Choosing the Best Web Design Software for Your Website

You’ve probably heard of WordPress. It’s the most popular web design software on the web right now. And it may very well be the best web design software for your business.

However, there are lots of other options to choose from, and the one you finally select will be a long-term decision. You’ll need to rebuild your website from scratch if you want to switch to a different one so you want to choose wisely and consider your long-term goals before deciding.

In this article, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of the two main types of website design software: website builders and web design platforms. And since eCommerce doesn’t apply to every website, I’ll save that discussion for another day.

Website Builders

The first category of web design software includes website builders such as Squarespace and Wix. These tools allow even the most non-technical users to build your own website. But before we dive into the pros and cons of these types of tools, let’s first discuss whether you should be building your own website in the first place.

DIY or Pay Someone Else?

The most successful entrepreneurs and business owners understand and embrace one concept above all others: do what you do best and have someone else to do the rest.

I don’t attempt to do my own taxes, especially for my business. I don’t trim the dead limbs from the top of my 75 foot tall tree in the backyard. I haven’t sold my own homes. I certainly wouldn’t attempt to fix my car if it stopped running (have you looked under the hood of one of those things lately?!). So why would I try to build my own website?

Just because you can build your own website and people have created tools to make it relatively easy to do it, that doesn’t mean you should be doing it.

If you’re spending your time building a website instead of doing other, more important things in your business, like building your network or selling, you may think you’re saving money, but in reality, it’s probably a procrastination technique to avoid doing the things you don’t want to do.

Please take this into consideration before you try the DIY approach. Paying a professional to do it for you will most likely yield a better result, and free your time to build your business instead of your website.

Popular DIY Website Builders

Here’s a list of some of the most popular website builders available today. The web is filled with reviews of each one, so I’m not going to repeat what’s already been done. I’ll just link out to some of the better reviews for easy reference.

There are a lot more website builders available, but these are the ones most people ask me about, and they’re the most popular.

I’d be very cautious about choosing one of the smaller, lesser known builders because they may not be around in a year (or less). If they close their doors, your website will close, as well.

Website Builder Pros & Cons

Let’s discuss the pros first…

These types of website builders work very well for small businesses or people on a tight budget. They offer a very simple user interface that walks you through the process of building your own website.

They have a variety of templates to choose from to give your website it’s basic look-and-feel, and then allow you to customize those designs to make it unique to your business.

They’re packed with the most common functionality that allows you to add all the standard features to your website, like a blog, video, graphics, forms, eCommerce (on some) and more.

They’re also very affordable, starting at just a few dollars per month…most are less than $50/month.

That price tag is hard to beat, and for small business owners who just need a presence on the web to provide information about their business and maybe sell a few things, a DIY website builder is a very good option.

Now for the cons…

While these tools are relatively user-friendly, you may become frustrated when they won’t do exactly what you want them to do. You may have trouble placing content blocks and images where you want them. And everything looks different on mobile devices, so you’ll spend even more time making sure it looks good on every screen size.

It’s hard to be objective about your own business, which makes it very difficult to write your own content and choose your own graphics. You could easily spend weeks or months working on your website, only to be unhappy with the final product…and not even know why you’re unhappy.

Since you’re probably not a web designer by trade, you won’t have the background and experience to know what constitutes a good design. Some colors don’t work well together, especially for color-blind people. Some fonts are harder to read online than they are in print. Some layouts and content improve conversion rates, while others increase bounce rate. By doing it yourself without expert guidance, you could build a website that doesn’t achieve its main objective: to get you more customers.

You’re also limited to the number of themes provided by the tool. Some builders only have 20 or 30 themes to choose from, so you may not be able to find something that you like.

And perhaps the biggest downside of using proprietary website builders is their inherent lack of customization. These tools are built and maintained by one company. They’re the opposite of open-source, which means their developers are the only ones who can add new features to the tool. No one else can write software to add missing functionality or new theme designs.

If you want to do something custom, like create your own eLearning module or build a custom directory that’s specifically designed for your industry or provide a custom membership experience for your user community, you can’t. You’re only able to use the functionality they provide in the way they designed it to be used.

If your business doesn’t rely on your website for much more than advertising, this might not be a big deal. However, if your business is heavily dependent on your website and you have plans to add custom functionality, a website builder is not a good choice for you.

Who’s it for?

Website builders are ideal for small businesses with small budgets who primarily operate in the real world. Think massage therapists, landscapers, electricians, roofers, auto-mechanics, public speakers, tutors, etc.

If your website is primarily used as a modern-day yellow pages listing and you have no long-term plans for it to be more than that, a website builder is a great choice for you.

Website Development Platforms

The second category of web design software is for website development platforms like WordPress and Drupal. While these tools “claim” to be user-friendly enough that non-technical people can build websites using them, don’t believe it.

I’ve yet to build a WordPress website that didn’t require at least some custom CSS or page templates. If you don’t know what I’m talking about and you don’t want to learn how to become a web designer or developer, don’t use these tools to build your own website.

If you’re committed to doing it yourself, choose one of the website builders from the previous section and save yourself countless hours of frustration.

Popular Website Development Platforms

Here’s a list of the most popular platforms used to build websites that need more customization or unique designs:

  • WordPress (recommended)
  • Drupal
  • Joomla!
  • Ruby on Rails
  • Microsoft.Net

Where are the Reviews?

Unlike the website builders that offer a variety of different features, prices and user interfaces geared toward consumers, a website development platform is largely a developer preference since they can all do anything you want them to do.

You’ll often see Squarespace or Wix compared to WordPress or Joomla!, but that’s not a valid comparison. That would be like comparing a lawn mower to a lawn service.

Website builders are DIY tools…they allow you to mow your own yard. A web development platform is for professional use and provides a lot of additional options like edging, trimming, sprinkler repair and landscaping, while allowing you to avoid the dust and sweat from mowing your own yard.

All of these tools provide a full-functioning Content Management System, or CMS, which allows you to update the content on your website without calling your developer. That’s the main benefit of using one of these platforms instead of creating a fully custom website using a programming language like PHP or ASP.Net.

If your website isn’t built on top of a CMS, you won’t be able to update the content yourself, and that’s bad. I see no reason why you would need to build a fully custom website with the power and flexibility these platforms provide.

Website Development Platform Pros & Cons

Pros first…

First, and most important, these platforms are open-source, which means any designer or developer can extend the functionality of the core platform with new designs and features. With website builders, you’re limited to the design and functionality provided by the relatively small team that works for the company who built the tool.

Second, they’re extremely flexible. If you can conceive it, you can probably achieve it with one of these web design software platforms. You’re not bound by the confines of the editor provided by the website builders.

I paid a developer to create a completely custom eLearning plugin for WordPress a few years ago because I couldn’t find anything that worked liked I wanted it to. I could even sell the plugin to other people if I chose.

Third, you own the website. You can take your website to a different web host or a different designer if you want or need to. You can hire developers with special skill sets to do special things for your website. You can do anything you want to it.

Forth, since these platforms have such a huge base of developers and users, especially WordPress, it’s not likely that they will go away anytime soon. And if they do, your website will continue to work (albeit without updates) until you have a chance to rebuild it.

Now I don’t see Squarespace, Wix or Weebly going away anytime soon, either, but some of the smaller, lesser known website builders could easily disappear overnight. And if they shut down their service for whatever reason (usually because they aren’t making enough money or they get bought by a competitor), your website goes away with very little or no warning.

Finally, you own your website if it’s built on a platform like WordPress. That means you can take it to another web host or hire a different designer to work on it. With website builders such as Squarespace, your website can’t exist outside their system so you can’t take it to a different web host or designer. You’re leasing your website until you stop paying the monthly fee, and then your website goes away.

In addition, the website builder’s creator often owns the design of the theme you choose for your website so you can’t simply pay a developer to copy the design to a different system. Even though you may own the content and images on your website, you’ll have to start over on the design if you want to move to WordPress or a different platform.

And the cons…

It’s more expensive. Sometimes a lot more expensive. You can build your own website with a website builder like Squarespace for the cost of your time and roughly $25/month for the service. That’s pretty darn cheap.

WordPress is arguably the most affordable of the web design platforms, but even it will run you more than a thousand dollars for a designer to create it. If you want a custom design and content, that will cost several thousand. Some larger agencies charge ten’s of thousands for a WordPress website!

While they’re designed to make it easy for non-technical users to update content such as text, images, video, etc., it’s not easy to build a website from scratch for non-technical people. Even though they say you can, trust me, you don’t want to. That means you have to pay a professional to do it and deal with the cost and all the challenges that brings.

Another con is that they’re more vulnerable to hacking. Since the platforms are open-source, bad people can write software to exploit the systems just like good people can write software to enhance them. This requires constant updates to prevent your website from being hacked and used as a spam email generator or from having your data stolen.

Since website builders are closed systems (like Apple), you rarely have to worry about being hacked. If it does happen, the website builder’s creator will fix it in their system, which will fix it on your website. You won’t need to do anything, and you may not even know it happened.

Who’s it for?

A web design platform like WordPress is ideal for growing businesses, medium to large businesses, businesses with long-term plans to add custom functionality to their websites, or businesses that are primarily online.

It’s also ideal if you want a custom graphic design that’s unique to your business, or if you’re very picky about the way your website looks.

And finally, a web design platform is the best choice if you value your time and would rather spend it working on your business while experts build a professional website that’s optimized for your target market.

Why We Recommend WordPress

According to research done by W3Techs, WordPress has a commanding 58.7% CMS market share. That means of all websites built using a CMS, nearly 6 in 10 are built using WordPress. And they include website builders in their research like Squarespace (.8%), Wix (.4%) and Weebly (.4%).

The second largest platform in terms of market share is Joomla! with 6.6%. That means WordPress is used by 9 times more websites than its next closest competitor and 73 times more websites than Squarespace.

I know a lot of you love underdogs, but going with the clear winner has several advantages for your business. First, you’ll have easy access to developers, and they’re much more affordable. Since WordPress is so popular, there are far more developers available to work on your website if your developer disappears.

Second, countless designers and developers have created new themes and plugins to offer pretty much any design and functionality you could ever need.

While most of the website builders offer only a couple dozen themes to choose from, you can choose from well over 100,000 themes for your WordPress website. And you can also choose from thousands of plugins to add additional functionality to your website, or even hire a developer to build your own custom plugin.

Third, in addition to using pre-designed themes for your website, you can also create 100% custom designs using flexible framework themes like Genesis or WooThemes. These themes provide all the standard CMS functionality with very little design. They leave that to your design team.

We use a flexible theme called Enfold for the majority of our websites because it has a ton of content editing functionality, but still allows us to implement fully custom graphic designs. It’s also fully supported with a long history of regular updates and an active discussion forum.

When you’re choosing a theme, be sure to select one that has good reviews and regular updates to features and security vulnerabilities. Not all themes are created equal and some are a lot more trouble than they’re worth.

I also don’t recommend using a custom theme created by your developer. These are almost always built on top of the free WordPress them and enhanced to make it easy for them to build websites quickly. Unfortunately, that makes it very difficult for another designer to come in and take over if they disappear or you fire them.

I’ve managed a lot of developers over my 20+ year career and the vast majority are terrible at commenting their code, and a large percentage write what we call spaghetti-code, which is nearly impossible for someone else to maintain.

If you fire a developer who used a custom built theme, the developer you hire to replace them will most likely tell you it will be cheaper to start over using a different theme. Either way, it’ll be expensive. It’s in your best interest to insist they use a professionally created theme by a reputable company with a good history of updates.

Conclusion

In the end, the web design software you choose is your decision. If I had to choose a website builder, it would be Squarespace, and I’m obviously biased toward WordPress for the web design platform.

This is more of a business decision than a technical one. You really can’t go wrong with any of the name brands from either category. It mostly depends on your budget, the time you have available, the type of business you own, and your long-term plans for it.

The tool you select will be with you for a long time so do your diligence and make sure you choose the right one for your specific circumstances.

How to Choose a Domain Name for Your Website

Choosing a domain name for your website is often one of the first things you’ll do for a new business or website, but it’s not something to rush into. It takes time to find a domain name that reflects your business, is easy to remember, and one that’s available to register.

In this article, I’ll share some important things to consider before you choose a domain name for your website.

Where to Start on Your Domain Name Search

Before you spend much time searching for domain names, start with a list of the main benefits of your website. Benefits are different than features. Features are things a user can do on your website; benefits are the reasons they’ll use your website instead of someone else’s.

Sit down and brainstorm at least three to five major benefits. Write them down and then underline the keywords in the list. This will give you a good starting point for your domain name quest.

Using Your Legal Company Name as Your Domain Name

When you’re deciding on a domain name, you may want to use your company name if it’s available, or come up with something different.

Having the same domain name as the company name works well for highly focused businesses. For example, everything Apple does is based around their core brand. They don’t sell their phones under a different brand name than their computers. Everything they make is an “Apple” and every customer they have is a potential buyer of every product they sell, so using Apple.com as their primary domain name just makes sense.

However, some businesses, by their nature, have multiple brands so they need multiple domain names. For example, a company called Spark Networks owns several different dating websites. Most people have never heard of Spark Networks, but most people have heard of JDate and ChristianMingle since each has its own TV commercials.

Spark Networks owns both of these dating sites and several others. By using a different, and highly specialized domain name for each type of dating site, they’re able to provide functionality and content that appeals specifically to each target market. In addition, by separating the focus of each site, their highly relevant content greatly improves their SEO ranking.

Your legal company name may be the best domain name for your business, or you might want to pick something that’s more relevant to your target market, or something that will rank better for SEO.

What Makes a Good Domain Name

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of research on what makes a good domain name. What I found is mostly common sense. The best domain names are short and easy (e.g. Google, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.).

Good Domain Name Length

Way back in 2009, a study conducted by Gaebler looked at 1 million of the most popular websites (based on stats provided by online metrics company Alexa). Gaebler found that the top 50 most visited websites averaged 6 characters in their domain name (they only counted the characters before the dot). For the entire million, the average length was only 10.1 characters. The longest domain name in the top 100 belonged to AdultFriendFinder, with 17 characters.

80% of the top 500 domain names have one or two words and fewer than eight characters. Try to keep yours simple, easy to pronounce, relevant to what your site is about, and spelled correctly, if at all possible.

Misspelling Your Domain Name

Spelling a word in the domain name incorrectly for effect (e.g. BriteGoldJewelry.com) might make it look neat, but people will type it in wrong (or right, depending on your point of view) and go to someone else’s website. Don’t try to be too clever or you could lose customers.

With that said, there is a trend among some very popular websites that have missing vowels, extra consonants or phonetic spellings in their domain names. If your perfect name isn’t available, you, too, can get creative with the spelling.

Using a misspelled word isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, according to Abhimanyu Ghoshal over at TheNextWeb.com, “While alternative spellings help companies secure dot-com domains easily, they can also add character and help a product or service stand out, particularly when operating in a typically straight-laced ecosystem.”

For example, Fiverr, Flickr, Digg and Tumblr all use misspellings for their domains. When Fiverr launched , Fiver.com (with one “r”) wasn’t available so they just added an extra “r” to keep their name short and still relevant. In recent years, they purchased the correct spelling for $80,000 so both domains go to the same website.

Flickr and Tumblr also bought their correctly spelled “.com” domains for a healthy sum. Tumblr went to court over ownership of Tumbler.com and won. Digg is the only one of these examples that probably won’t ever own the correct spelling of their domain. Dig.com is owned by Disney, which uses it for their Disney Interactive Media Group website.

Hyphens In Your Domain Name

You should try to avoid hyphens in your domain name, though, such as Bright-Gold-Jewelry.com. Some people don’t know what a hyphen is and it can be hard to explain.

It’s also hard to say when asked,“What’s your website address?” “It’s Bright Hyphen Gold Hyphen Jewelry.com.” See what a pain that is?! You don’t want to force users to overcome obstacles in order to find your website, and a hyphen is an obstacle.

Also, according to the inbound marketing experts over at Moz.com, “use of hyphens also correlates highly with spammy behavior—and more than one hyphen should not be used in a domain name.”

Domain Name Relevancy and SEO

From a search engine perspective, your domain will rank higher in search results if it’s relevant to the content of your site.

For example, if you’re selling jewelry, it’s better from an SEO perspective if your domain name has the word jewelry or a related term in it. BrightGoldJewelry.com will rank better than ThingsThatShine.com when people are searching for jewelry.

How to Choose a TLD or Top Level Domain

The next thing to think about is your top level domain, or TLD.

A TLD refers to the extension after the domain name. Most domains use the “.com” TLD, and this is the best choice because that’s what people are accustomed to seeing and typing. Most non-profit organizations use the “.org” TLD.

Using .net or .biz in Your Domain Name

Avoid “.net” or “.biz” because people won’t remember that when they’re typing your domain name. If your domain is FancyPens.net and someone else owns the FancyPens.com TLD, most people will go there instead.

Plus, if the website is live and actively selling the same types of things you are, you’ll be in violation of their trademark and they may send you a cease and desist letter. That would really suck if you’ve already spent a lot of time or money building your brand.

Creative Use of Country TLD’s

While using a “.com” TLD is the best choice, you may not find anything that works well using it. In that case, you have some other options if you want to think WAY outside the box.

Another creative option you have is to use the TLD as part of the name. In addition to the TLD’s most people know, like “.com” and “.org,” there are several others that most people don’t know. Del.icio.us, Circl.es, Insight.ly,  and theComplete.me use four of these rarely known TLD’s.

Each country has its own TLD and some of them can be used to end words. Here’s a list of several that you can register if you live in the United States: .com .org .net .biz .info .xxx .mobi .tv .am .fm .us .es .me .be .co .de .gs .tc .la .ms .vg .ws .bz .ly.

There are dozens of other available TLD’s, but for most of those, you need to reside in the respective country to register a domain using their TLD.

Newly Released Generic TLD’s

In addition to country TLD’s, a bunch of generic top level domains have been released, such as .pro, .travel, .beer, .clothing and hundreds more. While these may seem cool, they have a few downsides.

First, they’re more expensive to register…in the $40/year range. If you need to register misspellings, that can add up fast.

Second, they’re still very new and unproven. A lot of online forms validate email addresses by comparing the TLD to the list of known TLD’s. Since these are so new, most older websites will flag an email address with one of these generic TLD’s as invalid so you won’t be able to submit the form.

Third, you could run into the same problem I discussed when using .net if another company is already using .com for the same domain name. If I launch AcmePlumbing.construction, I’m probably going to lose my direct traffic to AcmePlumbing.com, or worse, have to change it for trademark infringement.

And finally, most of them are much longer than 3 characters, and as you know, shorter is better when it comes to domain names. By tacking on one of these generic TLD’s, you could easily end up with a very long domain name, like this 25 character ridiculousness: AcmePlumbing.construction.

There’s simply no substitute for using a .com TLD if you can find something that works.

How to Search for Domain Names

Registrars provide domain name search and recommendation tools that you can use to research and register your domain name.

What’s a Registrar?

Registrars are companies that maintain the giant list of domain names. Think of them like a Yellow Pages for websites. GoDaddy is the most recognizable registrar, but there are dozens of others to choose from, including most webhosts.

Don’t get discouraged if your first one or two or ten names aren’t available. That’s an unfortunate reality of domain names these days. Most of the best domains are taken, which means you’ll need to try several different combinations of words, and maybe even think outside the box for some new ideas. This process is both fun and frustrating so try to stay positive.

Most registrars offer recommendation tools that will give you a list of alternate domains using some of the keywords in the domain you’re searching. These can be very helpful in your brainstorming efforts.

Domain Name Search Tools

If you’re not making any progress on your domain search, or you just want some fresh ideas, one website that might help is DomainNameSoup.com. They have many different tools for domain searches and recommendations. My personal favorite is called “Domain Name Mangle.” It’ll give you other ways of spelling a word. For example, “flicker” becomes “flickr.”

Keep a Domain Name Research Log

As you’re conducting your search, take the time to document all the domains you’ve thought of and searched for. I use an Excel spreadsheet called the Domain Research Log (download it) for this process to store the domain name, the status (Available, Taken or Premium), and comments for anything important that I might want to remember about the domain.

Recording your findings will save you a lot of time, especially if your search spans several days. If you try to rely on your memory, you could waste time searching for the same domain names multiple times. Plus, looking over what you’ve already considered might spark some new ideas. You might even change your mind about one you previously rejected.

The domain name research log for one of my business ideas has 723 domain names in the list! Hopefully, yours won’t be that large or take as long to compile!

Ask Your Friends What They Think of Your Domain Name

Once you have your list narrowed down to one or a few domain names, ask some of your friends what they think of them. Getting feedback can help you spot things like unintentional misspellings, hard to say words or alternate meanings.

Hard to Understand Domain Names

For example, you might totally love the domain FineJewelry.com, but when you run it by your best friend, she might say, “Is it FINE or FIND?”

This may not be a deal breaker, especially if you can register both domains. However, if you can’t get both domains, you could lose business to a competitor who owns FindJewelry.com.

The web startup that I sold back in 2008, QuoteCatcher.com, seemed like an easy enough name when we chose it. It was relevant to what we were selling (requests for quotes) and it was relatively short.

However, it was hard to pronounce and understand over the phone. I can’t tell you how many times I called a client or prospective client and the response was, “You’re from GoatCatcher?”

Now, before I choose a domain name, I pick my favorites and ask several people to provide feedback. Someone more objective may be able to spot a flaw that I missed, and prevent me from saying a million times, “No…QUOTECatcher. Not GOATCatcher.”

You can also ask your friends the next day if they remember the name(s) to gauge memorability. Liking the name isn’t very important, but being memorable is.

Ill-conceived Domain Names

Here are a few examples of domains that were not very well thought out. ExpertsExchange.com used to be a popular developer forum that’s no longer in business. Software developers used it to get answers to coding questions, but it’s kind of a joke in the developer community because by changing the capital letters a bit, you get ExpertSexChange.com.

TherapistFinder.com is another example. They changed their domain to CouncelingCalifornia.com because the original domain also spells TheRapistFinder.com.

My final example, SpeedOfArt.com is no longer in business, either. Is it because their domain also spells SpeedoFart.com? Maybe…. Regardless, a good friend would point that out if they noticed it.

Get It Right the First Time

It’s important to choose a good name first because it’s not a good idea to change it once your site is launched.

Search engines start ranking your site as soon as it’s live on the web. If you decide to change your domain name in three months because of something you missed, you’ll lose at least some of your search engine positioning, and you’ll have to continue to maintain the old domain name indefinitely.

Adding 301 Permanent Redirects from your old domain to your new domain will make the search engines mostly happy, and you’ll need to tell Google what you’ve done to make them happy, but overall, it’s much easier to get it right the first time.

In the end, it’s your decision. Spend some time on it and don’t make your decision rashly, but don’t spend so much time that your business comes to a screeching halt.

How to Register Your Domain Name

You’ve chosen a domain name and you’ve run it past a few people and they like it. Now it’s time to buy it from a registrar such as GoDaddy.com.

This process is simple. Just search for your domain name and if it’s available, you’ll be able to add it to your shopping cart and purchase it just like anything else you buy online.

Register Similar Domain Names

In addition to your primary domain name, you also want to buy the related names, too. For the FineJewelry.com example above, you’d also want FindJewelry.com, with a “d” if it’s available.

You can buy the “.net” and “.biz” TLD’s to protect them from being snatched up by someone else, but it’s not necessary unless you have a specific reason for it. Personally, I think both of those extensions are revenue generators for registrar’s more than useful domain extensions.

If you own FineJewelry.com and someone launches a jewelry site called FineJewelry.net, you can send them a “cease and desist” letter for trademark infringement. Besides, it doesn’t make sense for a legitimate business to use a domain name that’s the same as an existing business that already uses the “.com” TLD. They would consistently lose business to your “.com” domain because that’s what people are used to typing.

Register Misspelled Versions, Too

You should also consider registering versions that are spelled wrong, such as FineJewlry.com and FineJewlery.com (notice jewelry is misspelled). You can point these to your primary domain name, but when someone types the name incorrectly in the browser, it will still go to your website.

In fact, unless you have a reason not to, all the related domains you purchase should be pointed to your primary domain name. Once your website is launched, your webhost or website developer can do this for you.

It’s Really a Lease

Most people refer to this process as “buying” a domain name; however, you’re actually “leasing” a domain name from the registrar and the lease must be renewed every year, or at the end of your term. A one year “lease” on a domain will usually run you around $10.

Additional Domain Services

When you go through the purchase process, you’ll be prompted to buy a bunch of other services for the domain, such as Private Registrations or International Domain Names.

In my opinion, you don’t need these for a new website unless you have a specific reason for them. To keep your costs down, you can opt out of these additional services, at least for the first year.

Good Domain Registration Term Length

You can choose to lease the domain for multiple years, which will sometimes give you a discount, but will cost you more upfront.

If you’re on a tight budget, lease the domains for one year and see how it goes. You may decide after three months to toss the idea and do something different, or you may think of an even better domain name.

It would be a waste of money to spend $40 on a 5 year lease when you could have spent $10 for one year. Multiply that by 2 or 4 related or misspelled domain names and you could save $120 or more.

Domain Length of Registration & SEO

You may have heard (like I did) that registering your domain name for multiple years will help your SEO. The thought being that a domain name with a 5 or 10 year term might mean you’re more serious about your business.

However, according to Matt Cutts, one of Google’s search experts who often neither confirms nor denies the web’s crackpot theories about Google’s search algorithms, “To the best of my knowledge, no search engine has ever confirmed that they use length-of-registration as a factor in scoring.”

Length of registration is different than the age of your website. If your website has been around for 10 years and has good content, I’m pretty sure you’ll get ranked higher than a website that’s been around for 6 months, even if it has better content.

Register Your Own Domain!

My last piece of advice on this topic is to register your own domain name! Don’t let your web developer or webhost do it for you, because then it will be registered to them.

If you decide to part ways, they could give you a difficult time transferring the domain into your name, or worse, they could charge you a hefty sum for it.

One of our website design clients had this exact problem with an SEO company. She allowed them to register her domain name and then they held it hostage when she canceled their SEO service.

Instead of transferring the domain to her, which she paid them to register, they shut her domain off until she agreed to pay them several hundred dollars to transfer it into her name. While they negotiated the transfer, her website and email were offline for more than a week.

Registering a domain name is a simple process. Don’t delegate that responsibility.

Domain Name Selection Checklist

I’m a big fan of checklists, so here’s your domain name selection checklist:

  • Short as Possible (< 10 characters before the dot is ideal)
  • Misspellings are Intentional
  • Relevant to Your Business
  • Good SEO Value (especially for landing pages)
  • Easy to Say and Understand
  • Doesn’t Have Unintentional Alternative Meanings
  • Changing a Capital Letter Doesn’t Change the Meaning
  • Isn’t Too Similar to an Existing Business that Sells the Same Things
  • Registered Common Misspellings (Jewlry, Jewlery…not just Jewelry)
SEO

A focused website improves SEO…and your business.

October 02, 2015
Denver, CO

This was an exciting week for Denver’s entrepreneurs. The 4th annual Denver Startup Week set a record with over 10,000 registrations! That just reinforces the fact that Denver, and the entire Front Range, has a thriving startup community!

If you haven’t checked it out yet, there’s still time (assuming you’re reading this when you receive it). Go to http://www.denverstartupweek.org/ to see the lineup for the last day of the startup frenzy.

Yesterday, I attended a fantastic presentation put on by one of Denver’s premier SEO companies, Volume 9 SEO.

I recently had the chance to sit down with the President of V9, and let me tell you, they know what they’re doing and they’re committed to doing SEO the right way.

During yesterday’s presentation, the V9 team shared some of their secret sauce for not only improving your SEO ranking, but also for building a website that gets more people to it, keeps them there longer, and generates more leads for your business.

I was amazed at how much they talked about website design, especially since they don’t do website design.

Like many web design, online marketing, social media and SEO companies, they started out doing everything under the sun.

But over time, they realized their true strength and passion lied in SEO so they dropped all their other services and focused on that.

We made the same decision several months ago, only our strength is website design so we dropped our online marketing, social media and SEO services.

This approach has two main benefits. First, this level of focus allows us to become the experts at our niche and provide our services better than anyone else.

And second, it allows us to focus the content of our website on the limited services we provide, which Google really likes and they reward us with higher rankings.

With this level of focus, Volume 9 was able to achieve top ranking on several SEO keywords, and that’s nearly impossible! With thousands of SEO companies nationwide and hundreds in Colorado, all experts at SEO and all fighting for the first page of Google, it says a WHOLE lot about the companies who actually get there!

I’ve been in this business a long time…over 20 years, but I still learned a few things at yesterday’s presentation. In fact, it’s going to change what we post on our website, and what we’ve already posted on our website.

Since we don’t offer SEO, PPC or social media services anymore, we’re going to move those posts from OnlineStir back to JPStonestreet.com where they belong.

Going forward, everything we post to the OnlineStir blog will be about website design, since that’s all we do and we’re the experts at it.

My newsletter will also change. Instead of weekly, I’m going to send my entrepreneurial-type newsletters monthly while we’re building OnlineStir. And those will be posted to JPStonestreet.com and my social channels.

Then, we’re going to create a new list for website design topics and invite you to opt-in to it (since some of you may not care about these topics). This newsletter will be sent weekly and posted to the OnlineStir blog, as well as our OnlineStir social media channels.

We owe a big thanks to Volume 9 and their talented team of experts for helping us gain more focus, not only on our website, but also in our business.

I’m anxious and exited to see where this new level of focus takes us, and hopefully you’ll be able to apply some of the tough lessons we’ve learned to bring more focus to your website and business.

Why is my website bounce rate so high?

September 25, 2015
Denver, CO

If you’ve checked your Google Analytics and you’re like the vast majority of websites on the Internet, you’ve probably noticed that your bounce rate is very high. In the 80% plus range.

Bounce rate is a statistic that refers to the number of visits to your website that immediately leave without delving deeper into your website.

This can be very disheartening. You spent good time and money to build a website and very few people are sticking around to enjoy it.

There are lots of reasons why REAL people bounce off your website. They might not like your website, your content, your stance, your products, or maybe you just don’t have what they’re looking for.

But this is NOT the reason why your bounce rate is so high.

The two main reasons why your bounce rate is high are 1) you don’t have a lot of real traffic on your website, and 2) those irritating spammers have created spambots that hit your site in far larger numbers than real people, and they have a 100% bounce rate.

Let’s address the first one first: you have a low volume of real traffic.

Several people have asked for my advice about their high bounce rate over the past year. After I checked their Google Analytics, I noticed that their non-spambot visits were very low…less than 50 during the previous month.

In order to draw conclusions about a set of data, we need a statistically significant sample size. That means we need a large enough volume of traffic on your website, at least several hundred real visits, to draw any conclusions about the data.

With fewer than 50 visits, we don’t have enough data to say whether your bounce rate is high or not. If you have 1,000 real visits with an 80% bounce rate, we’ve got a problem. But an 80% bounce rate with 10 real visits is meaningless.

In fact, Google Analytics is pretty useless for low traffic volume websites. If you’re not paying a marketing or SEO company to drive traffic to your site, stressing out about your analytics is a waste of perfectly good stress hormones. Use those to get more traffic on your site instead.

Now let’s look at reason number two: you have more spambot visits than real visits.

A spambot is a piece of malicious software that unscrupulous programmers have written to wreak havoc on computers and the Internet. They do lots of bad things, one of those being to hit websites looking for security weaknesses.

You may have heard of Semalt. They were one of the first spambots to appear legitimate and, until recently, accounted for the majority of spambot visits on our websites. We added code to our websites and client sites to block them and a few others so they wouldn’t ruin our analytics data.

Over the past few months, however, we’ve seen dozens more of these spambots hitting our websites, and more popping up each week. In fact, there’s an international database of spambots that numbers in the thousands. There are simply too many to block using our old method.

Google Analytics does have a way to filter spambots out of the analytics results, but that doesn’t keep them from hitting your site. It just hides them from the reports. It’s defined here: http://www.lunametrics.com/blog/2014/08/07/bot-spider-filtering-google-analytics/.

One of our clients asked us to check her bounce rate last week. In the prior 30 days, her website had 244 visits…240 of those were spambots with nearly a 100% bounce rate.

With only 4 real visits, bounce rate is not something to worry about. But having only 4 real visits is a good cause for concern if you’re hoping to generate business from your website. Might be time to think about a marketing or SEO campaign…

So that’s the ugly truth about bounce rate, and Google Analytics in general. If you don’t have a lot of real traffic on your site, agonizing of your website’s stats isn’t a very good use of your time.

Let us know what you think.

What You See Is What You Get

WYSIWYG. Pronounced wizzy-wig, it stands for What You See Is What You Get.

It’s a common term in software development, used to describe the type of user interface we see in MS Word and WordPress, but it also applies to the real world.

Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about the 7 Questions to Ask BEFORE You Hire a Web Designer, and the first question is, “Do you have a portfolio?”

Surprisingly, a lot of web designers don’t have portfolios on their websites. That’s like going to buy a car, but there are no cars on the lot.

When I bought my Audi, the dealer had to ship the one I wanted to Colorado from California. But I was able to drive a different car in the same model before I decided to buy it. I certainly would NOT have bought one without seeing similar cars.

The same applies to websites. If the web designer you’re talking to doesn’t have a portfolio, or the examples in their portfolio don’t match the quality or style you’re expecting, you need to find another designer.

Even if they tell you your website will be different, actions speak louder than words.

What you see is what you’ll get. WYSIWYG.

If you’d like to see me talk about the other 6 questions to ask a web designer before you hire one, join Patrick, Amelia and me tomorrow morning at North Suburban Sales Pros breakfast. You can RSVP here: http://meetu.ps/2J3s35.

Tell us what you think.

Business Website Design Tips by JP Stonestreet

Does your business have a website? Here are a few tips to help you turn it into a lead generating machine.

How to Design an Email Marketing Program

Most brands concentrate their email marketing efforts on promotional emails and discounts. Subscribers expect the same rusty messages in their inboxes. This leads to the dismissal of emails—subscribers ignore, delete, unsubscribe, or worse—report emails as spam. As a result, companies miss powerful, direct connections to customers. A customer should want to read a brand’s email, not just search through their inbox trash folder for deals at checkout.

Making memorable emails is hard. Getting creative can be challenging, and it can be tough to sell and manage a unique email marketing program. But wouldn’t it be nice to deliver a “must read” to a customer’s inbox?

Three Key Components for Email Marketing Success

Before generating and trying new ideas, make sure to have business goals, branding guidelines, and customer research in place. These three key components help ensure a brand’s mission, goals, look, voice, and community are at the program’s forefront.

Goals: Always tie everything back to your brand’s greater goals. This will help you focus on what types of emails and messages should be considered and help pinpoint where your brand may be missing opportunities.

For example:

Company: A b2c independent bookseller

Business goal: Boost return visits

The email: Emphasize the importance of customers reviewing their purchases and then from there, suggest other books customers may enjoy.

Company: An accounting software company with a free trial

Business goal: Convert more customers

The email: Focus on clever onboarding that uses animated gifs to show customers how easy the software is to use.

Branding Guidelines: Let’s be honest: Being creative with a brand can be downright intimidating. However, most companies do have branding guidelines for both design and voice. These guides cover important aspects of a brand, including appropriate colors, look, feel, and word choices. They assist in making sure branded terms are spelled correctly and logos aren’t abused. Some guides are long and in-depth, while others are only one page. Branding guidelines should be flexible, living documents, but they serve as a lifeline while in the deep end of creativity. Check out some great branding guidelines, shared online, from UC Berkeley, Mozilla, American Heart Association, Blackberry, and MailChimp.

Customer Research: Know what your brand’s customers are looking for and what they’re into, and attempt to predict what they may also enjoy. While there are many ways to go about audience research, most brands already have a lot of data at their fingertips. For e-commerce sites, a brand knows what customers are purchasing, where they live, and more. With basic website analytics, it’s easy to gauge popular content. This type of data is a goldmine. For example, a b2c outdoor clothing brand may find customers make extremely high-dollar purchases on safari clothing in the first quarter of the year. They can then make sure emails highlight this type of clothing as well as feature safari tips.

If you don’t have enough data, surveying your audience is easy. Tools such as Wufoo, Polldaddy,SurveyMonkey, and even Google Document’s forms are simple to use. And for the company looking to level up, try Qualtrics, Qualaroo, or Foresee. To further drive customer research, a brand can develop personas and use them to classify audiences, break down psychographic variables, and then build email marketing around them.

With key components and knowledge in place, it’s time to decide types of emails and creativity. At this point, lay out every single email already sent by your brand in order to decide what to revamp, where there may be gaps, what’s outdated, etc. Depending on how many emails your brand sends, it may be important to focus on one type of email at a time.

em1

Five Major Types of Emails: Onboarding, Subscriber, Promotional, Transactional, and Behavioral

Onboarding: Onboarding emails are traditionally sent to a new customer or community member. However, emails asking a customer to come back or offering an upsell are also included. Onboarding is extremely powerful, and a person’s response to those emails can decide whether or not they’re going to become a lifelong customer. If you only have seven seconds to make a first impression, how will your brand’s first email marketing impression look?

When brands get onboarding right, they win customers for life. For example, the b2c fashion styling service Stitch Fix lays out their next steps for customers simply and smoothly. They use minimal decoration, but elegant font choices to set customer expectations about their service.

Brands want to make sure onboarding tailors to customers’ needs and concerns. B2b screenshot software brand Snagit realized some customers don’t trust download links on websites. So they will also send more nervous customers download links in email as an additional trust signal.

em2

Subscriber: Subscriber emails are a form of regular brand communication such as newsletters, new product announcements, blog posts, roundups, etc. Engagement with an audience on these can be tough. Often subscriber emails come across as too brand-centric and don’t directly help customers. Additionally, these highly customized emails may prove challenging to send regularly (in terms of time and resources). But they can build an incredibly strong brand connection.

Newsletters take time, effort, and love to produce—or they take smart automation. Goodreads, a social network for people to share what they’re reading, does a great job sending customized, timely emails to subscribers. The emails prompt subscribers to talk about what they’re reading and display what friends have read. Friends’ reviews and ratings are shown in-line with easy “Want to Read” buttons for subscribers to add these books to to-read lists. Subject lines prompt opens not with Goodread’s brand, but with friends’ names for personalized intrigue.

However, not every brand hosts enough content for a tailored newsletter. Curated roundups, either of recommended content on other sites or of a brand’s own content, can be powerful. T-shirt brand Look Human, known for their tongue-in-cheek slogans, created a roundup of their products based on the colors of the rainbow. Additionally, they sent this in winter when customers may need a little colorful cheer.

em3

Promotional: As the second most common type of email marketing, promotional emails let customers know about sales, special offers, and upgrades. Promotional emails are a balance. For example, words like “win” or “sale” in a subject line attract high open rates. However, they can also trigger automated spam filtering from email service providers.

Subject lines for promotional emails are extremely important. Many brands have been incorporating click-bait subject lines, but it’s important to avoid anything disingenuous. Mint, a personal money management web app, recently ran the subject line—”Deduct up to $5,500 on your 2014 taxes.” This certainly grabbed attention. The call-to-action inside was to sign up for a Roth IRA, which does indeed allow that much of a deduction for U.S. personal taxes for 2014.

While tempting to always send sale emails, there are many different ways to be creative. The hotel chain Marriott specifically targets business people in their email program. While they do regularly send sales emails, they know their market has other needs. In this “Did You Know?” style email, Marriott tells their audience they provide workspaces. The hotel chain uses imagery reflecting the on-the-go worker, who isn’t tied to an office.

em4

Transactional: By far, transactional emails are the most common type of email marketing. Unfortunately, most transactional emails are overlooked and not attached to an email marketing program. It’s time to take a hard look at those transactional emails and what they say about your brand. From billing to password resets, every email affects how a customer feels about your brand. A brand that shows they care via a shipping confirmation email is heads-and-shoulders above competitors.

A brand can even get creative with receipts, while preserving the straightforward, clear purchase information. Online consignment clothing shop thredUP first shows customers how much money they saved by ordering secondhand apparel. While thredUp’s company mission is to reduce clothing waste, they know in the purchase cycle most customers care more about their wallets.

Don’t let consumer brands have all the fun. Recurring subscription billings can have personality too. Social media management tool Buffer sends their monthly billing receipts from their CEO Joel Gascoigne, which adds a personal touch. They also use casual language to show they are their customers’ friend and prompt customers twice to email them with any questions.

em5

Behavioral: Behavioral emails are triggered by something a customer does or doesn’t do on a brand’s website. Unless a brand has marketing automation software or is dedicated to personalization and outreach, these can be challenging to pull off. Some different types of behavior emails include ones prompting users to review purchases to “happy birthday” emails.

Cart abandonment emails can be a powerful method to figure out why a customer didn’t follow through with a purchase. They can also add an additional human element. thredUP immediately follows up cart abandonment with a personalized email from founder James Reinhart. He shares the story behind the brand and also solicits feedback about why the purchase was halted.

Behavioral email can also be about retention. Win-back campaigns work for marketers looking to improve retention by reminding customers to come back. Social media management tool Viraltag reaches out to currently-paying customers, who haven’t logged in for a while. They aren’t going to make more money in the short-term on these customers, but increased loyalty will make sure customers continue to pay their monthly subscription and use the tool.

em6

Now that emails have been inventoried and the email type decided on, let’s iterate different campaign ideas.

Idea Iteration: Group Fun

Like we mentioned before, creativity (or collaborating creatively with colleagues or clients) can be intimidating. Not everyone is a quick thinker. Not to mention opening up to be imaginative— maybe even silly or ridiculous—can be frightening and requires a good level of trust between the group. However, there are some easy steps to take to help facilitate ideas, not leave anyone out in the cold, and ultimately generate a few great ideas.

Research for inspiration: Before any kind of meetings, pitches, or creative conception, conduct some research for inspiration. Look at what competitors are doing, if possible. See what you can snag and repurpose from brands beloved for their email marketing. Search on Pinterest and make an image board. Find phrases or quotes that encapsulate your brand. Figure out how to greet readers and how to say goodbye.

Bring a list, modularized: Write all that inspiration down. Prepare for the group meeting with confidence. But don’t show up with the emails revamped and already completed. If tempted to do that, break down the content of an email into modules, or parts, and pull from ideas in each section. For example, make a list of words to use in subject lines and a separate list for body content ideas.

Converse and give critical feedback: Ideally, you will want to walk away with three to six solid creative ideas for your program. Critical feedback is important for a group to work well together. This doesn’t mean you should stomp all over someone’s ideas; instead ask critical questions to address how it may work better or if it should be included in the top contender list. Some groups may adopt techniques like Bernd Rohrbach’s 6-3-5 Brainwriting where six participants come up with 108 ideas in 30 minutes.

Put down the best ideas first: Laying out the ideas you’re most passionate about can be intimidating. Your heart can be on the line. Often best ideas are larger projects, which can take more selling and teamwork in order to pull off. But they can pay off in the end if you become the favorite newsletter in someone’s inbox.

Test, Polish, and Test Some More

Armed with ideas, it’s time to put them to work. You should test each idea, iterate on it, and test some more. Creative email campaigns aren’t a static project to mark off the to-do list. Customer

Tell us what you think.

Mobile-friendly or else!

March 27, 2015
Denver, CO

This week, I wanted to take a moment to recognize two of our clients and the amazing work they do.

But first, an important notice… Starting on April 21st, Google will stop showing non-mobile-friendly websites in mobile search results. If your site isn’t responsive to different screen sizes, you’ll only appear on desktop search results, which now accounts for only 60% of search traffic. That means you’ll miss out on 40% of search traffic.

You can test your website using Google’s tester here: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/. If you’re site is mobile-friendly, you see this message:

Mobile-Friendly-Notice

Without further ado, here are this week’s featured clients:

After-Eco

Charlie is very passionate about helping people “Go Solar” so we helped him out by creating a landing page to promote his solar panel installation company. Going solar not only increases your home value and saves you money on your energy bill, you’ll also be doing your part to save the environment. Check out www.Ecology-Solar.com/GoSolar for information and see if your home qualifies for going solar.

After-Tim

Tim wanted a professional, masculine website that reflected his commitment to expert assistance, integrity and dedication. Whether you’re buying or selling your home, or looking to invest in real estate, you can count on Tim to deliver the service. Check out his website at www.TimHigginsRealEstate.com.

To view our entire portfolio, visit http://www.onlinestir.com/portfolio/.

Want people to read your newsletters?

February 20, 2015
Denver, CO

This may offend some of you, but it’s for your own good. I get a lot of newsletters, both from people I know personally and from experts in the fields I follow.

Some of the newsletters I get are instant opens (or save for later) and others are instant deletes. The newsletters that get opened or saved for later have three very important things in common.

First, they’re mobile-friendly. I read most of my email and especially newsletters on my iPhone, and I’m not the only one. 66% of emails are now opened on a smartphone or tablet. (Source)

If I have to zoom in and scroll side-to-side to read your newsletter, it gets deleted.

If it has too many images and takes too long to open, it gets deleted.

The second thing that good newsletters have in common is they’re short. I received a newsletter this morning, which was the inspiration for this newsletter. If I printed that newsletter, it would be at least 8 pages! It had a bunch of sections and images. It was probably 2 or 3 thousand words! Do I have the time or patience to read that on my phone? NO!

Good newsletters are a page or two at the most, with lots of short paragraphs. It’s far better to send short newsletters more frequently than long newsletters every month or quarter. If you have that much to say, say it more often and in smaller chunks.

Finally, the newsletters I read have valuable information that helps improve my life or business. They’re not a sales letter that leaves me with more questions than answers.

I get a newsletter from an expert on referral generation. He sends out something every day and each one is short, but lacks any substantive information. He describes a problem, but then you have to sign up for something or buy something to figure out how to solve it. He’s on the verge of losing me as a follower because of his over-promotion and lack of valuable information.

Next time you write your newsletter, please follow these best practices because I really do care about you and would love to read your valuable information. But if it doesn’t work on my iPhone, it’s too long or over-promoting, you’re gonna get deleted and eventually unsubscribed.

What Sarah Bowles Learned By Working With OnlineStir

Check out the Before & After images for Sarah’s websites. You’ll be amazed at the difference.

One of the first things we do when a new client comes to us is get an understanding of what is going on with their current website. Very early in the process, it became clear to us that Sarah’s website www.cohomesdenver.com wasn’t working very well for her. In fact the way her website was set up was actually discouraging search engines like Google from ranking her in their search results.

This was due to the way her website hosting service was configured. Instead of using her domain name alone, they appended a query string with her account ID to the end of her domain: http://cohomesdenver.com/Home/?ID=40020.

The search engines hate query strings like this and, even more concerning, if you change the account ID on the end from 40020 to 40019 it takes you to a completely different agent’s website! And that agent’s site looked almost just like Sarah’s, including nearly all the same content!

Unfortunately this kind of thing is all too common. Most specialized website providers create template based websites that are all virtually identical, which search engines consider duplicate content and de-rank from search results.

Luckily for Sarah, she now has a website that is working for her, helping her to get new clients and get more sales for her properties.

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