5 Tips for Better Dog Business Websites

03 Feb 2009Steve Schwarz

A website is no longer a luxury for dog trainers, clubs and agility services; more and more people rely on the internet to find businesses and services. The good news is you don’t need a fancy or expensive website to attract customers to your business. But you do need to make the information they are looking for immediately visible. You only have a few seconds to give the visitor what they are looking for before they give up and try elsewhere.

Recently I visited hundreds of dog agility websites when I added Map Search to Googility. Just like a potential customer, I was looking at each site for specific information:

  1. Street Address, City, and State
  2. Phone Number
  3. Email Address
  4. Services Offered

This article was born from the frustration I encountered on this simple task.

1. Where Are You?

I was stunned that this basic information was either missing or hidden on so many websites. My favorite is: “Serving the Springfield area since 19xx” and that was it! How many Springfields are there in the US? Heck I had to assume it was in the US. Other sites had only a phone number and only on the home page.

The vast majority of your visitors will find your website through a search engine and, unless you are a “big name”, they will be searching by city, state or other geographic criteria. Help them find you!

Tip 1: Put all of your contact information on every page.

This is the most important information your website provides. Put it in the footer or in a side panel on every page. You can also put it on a Contact or Location page. Just don’t make people hunt for it. Remember the search engine might not deliver them to your home page!

If you have a business that works in a region or doesn’t have a street address use your mailing address. Don’t want to give that out? Specify the city and state of your home base. If you list the major towns in which you work you are also more likely to be discovered by people searching nearby towns (if this is big list you might only put it on one page).

2. What Services Do You Offer?

Here’s another area where I was taken aback. For a large number of sites I couldn’t figure out what they do! Some sites had multiple introduction paragraphs extolling their claim to fame or their training philosophy. Those can be discriminating factors when choosing among businesses. But first off visitors want to know if you even offer the service for which they are looking.

Tip 2: Put links to your services on every page.

Just like the address information, it is helpful if they are visible on every page. So a menu structure on the top or sides with links for each service can be an easy solution. But I don’t recommend hiding them under other menu items. If these are the reason you are in business you want them clearly visible. If this doesn’t fit into your main design, you can always put them as simple text links at the bottom of each page.

I had to resort to using the browser to search within some pages for the words “class/classes” and “rental”; most visitors will just move on.

3. Email Addresses

Due to email spam everyone is paranoid about giving out their email address on their website. In my opinion, for a business owner, it is just the cost of doing business. The current generation(s) of customers are more likely to send you an email than they are to phone you. They know they are unlikely to talk you the first time they call, they are going to get your voice mail.

So, while this tip is kind of a repeat of Tip 1, it is so important and a change from common thinking about your personal email address I want to emphasize it.

Tip 3: Put your email address on every page.

What about the spam? Use a separate email address for your business. I’ve seen some sites with as many as a dozen separate email addresses, unless you are a club with different members handling different tasks, just use a single email address everywhere.

If you don’t have spam filtering software for your email use one of the free email services from Google, Yahoo or Hotmail. They all have excellent spam filters. I use them and rarely have spam get through. While these email addresses are less professional looking than yourname@yourdomain.com they take no technical skills to set up, just fill out the form on the website.

Please don’t use spam filters that require people who send you emails to prove they are human. Would you bother to fill one out? If you have one and disable it I’ll bet you get more legitimate emails.

Still worried about spam? You can also create an image containing your email address. Humans can read the address but “spambots” can’t. Just don’t put your address in the image too or your location will be invisible in search engines!

4. What's in a (Domain) Name?

A domain name is both your business name and street address on the internet and you need to take the same precautions with it as you would with your other business documents.

Tip 4: Own Your Domain Name.

Getting a domain name costs about fifteen dollars a year and puts your business on par with every other web business. I think a business website with an address of stevesagility.com is more professional sounding than geocities.com/stevesagility/index.html. While you are at it, consider purchasing the .com, .net, and even .org versions of your business name. They can be configured to all “point” to your one website.

Your domain name is as important as your business name. Make certain you order your domain name yourself (and not your “web guy” if you have one) and you know all the information about renewing it. It is

absolutely critical that you set up payment for your domain name to automatically renew. You might also consider paying for it for many years into the future (but then you run the risk of forgetting to renew it when the time finally comes).

Set a reminder in your calendar and double check before the expiration date that your credit card number is still valid. There are domain name “predators” out there who will grab your domain name within minutes of it expiring. They will be happy to sell it back to you for thousands of dollars and you have almost no recourse with the firm that sold you the domain name. Sad but true.

5. Hosting, You Get What You Pay For

This may not be a quick tip but it is getting easier every day.

Tip 5: Use a Quality Hosting Service.

I found some businesses running on free websites full of flashing banner and popup ads. I know the economy is hitting small businesses especially hard right now, but this is an area where you can look a lot more professional with little expense. There are hosting services without ads for as little as five dollars a month.

In general if you pay more you’ll be sharing the computer running your website with fewer other websites. Most services worth considering have a 30 day free trial period. So upload some test pages to their servers and then download them during the peak usage times around lunch time and in the evenings. Are your pages fast to load?

Try calling their help desk at the times you are most likely to be working on your website? Do they even have phone support?

Are backups available? Can you download your entire website to your own computer in case you decide to change hosting services?

Lastly, unlike the “olden times” of the 1990s, now there are services where you can get both a domain name and a website in a package with a simple online website builder and be up and running with a couple web pages in a few hours. These are the easiest to use and as long as you give your visitors the information they need you’ll be in great shape.

Bonus Tips

Your website represents your business. There is nothing wrong with having a sense of humor and looking “different” than other websites. But you can’t loose sight of its primary purpose: getting your visitors the information they are looking for in the first few seconds they visit your site. If you distract them, or worse, alienate them they won’t come back. In general simpler is better.

Please don’t:

  • Play music or sound effects when visitors enter the site
  • Modify the cursor shape or have animations follow it
  • Have menu items that don't take you anywhere or take you to "Under Construction" page - remove the menu items until you have the page(s) complete
  • Use popups - ever
  • Have elaborate forms to fill in to contact your or get more information - few people will fill them out
  • Have more than one: animation, marquee banner or flashing link on a page - do they really help get your message across?
  • Use too many fonts, font sizes or colors - keep it simple and easy to read

Please:

  • Spell check your pages
  • Use software to shrink the file size of your images - it speeds up page load times
  • Check every page on your site for broken links and missing images
  • See if deleting text/images makes your business' purpose clearer - look at sites you admire for inspiration

Summary

Keep your website simple and clearly present the critical information to your visitors (and search engines) so they can ultimately talk to you and start the business relationship you are both looking for.

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