In June of 1993, there were approximately 130 web sites. That's all. By September of 2014, the organization NetCraft was able to confirm that there were a billion web sites.
That is a lot of growth in just over twenty years. During that time, web developers and consultants went from trying to convince organizations that they needed to have a web site, to convincing them that they needed to update and continually improve that web site, to convincing them that they needed to include social media when it became an integral part of online marketing. The growth and dynamic nature of conducting business online has been staggering, but at the heart of it all was always a web site.
Now, in 2015, after spending nearly twenty years working online, I find my pitch beginning to edge its way back to the beginning. People are, once again, considering a weakened focus on their web sites. The reasons are different, but I maintain that the need for a web site is as powerful as ever. The arguments I'm hearing are varied. Indulge me as I knock them down, one by one.
" I'm Just Going to Focus on Social Media"
This is the most common excuse I hear from my clients for not updating, upgrading, or maintaining the software behind their web sites. It's likely that they have a site -- possibly an older one -- and that they have decided to treat it largely as an online brochure. In the minds of these web site owners, their site tells their clients everything they need to know about what they do or offer or sell, and the most interesting, relevant, updated information belongs on social media where their customers are following them.
This isn't entirely incorrect; up-to-the-minute status updates, the sharing of external information of interest to its followers, and catchy, viral content are what makes an organization's social media become popular and useful. The problem is that the content you add to social media goes very quickly out of your control. It's shared, disseminated, re-named, re-used, and delivered using algorithms designed by the network. Your goal -- your MAIN goal -- should always be to get your followers to engage with you. Eventually, you want them to visit your web site.
There is a reason we call the main page of a web site -- the one at the root of the site, the one you see when you type in only your domain name -- the home page. It's your home online. Social media is a party. You want to meet someone cool at that party and bring them home. If they arrive at a home decorated in the 1990s with burned out bulbs in some rooms, rotting food in the fridge, and a flashing light reading THIS WAY TO THE PARTY ON FACEBOOK, they're going to look around for a few minutes and then go back to the social media site where they found you.
And then they're going to click on a cat video and forget all about you.
"I Can Sell My Stuff on Etsy"
My clients who are makers of any kind, with artful products, all give me this excuse whenever I discuss installing an online store. Etsy -- or places like Shoptiques or Ebay or Amazon -- have bundled a basic look-and-feel with an extremely robust commerce engine, topping it all off with a user interface that helps small businesses and individual artists feel more secure in working with e-commerce. Instead of painfully working through layers of payment processors, store engines, product databases and merchant accounts, these all-in-one shops give businesses a much easier alternative.
I am all for it. But not without a real web site.
Your Etsy store is not a web site. Shoptiques is not your web site. These are online display cases and cash registers, but you still need a web site. You need a place to tell your story: who you are, why you make what you make, where you can be found in real life, where else your work can be found. You need a place to blog about your techniques. The few paragraphs of space available to you in those one-size-fits-all online stores is not enough. By all means, do your commerce through a site like these -- but maintain another place online where people can get a fuller picture of you and your work. Link back and forth between them as much as possible -- each of them offers you a chance to achieve a different set of goals.
"It's Fine; I Barely Get Any Traffic Anyway"
With that attitude, of course you don't. It's like having a store window with the same mannequins dressed in the same big flannels and baggy jeans from 1993 when your store first opened, and complaining that teenagers never come in to shop, so you don't see why you should bother changing the window display.
There are thousands of articles written about search engine optimization and driving traffic to your site. The algorithms developed by Google and other search engines change all the time, but these days, we know that the web sites that will get the most search traffic are:
- updated often with quality, well-written content;
- built to be viewed easily on mobile devices;
- regularly shared via social media; and
- include basic meta-data behind images and page content.
I've said it many times: you have to keep your site updated. It's not optional. Almost no one will come until you do.
"Hey, Come On. SaaS Sites Are Real Sites!"
I've talked before about SaaS - "software as a service." These are systems like SquareSpace, Wix, Weebly, and other subscription services that offer you the hosting and the web site framework all in one monthly service fee. You choose your template, you plop your content in, and voila! Web site! There are real advantages to using these kinds of systems. I have even recommended them to prospective clients not yet ready to spend the money on a consultant or developer. No coding knowledge required, and a often quite-spiffy-looking site is yours after just a few hours of work. What's not to love?
Well, for one thing, SAAS vendors sometimes go out of business. For another, your site isn't always portable -- so if you want to move it to a new host or a new system, you'll need to start from scratch. Finally, these sites often end up all looking like each other. With a finite number of templates and layouts, your site is bound to look just like someone else's site.
These systems are a great place to start, but the best thing an organization can do with their web site is own it outright. It gives you the flexibility you need to let it grow with your business, adapt to the changing landscape of the web, and distinguish it from other sites.
Here in 2015, you do still need a web site -- and more than ever, you need a good web site, one that serves your needs and anticipates the needs of your customer or client base. It's your home on the web -- and it's yours alone. Take good care of it, and it will always give you digital shelter.