With today's online market having an ever bigger impact on a company's bottom line, it's fair to ask: Do the nation's fastest-growing private businesses have better websites than most? Earlier this year, Kevin Potts, a freelance Web designer and consultant based in Kansas City, set out to evaluate the sites of top Inc. 500 companies to see how they stacked up. Judging by a range of criteria -- from usability and content to updated copyright data -- Potts gave most of these companies high marks. In fact, the sites were so well put together, he's certain many of the smaller businesses owe much of their rapid growth to a successful website. 

Potts later rolled these findings into a broader, user-friendly guide to designing top-notch sites for small-business owners. Web Design and Marketing Solutions for Business Websites hit the bookstores this fall, offering everything from tips on improving content to boosting search engine visibility.

With the online frenzy of Cyber Monday just around the corner, Inc.com spoke to Potts about what can make or break a small-business website.

What are Inc. 500 companies doing right online?

It's a mixed bag, but for the most part they have an overall professionalism. I wasn't disappointed by any stretch of the imagination. Of course, the companies that had more of a marketing dimension, like the coffee companies, had the best looking and reading sites. A lot of the health-care companies and nursing staffing services, which tend to do well in the Inc. 500, were marginal. Some of the e-commerce sites were lacking, too. But overall, they were all very good. Most of them did a pretty good job of presenting their data.     

That said, many of the sites were painfully out of date. Things like copyrights from 2003 or 2002. A website is like any piece of marketing -- it has to be kept fresh. A lot of companies think that once they've built their website it's done. And the reality is that's just not the case.

What do most small businesses get wrong when they launch a site?

A lot of websites just lose sight of the customer or audience. Whether it's a designer or a marketer, whoever's involved in the process doesn't think through how this website is going to serve the audience -- what is the audience going to be looking for and how can we get that information to them as quickly as possible. A lot of them bury the information, or they make the navigation confusing. It's a lot of little things: Does the logo go back to the homepage? Is the main navigation even on the homepage?

What can they do to improve these sites?

It always starts with content. Content is absolutely the critical foundation. Most people will put up with a bad design if the content grabs them. The counterbalance to that argument is you have to have a design that facilitates the reading of that content. If there was one piece of advice I'd give to any business owner it's to invest in a copy writer.

In terms of design, can you over do it with animation and other special effects?

Absolutely.  I think people tend to forget that broadband is still ubiquitous. They think everybody is working with high-speed connections. I think Flash is one of those things that needs to be used as an accent. It's very rarely appropriate for a full website.

What do you make of the growth in online holiday shopping?

It's inevitable. Web retailers are getting smarter and smarter. Every holiday season the experience of shopping online gets easier and faster. For e-retailers, people have to be able to find what their looking for. If they haven't found it in those few critical first seconds, you've already lost them. When people go to a brick-and-mortar store, they're already committed. They've parked in the parking lot and walked in the store. They're going to look at your products. On a website, if users don't what they're looking for without much effort, they've got thousands of other sites to choose from.