Websites and Mobile Apps for Business – The Basics

Websites and Mobile Apps for Business - The Basics

Excited to have a guest blogger today, Ann Calvin of Arcus Solutions.

As business moves more and more into the digital world, knowing where to begin can be difficult. Websites and mobile apps are becoming increasingly important, but how do you go about getting one? Why do some people have free websites while some pay to have theirs built? When is it a good idea to build a mobile app? Here’s a quick guide to the basics of websites and mobile presence for entrepreneurs and small business owners.

1. Websites 
Websites are one of the “must-haves” of the digital world. They can serve as anything from a simple first impression to lead generation to your product itself. For non-technical business owners, though, the prospect of spending the time necessary to learn to code well can be daunting. Here are some pros and cons for common options to get your website up and running.

A. Hire a full-time web developer or find a cofounder
Cost: Salary and/or Equity (partial ownership of the business)
Pros: Having one person design a website with a coherent vision saves you from throwing away good work while you deal with turnover. Incentives of long-term employees/co founders are also more likely to align with incentives for business owners; both the developer and the business owner should want the website to succeed in the long term. 
Cons: People are expensive. Adding to the overall head count can be cost prohibitive for a small business, and sacrificing equity is a hard choice for any business owner. It can also be difficult to find, attract and retain the right talent; good web developers are in high demand.

B. Hire a consulting company
Cost: Money. Generally an hourly rate or a fixed project cost.
Pros: It is typically a significantly less expensive cost than hiring someone outright, but you still get all the advantages of owning the code used to build your website. Owning the code means you can modify it and reuse it as your business grows. It allows for robust, custom websites and unique designs to attract customers and give them a more memorable experience. Hiring a consulting company also allows you pick and choose the specialists you need for certain parts of your project. You may find a generalist to build an overall website but still want to hire a specialist to build a complex part of your website faster and more efficiently.
Cons: For consultants, the business relationship usually ends at the end of the contract. This means that building lots of expensive add-ons can seem better than building a streamlined, successful website. It can also feel like a gamble if you don’t know the consultants personally or don't feel qualified to compare groups. Check here for our list of 9 things to look for when hiring a software consulting group.

C. Use a free service
Cost: Ownership of the code and originality of design
Pros: It’s free. It’s fast. Your website can usually be up in less than a day. If budgets are strapped and the website is not a vital or central part of the business, free is a hard cost to beat.
Cons: There is the fairly cosmetic cost of using a stock design and having your website look less than original, but also the more serious cost of not owning the code used to build your website. If you don't own the code, when it’s time for your business to grow and you need a more robust website it will need to be built from scratch. It also usually means that you can't customize features on your website. If your website is a major part of your business and needs to have a special functionality, the free options generally won’t allow you to add in custom code. Another potential drawback to look out for is not owning any of the material on your website, including your own creative contributions. The services that build and host your website will often claim ownership of any blog post, picture, or other creative upload. 

2. Mobile Devices
So you have your website up and running, but people keep trying to access it from their smart phones and complain that it’s hard to use. With web traffic shifting more and more towards mobile devices, neglecting to accommodate mobile users is getting to be an expensive mistake.  Going mobile, though, does not necessarily mean shelling out money and time to build a full app. Here is a comparison of two main ways to accommodate those mobile visitors: mobile apps and responsive design.

A. Native app
What is it: This is what you buy in an app store and download onto your phone. It needs to be built separately from a website and also built separately for iPhones, Androids, and Windows phones.
Pros: Native apps can use the full functionality of smart phones (including cameras, etc.). They can be used offline and tend to be better for in-depth, time intensive use.  Because graphics can be stored in the app, they frequently run much faster than mobile websites. Apps are also where mobile users are spending the vast majority of their time.
Cons: Cost in time and money. Apps are development heavy, need to go through any app store submission processes, and need to be built separately for each platform (iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, etc.). For this reason, updates are more difficult to deal with too; they usually need to be built separately for each platform and will need to go through the same app store submission processes. Building an app is typically the more expensive route to accommodating your mobile audience. Also, while apps are more user-friendly once they’re downloaded, there’s still the battle of getting your users to find you in their app stores and download the app in the first place. 

B. Responsive Design
What is it: A form of development that allows a website to adjust to varying screen sizes and types of machine. Design is given in relative terms – percentage of total space – rather than absolute terms – exact number of pixels required.
Pros: Responsive design is typically less expensive than building native apps. It also doesn't need to be built separately for each platform and updates are a relative breeze: there’s no need to run them through an app store approval process, ask your customers to download separate update files, or build several versions for each device.
Cons: Whereas native apps are downloaded onto a device, a website built with responsive design must be accessed through the Internet every time a customer uses it. This means that it moves much more slowly, the experience is usually not as robust, and the user must be connected to the web. Mobile websites also cannot access the full functionality of smart phones; they're usually limited to some GPS access with permission and no cameras or other hardware features.
For more in-depth readings and charts on native apps compared with responsive design, check here and here.

3. Making Your Digital Presence Work for You
Now that you have your website and mobile options ready, it'd be nice if someone found them and used them every once in a while. After all, you're not building these things for your health. If you are one of the business owners that is hoping to get a bit more oomph from a website that just isn't bringing in leads, here are a few of the tools you can use.

Analytics – Analytics is a way to report on some aspect of a business using hard data. For your website, it means taking the guesswork out of a lot of the questions that plague business owners. Best of all, many analytics tools are free. Google offers a great free option that gives information about how many people are visiting each page of your website, where they're located, how they ended up on your site (Social media? Organic search?) and how they behave once they're there. Spending some quality time with analytics reports can help you decide how to prioritize your budget for the other tools below. Note: Analytics data is great but it isn’t everything. Check out a more in-depth definition and guide to using analytics here.

SEO – SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is a process used to increase a website’s ranking in organic search results. SEO does not mean paying for ad words; organic rankings are not based on advertising dollars. There are many aspects of a website that are taken into account when a search engine like Google orders results, but fortunately there are resources to help you figure out what is both helping and hurting your website. SEO Site Checkup has a free reporting tool (and a paid “Improve your Score” option) that lists many of the common SEO improvement categories. If it all looks a bit too overwhelming, not to worry: there are SEO consultants out there. Mashable has a good list of questions to ask when you look for experts. 

UX – UX is the art and science of improving user experience. If you have a specific goal (i.e. “make a purchase” or “fill out a feedback form”) that visitors to your website are failing to perform, a UX specialist will look at where visitors are falling off the map and ways that you might be able to retain them. UX specialists may focus on the graphic design side of your website, the steps that a visitor needs to take to get to you goal, and they may also implement A/B testing to gather data on what works best for your business. A/B testing is a process of performing experiments with two variables and recording the rate at which each one has a desired outcome. For example, you could have visitors to your website see either a blue or an orange button and record how frequently the button is clicked in both cases.

Note: You know that saying that if you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail? It is possible for both SEO and UX experts to get a little enthusiastic when talking about their own solutions. Better SEO will get your website more visibility, but if you're getting a good number of views already it may not be the first area you want to prioritize. If people are coming to your website and then leaving in droves, you may want to focus more on UX. This is where your free analytics tools come in handy: check your reports to determine whether sales are low because no one is there in the first place (SEO problem) or because people are coming and going without performing the action you'd like them to (UX problem).

Ann works with Arcus Solutions, a software consulting company based in Boston, MA. If you have any questions about this article, feel free to reach out at; Ann will be the one to respond.