“I don’t’ know if we really need a website.”
At this point, a little context is probably in order. Last Friday night we went to dinner with a good friend of mine, who happens to be chef/owner of his own place*. Whenever we get together, we have a great meal, the cocktails start flowing, and our conversation never fails to show me the astounding parallels between our lines of work. If there’s anyone who can remind me to focus on the user, be passionate about what we are trying to do, and demand excellence in execution, it’s this guy.
Actually, I should probably make a note to myself to use this as a future idea; How a good website is like an amazing dish. But that’s a story for another time.
Getting back to the original point, our conversation on Friday night veered into a discussion of their visual rebranding, and how it will pair up with and enforce the concepts behind what they want to do and their identity. Terrific, sounds like great stuff and sounds like an owner who’s onboard with inbound marketing and branding in a way that I wish many were. But then when asked if the branding included redoing the website, he startled me by saying that he didn’t know if they really needed a website.
Yeah, that really just happened. So, I thought about it for a moment and figured that while they were doing a top-notch job on social media and earned media, they had taken their current website largely for granted, and I shouldn’t have been surprised that they were questioning the value/necessity. Thus, with slightly more time than your typical elevator pitch, I brought up a few reasons why I thought it would be useful to them.
It’s where your customers are
It’s not all about fulfilling long-distance orders and displaying your menu/catalog, but rather about how much you want to communicate with the customer who’s looking for you already.
There is probably no more important reason for doing anything than to do it because there is a customer looking to be served. If, as in the case above, you have not been gathering statistics on your website, you may be surprised by what you’ll find. Not only how many customers are visiting your website, but the days and hours when they are visiting, what pages/content they are viewing, how long they stay, where they are coming from, and what search terms they used to get to your website. All of these are unspoken signals that your customer is sending you to help you better meet their wants and needs; to ignore this is at least unwise and at most negligent.
(There are already tons of great articles written about how to setup and configure basic analytics packages and Google Webmaster Tools, so I won’t duplicate that info here.)
For many industries, such as restaurants, you may not engage with your customers via written communication very often. (Sure, there’s email marketing, but that’s a story for another show.) I understand that this, written communication, may not be where your strengths lay, but until the internet works with our sense of taste, a well-made website is the next best thing. More than just your logo, store front and color scheme, consider the message you want customers to know, that info that the chef would share with every diner to help them appreciate their meal a little more.
There are lots of things that separate truly inspired businesses from their competition, and your website is prime real estate to highlight those. Think of a list of concepts you’d like your customers to mentally tie to your business or products. Or better yet, reverse that; list the concepts your customers are already thinking about that you wish made them think of you.
A practical example from my own life: in June we decided to drastically change our eating habits and become a much healthier household, but determined to do it without sacrificing flavor. This means we shop at the farmer’s market, subscribe to a local CSA, cook seasonal produce, buy only natural grass-fed/pasture-raised meats and do a lot of our cooking at home. Naturally, we didn’t lose our desire to eat out, even though a lot of restaurants don’t espouse our same ideas of what constitutes good food. Therefore, if I could look up “real food restaurants phoenix” or “phoenix grass-fed” and see your webpage come up, we would pretty much be in an instant love affair. I guarantee you there are several places I could be eating but don’t even know about yet because they aren’t on my radar and don’t come up in search.
The value of being the first result that comes up when a customer searches for your brand is enormous. A consistent public message that reinforces your goals and beliefs is an important anchor for both new and returning customers. New customers want to check out what separates you from the other choices available, and get a glimpse of what they can expect offline before committing themselves or their party. Returning customers may be looking for seasonal changes, sharing a link with a friend, or trying to leave a review. Don’t let those brand advocates wither on the vine because they aren’t sure how to help spread the good word.
On the other hand, if you don’t have a website, the first result the customer will see could be anything. It will probably be something hosted on a site with a high domain authority (think newspapers, Yelp, etc) and may not be what you want the customer’s first impression to be. Conflicting reviews between different top websites, outdated data, old write-ups that don’t reflect the current vision, even wrong addresses; the list of problems that could happen when you leave it up to someone else to mandate your web presence is long and unpleasant.
Google Maps, Google Now, Google+Local
Google is on a mission to find, classify, index and serve up the information their users are searching for, and local businesses are a big segment of those searches. Most business owners are familiar with review sites by now and the range of emotions they can inspire, but too few have recognized and taken action when it comes to users reviews on Google itself. Once a location has five or more reviews from Google users, the search engine will display a star rating below the business name whenever it appears in search results.
This means that anyone using Google search on their desktop, tablet or mobile will see the aggregate score of those user reviews right next to your name. This is great for businesses that have truly passionate customers expressing the great experience they had. This is not so great when a business inspires very few reviews (or sends all their reviewers to Yelp, Citysearch, Urban Spoon, etc), and the inevitable negative reviews can stand out.
Without a website, they will gather this data about you and your business from wherever they can find it. Google also works based on aggregated data. This means that if you’ve ever moved locations, changed hours, phone numbers, etc, there are bound to be some sites that are still reporting your old (now incorrect) data. When Google gets conflicting information from different sources, you’re leaving the decision up to them, and your customer suffers from confusion and possibly goes away.
Yelp can’t do it all
Yelp is a very strong site commanding a lot of domain authority, and can be an aide to business if all things align correctly, but even a fantastic Yelp rating and the love of their community cannot replace a dedicated space for a local business. While a favorable standing on Yelp can help Google users see/discover your business, relying on a third-party as the primary source of this discovery is unwise. You don’t have control over what content they scrape and display, nor the status of their relationship with the search engines. In recent years, the amount of trust placed in Yelp reviews, and their prominence in search results has gone back and forth.
Also, Yelp pages appear as an organic search result, which may be included in a hybrid/blended display when using a desktop, but they do not appear in the maps display. This means that anyone searching in Google Maps app on their phone would see only the most basic info Google was able to find about you, and not any enriched content or updated data only held by Yelp. As such, Yelp (and the same applies to other similar sites) can be a strong tool to optimize and help meet your customers where they already are, but it should not be considered a solution to replace a stand-alone site.
Hopefully I’ve fulfilled my intent to inform and offer suggestions about the core benefits of local business websites, and maybe even done so without creating a sense of dread or overwhelming burden. But just in case, don’t think of it as “Wow, we’re so behind. Why haven’t we been doing this already?” Instead, go with something like “Sweet! Thanks for illuminating that, Ryan. Now I’m going to go wow my customer’s pants off**”.
*His wife, who is an awesome person of her own accord was also there, I just didn’t know how to deftly work it into this sentence. Sorry lady.
** Recommended that you only do said “wowing” metaphorically. Please don’t get any harassment suits based on my advice. I really don’t have a legal defense fund setup for that.