The Small Business Website is Dead

Lately, I’ve been unselling as many websites as I’ve shipped. It’s not a compatibility issue—on the contrary, I’ve developed great relationships with many of the folks I haven’t ended up working with. But websites aren’t the only channel available for growing a business online, anymore, and in many cases they may not even be the best one.

A parable for our time

There was a time that a small business trying to keep up with the Joneses had to buy a domain, set up hosting, and hire a local web development shop to develop and maintain their property online. Moving online offered big payoffs for local retailers who used e-commerce to peddle their wares to customers online, but the best that service-sector businesses could expect in return for a large outlay in custom development and SEO services was reasonable parity with their competitors. The online arms race that ensued was a boon for developers, project managers, and SEO-types with both black and white hats. It wasn’t a great deal for business.

But the days of isolated websites lashed together by a few leading search providers have been rapidly supplanted by a web made up of interconnected services. Traditional search has been supplemented by local search, social referrals, and all manner of additional channels for promoting the discovery and dissemination of information. For smaller enterprises, the contemporary model offers many different opportunities for internet-based business development.

Unfortunately, web professionals in general (and developers in particular) are notoriously poor at translating the conventional wisdom of our craft into terms that are accessible to our clients. Sure, our colleagues in marketing and sales are perfectly comfortable throwing around “The Cloud” as the ultimate salvation for online businesses, but it’s too often bandied about with only a limited understanding of what it really is. Or what happens when EC2 goes down.

When a sole proprietor walks in and declares they need a website, it’s worth trying to uncover what they’re really looking for. After chatting for a few moments, the underlying reasons for developing a new site emerge.

  • Customers complain daily about how our site looks on their iPhones
  • We hear about other companies’ success marketing through Facebook
  • We googled our business, but the competition keeps turning up ahead of us

In other words,

  • We want a mobile (or at least responsive) version of our site
  • We want to expand our marketing efforts with social media
  • SEO, SEO, SEO

Noble goals, to be sure. And costly, too. It’s easy to get caught up in social media, daily deals, or whatever the flavor of the week may be, but it’s well worth considering the return on investment that each trend is likely to provide. If only a (vocal) minority of users are actually trying to do business through their phones, catering to a mobile audience may cost far more than it’s worth. If site-to-site referrals are driving the majority of site traffic, a large investment in SEO services may very well be a study in futility.

Next comes the un-sale:

Many of the goals that a website fully integrated with the latest social APIs and media-query goodness would need to meet can be met without that website. Many third-party services can deliver results at a fraction of the cost of custom development. Despite their downsides—and we’ll get there in a moment—it makes good sense to at least consider grabbing the low-hanging fruit before jumping on board a new development project.

Some of the key tools to look at include:

  1. Analytics packages like Google analytics and gauges are one of very few sources for hard data on how an existing website is being used. Run over several months, the information they return is invaluable in identifying opportunities that exist for expanding a website’s audience or increasing its users’ engagement. Analytics data, if available, can make the difference between success and failure in a redevelopment project.
  2. Local search sites like Yelp and Google Local are an outstanding supplement to traditional search for customers looking for food, drink, or services in their area. Pouring energy into a complete listing and encouraging positive reviews from regular customers can pay enormous dividends when others come looking.
  3. Online marketplaces like Etsy for crafts and Amazon for everything else package e-commerce storefronts with both integrated search and an existing customer base. Sales typically require a modest transaction fee and limit opportunities for brand development.
  4. Social networks are a great place to introduce new offerings and share promotions or interesting information with followers. Maintaining an appropriate business listing or page also provides a touchstone for existing customers to refer others to. Applications like Hootsuite and Wildfire can simplify administration by sharing updates across multiple networks simultaenously.

It’s also worth mentioning the wealth of online “software as a service” (SaaS) website providers who make their living by creating, publishing, and hosting websites at a fixed-price monthly rate. By developing on top of established platforms, these providers are able to offer a wide range of features at relatively low cost. The two most common complains about SaaS websites are a lack of control over the customization of the site, and the high cost of upkeep relative to a self-hosted site. For some businesses, however, SaaS website providers may be a very appropriate choice.

There’s a downside, of course, and its name is “brand”. Facebook (and Google, and Yelp, and Etsy, et. al) places strict limits on what businesses can do to customize their listings. Branding a business grown solely on third party services will place inherent restrictions on how the brand can develop. Build a business around an Etsy shop? Customers will mentally associate the shop with Etsy.

For many small businesses, and especially for those in the service sector, it just doesn’t make sense to invest in a website that’s much more than a virtual calling card. Hours, location, contact information? The investment required for additional features might be better spent on polishing listings with local search providers or improving channels for customer referrals. I believe (but cannot prove) that most cottage enterprises could do a lot worse than investing marketing their Etsy shops on Pinterest.

Still, if you’ve made it this far, and it still makes sense to build—or you just want to talk about whether it makes sense to build—don’t hesitate to get in touch!

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Hey, I'm RJ: digital entomologist and intermittent micropoet, writing from the beautiful Rose City.