Landis: How to Make a Website for Your Business (and How Not to)
authors Christopher K. Landis | March 17, 2021
Over the years I have managed the design process of three or four websites for my firm. We were one of the first design-build firms to have a website (We bartered with a client on some of his remodel for a website). Over time, the importance of a high-performing website for business has clearly changed and grown significantly.
These days, it goes without saying that a website is the most important piece of marketing collateral in your arsenal. It is often the primary means by which your clients and customers can find you and learn about you, your process and your body of work. It is the primary means by which you convert interested customers into leads. Not only is your website the primary place that your customers will visit to learn more about your firm, it is also the place that future employees will reference to research your firm and reach out to you.
Prep Work Ahead of Time
Before you set about designing or redesigning a website for your business, the first questions that you must ask yourself is: Who is my audience? Whom am I trying to reach? What do I want to them to know about my firm? And which actions do I want them to take with that knowledge? Answering these questions is a critical first step to understanding how your website should be designed and how it should function. If you run a firm such as Landis Construction, specializing in major remodeling projects, people will want to understand your process and see your portfolio of work.
Another early question to ask pertains to your URL, or web address. This is not something to gloss over if you’ve been using one for a long period of time. Buying a new URL and merging in the existing traffic is sometimes necessary. I often see firms with a URL that is simply the initials of the name of the company. This is a big mistake.
You want your website’s address to include as much of the full name of your company as possible. This way, when a prospective customer is searching for your firm by name, they can find you easily and quickly. Having your name in your URL will also help with search engine optimization (SEO) and for branded keyword searches (or searches with your name in them).
While doing research for your new website, check out your competitors’ websites. Don’t be afraid to take inspiration from their websites. Are they presenting information on their website that you don’t? Do they have multiple calls to action that appeal to end users throughout their marketing funnel? Do they have a design solution on their website that you like, or one you don’t like? Take notes. Ultimately, you want your website design to be unique and original and reflective of your corporate culture.
If your competitor is doing something successfully, see if you can learn from it and use it. After all, it wasn’t long after the first restaurant offered online ordering on their website that others followed suit.
Custom vs. Template
Now that you’ve thought about your audience and your URL, there’s one more question to answer before you set out to design your website, and that is the age-old question of custom versus template. A custom website is best for a large or fast-growing firm who wants to have a robust and unique online presence and is willing to invest to do so. Custom websites can have any type of functionality you can dream of, but they take a lot of time to build and a lot of maintenance, and they require an expertise to design and manage properly.
For most design-build firms, they are probably not the best fit. For most, a template website is the way to go. The most commonly used website platform is WordPress. It is an open-source content management system (CMS), written in PHP and paired with a MySQL of MariaDB database. On top of this is a template system, referred to within WordPress as a theme.
In short, WordPress is a pre-designed website foundation that you can build practically endless different ways. These templates have pre-made and built-in features, backend plugins and updates. This makes these websites easier to update and manage and much easier to build. WordPress sites can be customized so much that calling them a template site is almost a misnomer. Most likely, working within WordPress will be the best option for your business.
The ‘Fun’ Part
Now comes the fun part, designing the architecture, layout and flow of your website. Ultimately, when designing a website for a remodeling business, you want the design to remove as many barriers as possible between yourself and your prospective client, who is reaching out and taking action. You want to design the website to answer those questions that you asked yourself early in the process.
If I want my clients’ first impression to be of my firm’s body of work, perhaps I should have a slideshow of my best project photography as part of the first “screenful” of my website that clients will see. Perhaps I also want to have our portfolio be the first menu item in order to continue to inspire them. Conversely, maybe I want to inform them before I inspire them, in which case I might put a menu option for my firm’s services, our process or our biographic information.
If you are redesigning an existing website, analyze which pages from your existing website get the most traffic. Your new design needs to drive your clients to those pages. Your goal needs to be to get prospective clients to the information that they want and need, as quickly as possible.
Once they have arrived at that information, you want it to be displayed as clearly and succinctly as possible. You want your website to have easy navigation, so no cul-de-sacs or dead ends—those will frustrate the end user and they will go to someone else’s website.
Okay, here’s the hard part. With all the above stated, keep in mind that every viewer has a unique set of interests they are looking to fill. The design implication is everyone takes a different path through your website to get the information they want to see. With everyone taking a different path, you want to design your website so that all roads lead to the finish line: conversion!
You want your website users to be inspired, collect the information that they are seeking and to get in touch with you—fill out a form, send an email or call. Above all, you want the whole process to be easy (or even fun).
In writing about designing a website I would be remiss if I didn’t write a little bit about SEO (though that could be a whole article of its own). When designing your website, you want to consider not only how it works for end users once they arrive, but also consider how it attracts them in the first place.
In the simplest terms, the content that is on your website is what Google and other search engines use to determine how relevant your website is to what someone is searching for; and that determines where your land in their list of recommendations (your page rank).
So, if you are a design-build firm with an architect on staff, but you only mention the word “architects” or “architecture” one time, when someone in your area searches for “architecture firms near me,” you most likely won’t show up anywhere near the top of the first page, if even at all. So be sure include content on your website that clearly captures what you do. Think about the words that people might search for to find you.
Please also note, if members of your staff are notable members of the community, they should have their own bio page. That way, when people search your team member’s name, your website will come up. These are just some of the SEO design implications that you should think through to make sure you have the best website.
Now that you have done some work developing your design ideas and your content, you are ready to engage a firm to work with on your website. Remember, when looking for a firm to work with, you want a team that shows creativity and will bring ideas to the party. You are not the expert, and you need to work with a team that will bring your ideas to life and create an end product that is better than you could have imagined.
Once you have decided on a firm you like, make sure that your contract allows for multiple rounds of revision; it may take a few different schematic designs before you decide on what works best. Generally, in my experience, web design firms are not very strong in SEO, so engage an expert early and invite them to progress meetings.
No website is complete without a tracking mechanism to measure its success. For most, that tracking mechanism is Google Analytics. Make sure that your web developer installs and sets up Google Analytics and any other tracking software that you want, so you can assess the success of every element of your website. This data will inform any changes that you want to make to your website down the line at a later time.
Now that you have a good primer on how to go about designing and redesigning your company’s website, here are a few suggestions of what not to do.
- When picking a web-design firm, do not go with a solo practitioner; they will probably have the cheapest price, but if anything goes wrong, you will have nowhere to turn. You will have to start from scratch. I recommended a small to mid-size firm that values your business but has the infrastructure and resources to ensure that your website gets delivered successfully.
- Don’t work on your website and not bring in your management team and your creatives until your final presentation. Make sure all major stakeholders are involved throughout the process, especially in getting buy-in on architecture and layout. You will still want to have one person who is the final decision maker, but make sure that your stakeholders aren’t surprised or unhappy when they see the final product.
- Do not finish your website and then forget about it. Your website is never truly finished. There will be improvement that you can make from functionality to design, to nitty gritty details like spacing and fonts. Make sure that you set a regular cadence to review and update your website and monitor its metrics to make those decisions.
Alright, that was a lot of information. Here is what I want you to remember if you don’t remember anything else: When designing your website, assess and plan to design to your firm’s goals and needs; put together a team internally and externally that involves all stakeholders appropriately; go with a firm that brings creativity and experience to the table; plan for multiple revisions and remember—your website is never finished. QR
Christopher K. Landis, AIA, owns Landis Construction in Washington, D.C. He brings 30 years of remodeling design, construction and management experience to this series of columns for the magazine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.