6 Ways to Make Your Small Business Website Earn Its Keep

by Carla Schroder

Last month we talked about all the ways a small business website can go wrong. In this article, we'll tell how to make it go right.

In the article 10 Reasons Why Your Small Business Website Stinks, we went into detail on the various ways in which small business entrepreneurs can shoot their businesses in the proverbial foot by means of a poorly built website. Take heart, because in this article, we look at six ways you can fix those problems and help put your small business website to work driving revenue.

Performance Testing

Slow page loads are deadly. Nobody wants to wait around for your website to load, and can you blame them? With 3G, 4G and über-fast broadband, there's more computing power in a smartphone than in the super-computers of yesteryear. And yet we are plagued with boggy, script-heavy websites that bring quad-core PCs to their knees.

I'm all for the freedom to build a crappy website, but if you want your small business website to be attractive and to bring in customers, then you need to make it peppy.

There are a multitude of potential bottlenecks and performance-killers such as:

  • Overloaded server hardware
  • Overloaded network
  • Mis-configured Web server
  • Slow third-party servers
  • Bad webpage coding
  • Mis-configured DNS

Fortunately, there are also a multitude of good, free tools for analyzing site performance and identifying bottlenecks. Let's take a look at each one of these. Hopefully you are running a good Linux or Unix operating system, and using a high-quality server like Apache, Lighttpd, or Nginx.

small business website performance utilities

Figure 1: The open-source Nagios system and network monitor serves up nice, colorful graphs so you can see at a glance what's happening on your hardware, software, and networking systems.

If you're running a Windows Web server the same principles apply: build your performance analysis toolkit and use it. Start with ab, the Apache Benchmark program. You can use this to benchmark any Webserver: Apache, IIS, Nginx, or whatever the heck you want.

A brief digression: Netcraft.com is an interesting site for seeing what the most reliable hosting companies are and what operating systems they're running. It also tracks the most-used Web servers, with Apache dominating, and a lot of other fun data, which shows how much information on what we do on the Internet can be gleaned from publicly-available networking data.

There are a number of excellent, free open source monitoring suites that show your network, hardware and server status at a glance with colored status pages, and send you alarms when trouble arises. My two favorites are Nagios and Zenoss. Both run on Linux, and both monitor your entire network regardless of what operating systems you're running.

Nagios is my system-and-network-monitor of choice. Nagios is SNMP-aware (simple network management protocol), extremely flexible, and it shows you just what you want to see (figure 1). Nagios has both community and paid support options.

small business website monitoring utilities

Figure 2: DNSsy.com performs comprehensive tests on your site for free.

Zenoss offers more extensive support options and nice management features such as network resources auto-discovery and additional monitoring capabilities for Windows hosts.

What if you don't want to set up a whole monitoring system, but just want some nice software utilities to see what's going on? Again, Linux is the champion. Here is a selection of the most popular and useful utilities:

  • Hddtemp: monitors hard drive temperatures so you know if they're overheating
  • Lm_sensors: monitors CPU and motherboard temperatures, and fan voltages and speeds
  • Top, ps, iostat and strace: all excellent utilities for finding out which processes are using the most CPU and memory
  • Netstat, tcpdump, and mtr: show you exactly what is happening on your network. Run these from a Linux machine to diagnose all network activity, regardless of what operating systems are on your network
  • Perfmon: a little-known but very useful built-in Windows program for monitoring and diagnosing Windows performance.

And as I mentioned last month, Pingdom and DNSsy are great free sites for performing a large number of tests on your small business website, including testing your name servers, which are a common source of network problems.

Make It Mobile-Friendly

If you're using a Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Plone, or any of the other literally hundreds of CMSs, look for mobile-friendly plugins. For example, in WordPress you can use the Mobile theme switcher that automatically detects when a site visitor is using a mobile device, and then it automatically switches to your chosen mobile theme. WordPress has bazillions of mobile themes to choose from. And so do Joomla, Drupal, Plone, and most of the others.

Provide FAQs

Don't get grumpy because your site visitors keep asking the same questions -- they're talking to you and that's what you want. Put up a FAQ -- frequently-asked questions-- page, with answers of course, and keep it updated.

Site Accessibility

Do not forget our friends and neighbors with less-than-perfect bodies, and who do not see well, or hear well, who cannot read well, have a degree of color-blindness (ten percent of all men) or who have trouble using a keyboard or mouse. Accessibility technologies are still sadly far behind, but if you design your site with accessibility as a fundamental function, then updating it as new technologies emerge won't be so hard.

Again, a good CMS will make this easier. For example, Drupal has some accessibility modules. A wonderful comprehensive resource is the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

See Your Site as Your Customers See It

The number one piece of advice I always give my clients is take advantage of the feedback your customers and site visitors give you. It's funny how a lot of shops have customer forums and get all kinds of email from people, but don't pay attention to them.

People, this is madness. This stuff is dead easy, free, and pure gold. Chances are the negatives outweigh the positives, because people tend to communicate more when they're unhappy. But the idea here is not to worry about balance, but to investigate the negatives and do something about them.

I recommend a special Web form or email address for website feedback. I also recommend that you pay attention to all feedback for everything, regardless of how it arrives. Yes, I've had clients who actually ignored any customer communications that did not come through the appropriate channels. Do you want to be right, or do you want happy customers?

Enlist your far-flung friends and family in evaluating your website, and ask them to review it on whatever devices they Web-surf with -- smartphones, tablets, ancient laptops, shiny new desktop PCs, and with different Web browsers. You might even invite your customers to do this, and throw in some nice little gifts as incentive.

SEO Madness

The name of the game these days is Search Engine Optimization (SEO). SEO is not a big magic wand that will make you rich. But it is something you need to understand and implement. Start by reviewing the numerous good articles right here on Small Business Computing about SEO and online marketing.

Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook,and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She's the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Jul 18th 2012
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