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Web sites run by small businesses far outnumber the Web sites run by large corporations. This means that most sites are produced and operated on a relatively small budget. Each dollar counts, and must be used carefully.

But few small business owners are spending enough time figuring out what constitutes an effective Web site before they pour money into the project. Time and time again, I see small business Web sites waste their resources on the wrong Web site elements.

When you can't afford to have your Web site designed by a team of experienced professionals, it doesn't mean you have to sacrifice usability and effectiveness. Just focus on your content.

Did you buy your first car when you were young and broke? It often comes down to a battle between your heart and your head (or your heart and your bank account). Flash versus sensibility. Constant mechanical problems versus reliability. A 1967 Volkswagen Bug versus a Honda Civic.

When I purchased my first car after college, I had to go for sensible reliability. My main objective was to get where I needed to get on a daily basis. Flash could come later, when I had a bigger bank account.

The same concept should be applied to Web sites. When money is tight and options must be limited, go for what produces reliable results.

The answer is surprisingly simple: content. The words on the page.

It's hard to go wrong when your Web site offers well-organized, well-written content. I'm not proposing that images and other more complex Web site elements are worthless. No, the best (and most expensive) Web sites seamlessly combine all the elements of professional Web design: graphic design, information design, technical design and content development.

Some companies can afford it all, but most—much like when shopping for a first car—must be pragmatic.

Content Is the Key

Let's identify the basic characteristics that make a Web site effective. Here are some adjectives that come to mind: interesting, informative, useful, attractive, organized, relevant, searchable, usable, fast and highly visible to search engines.

If your Web site does not meet those basic objectives, then it will not meet your customers' objectives, which ultimately means that it will not meet your business objectives.

There's obviously no magic formula that allows you to automatically create a Web site that contains all of the above characteristics. However, it's not an exaggeration to say that good content can bring you the closest to doing so.

Think about the Web site you are on at the moment. How did you find this article, and other articles? The labels are clear, the titles meaningful and concise, the content led you here. The information is designed in an intuitive way that creates a pleasant user experience. The content is current and relevant.

Important pieces of information are close to the surface—in other words, you didn't have to click 8 or 10 times before you reached the desired article.

The pages are light and download quickly. You are at all times aware of where you are, where you were and other places to which you may proceed. All such features relate directly to the quality of the content and the care with which it is organized.

Writing Your Own

It's wisest to hire a professional Web writer for your site. (And I'm not just saying that because I am a professional Web writer... honest!) A professional Web writer can offer invaluable advice about creating, displaying, organizing and writing your content, regardless of the industry.

Experienced Web writers are even adept at elements of information design and page design.

But if your budget is extremely tight and it's not possible to pay for a writer, here are some tricks that will help you do the job yourself:

You're the expert; share your knowledge. No one knows your business or industry as well as you; therefore, don't get so intimidated by the prospect of writing your own Web site that you fail to successfully share the helpful knowledge you hold. Relax and write in a natural voice, similar to the way you would speak to a consumer in person. Answer the questions you regularly get in your line of work.

Shorten it. This is a very important rule to keep in mind while creating content for a Web site, and is also the rule with which Web writers have the most trouble. Web writing is different from other types of writing. For most Web site writing, you must compress your ideas. Eyes grow weary when reading a computer monitor, and it behooves you not to overwhelm the page with mountains of words.

Check your spelling and grammar. Your Web site will be judged by lots of people for lots of different reasons. Don't let something as simple as a misspelled word give consumers the impression that you are careless—or worse: stupid. If you don't hire a professional writer for anything else, hire one to do a quick edit of everything you have written.

Choose your file formats wisely. In the past, search engines either had difficulty reading or could not read content in certain types of file formats, such as PDF, Microsoft Office documents and others. That has changed, and the better search engines now do (this excludes text presented through image files, such as jpg, gif and others). Still, forcing your customers to engage in timely downloads and limiting the potential for other sites to conveniently link to your content are two very good reasons to use HTML (or similar code) to display your content as much as possible.

Choose your font format wisely. There are many opinions about how to format your Web site's font. But if you follow a few basic rules, you should be OK. First, make it big enough to read: 10-point font or larger is the general rule. Make sure your font color and background color contrast well for easy reading; black on white is still the best. Choose a font that is plain, non-decorative and available on most computers; Arial and Verdana are still the most common choices. And, finally, AVOID USING ALL CAPS. NO ONE LIKES TO BE YELLED AT.

Ask the opinion of people not directly involved in your industry. This group can include friends, relatives, your favorite waitress... whoever is willing. The utter confusion or the clarity that crosses the faces of outsiders as they read through your Web site can be extremely helpful in making sure that you've constructed effective content.

Be willing to make regular updates. Your Web site's content should be treated like a living, breathing organism. It should change and grow, it should be fed regularly. Accept feedback and use it to improve the content on your Web site. Maintain content that is current, else your Web site will portray a neglectful business attitude.

There's no shame in having a simplified, stripped-bare, clean Web site if the information you provide answers the questions your consumers have. Web sites can be updated and upgraded at any time, so by starting with the best information you can offer you'll get and retain customers' attention long before you can afford to hire a multidisciplinary team of Web design professionals.

Not a bad entrance onto the world of the Internet for your small business.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Grace Stoeckle operates Grace Stoeckle Studios (www.gracestoecklestudios.com).