It’s a rare business today that doesn’t need a robust digital presence on the Internet, and even those for whom it is not an outright necessity can benefit from planting a stake in cyberspace. While there are many areas where businesses should consider establishing a presence on the Web, digital marketing experts advise that a good website should be the starting point for those efforts.

“The most important thing you can do when planning your Web presence is to develop a clear strategy and goals for the site,” says Paul Pierson, design director at Carbone Smolan Agency, a design and branding firm. Start by asking yourself several questions: Who are your customers? What do they need? What is unique about your offering compared to that of your competitors? Then, he says, you can answer the most important question: How do you connect what’s unique about your offering to your customers’ needs?

In relation to other elements of online branding campaigns—such as participating in social media, SEO advertising, blogging, etc.—your website is the most important element for “99 percent of companies,” says Natalie Henley, marketing manager at Volume 9, an Internet marketing firm. “At the end of the day, all roads end at your website.”

The best website design strategy for small and midsize businesses skews towards simplicity. Design and layout should make it easy to get to information on your site. “That’s its primary function—not to rock the world with your earth-shattering design,” Henley insists. However, Pierson notes that smaller businesses can also take bigger risks online. “You don’t have to attempt to position yourself as established, like ‘the big boys.’ Be true to your business personality, even if that means being different,” he encourages.

Having a professional look and feel is critical to the success of any business website. Mark Friedman, COO and cofounder of website design firm, says studies show that a website has approximately eight seconds to project a professional image of your business to first-time visitors. “Generally speaking, in today’s Web environment the cliché ‘less is more’ is highly relevant,” he says. “Too much clutter results in confused branding and presentation.” Three key pieces of information a website should impart are who you are, what you do, and why customers and prospects should buy and use your products or services.

Henley shares a couple of technical tips to make your site more user-friendly. One is to avoid Adobe Flash (a multimedia platform used to add animation, video, and interactivity to websites) if you can. “Search engines hate it, and conversion studies show that your users could really care less if you have a cool flash banner or not,” she says. She also suggests building the website on an open-source content management system (CMS) such as WordPress. “It’s typically cheaper, and you can edit the content yourself without having to learn HTML.”

When it comes to website content, business owners can definitely write it themselves, but it’s a good idea to have it checked for grammar, spelling, clarity, and readability by a qualified professional, Friedman advises. As with the website design, it’s important that content gets to the point very quickly. “Visitors don’t want to read a lot on the Web; they respond more to imagery and areas that ‘pop,’” he says. “So it’s important that your content is written well, but keep it short and to the point.”

Henley warns that you will also need a lot of it. “Three hundred to 500 words per Web page should be your target. A few pictures and 10 words won’t cut it.” There should be a variety of content types—words, pictures, video—and textual organization should favor bullet points, short paragraphs, and frequent subheadings. “Your average visitor will be scanning, not reading, so make it easy on them,” she says.

Perhaps the most important takeaway of all when it comes to creating an effective website is to include a specific call to action. “Whether it’s ‘call us,’ ‘email us,’ ‘contact us,’ ‘follow us,’ or ‘buy this,’ every website needs a call to action,” Pierson says. “An effective website gives people a taste of what your business has to offer, and people will be motivated to act on your call when given the right content.”

Learn more:

  • Marketing Grader, a free tool from Hubspot that tracks your website performance.
  • SE-Inspector, a free site that shows how your website looks from an SEO point of view and current results.
  • Search Engine Reports, another free tool to view how your site is ranking for specific keywords.