Make Your Web Site Work for You

Your Web site should convey your brand. Our columnist looks at three small companies' sites to see how well they do

Wherever your Web site ranks on your list of things to work on, move it up to the top. It's that critical.

Your Web site isn't "about" your company, it's an extension of your company. If it's unprofessional, you're unprofessional. If it's cluttered, you're cluttered. If it's hard to work with, you're hard to work with. By contrast, if it's well put together, smart, and easy to use, so is your company. At least that's what people will perceive. And most small business Web sites don't do their companies justice.

When you invite prospects to your site, it's no different from offering them a free sample, a trial period, or a formal introduction to your business. Even in the age of technology there's nothing more powerful than a first impression, and your Web site increasingly is your introduction. I used to counsel startup companies not to underestimate the need for a professionally designed logo. I stand by that advice, but now I extend it to their Web presence as well. You simply can't afford to look anything less than first-rate online.

With this in mind, and with their permission, I recently evaluated a few small consumer companies' Web sites and offered suggestions. I analyzed their online branding strategy based on my experience clicking around on their sites the way a prospective customer might.

Health Barn USA

Stacey Antine has a great idea in Health Barn—an idea that I could see taking off across the nation as she rides the dual trends of "green" living and nutrition. And she's clearly no slouch when it comes to generating public relations for her fledgling operation. But the Barn's online garden could use some tending.

The Flash introduction is a little cheesy, but it does seem to capture the personality of the company. What it doesn't do is communicate anything about what Health Barn is or does. That's a big missed opportunity, especially given the short amount of time parents can spare. The first thing you are led to click on is "press room," which I'm not sure was intended. Throughout the site, the press coverage is a little overemphasized for my taste. While it does provide credibility, it should be a spice, not the main dish.

I read the entire welcome page and still wasn't clear on what Health Barn did. Is it a curriculum for kids? An online seminar? It took me several minutes before I understood Health Barn is a children's educational program. And I was bothered by the way the font size grew smaller and larger as I scrolled down each page—it just seemed careless. Health Barn may be losing prospects by taking people off the site when they click on the links to media coverage or registration forms, instead of opening them in a separate window.

The "barn store" (a shop within the site) is not only charming but also well organized, with simple signage, attractive displays, and products easily accessible to its four-foot customers. Health Barn should apply the same principles to its Web design—displaying information in a more organized and appetizing manner.

Revat Fitness

Revat, which describes itself on its site as "the leading self-defense program for adults living in an urban environment," appears to be off to a good start, but it's missing the drama. The fear of being accosted is powerful, yet the Web site doesn't capitalize on that. Imagine how compelling a mini-movie dramatizing Revat training would be to its prospective customers.

But first, the company needs to decide who exactly those prospects are. My first impression was Revat was created to serve all city dwellers, offering them an innovative approach to self-defense without having to go through years of martial arts training. Yet the company also seems to pride itself on being a finishing school of sorts for elite-level martial arts professionals.

Trying to appeal to both scares off a big market of individuals in need of self-defense training, and at the same time turns off martial arts experts. By targeting both, Revat might not reach either.

And the company is definitely in need of a step up in how it presents itself. It's difficult for small operations to look professional right out of the gate, and it's apparent Revat is a boutique operation, which could be a bonus to those in its target market of Chicago. But the company could look more put together. For example, the home page of the Web site, while simple (a good thing), is unimpressive.

The Revat logo appears bitmapped, and little thought was given to layout and design. The photos used on the site look somewhat intimidating—which may appeal to martial arts pros looking for the next step, but probably not to novices. In addition, there's no clear path through the Web site. The testimonials are difficult to find—and their diversity reinforces the confusion about who the company is trying to serve. The blog is a complete departure, design-wise, and features a clichéd stock photo.

The longer I spent on the site—and I would fall into the "novice" category—the less I felt that Revat was for me. If Revat can decide who it's really trying to serve, and invest in a professional Web design company, it could fill an interesting niche.

Walker and PingPing

What on earth is Walker and PingPing? That was my first question when I visited this Web site. I had no idea what this site was about, as it seemed to presume some sort of advance knowledge. Is it a series from Nickelodeon? A new educational program? A Disney Channel (DIS) initiative? Who's behind it? Filling a first-time visitor's mind with questions isn't a great way to start.

And who is the Web site for? Kids, it appears, yet the most prominent space is given to a sales message: "Buy the DVD!" As a parent, I'm not crazy about that. The links the site provides at the bottom, to an review and "About Little Emperor, LLC" were helpful, but not easy to spot. And they didn't give me enough information to know whether or not this was something I wanted for my kids.

I was intrigued once I learned about the company's goal of using animated series to help kids "explore the world." But I still wanted to know more about who was behind it—when you're selling to kids, you're selling to their parents as well, and you must offer them plenty of information.

The company may want to consider having an easy-to-find "for parents" section with company background, customer testimonials, independent ratings, and more, and also keep the sales message on that side of the site. Then they could feel free to make the main site all that it should be for kids. Instead of simply pushing trailers of the first two episodes, the Web site itself could be an episode of sorts, entertaining the kids and impressing their parents.

The animation isn't up to Disney standards, but it's probably fine for kids. As a father, I would definitely want to know more before I made the buy. There are simply too many other well-crafted, trustworthy educational materials out there.

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