Make Your Website Pop

Entangling the mystery of the World Wide Web can be a lot like walking into quicksand: the more you get into it, the harder it is to get where you want to be. Credit the sheer number of sites that populate the Web, creating clutter that makes it hard for small businesses to distinguish themselves.

“Ultimately, it’s the business owners who devote time to their Websites that reap the greatest rewards online,” says Jane Purcell, senior vice president of Advanced Access, a Web design and hosting firm in Anaheim Hills, California.

“I equate it to a car. If you don’t put gas in it and get regular oil changes, it won’t perform for you,” says Purcell. “The same goes for the Web, where sites that aren’t useful or current do little good for their owners.”

One way to maximize your Web investment is through a process known as “search engine optimization,” or SEO. This combines HTML design elements, text, and keywords to ensure that the site gets the best possible recognition from the major search engines.

Brian Chernicky, an instructor in San Diego who specializes in Internet marketing, says SEO has been around since the advent of the Internet. “We were doing it 10 years ago, when SEO didn’t mean anything to anyone,” says Chernicky. “Now it rolls off the tongue of every marketing department worldwide.”

To maximize their SEO strategies, Chernicky says companies should define their niche market, then decide how they want that customer base to find them on the Internet. “It’s getting harder and harder to differentiate and distinguish yourself online,” says Allan Gorman, director of Brandspa, a marketing and branding consultant firm in Montclair, New Jersey, and author of Briefs for Better Brands: Tips, Parables and Insights for Market Leaders (Brandspa Books, $23.95).
Gorman offers the following five tips for companiestrying to make a splash on the Web:

1) Wow them from the first page: First impressions mean everything on the Web, so your site’s front page must shine in order to be effective. A company’s front page, for example, should forgo bandwidth-heavy graphics and instead feature a bulleted list of services and a simple, readily accessible way to contact the owner for an estimate or additional information. Subsequent pages can showcase your portfolio, testimonials from satisfied customers, and links to free e-newsletters.

2) Make it user-friendly: It’s age-old advice, but Gorman says companies still aren’t adhering. “Ease of use equates to both a pleasant visiting experience and marketing effectiveness,” says Gorman, who suggests using clear language, useful links, and navigation bars to steer customers in the right direction.

3) Make them eager to return soon: Attracting visitors is important, but persuading them to return is even more important, says Gorman. Create long-term online customers by incorporating relevant, self-assessment tests, surveys, and other tools with related products and services your business provides. This ensures an educational and interactive experience for the customer and is an effective marketing tool for your business. Start with a simple biweekly newsletter, a blog, or a chat forum on