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As much as the opening headline to this sounds like an infomercial, I promise that I am entirely serious. Your web site should be much more than a brochure. It’s more than an online menu, some contact information and your logo arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner. It’s more than a business requirement.

It’s your calling card. Your brand. It’s your 24x7x365 salesperson. It can take messages. It can greet potential customers. It can welcome back current customers. It can even persuade customers to use your products and services instead of your competition. Or vice-versa. It can answer questions. It can track and manage inventory. It can reach out to search engines to get itself more traffic. It can even tell you how people are finding it. Did I mention it can sell things 24 hours a day?

Your web site is you.

The fact is, the web has entered an era where a web site can—and should be—a primary part of your business model. Consumers shop based on the professionalism and comprehensiveness of a company’s web site. Consumers investigate businesses online before stepping foot in a retail establishment or office. Consumers reach for a search engine more than they reach for a phone book.

With this in mind, here are five questions to ask yourself about your own web site—and these apply whether you have a site already or are planning on making one:

1) How can your web site make your job easier?
Sometimes, it’s as easy as putting up a Frequently Asked Questions page to help cut down on phone time spent answering common questions. Sometimes it’s a more complex solution, like e-commerce, real-time inventory tracking, an extranet or something built around your business model. Even something as simple as a customer forum can be huge in terms of letting your customers help one another. Remember, your web site works 24 hours a day. What can it be doing for you while you are at home with your family, enjoying a good movie?

2) Is your web site easy to use?
Actually, don’t ask yourself this question. Ask your customers. Ask your mother. Your grandmother. Next time you’re at your in-laws’ house for dinner, ask them to sit down on your web site and perform a specific task, such as finding a certain product, locating some specific information, or just surfing through it. Do not intervene. Just watch quietly and note where the stumbling blocks are. For your customers, send them an offer to get a 10% off coupon if they test your site and provide answers to a questionnaire about your site. You will begin to notice commonalities in the feedback you get, and those are where you want to start.

3) Does your web site really represent the business?
Your business is your brand. Did your web designer design your site for your brand, or did they design it for your logo? There is a difference, and your customer experience needs to be reflected equally in-person and online. A customer should feel as warmly welcomed on your site as they would walking into your store. They should have an instant feel for what your establishment looks and feels like inside.

4) Do the search engines like your web site?
Many web sites that have withstood the test of time were written with code that is more often becoming outdated and search-engine prohibitive. In the last few years, standard HTML has been deprecated in favor of cleaner and more flexible XHTML and CSS site layouts. Many search engines will index content and site structures more easily when the underlying code is written in clean, validated XHTML and CSS. While the old standard HTML will still render properly in most web browsers, it is often less efficient to render and makes it harder for search engines to separate content from code.

5) How are people finding your site? How are you finding them?
Once your site is up and running, you must not rely on search engines alone for traffic. There are a number of things you can do to help drive traffic to your site, many of them being quite simple.

Start a business blog, making sure to keep it updated with real, useful information and content related to your business or industry. Make sure your blog has a link back to your site and vice-versa. Make sure your content is not just selling your business, but is useful and keyword-rich.

Get linked to (and link to) other sites. Google likes this and will ultimately increase your search rankings. Using Google Local and Yahoo! Local can help a lot to this end, as well as getting yourself listed in legitimate online business and industry directories with links back to your site. Avoid getting into any arrangements with SPAM directories.

Cross-pollinate with other sites like MySpace, YouTube, Digg and Zwinky. More and more businesses are creating profiles on social networking and Web 2.0 sites. These profiles can ultimately act as another springboard to get more traffic to your site and to help you appeal to entirely new demographics.

Track your traffic. Take advantage of Google’s Webmaster Tools. Their Analytics product is simply amazing. And free. You can track your web site traffic, sources of traffic, paths users are taking through your site and even set up conversion goals to see how many people are following through with specific purchase paths. Did I mention it’s free?

So that’s it—a great starting point for you to use as a barometer to make your web site not only more useful to your customers, but also to you. If you would like a more in-depth consultation on how your web site may be able to help your business more, please don’t hesitate to contact us.