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ONLINE BUSINESS

The Best Small-Business Sites in America

With apologies to Mark Twain, tales of the Internet's death have been greatly exaggerated. Presenting Inc's guide to what makes a great Web site.
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Web Awards: Best Practices

We went looking for a few outstanding Web sites. That's exactly what we found.

Earlier this year Inc invited entrepreneurs to enter the magazine's third annual Web Awards competition. Nearly 800 did so. The Inc editorial staff and a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts reviewed the entries, slowly narrowing the field to an elite constellation of 16 small-business Web stars. One of those sites -- a California adventure-travel site -- was named our all-around champion, earning Inc's prestigious General Excellence award.

So what distinguished the honorees from the also-rans? What lifted those few finishers out of the crowd and into the winners' circle?

For our best-in-show choice, it's a pretty simple formula: cool, useful features plus strong customer service equals big-time success online. Judges unanimously praised All-Outdoors Whitewater Rafting, of Walnut Creek, Calif. ( www.aorafting.com), for creating a site with streamlined good looks and nifty mile-by-mile virtual river tours. But they were even more impressed with the company's online customer service. Web-site visitors can check trip availability, ask questions, make tentative reservations, price gear, get maps, check river and weather conditions, arrange accommodations, and even qualify for last-minute discounts. (See " A Web Strategy Runs Through It.")

"What's not to be wowed by?" asked judge Ron Zemke, president of Performance Research Associates Inc., in Minneapolis. "It loads quickly, it's clean, it's easy to understand. It has a wonderful balance of information, glitz, and service features." Not to mention the family-owned company's remarkable return on investment; in fact, the site is also Inc's second-place finisher in the ROI category.

Then there's Nova Cruz Products LLC ( www.xootr.com), a New Hampshire scooter manufacturer that earned Inc's honorable mention for General Excellence, as well as first place in Design and a third-place finish in Marketing. The Nova Cruz site looks terrific. More important, though, it gets the job done. As one judge put it: "They exhibit their products well and make it easy to find out what you want to know in a visually appealing way."

Overall, however, our judges insist there's still plenty of room for improvement. They visited many sites where, as Gertrude Stein once observed of Oakland, Calif., there was no there there. "Too many were devoid of content and did nothing but look good," said judge Jakob Nielsen, a principal at the Nielsen Norman Group, in Fremont, Calif. Put another way, many sites simply lacked value. Said Nielsen: "There has to be some reward to the user from visiting a site. Especially in business."

Even some of the best small-business sites could benefit from better online branding. One judge called the much-admired Nova Cruz site pretty but somewhat unfocused. "What is the name of this company?" asked a slightly exasperated Bill Demas, an executive vice-president at Vividence Corp., a consulting company in San Mateo, Calif. "Is it Xootr? Urban Transport? Or Nova Cruz?" (He's referring to the Web site's home page, which features all three names. For the record, Nova Cruz is the name of the company, Xootr is its product's name, and urban transport is its mission.)

And many site owners still haven't learned that Web users have no patience for pages that take forever to materialize. "It took over a minute for some product photos and descriptions to load," one judge observed in disgust. "Totally unacceptable in a world where customers get itchy fingers after eight seconds." Other sites use Flash technology to create intricate introductions with dancing graphics on their home pages. Increasingly, those same sites feature a button that users can click to skip the show -- raising the question of why the company bothered with Flash technology in the first place.

Many small-business sites seem to fall victim to the too-much-is-better theory: they cram every centimeter of every page with tiny, hard-to-read text and links. Or they indiscriminately clutter their sites with additional articles, tips, and other resources. In its Web Awards application, one entrant wrote the following about its content-stuffed site: "The first impression you get when you come to our site is that it is an exclusively information [sic] site." "That's a problem," pointed out judge Phil Terry, CEO of New York City-based Web-strategy company Creative Good Inc. However well intended, that tidal wave of supporting materials drowns out the retailer's real mission: selling products. "It took eight clicks to find a price list," Performance Research's Zemke observed of the same site. "That's something consumers hate."

Even the best small-company sites still struggle with technology. Nova Cruz, our General Excellence runner-up, was off-line for several days during judging owing to a router problem. "It was shocking to see that several sites were not up and running during the judging," tsk-tsked Marcia Yudkin, a Boston-based author of several Internet-marketing guides. One travel agency's site, rated highly by several judges, missed becoming a finalist because of its own technical horror story.

But for all those warts and wrinkles, this year's best sites prove that the Web still offers promise. "I see companies slowly becoming more sophisticated about using the Web as a place to do business in all its forms," said judge Ryan Bernard, president of Wordmark Associates Inc., in Houston. "The entrants ran the gamut of sophistication from those who still see the Web as only an E-commerce tool to those who see it as a way to build and manage business activities." Judge John Hartnett, CEO of BlueMissile, a Web-design company in Minneapolis, agreed. "What struck me was the diversity in budgets and approaches -- all of which seemed to add up to the same excellent results," he said.

Based on those results, we developed what amounts to a blueprint for small-business Web-site success. Call it the "Seven Best Practices of Highly Effective Web Sites." The winners have these characteristics:


1. They're run by people who know what they want. Whether they're one-person marketing sites, corporate intranets, or E-commerce efforts, our winners have clear strategies, goals, and priorities. Best example: All-Outdoors Whitewater Rafting. CEO Gregg Armstrong wanted to boost revenues by scheduling more trips and reducing the number of empty seats on each day's expeditions. In addition to generating new business by expanding the company's reach far beyond its northern California base, the site makes trips more profitable by offering discounts to customers who fill last-minute vacancies or book trips for off-peak dates. That helped the nearly 40-year-old company hit a record $2 million in revenues last year, up from $1 million in 1993.

2. They use technology that's appropriate to their mission. Again, our General Excellence honorees provide sterling examples. At All-Outdoors Whitewater, it's the virtual mile-by-mile tours and equipment illustrations. At Nova Cruz it's the all-angle views of those hot little scooters. Cadkey Corp. ( www.cadkey.com), a software company based in Marlborough, Mass., our second-place finisher in Customer Service, earned our judges' respect for its judicious use of Flash animation technology. Cadkey's Flash presentation appears on the middle of its home page "but doesn't dominate it," said Bruce D. Weinberg, associate professor of marketing and E-commerce at Bentley College, in Waltham, Mass. "Every other part of the home page is visible and available" -- a blend of dazzle and restraint that customers undoubtedly appreciate.

3. They streamline design. More and more, successful Web sites are demonstrating that when it comes to design, the most important issues are clarity and ease of use. "Too many sites used nonstandard navigation, probably in an attempt to be leading edge. One of the entries even mentioned this as a goal," said Web-design guru Nielsen. "You don't impress people by being difficult to use. You impress them by taking the standard design elements they already know and using them well and by stressing informative and helpful content." Of course, there's no such thing as the one best way to design a Web site. Successful approaches are as varied as the customers they target. What's important is that a site's design reflect an understanding of the needs and desires of its end users. (See " Duh-sign of the Times.")

4. They make sure their sites work. Enough said.

5. They make it easy for customers to learn about and contact them. Often, accomplishing that is as simple as creating two key pages -- "About Us" and "Contact Us" -- and making them highly visible on the home page and easily accessible from anywhere else on the site. The About Us page should tell the company's story, at the very least including a mission statement or explanation of "what we do," a brief history, and short bios of key executives. It might also include customer testimonials, press releases, and links to media coverage. The Contact Us page should give visitors everything they need to reach the company: mailing addresses, E-mail links, phone and fax numbers, and, if appropriate, driving directions and a list of whom to contact for what. In addition, it's a good idea to prominently post the company's privacy policies, explaining what information the business is collecting and how it will be used.

6. They do ROI reality checks. It's important to know just what you're gaining from all that time, money, and expertise you've poured into your Web site. Nobody does it better than our first-place ROI winner, Ipswitch Inc. ( www.ipswitch.com). Because the software developer, based Lexington, Mass., examines ROI from every conceivable angle, its executives know that for every dollar they spent on Web- related salaries and resources last year, they generated $22 in online sales. They also know that had those sales been handled by real live customer-service and sales reps, the company would have spent an additional $2 million on salaries. (See " Many Happy Returns," page 150.)

7. They constantly look for new ways to expand their Web use. Those range from digital newsletters to online forums to contests to relevant activities encouraging customer loyalty and participation. For example, Earth Treks Inc. ( www.earthtreksclimbing.com), a mountaineering company based in Columbia, Md., won second-place Marketing honors for creative features such as climbers' journals and virtual participation in climbing expeditions. (See " Traffic Magnets.") Such interactive efforts are, in fact, a prerequisite for success on the Web, says judge Beerud Sheth, cofounder of eLance Inc., in Sunnyvale, Calif. "Web sites need to facilitate interaction and transaction," he says. "Teasing Web users with content online just to pull them off-line is not the right approach. The businesses that will succeed online are the ones that provide users with as much of that experience online as possible."

Overall, our judges say, this year's competition proves that, despite the setbacks of the past couple of years, Web-based small business is far from finished. "The Web lives!" crowed Richard W. Oliver, professor of management at Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. "Companies with a good plan and reasonable dollars and a sensible approach can still make money on the Web."

Anne Stuart is a senior writer at Inc.


The 2001 Inc Web Awards

The Best Small-Business Sites in America
The 2001 Inc Web Awards: Winners
A Web Strategy Runs Through It
Traffic Magnets
Duh-sign of the Times
Home Groan
Many Happy Returns


Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Nov 1, 2001




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