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January 21, 2008

10 Must-Have Features for your Website

You can put any number of snazzy features on your website. If you ever meet with a web design firm, your sure to hear about all the cool scripts, animations and other interactive add-ons that can go on your pages. Some pizzazz isn’t a bad thing, especially if you’re just starting out and need to set yourself apart from the competition.

But the website features that count toward your bottom line are the ones that attract and retain customers and entice them back to you regularly. Along with the bells and whistles, your business home on the web needs to have some basic must-haves that shoppers expect. Make sure that your site meets the minimum daily requirements. This article describes ten specific features that help you achieve these objectives.

Secure East-to-Remember URLs.

Names are critical to the success of any business. A name becomes identified with a business, and people associate the name with its products and its level of customer service. When a small company developed a software product called Lindows, giant Microsoft sued initially, but eventually paid $20 million to stop the infringement on its well-known trademarked product Windows.

Write down five or six names that are short and easy to remember and that would represent your business if included in an URL. Do a domain name search and try to find the one you want. Try to keep your site’s potential name as short and as free of elements like hyphens as possible.

Provide a Convenient Payment Method

Shoppers go online for many reasons, but those reasons don’t include a desire for things to be complex and time consuming. No matter how technically complex it may be to get one’s computer on the internet, shoppers still want things to be quick and seamless. At the top of the list of seamless processes is the ability to pay for merchandise purchased online.

You don’t have to get a merchant account from a bank to process your own credit-card payments. You don’t need to get point-of-sale hardware, either. The other day, Greg paid for a heater from a company that sent him to PayPal’s website. PayPal began as an independent company, but it became so popular among members of the auction site eBay that eBay eventually purchased it. Chances are that many of your prospective customers already have accounts with PayPal if they use eBay. Greg did, so his purchase process was completed in less than a minute. Set yourself up as a seller with PayPal and accept money orders & personal cheques.

Promote Security, Privacy, and Trust

Even shoppers who have been making purchases online for years still feel uncertainty when they type their credit-card number and click a button labelled Pay Now. We’re speaking from personal experience. What promotes trust? Information and communication. Shoppers online love getting information that goes beyond what they can find in a printed catalogue. Be sure to include one or more of the following details that can make shoppers feel good about pressing your Buy Now buttons:

  • An endorsement from an organization that is supposed to promote good business practices, such as investors in people, business in the community, or by your own customers.
  • A privacy statement that explains how you’re going to handle customers’ personal information.
  • Detailed product descriptions that show you’re knowledgeable about a product.

Another good thing that promotes trust is information about who you are and why you love what you do, as described in the ‘Blow Your Own Trumpet’ section, later in this article.

Choose Goods & Services That Buyers Want

Every merchant would love to be able to read the minds of his or her prospective customers. On the internet, you have as much chance of reading someone’s mind as you have of meeting that person face to face. Nevertheless, the internet does give potential buyers several ways to tell you what they want:

  • Come right out and ask them. On your website, invite requests for merchandise of one sort or another.
  • After a purchase, ask customers for suggestions about other items they’d like to buy from you.
  • Visit message boards, newsgroups, and websites related to the item you want to sell.
  • Make a weekly (remember that Saturdays & Sundays are the best days for auctions to end) search of eBay’s completed auctions to see what has sold, and which types of items have fetched the highest prices.

Have a Regular Influx of New Products

With a printed catalogue, changes to sales items can be major. The biggest problem is the need to physically reprint the catalogue with inventory changes. One of the biggest advantages associated with having an online sales catalogue is the ability to alter your product line in a matter of minutes, without sending artwork to a printer. You can easily post new sales items online each day, as soon as you get new sales figures.

One reason to keep changing your products on a regular basis is that your larger competitors are doing so. Lands’ End, which has a well-designed and popular online sales catalogue, puts out new products on a regular basis and announces them in an email newsletter to which loyal customers can subscribe.

Be Current with Upkeep & Improvements

Do you have a favourite blog, comic strip, or newspaper columnist that you like to visit each day? We certainly do. If these content providers don’t come up with new material on a regular basis, you get discouraged. Your loyal customers will hopefully feel the same way about your website, eBay shop or other sales venue.

We know what you’re thinking: You’ve got so many things to do that you can’t possibly be revisiting your website every day and changing headings or putting new sales online. You can’t be in two places at once. But two people can. Hire a student or friend to run your site and suggest new content for you. In a five-minute phone call, you can tell your assistant what to do that day, and you can go on to the rest of your many responsibilities.

Personally Interact with Your Customers

The fact that personal touch counts for so much in internet communication is a paradox. With rare exceptions, you never meet face to face with the people with whom you exchange messages. Maybe it’s the lack of body language and visual clues that make shoppers and other web surfers so hungry for attention. But the fact is that impersonal, mass email marketing messages are reviled while quick responses with courteous thank-you’s are eagerly welcomed.

You can’t send too many personal email messages to your customers, even when they’re only making and enquiry and not a purchase. Not long ago, Greg asked some questions about a heater he was thinking of buying online. He filled out the form on the company’s website and submitted his questions. The representative of the company got right back to him.

‘First of all, let me thank you for your interest in our product,’ the letter began. She proceeded to answer his questions and then finished with another thank-you and ‘if you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.’ Greg didn’t hesitate: ‘He asked more questions, she answered and again said, ‘Don’t hesitate to ask’ at the end. It’s possible it was all ‘form letter’ material, added to the beginning and end of every enquiry, but it makes a difference. Greg eventually purchased the item.

Post Advertisements in the Right Places

When most people think about advertising on the internet, they automatically think about banner adverts placed on someone else’s web page. A banner advert is only one kind of online ad, and possibly the least effective. Make use of all the advertising options going online brings you, including the following:

  • Word of mouth: Bloggers use this method all the time: one person mentions something in another blog, that blogger mentions it to someone else, and so on.
  • Exchange links: ‘You link to my website, and ill link to yours’, in other words.
  • Multiply Websites: if you have two websites, you immediately have two sites linking to each one of yours. Your ability to exchange links with other websites triples, too.
  • Get listed in search engines: Make sure that your site is listed in the databases maintained by Google and the other search engines.

Blow Your Own Trumpet

Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart, and the Walton family still runs it, but 99 percent of the shoppers who flock to megastores every day don’t know or care about that fact. Wal-Mart is a well-established brand with a physical Presence. Your fledgling online business has neither of those advantages. You need to use your website to provide essential background information about yourself, why you started your business, and what your goals are.

Your immediate aim is to answer the question that naturally arises when a consumer visits your online business: ‘Who are these people?’ or ‘who is this guy?’ The indirect goal is to answer a question that the shopper doesn’t necessarily ask consciously, but that is present nonetheless: ‘Why should I trust this place?’ Be sure to list your experience, your background, your family, or your hobbies – anything to reassure online shoppers that you’re a reputable person who is looking out for their interests.

Create a Well-Organized Website

A well-organised website isn’t quite as essential as it used to be, because you can establish a regular income on eBay without having any website at all. But even if you become a well-established eBay seller, you’re going to want a website at some point or another. How do you make your site well organised? Make sure that your site incorporates these essential features:

  • Navigation buttons: consumers who are in a hurry expect to see a row of navigation buttons along the top or one of the sides of your homepage. Don’t make them hunt; put them there.
  • A Site Map: A page that leads visitors to all areas of your site can prevent them from going elsewhere if they got lost.
  • Links that actually work: Nothing is more frustrating than clicking a link that’s supposed to lead to a photo and/or a bit of information that you really want, and to come up with a generic page not found error message
  • Links that indicate where you are on the site: such links are helpful because, like a trail of breadcrumbs, they show how the customer got to a particular page. Heres an example:
    Clothing > Men’s > Sportswear > Shoes > Running

When your site grows to contain dozens of pages and several main categories, links that look like this can help people move up to a main category and find more subcategories.

So there I have given you information on the 10 must-have features for your website, follow these simple rules and you will have a website which customers will love, and a website which over-time will grow and achieve the goals you set out to achieve. good luck with your web site’s and if you have any questions, feel free to contact me or leave me a comment.

Author:  Andy MacDonald owns and runs his own website design company called Swift Media UK which also incorporates logo design & reliable web hosting. Also checkout our SEO Blog which is updated regularly with posts to help you achieve a top search engine ranking.