the margin of the article. If you sell books, write short reviews and link to where the reader can buy the book you reviewed. Banner ads for your own products on your website work like ads on the windows of your favorite supermarket and remind visitors of other goodies you have on your website.

5. Suggest related sales items
An easy way to increase sales is to advise customers heading for the checkout stand of related products they may want to buy. If your software allows it, include links to related products from the shopping cart screen. If you can't easily do that, include the link to related products on a thank you page.

6. Give them ordering choices
Not everyone is comfortable shopping online with a credit card or revealing credit card information over the Internet. To maximize your sales, give customers alternate methods for making a purchase. Provide order forms and ordering methods by telephone, fax and mail. And make those options are easy to find or your customer may head for the "door"empty-handed. If you find too many customers use call, fax or mail their order, consider adding a surcharge for orders that aren't placed electronically. Or, increase your prices slightly and then offer discounts for ordering online.

7. Tell them how to reach you
Customers want to know who you are and how they can make contact. They want that information easy to find or they may move on to a competitor's website to make their purchase. You can avoid that credibility trap by having a "Contact Us" button on every page of your web site. The "Contact Us" button can lead to a page that lists your business name, email address, telephone, fax and other information customers may need to know. If you don't want to take the calls yourself, have an answering service take them for you. Remember the Internet runs 24/7 and people use it all night long. If you don't have someone answering phones 24 hours a day, indicate your hours of operation and your time zone with your contact information.

8. Include a feedback form
A feedback form can be a great multitasking element of your website. It gives your customers another way to reach you; it lets you know what customers think about your products and services and what they wanted but can't find; and the feedback form is good for public relations. Having it on your site will help customers form a positive impression of your company as one that cares. Put the feedback form where people can find it easily on your web site, perhaps on a navigational menu or as a text link.

9. Read and answer email promptly
One of the main attractions of the Internet is its immediacy. You can find information, shop for products, send and receive letters, place orders, send invoices, view pictures, and access documents 24 hours a day. Because websites are so available, visitors expect to get a response in hours. Keep customers happy by answering email inquiries within 24 hours or less. If you don't answer your email in a timely fashion, your customers will find one of your competitors on the web that does.

10. Help people who stumble into your web site find their way back
After visitors peruse your website, they may save or print some of your information to read at a later time. When they find that information later and decide to return to your site, make sure they can find their way back. Ensure the name of your web site, phone number and your URL is on the bottom of all pages. To avoid typing that information in manually on every page include it on the bottom of whatever template you use to create web pages.

Online reprints of this article must be left intact as written, and include the author's byline, copyright and resource box in their entirety. You must get permission from the author to reproduce the article in print publications. © 2008 Attard Communications, Inc.

Author's Bio: 

Janet Attard is a small and home business expert, author and founder and CEO of the Business Know-How® small business website. The site provides business ideas, tips, hints and resources for starting a business, marketing, Internet marketing, and managing employees. For more free information to grow your business, visit