Many ecommerce businesses are missing simple strategies that could dramatically boost their results online. Rachel Miller talks to Tony Messer, author of The Lazy Website Syndrome, to find out how small business owners can turbo-charge their website this year
Small businesses are missing some simple tricks when it comes to their ecommerce websites. Lack of time, knowledge or even complacency means that many are not maximising the potential of their website.
And, as the rules of the online game keep shifting, many business owners feel they are always running to catch up.
Tony Messer knows this only too well. He has worked with many small firms and finds that small business owners can be intimidated by the "moving target" that is the internet.
"Small business owners often tell us that they don't get technology or that it's too late to catch up," says Tony. "Others say they are held back because they don't know where to start or they don't have an in-house IT expert. And many think their website is fine as it is or don't want to spend more money on it."
But there is another way. "Little hinges swing big doors," says Tony. "Lots of little things can deliver big results and they often cost just a few pounds."
What's also clear is that many small business owners believe that some online strategies are the preserve of big businesses. But this is absolutely not the case and the beauty of the internet is that it can level the playing field.
"You can make a difference," says Tony. "Small businesses can punch well above their weight, competing in areas traditionally reserved for big business."
And many of the ecommerce tools you need are both accessible and affordable, he adds. "Many website tools offer free basic versions which are often enough to do a good job. It means you are in the game and at the table."
Of course, some of these tasks may call for the services of an IT expert or an ecommerce website developer, but they are all simple changes and they don't have to cost the earth. By shopping around for some of the specific IT upgrades suggested by Tony, you can achieve a lot more without spending too much.
Here are Tony's ten top tips for improving the performance of your website:
1. Get mobile-friendly
Many small businesses have yet to make their ecommerce website mobile-friendly - often because they think it's too hard or perhaps not relevant to them. But consumers increasingly use phones and tablets to browse online and if your website is not mobile-friendly you could be losing business.
There are two options. If you are redesigning your website, that's the time to make sure it features responsive design. But you can also get a mobile-friendly version of your website right now at a very low cost. Use a mobile website builder tool (such as Duda Mobile) and then add the code to your site - that way browsers will present your website in the correct format for every device.
2. Make your whole website secure
Most ecommerce websites use SSL technology to ensure that the checkout part of their website is secure. These pages have https rather than http in the URL. Now Google has confirmed that website security is part of its ranking algorithm so we recommend switching your entire website to SSL. This is a low cost job - you can pick up an SSL certificate for about £30 a year.
3. Get SSD website hosting
Most website hosts offer a shared service at various speeds. By using SSD hosting (Solid State Drives) - particularly for ecommerce websites - you are essentially adding a massive amount of RAM and it will make your site ultra speedy - certainly enough for Google to notice.
Eventually, all websites will migrate to SSD but you can get a real advantage if you switch right now. By turbo-charging your website speed, you will achieve two things - firstly, you'll reduce the number of visitors that drop out; secondly, you'll improve your search ranking as page loading is a key factor for Google.
4. Create a blog
Publishing relevant content, such as guides and case studies, drives traffic to your ecommerce website. Best of all is a blog. WordPress is a great blog hosting site, it's free and you can easily link to it from a blog tab on your website.
However, even though many business owners have good intentions, they tend to neglect blogging - often because they don't know what to write.
The best approach is to imagine you are telling a friend about your business - how you started, what you offer, why they should choose you and so on. All this knowledge is in your head - do a "brain dump" to spark off simple ideas for blogs.
You can also search your hard drive and email outbox for content that can be turned into a blog. The chances are you've answered common questions or sent useful information to customers already.
And don't be frightened to repurpose your content. Just because you have written about something before, there's nothing to stop you covering that subject again in different ways. If you've done a guide, turn it into a series of smaller blogs.
5. Optimise your site
A lot of small business owners think SEO is too complex or expensive or that it's all smoke and mirrors. In fact, they often tell me that they think they are too small to be able to influence Google. But search engine optimisation doesn't need to be hard and it does pay dividends.
Make sure you are using the keywords, meta tags, anchor text, keyword-rich URLs and headings that will help your website to get found. You can do this yourself or get some outside help. If you've done the groundwork on choosing the best keywords, a day's work by an SEO expert could transform your results this year.
6. Improve your local visibility
Many small firms serve a local audience and there are lots of ways to improve your visibility in your area. Local online directories allow you to raise your profile and establish links so that more people find you. If you operate in a niche market, there will be authority directories that you can link from as well.
Another option is to get your business name on other people's websites. Approach your suppliers - your accountant or ecommerce web designer, for example - and offer to write a testimonial for them with a link to your website.
Good quality links ensure that Google sees you as a reputable business and that will improve your ranking. It also builds trust with potential customers who see your name in all the right places.
7. Encourage reviews and ratings
Businesses with reviews or ratings get ranked more highly than those without; and customer feedback is also immensely reassuring for people that haven't used your business before. Ask your customers for testimonials - if you don't ask you don't get. The best time to do this is when you have just helped a happy customer.
Make sure you get reviews for Google My Business too. And don't be tempted to make up reviews or put too many on your site at one time - instead aim for one or two a month and spread them about on different web pages.
8. Create videos
It's ridiculously easy to make a good video with a mobile phone these days and you don't have to be Steven Spielberg. Videos are incredibly popular - just look at the millions of hits that product "unboxing" videos get on YouTube.
It's all about simple things and you don't need to worry about the quality too much at first. If you are a plumber, make a short video showing how you fix a leak. If you run a B&B, you could make a video of local walks. Write a blog about the video and link to it from your website.
Don't forget - YouTube is owned by Google. Very few businesses - of any size - are taking advantage of video. For any small business, this is a huge opportunity to steal a march over your competitors.
9. Introduce live chat
Live chat sounds like something only corporates offer. But it should be top of the list for any ecommerce business today. Live chat is like a virtual sales assistant popping up at the right moment to help - and consumers absolutely love it. It's a quick way for them to get answers and yet it's not intrusive; and it's easy to manage for you - unlike a phone call, you can manage three or four chats at a time.
It's ideal if you've got someone in the office that can take on this job, but you can also respond from a mobile phone and if you need more help, you can outsource this task.
It's also a great way to improve your online sales, by cross-selling and upselling. To encourage shoppers to buy, you can push relevant pages and links to them. It reduces cart abandonment rate and costs pennies. Options include Live Chat and Pure Chat, which offers a Freemium service.
10. Set up a central helpdesk
Are your support enquiries and online sales leads slipping through the net? If someone is out of the office, do some emails get ignored? A cloud-based central helpdesk will mean you never miss a thing and it will prompt you to follow up on enquiries after a few days.
Any small business that captures sales enquiries should consider one. The number one reason people don't buy is indifference and yet so many firms lose business because they fail to follow up leads. Sirportly is a UK-based business that offers free as well as paid-for helpdesk solutions.