Emerald Coast Business Journal



Netting Results Make Your Company’s Internet Site Work Harder

By Jason Dehart and Lori Hutzler Eckert

A web site is pretty much a given in today’s business world. Whether online selling is the bread and butter of your operation or you just want to showcase your address and phone number, you want to be sure that the Internet is working for you.

For all its high-tech bells and Information Age whistles, the Internet serves an age-old business function. It’s actually about marketing, said Charles Hofacker, an electronic and Internet marketing professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

“Marketing really is the interface between the firm and the customer,” Hofacker said, “and so just because the interface becomes electronic does not really change that fundamental fact.”


Clicking with Your Consumers

With that in mind, when approaching your Web site, start with what you already know. Meeting your clientele’s needs is still job one.

“Everything has a time and place, and (your site) has to be driven by the customer’s need for convenience and for the reason they showed up at your doorstep,” Hofacker said. “The last thing we want to do is slow them down. They need to get to their task (completed), whatever that is, and we need to stand out of the way.”

Use technology wisely. Stay away from fancy animations and cool introductions that – even momentarily – hinder potential customers. Instead, try to keep things simple.

“I think people have to be very wary of using a new trick or technology for its own sake,” Hofacker said. “They should make sure it serves some customer need first. For example, maybe a movie would be great for a Realtor. I could click on a house and take a virtual tour. But not when I’m just landing at their site and trying to figure out what their 1-800 number is. That’s ridiculous.”

Out-of-date information also is annoying and can likewise drive away visitors and potential customers.

“You really have to keep your site fresh and prune the old links and make sure they all work, and you have to make sure you don’t have last year’s price information,” Hofacker said.

Craig Ferris, director of Internet revenue for Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, agreed that keeping the content current should be the top priority in managing your Web design for maximum benefits.

“No matter how small your business, there is nothing like fresh and accurate content to get people coming back to your site on a regular basis,” he said.


In Focus

Ferris – who is charged with maximizing the online experience for Sandestin’s customers, and thus was instrumental in a four-month site redesign last summer for the internationally recognized resort – said Sandestin conducted an independent feasibility study to create a site that was as user-friendly as possible.

“We found our site was not as easy to use as we felt it should be from the study,” he said. “The impetus was to increase awareness of the Internet as a more important channel – a strategy for our business.”

But hiring an outside agency to conduct research on the quality of your site is not the only research option, especially for small businesses operating on a limited marketing budget. Go for easy usability, said Hofacker, who recommends a relatively inexpensive way of doing just that.

“Put a human in front of your Web site, and get him or her to do stuff,” he advised. Give them some tasks and see what happens, see what they think – and get them to talk out loud.

“You may discover – if you try … giving a little task to do that you think should be doable – they can’t do it,” Hofacker said. “There’s a phenomenally high error rate when you actually put live human beings in front of live Web sites.”


Racking Up the Ranking Results

Not only must your Web site be easy for the consumer to use, it also must be easy to find – especially on Google. According to a 2006 study by Forrester Research, 93 percent of all Internet traffic is generated by search engines – and Google is the most popular U.S. search engine on the Web. Google logged 4 billion searches in May 2007 and, according to Nielsen NetRatings, dominated the market with a 56.3 percent share of searches, compared to second-place finisher Yahoo’s 21.5 percent.

Conventional Internet wisdom holds that if your Web site isn’t at the top of the first Google page, there is a strong chance that nobody will find you. Most people won’t go past the first three pages of results, according to the search-engine marketing company iProspect and JupiterResearch, a marketing and analysis firm.

Some people think high search rankings can be achieved by learning a few “tricks” or finding the right consultant, Hofacker said.

“The truth is, it is not something you can do so easily,” he said. “The algorithms that Google and other search engines use to float site names to the top of their list are based on how many other Web sites point or link to your Web site. It has to be worth pointing to. It has to be worthwhile visiting.

“The logic is, if I have a Web page out there, and nobody cares about it or nobody links to it, even though it’s spot-on exactly matching the search terms that the user has keyed in to Google, it’s probably not worth anything,” Hofacker said. “On the other hand, if I have a Web site that contains those keywords, and I have thousands and thousands of people who have a link to it, something’s going on, something kind of interesting about that site, and the page-rank algorithm and calculation causes the site to be much higher – maybe in the first two or three listings.”

Ferris, who has worked in Internet technology marketing for 10 years, contended that an effort to move to the top of search-engine result listings can be beneficial for business operators.

“They should not overlook the pay-for-click advertising opportunities,” he said. “Your position depends on how much you pay. You pay (search engines) for that positioning, but the key in that is targeting the right words. That is where a company that specializes in pay-for-click can help you.”

Combining this strategy, among others, with a redesigned Web site focusing on customer usability has paid off for Ferris and Sandestin.

“We can safely say that in the first two months, the online bookings were up 13 percent compared to the same period last year,” Ferris said. “And our revenue per booking has increased 20 percent over that same period.”

These kinds of bottom-line-boosting results, which can be easily tracked, are the wave of the future for Web site marketing.

“I think there has been a shift over the past several years as businesses realize the power of the tool,” Ferris said. “I also think that as the population becomes more Web-savvy, those businesses that don’t shift will miss customers they wouldn’t reach in any other way.”