The open for business sign is out on your door. What about virtually? A website is your virtual open for business sign and so much more. Did you know that currently only a little over 45% of small businesses have a website?

Without a website your small business is virtually invisible to consumers. A website is no longer a luxury, but a necessity for your small business. Plain and simple, you need a website.

Websites are smart investments for your small businesses, and here is why:

■ Websites can be your 24-hour salesperson, as well as a customer service representative: Potential customers search the web for products, services and answers.

■ Websites are cost-effective: Depending on the complexity of the site, it can cost a couple of hundred dollars for a do-it-yourself site or $500 to $2,500 for a professionally designed site. Domain name and hosting can cost about $15 a month; however, you are often required to buy a year or more upfront.

■ Websites are adaptable: As your business grows your website can too, and adapt to the changing needs of your business and customers.

■ Websites are measurable: There are free statistics services such as Google Analytics that can track how many people are visiting your site, where they came from, how long they were there, what pages they were visiting, and what types of devices they were using such a desktop, smart phone or tablet. It’s good information to know, especially to measure whether your paid advertising or social media efforts are paying off.

■ Websites are great referral tools for satisfied customers to share with others: Word of mouth is the best kind of advertising.

Now that we’ve established why your small business needs a website, it needs to start with a well-devised plan based on current and future business goals, and then build it to suit your business. It doesn’t have to be flashy, but it needs to:

■ Be identifiable: Your web-address should reflect what you do and who you are.

■ Have a simple and clean layout: White space is a good thing. Pictures or logos should have a purpose and not overwhelm. This will allow your site to load quickly. You have less than 30 seconds to make an impression before people move on.

■ Have meaningful content: Your website needs to provide useful and relevant information. Keep it updated and relevant. This is where a blog could be helpful. Offer RSS feeds or e-mail subscriptions. If you have a Facebook page or Twitter account offer that as another way to connect, but remember your website is the tree trunk and social networking platforms are the branches leading back to your website.

■ Display your contact information prominently: There’s nothing more frustrating to a customer than when they can’t find a phone number or email address so they can contact you.

■ Be easy to navigate: You need to tell visitors what’s on the site, help them get there and make it easy to get more information. Test your site for usability.

■ Include a privacy statement: In this era of privacy concerns, a privacy statement should be included to show your commitment to customers. You are building a relationship with the customer, and that’s built on trust and transparency. Your policy should say how you handle e-mail addresses and accept orders, identify who has access to this information and so on.

And you need to evaluate continually whether your website should be redesigned and adapted to changes in technology.

Looking to the future is important. And the future is the mobile web. There are big differences between mobile and traditional displays. While most websites look OK on a desktop or laptop, those same sites may appear clunky and hard to navigate on the smaller displays of smart phones or tablet computers such as the iPad.

Why should this matter to your business now? One in four U.S. cell subscribers use smart phones, according to researcher comScore. But if last year’s sales trends continue, more than half will be using smart phones and mobile web browsers by year-end. And Morgan Stanley analysts recently predicted the mobile web will rule over desktops by 2015.

While many small businesses put a low importance on this now, it’s clear you need to start thinking about it because that is where your customers are going. Having a mobile-optimized website can make your site stand high above your competitors and make it very easy for your customers to connect with you.

How do you get a mobile-optimized website for your business? The first step is to determine what content needs to be on your mobile site, says Brian McDonald, marketing communications consultant for design and marketing company MCDezigns based in Cary, North Carolina.

Most mobile visitors want specific information and that should be easy to find, says McDonald, who is also the marketing blogger at Squarejawmedia.com and has worked with Fortune 500 companies. As such, you should have your contact information easy to read and phone numbers clearly visible so viewers can click on your number to call you.

The site could be a stripped-down version of your regular site to provide customers with just the basics. Your core information is your products and services, contact information, map and directions, hours of operation and key staff.

Create a simple layout with your logo and minimal graphics, McDonald says. Each page could be an icon that links from the home page, and sub-pages should have a simple “home” link to take you back.

McDonald warns you shouldn’t have a complicated navigation system on your mobile site. Keep it to three to five pages with short menu titles.

There are a variety of options for building such sites:

■ If you use WordPress or Blogger, there are plug-ins to install. If you use a different blog provider, see if there are mobile themes that will perform many of these functions.

WordPress has several mobile themes, and WPtouch offers free and premium versions depending on your site’s needs. Make sure it is cross-platform friendly, working on the Android, BlackBerry and iPhone operating systems.

■ Use services such as MoFuse.com and Mippin.com that will create mobile versions of your website. Many have varying price plans and also free options.

Having a good website will attract and retain customers and help you grow your business. And isn’t that you want as a business owner?

This post was originally published in Eastern North Carolina Woman Magazine’s Summer 2011 issue.

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