Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…SITE WITH THE PERSONAL TOUCHPublished in Can you find it Business Edition on Wednesday, November 2nd 2015
FOR the self-employed to survive in this highly commercial world it helps if you are multi-skilled. When one arm of the business takes a dip in turnover, hopefully another will blossom.
That is the business philosophy, which has served Steve Marshall and Ally McGurk well. Take a look at their fascinating website and discover a fine example of how small businesses can use the internet to its full advantage.
Not that Steve and Ally have a small business exactly; their site contains information about a series of small businesses that are brought together at www.marshallmcgurk.co.uk
Move through the layers and you can learn a great deal about musical instruments, rush seating, map-making and last, but by no means least, website design.
Visitors to the site linger longer because of the welcoming appeal of the pages. It is hard to put your finger on what draws you into Steve and Ally’s world, but before you realise it you have spent half an hour browsing and clicking from one fact-filled section to another.
There is no hard sell, here. You can take your old woven seat to be repaired by Ally at her farmhouse in Crosby near Aspatria. If you have the time to attempt the repair yourself, you can order the materials – rush, cane, seagrass, raffia and much more.
In fact, you are almost encouraged to do-it-yourself and you can tell that any advice you might need would be only a phone call away.
As Ally explains: “Sometimes I will receive an order form for something and I get a gut feeling that the person has ordered the wrong thing for the job they are doing, so I will phone them up and make sure they know what they are doing – they often don’t! They seem to appreciate this personal touch.”
That personal touch is even evident when you come to order your materials. Thoughtful instructions explain that you can use the site’s order form in two ways, either in PDF format or the old web page format.
You are not left to find your own way around this site. It is almost as if there is a handrail to help you on your journey. Surely, it is this kind of care and attention and a genuine interest in the customer that builds a reputation and encourages repeat orders.
“A lot of our business is by word of mouth, but we get one or two orders from the United States, from the Highlands of Scotland; even from France,” said Ally.
It is easy to imagine that visitors would warm to the homespun atmosphere of the website. But there is nothing amateurish about the site’s design principles. The choice of typefaces, colours and, of course, language, is all crafted to fit the style of the business.
Ally, a self-taught web designer, has a background in design and technical drawing, and her drawing skills help add that little extra to the website furniture. So what has she learned, both from her own business use of the internet, and from her work creating successful sites for others?
As I expected, Ally was happy to share her knowledge.
Her first tip is to always put your contact details on every page. “There is nothing more annoying than searching a website for a phone number,” she said.
Secondly, make use of alt tags – those little yellow boxes that come up when your mouse goes over an image – these are read out loud to users of blind people’s browsers.
“Put a full description of the image in the alt tag, and use key words that Google will find.”
Thirdly, it is important to keep the site up to date.
“I am always tinkering with it, but if I am honest I probably do not do all the things that I advise others to do. It’s just a matter of time. I should get on it more.
“You need to realise that you get a better rating with a search engine like Google if you make frequent changes,” she said.
Ally also believes it is worthwhile spending timing choosing the correct type fount for your website. Body type has to be chosen from a very limited range. Verdana and Tahoma were designed specifically for the internet and are clear and easy to read on screen.
For a friendlier look, try Comic Sans, which most computers have.
Founts used for page headings, link buttons and so on can be treated as graphics, so you can use anything you like, but there is a huge variety to choose from. Decide if you want your site to be laid back and friendly, or stiff and formal, or trendy.
Avoid long lines of text, stretching all the way across the screen – these are hard to read. Break the text up into small blocks with eye-catching headlines, and into columns like those on this page.
Pictures are important. Everybody looks at pictures. Choose images carefully to convey the spirit of the business. Remember that not everybody has broadband, so do not use enormous images that will take ages to download. It is better to use small thumbnail versions of the pictures. People can click on these if they want to see a high-resolution version.
“Believe it or not, there are still some people out there who don’t know how to scroll down a webpage – all they ever see is what appears at the top of the screen, so never put anything vital near the bottom of the page,” she advises.
Links are also important. If you link to another site, you should expect them to provide a reciprocal link back to you. The more sites that link to you, the better ranking you will get with Google.
But Ally has a warning: “Don’t link to people who are in direct competition with you!”
Choice of colour is very subjective, said Ally, but subtlety is probably the key unless you own a business that is brash by nature. She recommends a restricted palette.
“Choose two colours that go well together, and maybe try a few darker and lighter versions of these. Your text font can be in something like dark blue instead of black, to match the overall colour scheme of the site. Try to make the whole site look homogenous,” she said.
So what about the value of an online ordering and payment facility? Is it worthwhile, I wondered?
“We still use snail mail. This is mainly because it is quite expensive to set up credit and debit card facilities, and quite honestly we do not get enough business to warrant the expense,” she said.
Prices would have to rise if they did this, and Ally suspects that customers would prefer to pay less.
“Foreign customers can pay us by Pay Pal.”
So there we have it, a do-it-yourself guide to website building.
Now click on to Ally and Steve’s site and get that old chair repaired, and see if she is practising what she preaches about website design.