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By William Rice

RISMEDIA, May 27, 2008-(eM+C)-The first corporate Web sites were no more than online billboards or repurposed sales literature in digital form. Now that just about every business and organization has a Web site to promote itself on the Internet, it’s time to start thinking about how to build a better one for your company.

For more than a decade, the Web Marketing Association (http://www.webmarketingassociation.org) has watched Web sites evolve and become important communication tools for marketing and commerce.

Our WebAward (http://www.webaward.org/) competition for Web site development has recorded more than 18,000 site reviews and recognized the best Web sites in 96 industries. Based on this award program research, here are five ways to make your Web site a more effective part of your online marketing efforts.

Get rid of silos. Most of today’s corporate Web sites are organized just like the company. Sections of the Web site, for example, represent departments or divisions of the company and are maintained by those units. A good example is some of the large computer companies that allow you to customize your computer online. A customer doesn’t care if the computer he wants to buy is a “small business” computer or a “home use” computer.

Consumers just want laptops they can use for everything. Does it really make sense to make them look at both areas and try to figure out what is the best deal for their needs?

The best businesses and Web sites put the customer experience first.

Design for SEO. Let’s face it, Google owns Web 2.0, and until Web 3.0 comes along we need to play by Google’s rules if we want our Web sites to be found. It still amazes me how many people think they’re putting a URL into a browser when, in reality, they’re entering it into a Google search box. If your site isn’t optimizing for Google and the other search engines, you’re leaving money on the table. Make sure you have a site map with text links to every page on your site. Make sure you have inbound links to pages throughout your site. The rules are changing all the time, and it’s important to know what is current and what is trying to game the system. Chances are, if you are overly aggressive, you will pay in the end.

Focus on content. Content is what people come looking for on your site. While every site is different, straight information often does not always cut it anymore. Users expect much more when they come to a Web site looking for product information. They want to see links to manuals, customer testimonials or ratings, and virtual demos. Content today needs to be entertaining as much as it is informative.

Make the site come alive. This is closely connected to the last point. People what to be entertained and use all of their senses when they come to a Web site. The experience is what makes a lasting impression. Sound can be a powerful tool. I remember one WebAward winner that allowed you to click on difficult medical words to hear how they sound and to learn to pronounce them. Simple technology like that provides a valuable experience can give a user the confidence needed to talk to a medical provider on important personal issues.

Appropriate use of Flash also can add much to a site. Seventy-three percent of last year’s WebAward-winning sites used Flash to enhance the user experience. Flash can enhance navigation and be used to create outstanding 3-D product demos for products and virtual tours for restaurants and hotel Web sites. At the same time, overuse can make a site seem cluttered and overwhelming.

Personalize the experience. Databases changed Web sites from flat, hard-coded HTML pages where everyone saw the same thing every time to dynamic pages where everything is added on the fly based on the needs of the specific page at that time. This also allows Web sites to know their customers better when they return.

Amazon.com is a great example of this. Every time you return, you can see past searches and purchases, as well as what other buyers of those products were interested in.

The one thing I hate about the personalized experience is Web sites that make it hard for me to find my lost password or remember my user name. The worst is the bank that regularly has my account log-in expire, forcing me to dig up the account numbers to re-enter them so I can log in. Security feature? Not to me, it isn’t. It’s bad customer service that will end up having me move my accounts at some point.

The bottom line

Web sites today are too important as a sales and marketing tool not to spend the effort to make sure that you stay on the cutting edge. Also, focus on what your competitors are doing and make sure your efforts put you in good light when a potential customer is choosing between you and them.

The 2008 WebAward Competition is currently accepting entries. Enter your Web site at www.webaward.org/marketing. Call for entries ends May 31st.

William Rice is president of the Web Marketing Association, a Simsbury, Conn.-based organization founded in 1997 and dedicated to setting a high standard for Internet marketing and Web development. Reach William at wrice@webaward.org.

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