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Your website offers you a direct and cost-effective way to connect with your customers. But for many small businesses, the thought of designing a website can be intimidating as it is unfamiliar territory for so many of us. I can tell you from first hand experience that it can be a bit scary. Answering questions like Do you want left navigation or top navigation? or Do you want a serif font or sans serif font for your headlines? are not decisions we make everyday, nor do we understand the long-term impact of those decisions.

Designing a website can be expensive and if not done correctly can cripple your business, particularly in the case of an e-commerce site. I can’t address all of the aspects of building a website in this article, but I can address some of the key design principles to follow to engage both existing customers and prospects with your site.

Step 1. Create consistency with brand guidelines

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You (or your designer) will need guidelines from which to work in order to develop a look and feel that is consistent with your company’s brand image and values. Use these guidelines when developing each page of your web presence. The primary areas to develop guidelines for are voice/tone, fonts, colors, and imagery style. For example, decide if the voice of the copy should be serious, comical, academic, or technical. Decide what font you think best represents the brand. Decide if the images and photos should be flashy, subdued, or pragmatic. Decide whether your business style should look more modern and professional or whimsical and playful.

These considerations create a strong set of guidelines that will guarantee consistency throughout the pages of your website. A set of guidelines that enforces consistency will also save you money, time, and frustration by preventing wasteful creative detours that can convolute the design process.

Step 2. SEO and ye shall be found

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Your website can’t be successful if your customer or prospective customers cannot find it. The best way to be found on the Internet is through search. You don’t have to be a search engine optimization (SEO) expert. But, you should learn the basics as SEO plays an important role in how a website is ranked in searches and who sees it. Every website needs a SEO strategy that leverages the power of main keywords and long tail SEO phrases and questions. To get started on keyword research, check out Uber Suggest and in addition to Google’s Keyword Planner tool to see what your customers are searching for. To learn some basic SEO tips, start with Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO or Search Engine Journal?s SEO guide.

The text on your website is important to search engines. For example, if your company sells guitars, not only should your website use the word ?guitar,? but it should also use common queries related to guitars, such as “learn how to play guitar”, “acoustic vs. electric guitar”, and best guitar strings. Your target keywords should be in your meta title tag and page headlines (or, for those more text savvy folks, your H tags such as H1 and H2). And should also appear organically within the context of your site copy, since Google and other search engines use the context as part of their ranking algorithm. It is the responsibility of marketers and web designers to keep up with the constantly evolving world of SEO and understand how Google’s algorithms affect website rankings in search results, but you can help keep them honest with a bit of knowledge under your belt.

Step 3. Let them pin!

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Word of mouth has always been the most powerful form of marketing, and word of mouth online (or should I say ?word of mouse?) has the potential to reach millions of consumers. Your website can give you the opportunity to create brand advocates who will use their voices to promote your products all over the Internet.

Savvy brands know that happy consumers talk to their friends, families, and others on online social networks. Encourage your site visitors to follow your social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr with share buttons. Websites designed to showcase new products and solicit consumer feedback make consumers not only feel like their opinions matter, but that they are part of the brand. This type of loyalty makes for powerful brand advocates and word of mouth marketing.

For extra credit in great website design, consider functional design elements that encourage interactivity such as comments or polls. Consumers have an innate desire to express their feelings about a brand or product that either impresses or disappoints them so give them the opportunity to do so.

Step 4. Inspire repeats

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Your website should compel consumers to visit regularly. Since visiting a website can often be a passive experience that consumers quickly forget about, companies that optimize their websites to make visits memorable often garner more traffic and higher levels of consumer engagement. An engaging website design that captivates the consumer?s attention is critical.

Websites should be designed so that new, important information is promoted on the sites most visible real estate always “above the fold?”(which means before scrolling down the page), and accompanied by vivid imagery that complements the information. Ideally, this section of the website offers the most relevant information or highlights sales incentives. Consumers should view your website as a living, breathing entity, and not just a digital version of a lifeless billboard.

A successfully designed website is a platform for engagement, education, and ongoing dialogues with your customer. Great website design can take it a long way.