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10 web trends to watch in 2011

2011-01-25 smartcompany

Think your website is ready for 2011? Think again. Just as you’ve mastered the latest web trends, suddenly major changes in SEO, web design and eCommerce appear from nowhere - and your business had better be prepared.

Expanding your use of video, adapting to the growing use of smartphones and using your website to become an expert in your field are just some of the tasks you’ll need to tackle this year if you want to keep on top of the competition online.

And as Martin Hosking from RedBubble says, integrating social media throughout your online strategy is a challenge every website operator must address.

“People aren’t just shopping through search now. What we’re seeing is a combination of interaction with friends, along with looking on a website. So if you’re operating a website you really need to start thinking about your whole social experience.”

Here are the big web trends you need to address in 2011.

Web sales

Add something new

Physical retailers practically fall over each other trying to stand out among the crowd, offering extras like discounts, gift-wrapping and other promotions. Hal Pritchard from kitchenware site Everton Online says eCommerce sites need to be doing this as well.

“You really have to do more than just the basics now, and add-on features such as gift-wrapping and other types of benefits. People are getting more discerning, and it’s not just enough to just have a product now, and then offer it for a good price.”

Pritchard says the high Australian dollar means retailers need to start acting now. If businesses want to keep dollars onshore, he argues, they need to offer some extras. 

“The more creative you can be, the better. I know of a clothing company that puts in handwritten notes into all of their products, thanking the customers. That’s a great example of what you can do when you’re a small retailer.”

“This is the type of stuff you can do when you’re a small company, and you have the chance to do it. Make yourself stand out and keep those customers coming back.”

Make it pretty

One of the biggest problems a new online shopper may have with the digital process is that they can’t touch and feel the product they’re buying. In order to eliminate that fear, you need to make the experience as visual as possible for them.

Craig Reardon from development firm the E-Team says photography has been one of the most misunderstood media available online.

“Because of its proliferation, many business operators are unwilling to pay for professional photography, opting instead for poorly lit and composed snapshots - sometimes by themselves or a family member.

“But this practice is a false economy. Cheap looking photos cheapen your website and in turn your business image. Large companies invest heavily in ensuring their photos look as professional as possible because it is such a critical indicator of quality.”

Reardon says small businesses don’t need to hire top-of-the-line photographers – they simply need to find one that is good enough to provide solid and professional results.

Failing that, most manufacturers will provide press images of their products, and you can use those instead – just don’t use cheap images that ruin the look of your site.

Content

Become an expert

Your website shouldn’t just be a place for customers to grab a phone number or send you an email. These experts say in order to distinguish yourself from the crowd, you need to be setting up yourself as an expert in the field – and the perfect way to do this is through a blog.

Lisa Taliana from Taliana Designs argues creating a blog is now becoming expected of certain businesses. 

“Plenty of businesses and simply people in general are either adding a blog to their site, or using a blog to communicate with their audience. And while blogs are not new, they are on the increase.”

Taliana points out these blogs are great avenues for your business to post tips and resources for customers to come and have a look at – but they require dedication. Post too infrequently, and you risk looking lazy.

“I run my own blog mainly aimed at designers and customers looking to improve their brand. So the type of topics I include are things like tutorials, how-tos and inspiring design products and reviews. In doing so, users comment and have actually contracted me.”

“The best thing about blogs is that you can manage the content yourself. You can add pages, posts and images to your heart’s content. I recommend WordPress blogs. You can "pimp" them up, inject your personality or business branding into your templates and there are lots of free add-ons.”

But blogs aren’t the only answer. Todd Sullivan, who runs GlobeTrooper, says you should be highlighting your expertise across the internet.

“As always, becoming a subject matter expert can give a business credibility and targeted exposure. In terms of social media, a relatively new channel for building reputation as a subject matter expert is Quora.com.”

“The fundamental concept isn't new, but the execution is quite unique in that they've managed (so far) to keep topics and conversations quite serious. It's becoming known as the place for subject matter experts to share thoughts and ideas.”

RedBubble director Martin Hosking says there are always ways to publish content online, no matter what type of business you are.

“If you’re selling kitchenware online, you can spend a lot of time thinking about the SEO aspects of that. You can print recipes, create a community around sharing cooking ideas, and so on. There are always good ways to do things.”

Online video

Watching video online has been popular for years, but until very recently many businesses hadn’t even thought about producing their own. But Amblique chief executive Justus Wilde says you should be doing exactly that.

“Video is starting to get more and more momentum online, and we’ve seen that when we’ve implemented video with clients in the last few months, we’ve seen a huge impact on engagement and conversion.”

Plenty of businesses are now creating their own channels on YouTube to promote products, portray themselves as experts and connect with customers. Good examples include blender manufacturer BlendTec, which has become infamous for its “will it blend” videos and Wilde says other businesses should take their lead.

“So if you’re selling furniture, you could have a video describing the product, showing off the features that might now be able to be seen on a picture, describing the material, and so on.”

“In the fashion industry, it’s very useful. You might have a piece of clothing, like a skirt, and people want to know how it looks on someone rather than just seeing a picture. We’ve seen a conversion rate of between 50-250% with online video, and people are spending more time on sites where videos are uploaded – the difference has really surprised me.”

Social media

Connect your customers

Social media is nothing new and we all recognize that businesses without Facebook and Twitter pages risk being left behind. But now comes the next step – connecting all your social media links together and plugging them whenever possible.

Hal Pritchard says all of your pages need to link to social mediate sites, and vice versa.

“Interconnection with social media is the big thing now, you really need to be looking at having your Facebook page, Twitter and other sites all linked together. You need to make these sites are not just the place users go to buy something, but be sure they can get to other places as well.”

“We’re moving into a second generation now. In the early days you could have a product online and that would be good enough, but now you have people being a lit bit more discerning.”

But connecting all of your social networks together is just one method. Lisa Taliana says you should also be making use of the Facebook plugins to make all of the content on your site appear more social.

“You’ve probably seen lots of little “like” buttons on various web pages around and about. These buttons are generated through Facebook and you should place the buttons all around your web pages.

“When someone ‘likes’ your page, it will appear in their friend’s feed, alerting them to their activity. Remember – word of mouth is powerful.”

Creating a community

Using the Facebook plugins is only one of way of allowing your customers to connect with both you and other customers. Todd Sullivan says another is making sure you’re doing enough to foster a community online.

Most businesses have already set up Facebook pages. Now is the time to improve on that by actually engaging the users you have on those pages through discussion and other types of involvement.

“I think for mainstream businesses, the focus is shifting from just ‘having a social media presence’ to using those channels to engage with potential customers in unique ways. Once you’ve got over the initial hype of having “x” number of followers, you realise the much more important metric is engagement.”

“I think the problem for most businesses is that serious engagement in social media is a full-time job, so 2011 should about maximum engagement for minimum effort.”

Hal Pritchard says this can be accomplished by integrating social media through your ecommerce platform. For example, businesses can create social plugins on a page for a particular product.

“If you buy it, or “like” it on Facebook, their friends will be able to see it and you’ll have some interconnection between users through eCommerce. That’s a big trend this year.”

Wilde says allowing users to connect through sharing purchases, along with other ways to connect through discussions in comments and so on, will keep your business unique among competition.

“Sharing purchases is good, along with allowing your users to share their interests and comment on the content on your site is good. That’s an area that’s going to expand even more this year.”

SEO

Keep it social

Talk to any SEO webmaster and they’ll usually say that creating plenty of links is a great way to get your site noticed in Google. The more links, or “doorways”, into your site, the more opportunities people have to visit it.

OzScopes chief executive Wai Hong Fong says businesses need to start spreading as many links as they can through social media sites, but doing so in a way that adds content. Whether it’s showing off a discount, or a new blog post, it is crucial to make sure those links are getting out there.

“The links used on sites like Facebook and Twitter have been known to drive up these rankings. Google knows how to define actual accounts, they have their own algorithms for looking at the ratio of followers to following in Twitter, etc.”

“This occurred in 2010 and there’s going to be much, much more of it in 2011. The social world is bigger, and it’s something that Google wants to do well. Now is the time to do social, and do social well.”

Don’t forget Google

Sometimes improving your website means going back to basics. Jim Stewart from Stewart Media says businesses that haven’t been using Google Webmaster Tools really need to start, as the interface gives them plenty of information they can’t get from Google Analytics.

“The big thing businesses need to be looking at is using Google Webmaster Tools to get analytical data. Many use just analytics, but they don’t use webmaster tools to find out what Google is doing with their site.”

“You can find out a whole bunch of information on there, including where Google finds certain errors with your links, and so on.”

And if you want to promote your business as an expert in the field, and are creating different content on a blog to do that, Stewart says using the WebMaster Tools will help you find out who’s sharing your content, allowing you to keep producing the more popular pages.

“This is a great way to check out what’s happening to your content in the ecosystem, because it will tell you who’s picked up your content, who’s sharing it, and so on.”

Design

Make a mobile site

It’s been said for months businesses need to be setting up their mobile sites. But with smartphones now becoming the norm, Lisa Taliana says all businesses need to start making their sites more compatible as “people are viewing websites more and more on portable devices rather than a desktop”.

She also warns businesses need to check their traffic stats and figure out which devices are viewing their sites most often.

“Speak to your developer about this. It's not a simple procedure for the novice. More and more businesses are realising the need to make their websites device compatible.”

“You'll be amazed at the number of smartphones viewing your site. Then look at how long they were on your site for. It wouldn't be long, so adapt your site to suit these users.”

Justus Wilde says businesses shouldn’t be tempted into creating apps – they are often sub-par if not given the correct amount of time and resources and can often damage your brand, especially if they’re lost in the fray. He says instead your site should be “device agnostic”.

“Mobile is a big area, we’ve seen particularly in the eCommerce space, I have clients that say they have 2% of their traffic coming from those areas.”

“If you’re transacting online, or have any sort of website that has a conversion point like a form, or anything like that, you’ll find the consumer rates are a lot lower on mobile traffic, and that may be because they don’t have optimised alternatives.”

Clean it up!

Web development has nearly turned full circle. Websites were originally very bare and contained little information, and then in the early 2000s started morphing into information portals that contained everything and anything.

Now, the trend have turned towards simplicity, driven to some extent by Google’s instant preview function, which allows users to preview a website from the search results page. Taliana warns businesses to make their home pages as clutter-free as possible, making sure the business’s name and purpose is clearly displayed above all else.

“Clean up your website. De-clutter. Just as you would your own office space. It’s time to work out what's relevant and what's not working for you.”

Most designers would recommend some sort of content slider on your home page to keep things simple. These are windows that move every few seconds to give viewers an idea of what’s in your site without having to clutter your front page with different articles.

These experts say you should also keep a consistent theme throughout your site, along with a colour scheme. Minimising the information thrown at the viewer, along with providing a consistent design, will go a long way to making your site appear memorable.