Untangle the Web

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It seems that almost every company now has its own website. If you’re contemplating a site for your barn, know this: planning is the key to success.

If you’re highly computer literate and are a do-it-yourselfer, you may be able to design your own site. But even then, you could go astray. “Everything you’re ever learned about any other communication medium is different from the Internet,” says Kim Wilson of Top Ten Internet Consulting (www.top10consulting.com) in Nampa, Ida.

If you’re a technophobe, or are happier teaching in the arena than matching wits with your computer, let the pros handle your foray into the world of the sometimes-tangled web.

Farm to 'Net

Some farms have already put the Internet to use, of course. At North Texas Equestrian Center, in Wylie, Texas, where “importation and training of Warmbloods” are the main businesses, trainer Kathy Herz believes that the facility’s website (www.uswarmblood.com) is bringing in customers.

“It has especially helped our summer camp attendance,” reports Herz. “We have a downloadable, printable brochure there via Acrobat Reader, and some of the sign-up forms have come back to us in the mail. Customers have told us, ‘We searched under ‘camps’ and we saw your site.’” The center has learned that it’s very important to use the website name everywhere you publish your facility name—on flyers, in the Yellow Pages and on all other marketing pieces.

The center’s site also features horse-for-sale clips, but that’s been less successful. “The horses sell fairly fast, so sometimes we don’t get the pictures up fast enough and then the horses are gone already,” Herz says.

David Herndon of August Moon Farm (www.augustmoonfarm.com) in Cage Junction, Ore., admits that a website is not necessarily a cure-all for what ails a business. “It’s like any form of advertising,” he says. “Some days it has a lot of hits (visits), some days not so many.”

But it’s an essential form of advertising, he believes. He researched plenty of other equine and equestrian websites prior to initiating his own, and concluded that a website is one tool “you have to have. It would be nice if you could just avoid it, but today everything’s electronic. It’s especially helpful if you’re marketing to a broader base out of a local area,” notes Herndon. As an example, he cites the proliferation of European horse dealer websites in the last two years.

Do you really need a site? A consultation with a professional can probably answer that question. Assuming that you find good use for a site, getting from initial idea Point A to site construction Point B can be the biggest challenge of the web development experience, says Joel Eckman, creative director at P. M. Eckman Advertising (www.pmeckman.com) in Ocala, Fla. That’s because you really have to think about what you want to accomplish with your site.

Case in point:?Herndon’s site was designed by Wendy Bolding of Horseweb (www.horseweb.com) in Tucson, Az. Because Herndon’s farm sells hunters, jumpers and some dressage horses, she wanted to communicate “European” in the site’s font and stable colors. An attractive layout is essential, says Bolding. “Make it easy to read so that your eyes are drawn to what needs to stand out. The flow is all-important.”

Bolding says that many owners say, “‘we want a site, but we’re not sure why we want it.’ That’s not a great set-up for success. They need to do their homework first and bring us plenty of information: we can’t write about them if we don’t know them well.” So, collect and organize your ideas before presenting them to the designer for translation into “The Website.”

Web Essentials:?Clarity, Speed

Simple sites often serve well. “What is best for most clients is a simple two- to five-page site for which they provide the graphics and text and we maintain it and provide tech and customer support,” says Debbie Smith, founder and manager of The Bay Area Equestrian Network (www.socalequest.com). She says that most grandiose ideas are overkill.

Jutta Green of Artemis Graphics (www.artemisgraphics.com) in Fort Knox, Ky., advises that “clients should be very aware of their target group, who it is they really want to reach. The first page should definitely be an eye-catcher so the visitor will keep on reading. But beware of clutter.”

Green also suggests visiting other websites and implementing features that appeal to you.

But mostly, your site should embody your business. Bring your potential designer any current marketing materials, such as your logo and any brochures or ads you’ve done, says Robert Williams of Williams Internet Design and Services (www.wids.com) in Lexington, Ky. The site should look and feel like an extension of all of those, exhibiting congruity and consistency.

Be User-Friendly

What other advice do the experts give??The old adage “keep it simple” should be every website’s mantra, says Phil Snarski, owner of webPony (www.webpony.com) in Bel Air, Md. “Many people make the mistake of incorporating too many graphics, so it’s too slow to download. Remember that not everyone has a fast connection; they may be on dial-up.”

Make your site punchy and memorable. “Keep copy short and to the point,” Eckman says, “and beware of material that’s going to be quickly dated.”

Don’t allow your site visitors to get lost in the navigation, and never place more than five scrolls on a page. “Two or three are plenty,” says Tracy Mattox of GittyUPgo Graphic Design (www.gittyupgo.com) in Nampa, Idaho.

Pay special attention to the index “keys” on the left of your site, such as those commonly found on any home page. Subject headings should be brief, but comprehensive. You’ll want an “about us” or “descriptions” icon, perhaps “location” or “directions,” plus, if appropriate, “lessons,” “boarding,” “sale horses,” “show schedule” or “events.” The icons should accurately reflect the topics you deem to be most important to site visitors. Think of it as an abbreviated table of contents, as in a book.

The most critical factor? “Put your contact information, whether email or phone number, on every page,” says Snarski. “Don’t make people spend extra time getting deeper and deeper into the site looking for it, or you could lose them.” Snarski says omitting your contact info is like sending an invitation to a party with no address.

As to the options in bells and whistles, “don’t put music in the background unless you can turn it off, or gigantic graphics with lots of animation. A 20-minute intro to a site I wasn’t sure I wanted to see in the first place is a bad idea,” says Eckman.

Adds Mattox, “You can make animation a choice, but always stop and think, ‘What am I really selling?’ You may find it to be cute; someone else may hate it.”

Bolding’s a firm believer in “optimizing images,” making them as small a file size as possible. “We have to compromise quality a little bit, but when it’s downloaded, it doesn’t take forever.” Time spent waiting on the Net can be revenue lost when patience expires and the visitor goes elsewhere.

Staying User-Friendly

Once the site is up and running, the work is just beginning, “Don’t think, ‘If I build it, they will come,’” cautions Williams. “Advertise it as you would any new product. It’s like having an 800 phone number; if people don’t know you have it, they can’t use it. Put your web address everywhere. Post a monthly barn special on it, so people have a reason to keep coming back.” In web language, that’s called “stickiness.“

He also advises compiling a monthly newsletter tied to a regular email marketing campaign: just re-invent your antiquated snail mail list. Put a “guest book” on your site so interested visitors can sign in and become part of your list.

The issue of updating your site is extremely important, as nothing turns a visitor off faster than information that’s yesterday’s news. “Some clients need so much attention, so much updating, that we build administration areas so they can do the maintenance themselves,” says Eckman, who adds that these capabilities do cost more.

If you’re not up to doing that, arrange for regular maintenance. If your news changes daily, negotiate ongoing help so your site is updated daily. “Fresh” is an adjective that should be top of mind, according to Debbie Smith, founder and manager of The Bay Area Equestrian Network (www.socalequest.com).

Driving the Search Engines

“Whether you’re a breeder or a barn owner, the web is a tool for you, just like direct mail,” says Smith. “First, find your market, find your niche, then get connected with other websites and search engines.”

Links to other equine businesses or organizations can be powerful tools to drive traffic to you; link and ask others to link back to you, once you’ve assessed the quality of the site and the owner.

Know that, as part of your ongoing commitment to your website plan, search engine coordination is an absolute necessity if your site is to succeed. Listing your site on search engines is a job for a professional unless you personally want to be consumed with the chore. Let someone else enter the metatags and metadescriptions to make this work.

Top Ten Internet Consulting specializes in search engine marketing, positioning and hosting. President Kim Wilson positions herself, and those in her field, as “the person between your designer and you. The designer will build it and usually go away. You’ve made an investment: your site should not be something separate from your business, but rather, be integrated into your business.”

To improve a farm’s ranking in the search engines, Wilson incorporates keyword phrases, i.e., horse barn, equestrian center, and riding styles, into the site content. These are the things that search engines search for and base their rankings on. Wilson also analyzes sites’ traffic to see where it’s coming from, how long visitors are spending on the site, and then adjusts content accordingly to drive traffic where it’s desired.

“One of the most forgotten elements of the website is the visitor,” Wilson says. “It is amazing how often I have heard, ‘I never thought that my business site would attract (fill in the blank)!’ Be prepared to shift and change your site’s focus as time goes on.”

Last word

Building your site is like going on a first date. To sustain this relationship, you’ll need to commit ongoing time and money to make sure your initial effort celebrates many happy anniversaries.