Building effective small business websites using the Top Tasks approach

An effective website can be an asset to any business, but many small business websites end up hard to use disasters that never fulfill their potential.

Many business owners see their website as a cost and a necessary evil, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

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How to blog on your business website

Blogging on your business website can bring all kinds of benefits – especially to your bottom line – but getting going is easier said than done.

This post is for you if you’ve wondered whether you should blog, have been told you should, or if you’ve always intended to, but never got going.

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Website contact forms: Why you must keep them short

Screenshot of contact form

Ever given up on an online transaction – like filling in a form – because it took too long? You and just about everyone else.

Web contact forms play a big part in every day web use. If your business has a website, chances are there is at least one contact form on it.

Many people visit business websites to get a phone number, but others will want to contact you using your form.

But instead of making it easy for people to contact you, that contact form could be acting as a barrier.

Are you asking for too much information?

Screenshot of contact form
Do you really need to know all that?

Often businesses and organisations use contact forms as a way of prioritising how quickly to get back to them – or whether to respond at all.

Sometimes forms ask for totally irrelevant information, or at least information that isn’t needed at this early stage.

But if you want potential new customers to contact you via your website, you need to make it as easy as possible for them, and that means asking as few questions as possible.

You may have to deal with more people you can’t help, but form submissions will rise too, as will the number of conversions.

There have been plenty of studies that back this up.

Why keeping forms short helps sales

Holiday company Expedia discovered it was losing $12 million in sales thanks to one extra form field on their website. The field asked for the visitor’s company and people filled it in wrongly, causing the transaction to fail.

A study by Kevin Hale, co-founder of online forms company Infinity Box Inc showed that site visitors are more likely to fill out shorter forms because they require less effort. The number of questions on a form correlates closely with the rate at which people abandon the form.

And a study by US web company Imaginary Landscape showed how reducing the number of fields in their forms from 11 to four resulted in a 160% increase in forms being submitted and a 120% increase in their conversion rate.

The smaller 4-question form resulted in a significantly higher number and ratio of submitted forms.  In addition, the quality of the submissions remained the same, even with the reduction in submitted information.

Also, the quality of submissions stayed the same.

How to keep your website forms short and efficient

Ask for essential information only – only what you absolutely need to progress.

On a simple contact form this often need be no more than a name and a means of contact – an email address or phone number, of preferably both.

Once you have these then it’s all you need, though it helps to have a comments form that people can fill in if they like.

If you are looking to trim an existing form then ask whether everything you are asking for is really necessary for a first contact. Do you really need to ask for company information? You will find it out soon enough.

More information

ZDNet: Expedia on how one extra data field can cost $12m

Six Revisions: 10 tips for optimizing web form submission usability

Smashing Magazine: An Extensive Guide To Web Form Usability

Inman News: Increase online conversion rates

Imaginary Landscape: Contact Form Case Study

Five tips for writing effective website copy

Five tips for writing effective website copy

Writing for the web is different from any other form of copywriting and needs special attention.

It’s not just a matter of taking your printed promotional material, grafting it onto your website and hoping it will do the job – because it won’t.

And going on at length about what you have to offer and expecting people will read every word will not work either.

Writing for the web
Follow some basic rules and writing for the web gets a lot easier.

Content marketers like to bang on about web copy that is ‘engaging’ and ‘grabs the reader’s attention’, but this is wishful thinking at best.

After all if your customers are on your website you already have their attention: The hard part is keeping it!

How to write website copy that works

So here are five tips to help you make the best of your business website. We’re not intending to cover everything here – just the basics of how to structure and lay out your website content.

1. Make your text easy to understand

Generally, people will arrive at your business website with a task in mind and want to know if you are the people to do it for them.

Also, most people do not sit and read web pages from top to bottom, savouring every word: They scan pages, eyes darting over the words looking for something that matches what they are looking for.

So your writing needs to be clear and concise, without complicated sentences with ambiguous meanings.

You also need to put the most important points at the top: If you keep people waiting to get to the point the chances are they won’t hang around long enough to find out.

Don’t try to be clever and throw in some puns or other ‘witty’ writing. That sort of thing can get old very quickly, but mainly doesn’t help get your message across.

Make it easy for people and they are more likely to stay around long enough to find out if you can help them.

2. Break up your text

Great big blocks of text are hard to scan and therefore hard to read on a website.

Everyone is time poor these days with a thousand different things competing for our attention. This makes us impatient and blocky text will be skipped over rather than read.

So you need to use short, succinct sentences and lots of paragraphs – ideally one sentence – and one idea – to a paragraph.

You’ll be amazed at how much easier a page is to read if it’s been split up properly.

You can also use headings (heading 1, 2, etc, not just bold text and bigger font size) to break things up, and if you use the right, relevant, words these actually help your page get found on search engines.

3. Go easy on the formatting

Another trap that people fall into is to try to emphasise different aspects in their text, but tests have shown the more you try and make something on a web page stand out, the more you end up hiding it!

Bold text, entire words in capital letters and random big text sizes can all be used to add emphasis, but once you start using them it’s difficult to stop.

If you find yourself doing this, then the chances are there is too much irrelevant stuff in your web page and you need to edit the copy down.

Formatting needs to be consistent and sparse. Don’t use italics (hard to read), underlining (easy to confuse with links), stick to a body text size and font and set heading sizes and use bold very, very sparingly.

4. Keep it short and stick to the point

Information overload normally goes hand in hand with trying to squeeze too much into a web page – it’s a very common problem on small business websites.

We often see business owners go into all kinds of detail their potential customers do not need to know. The end result is visitors are bombarded with too much information and end up taking in nothing.

If you want to take your car in to be fixed by a mechanic you don’t want to know what make of spanners he uses, or for that matter anything about his methods. You just need to know that he is competent to do the job and how much it’s likely to cost.

Yet many business websites are marred by the business going on at length about how they do things when potential customers do not need this information.

If you want to make it easy for your website visitors (and that’s the only way they will stay), keep it short, simple and stick to your essential information.

5. Read it – Then cut it! (Then read it again)

If you are expecting others to read your carefully crafted web copy the least you can do is read through it properly before you press the Publish button. Sadly this doesn’t happen.

Everything that goes on your business website should be read by at least two people first, to make sure it makes sense and doesn’t contain grammatical errors. A spell checker is also a must.

If you can’t get someone else to read your copy, then take a break – overnight at least is good – and come back to it with fresh eyes. Sometimes it’s easier to read through copy that has been printed out.

At this point you should be reading with a view to cutting it down by up to a half. And once you’ve cut it you’ll need to read it again.

If this sounds extreme it isn’t – once you get into practice it’s amazing at how much you can lose and every word you remove will be helping to make your copy more concise – and above all more effective.

More information

Concise, SCANNABLE and objective: How to Write for the Web – Neilsen Norman Group

How to write for the web: BBC News School Report

If you want to hide it, emphasize it: Gerry McGovern – New Thinking

photo credit: RLHyde via photopin cc

Make sure your Tweets and blog posts don’t land you in trouble with the law

Sticks of dynamite

The following is an overview of how to avoid legal issues on social media.

With the current case of Lord McAlpine suing people who falsely named him as a child abuser, Twitter and social media in general is under the microscope like never before.

The former Tory treasurer is chasing everyone who named him on Twitter based on rumours he abused children in a home in Wrexham in the 70s. And, for the avoidance of doubt (and in case his lawyers read this!) we should point out those rumours are totally untrue.

[caption id="attachment_522" align="alignright" width="300"]Sticks of dynamite Your Tweets could be legal dynamite, but not literally.[/caption]

Lord McAlpine has deep pockets and a lot of people who repeated the allegation will be getting a letter from his lawyers.

If you use social media, this is the perfect example of why you need at least a basic understanding of the law of defamation and libel before you bash out a Tweet and press the send button.

And it’s not just libel. Earlier this month nine people who used their Twitter accounts to name a woman raped by footballer Ched Evans were ordered to pay her compensation.

All said they didn’t know identifying a rape victim was a criminal offence.

In all cases it’s no defence to say you did not know the law. A Tweet in particular can be retweeted to thousands upon thousands of people, gaining a massive audience beyond your followers.

And it doesn’t matter how many times other people have tweeted or blogged the statement (whatever it is) before you. If you repeat it, you are just as guilty as the person who started it.

That’s why Twitter users in particular are under the microscope, but the law also applies to blogs and – to a lesser extent – Facebook posts, where a lot depends on privacy settings.

Deleting won’t save you

Deleting Tweets and posts won’t help as they can be recovered, and social media sites will hand over your details if asked for them by the police or by a court order.

But in the last few days I’ve seen a lot of blogs repeating the most outrageous allegations of child abuse against politicians of all parties and I expect the bloggers involved will be getting letters from lawyers sooner or later.

Some high profile Tweeters have been caught out by this, not to mention the BBC and ITV, so the risks are clear.

Back in the old days…

In the days before widespread use of the internet and social media, when only newspapers, magazines and TV and radio could broadcast to wide audiences, this wasn’t a problem.

Journalists understood the law, and what they wrote or put on air went through the filter of an editor who (mostly) would pick up anything libellous or likely to break the law.

The onus was – and still is – on them to get it right. And as a Twitter user or the writer of a blog or poster on Facebook the same laws apply to you.

That means it’s your responsibility that your tweets don’t break the law or defame someone. And if they do, you will face the consequences.

So what’s the law now?

You can fall foul of the law in two different ways:

By committing a criminal offence, for example the inflammatory Tweets that people have gone to jail for, or naming rape victims. If you commit a criminal offence you are prosecuted and go to a criminal court. Only criminal offences can land you in jail.

By committing defamation, or libel in particular. Libel is when a person’s reputation is damaged by an untrue statement that is written and published.


Libel is not a criminal offence, it is a tort or a ‘civil wrong’ that means the person who you libelled can sue you in a civil court and claim money as compensation for the damage to their reputation.

There’s no legal aid for libel and it’s very expensive to start an action or defend one. But if you libel someone who has a lot of money you are in trouble.

There are lots of defences for libel, the chief one being that the statement made was true. But again you have to prove that and that can be very expensive indeed.

You don’t even have to name the person directly.

However you can’t libel someone who is dead, which is why anyone can say what they like about Jimmy Savile.

This is a simplified version of a very complex law. For more information see these pages:

The Guardian: Libel laws explained

Sense about Science: A quick guide to libel laws in England and Wales (PDF file)

Out-Law: Guide to defamation

Criminal law

The main law we are dealing with here is the naming of rape victims. There is an automatic lifetime ban on identifying the victim of any sexual offence. You can’t go to jail for this, but you can be fined as in the Ched Evans case.

The same goes for identifying juveniles – those under 17 years old – also a danger area, whether they are offenders or victims.

In most cases this is banned outright though in extreme cases, such as the two boys convicted of the killing of Jamie Bulger, the judge allowed them to be publically named. However people who recently tweeted pictures purporting to be one of them have been charged with contempt because they can no longer be identified. Confusing, huh?

Commenting on criminal court cases – especially ongoing ones – can be risky and is best avoided as the law of Contempt of Court is very restrictive.

More information:

BBC News: Twitter users: A guide to the law

The Guardian: Ched Evans rape case: nine fined over naming of footballer’s victim

The Daily Mail goes into more detail, especially what the offending Tweets said.

Then there’s the whole issue of offensive Tweets and Facebook posts, that have led to some recent high profile court cases and jailings. Though there is a debate over whether this is freedom of expression it’s clear the courts are taking it seriously.

Here are some examples:

BBC News Racist Twitter user jailed for 56 days

The Guardian Tom Daley Twitter abuse arrest leads to calls to educate people of legal risks

BBC News: April Jones: Matthew Woods jailed for Facebook posts

And another McAlpine story: The Guardian: McAlpine’s solicitor warns long list of Twitter users to ‘apologise or be sued’

Think before you Tweet

Admittedly, these are extreme examples but when it’s so easy to type something out and send it, it pays to think before you Tweet or post:

  • Do you know it’s true? Could you prove it if challenged?
  • Is what you say likely to offend anyone, even if you are not setting out to offend?
  • If you are commenting on a court case is has what you say already been reported in the mainstream media? If it hasn’t you could be unwittingly landing yourself in trouble.

These are just a few of the main considerations. There’s a more comprehensive guide here on the Lawyers4Mumpreneurs website:

Top ten legal issues to consider when using Twitter

Cookie law made simple – no need to panic

Woman with bag on head

In the last few months alarm has been spreading across the web community and anyone who owns a website.

The reason? A new British law governing privacy and websites, often referred to as the EU Cookie Law because it is derived from a European Directive.

Since this post was first written in July 2012 the interpretation of the law has been relaxed again. See our latest blog post on the issue.

The law affects just about every website, with severe fines of up to £500,000 for non-compliance. Yet most websites did not comply and most website owners were not aware of it.

[caption id="attachment_537" align="alignright" width="300"]Woman with bag on head Sure this is an approach to the Cookie Law, but not the best one[/caption]

As time ticked down towards its introduction on May 26 the fear and paranoia grew – and as ever there were plenty of people only too ready to cash in. That wasn’t helped by a lack of clear guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), who will enforce the law.

So what’s it all about?

Cookies are small files that allow a website to recognise and track users. The vast majority of websites use them – for example to remember what is in your shopping cart or to recognise you when you return to a site. They also allow website owners to track statistics for their sites, allowing them to improve services in a cost effective way.

On the whole they are a good thing that makes using the web easier for everyone.

But some are intrusive, effectively spying on people who visit a website for a long time after they have left it, and without their knowledge or permission.

The law was created to regulate these, after all it’s only right that you should have a choice whether to accept them or not. It’s about online privacy.

The trouble is it targets ALL cookies, not just the intrusive ones, which is why it puts just about everyone in a technical breach. As with all privacy issues, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. That makes it a major headache for everyone who runs a website.


Much of the fear has been generated around the penalties for not complying with the law and it’s true that website owners can be fined up to £500,000. But don’t expect to see anyone fined for a long, long time.

The ICO is adopting a softly, softly approach of education rather than using a big stick and fines will only be issued as a last resort when:

  • There have been complaints about a site
  • That site is using very intrusive cookies that capture sensitive data, such as medical information, maybe using that info to target advertising or pass on to third parties
  • The site owner explicitly refuses to do anything about it, despite repeated requests from the ICO.

And if you are approached by the ICO, you will be given plenty of chances – and lots of advice – to help you put things right.

That hasn’t stopped consultants and some web firms seeing an opportunity to cash in, often using fear of fines as a way to sell their services, most of which involve over the top solutions – a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

To be fair on some of these, the hazy guidance from the ICO hasn’t helped. Neither has the fact that at the 11th hour the ICO made a small, but very important, change to their advice.

Their first advice was that websites must obtain consent before setting any cookies, therefore disabling analytics, social media or many other site functions until a user agreed. This was technically quite difficult to do. It also meant using intrusive pop ups that block a site from use until a user has consented – or otherwise.

Sometimes the only way to comply would have been to tell people to leave the site.

But just before the May 26 deadline the advice changed. The new version allows for implied consent – so it’s ok to set cookies so long as you tell them what they are and how to block them. This makes all the difference.

Many web companies have invested a lot of time and money into producing solutions that – while being intrusive – complied with the law as it stood.

Unfortunately, the change to implied consent has made these solutions look like overkill. You can’t blame these companies for persisting with them when they have spent a lot of time and money developing their solution, only to see it obsolete.

The truth is that complying with the law – or at least avoiding unwanted attention from the ICO – is relatively straightforward for most of us and should not involve a great deal of work.

See the easy way to comply with the EU Cookie Law

Before you spend on SEO, take a long, hard look at your website

Frustrated man with glasses

SEO companies are everywhere – cold calling, emailing and offering to do wonderful things for your site.

[caption id="attachment_506" align="alignright" width="300"]Frustrated man with glasses “I don’t care about your mission statement! How much do you charge?”[/caption]

They say driving traffic to your website will magically increase your sales.

Many will throw lots of figures about page rank, keyword analysis, backlinks and optimisation for good measure.

But while these things are important, a lot of these Search Engine Optimisation companies miss the big picture:

Getting more people to look at your website is not an aim in itself.

Fine, you can get more traffic, but what will these people do when they get to your site?

If your site lacks focus, is badly written, unnecessarily complex and difficult to use then the chances are the increased traffic will only lead to more people leaving the site almost as soon as they have arrived.

You might as well just throw your money down the drain.

New customers?

The point of your business website is to bring you new customers and sometimes to serve existing ones, but if your website is difficult to use or lacks professionalism then you could end up putting people off.

So take a look at your website from the point of view of a prospective customer who has never seen it before and knows nothing about your business.

Answer their questions

What questions will that person have in their mind? Have you answered them? Is it easy to get around the site? Does it really create the right impression for your business? How effective is it at getting your key messages across?

Search engines, and Google in particular, are placing increasing weight on the relevance of a site as well as its quality. In other words, good sites do well in searches.

So if you get the quality right, you will not need to spend a fortune on SEO consultants.