By Bob Nieman | Apr 15, 2009
Before spending countless hours and thousands of dollars on your self-service laundry’s new, cutting-edge Web site, it’s important to know exactly what that site will mean for you in terms of new business – and, more importantly, what it will not.
“It’s not as important as having a good sign out front,” explained Gary Gray, who owns the 16-store Fun Wash laundry chain in Little Rock, Ark. “And it’s not as important as doing some good advertising.”
However, before writing off the 20-year coin laundry industry veteran as a “non-techie” who is stuck in the past, know this: Gray has not just one Web site, but three – one for his laundromats, a separate one for his distributorship and a third for his apartment business. What’s more, he’s been promoting his businesses on the Web for eight years now.
“I did it as part of an overall marketing campaign,” said Gray, whose first site cost him $1,500 to create. “I think it actually improves the result we get from our advertising, because we reference the site in our ads. But if you’re not doing any advertising, you need to do that first.”
Assuming you already have ample exterior signage and a healthy advertising presence in your marketplace, let’s look more closely at some of the keys to that third, complementary component to your marketing arsenal – the Web site.
Content is Key
Today, almost all the search engines scan a site’s content. Therefore, the more content you have on your site the more the search engines can scan. However, there is more to it than that – many of your customers probably like content, too. So ask yourself: why would people visit your Web site? Do you offer them any interesting information that relates to your laundry services?
Relevant content is a key for a successful Web site, and there is always room for more. You can never have too much. Writing articles about certain aspects of your business (and about doing laundry in general) is a great way to generate content. Perhaps set aside an hour a week to devote to adding new content to your Web site.
Keep It Current
Having a lot of content is great, but if it is all three years old, it's not going to look like your site is much of a priority. The search engines actually track this. They monitor how frequently your site changes as they visit it for indexing. The more often it changes the better your rank in the “freshness” category.
What constitutes change? Almost anything, which is why keeping a blog or adding frequent news articles to your Web site can produces good results. It’s also the reason why having something as simple as rotating content and the current date on every page has been shown to make a difference (although some search engines have been getting wise to this kind of tactic).
“It’s important to have information that’s accurate and up-to-date,” Gray said. “For example, if you change equipment and now have a different equipment mix, you need to make that change on your site – or if you relocate and have the old address on there, or remodel and have old photos on the site. I try to avoid having the site out of date, because it portrays a bad image.”
Don't try to outsmart the search engines. Eventually, you'll loose. Many design firms promise success through the use of tricks, “backdoors” and special tactics designed to sneak a Web site into a top position rapidly. Of course, this is something the search engines are constantly fighting to defeat.
Instead, follow the recommendations of the search engines. Most set out rules for webmasters, outlining what they would like to see in a Web site. By following the rules, you help the search engines battle all of the cheating Web sites – and promote the sites, like yours, that adhere to the guidelines.
Linking Your Site
There has been a lot of buzz over “link exchanges” – sites linking to others merely to gain a higher rank. If you are going to link to someone and/or ask them to link to you, ask yourself: is it relevant?
Just any old link isn’t going to help you. Search engines will look at who is linking to you. They also are starting to pay very close attention to how many links you have off of your Web site on a page.
Do you have a links page on your Web site? If so, it is far better to have relevant links placed throughout your site, on only those pages that specifically related to the topic or pages being linked to.
Unfortunately, you can't exert much control over the way other sites link to yours, but it is worth looking at how a site usually links to others before specifically requesting a link from them.
Organize Your Web Site
Both the search engines and your Web visitors prefer a site that is well structured. The search engines, due to their very nature, must break down all sites into elements based on the structure of the pages. Consumers, often rushing to find the specific information they are looking for, rarely read through Web pages but rather scan headings to find the detailed sections of interest.
In both cases, a well-structured site will be far better received then one that is a mish-mosh of information haphazardly thrown together. This is simple to do. Make headings, use the correct coding tags for them, organize sections of content into groups, and use bold and bullied lists to present key points.
Keep in mind that, when writing paragraphs of text, most people will not read them unless they are specifically titled with a headline that matches what they are looking for.
A Web site that speaks to all is better then a site that only speaks to some. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) provides a list of guidelines for how to create Web sites that are accessible to as many people (and systems) as possible.
Think about your Web site. For example, can someone with a visual disability (perhaps something as simple as color-blindness) still obtain information about laundromat?
There are many simple ways to guarantee that your Web site is accessible to people with special needs. A group of simple tests for the site’s content and design that ensure your services are presented to the widest possible audience. Be sure to check with your designer to ensure that your site design and code is following accessibility guidelines.
In the grand scheme of things, the "look" of your Web site in the classic sense are not that important. Once people have looked at a Web site for a few minutes, they quickly discard their first impression and move immediately to asking, “Is this site giving me the information I need? And can I find it quickly?”
Therefore, ensure that the style of your site makes it easy to read. For instance, avoid design elements such as black backgrounds with white text, as inverse text is harder to read. Also, writing in “all caps” quickly becomes annoying – plus, on the Internet, it is used as a typographic method of indicating that you are screaming.
You are selling something that has a visual representation – your self-service laundry. As a result, professional-looking photography is key. Even a multi-million-dollar resort won’t look good if the photographs are amateurish. If you care about what you have to sell, then it's worth investing in some professional photographs to show people what you have. Remember, online consumers can't touch your product, so you need to give them some outstanding photographs to build their confidence that your store can meet their needs.
Mistakes To Avoid
According to Corey Rudl, author of “Insider Secrets to Marketing Your Business on the Internet,” there are four fatal (but all too common) pitfalls many business owners make when developing their Web sites:
1. Trying to dazzle customers instead of trying to sell to them.
A lot of business owners want their sites to be as eye-catching as possible. They think that by including a lot of flashy graphics and nifty animation effects, they'll capture their visitors' attention. That may be true, but these special effects can also distract visitors from what you really want them to focus on: the value of your product.
“Never confuse eye-candy with content,” Rudl said. “Graphics should only ever be used to support the main purpose of your site: to get people to buy what you have to sell. You may want to impress people with your technical know-how by including lots of banners and links on your site, but too much visual clutter looks unprofessional and can ruin your credibility. Anything that distracts visitors from your copy is guaranteed to lose you sales. So if a graphic doesn't directly relate to your product or service, then it shouldn't be on your site. It's just that simple.”
Believe it or not, studies have shown that most first-time visitors spend only 10 seconds on a site before deciding whether or not it offers any value for them. You don't want to waste these precious seconds with a pointless splash page or distracting animation.
The best way to drive sales is to design a simple, clean site using only two or three colors and one or two fonts throughout the entire site. Avoid using colored or patterned backgrounds – you might think they look cool, but they make it really difficult to read your sales copy. Also be sure to keep your link colors and format consistent. People generally expect links to be blue and underlined. This may seem boring from a design point of view, but the links will be instantly recognizable and that's what really matters.
2. Making your site too large.
“One of the worst mistakes people can make is building massive, multi-paged sites that take forever to load,” Rudl explained. “’The more, the better,’ is not the case, at least when it comes to Web site design.”
Studies have shown that 30 percent to 60 percent of visitors drop off with each click they're made to take. Your site has to be as streamlined as possible if you want it to reach its true profit potential.
“Keep it simple,” recommended John Seabul, who operates two Express Laundry Centers in Oshkosh and Appleton, Wis. “You want customers to be able to grasp everything by just taking a quick look at the site.”
“I want to run a laundromat, not manage a Web site,” added Duane King, who owns Lmaries laundromat in Bowling Green, Ohio. “I may look at it once a month and make changes, if necessary. I didn’t want anything fancy – just a basic site, where people can get in, get the information they want, and they’re gone. It’s just something to enhance your business.”
As you spruce up your site, try to reduce the number of pages wherever possible. Remember, every click loses sales. If you can't feature all of your products and services on your home page, group them in categories and display each category on its own page.
Wherever possible, try to reduce the number of files on your Web pages. The more files a page has, the longer it'll take to load – especially if they're large graphics files. Use colored text instead of graphics to grab attention. If you must use a graphic, make sure it's a small file. Many people make the mistake of using high-resolution images when they really don't need to. You need only 72 dpi (dots per inch) for screen resolution. And most graphics only need to be 256 colors or less.
Don't forget that you have only 10 seconds to grab people's attention. The longer visitors have to wait for your site to load, the less likely they are to stick around and find out about the wonderful laundromat experience you provide.
3. Designing confusing navigation.
Some Web designers like to show off their skills by creating new and different ways to navigate through a multi-paged site. Sometimes they hide links beneath icons or images so that users can't find the links unless they mouse over the graphics. This may be very clever, but it certainly doesn't help people find what they're looking for.
Other designers put their navigation bars in different places on each page of the site, or change the look of the navigation bar itself, which can be awfully confusing. Navigation bars are like traffic signs: They have to be consistent and easily understandable to be effective.
“When customers visit your Web site, they want information and they want it now,” said Matthew Krabbenhoft, president and creative director of Fat Hat Design Inc., a full-service design firm with an emphasis on web design based in Austin, Texas. “If they can't find what they're looking for, they can get frustrated pretty quickly and leave, or worse – they could wind up looking to one of your competitors for what they need.
“It's important to keep the user experience in mind when it comes to your site. This means you need to find a balance between your need to promote your business and your customers' need to get the information they want.”
The best way to deal with your navigation is to make it simple and obvious. It might seem boring and unoriginal, but that's the point. People don't want to have to spend time figuring out how to make their way through your site – they want it to be easy to understand. Otherwise, they'll go somewhere else to find what they're seeking.
4. Burying essential information too deep within the site.
“Web surfers are impatient people,” Rudl warned. “They don't want to spend a lot of time trying to find what they're seeking on your site. According to market research, more than 50 percent of all Web sales are lost because site visitors can't find what they're looking for.”
If you've buried important information too deep within your site, you're losing out on more than half of your sales.
A Web site should be like a newspaper story. All the really important information about your site – what you're selling and how it benefits people – should be the first thing your visitors see. That's the best way to capture their attention and get them to read more.
“If you have only 10 seconds to grab your visitors' interest, don't make them waste time scrolling down your homepage or clicking through to deeper pages,” Rudl said. “People don't want to take any extra time to find out what you're offering – you have to provide it to them right up front. Don't make them look for it. Hit them between the eyes with it.”
“I would highly suggest even a basic Web page with your name and contact information, as well as what your store can provide,” said King, whose own site features a live camera feed, which enables online customers to view how busy Lmaries is before going to the store with their loads. “A lot of people find me from the Web.”
Gray continued to temper his enthusiasm for Web sites as traffic builders: “It doesn’t do you any good to have a site and only have it referenced in your store that you’ve got a site,” he said. “That customer is already there. First, do your advertising and then use the site as a tool, as part of your advertising campaign. I don’t think you’re going to get any new customers just because you have a Web site.”
King begs to differ, depending on the marketplace.
“I’ve got people who live two blocks down who didn’t know I was here,” he explained. “But they did a Google search for laundromats in Bowling Green, and they came to me because the link had my Web site, rather than just a listing. They go to my site: ‘Oh, it’s air-conditioned. Hey, he’s got air hockey.’ And, next thing, I’ve got a new customer.”
7 ‘Must-Haves’ for Your Store’s Site
What are potential customers looking for when they visit your Web site? Here are seven crucial elements:
1. Contact information, such as phone numbers, e-mail addresses and, of course, the physical location of your coin laundry.
2. Product details, which means in-depth information on the services you provide, including pricing.
3. Company information, such as background information on the business and the management team.
4. News and announcements, including press releases and updated equipment or service enhancements.
5. Employment opportunities.
6. An easy way to get back to your home page. The home page is where all paths begin in the customer's mind, and they want to be able to get back to your home page easily.
7. Simple navigation that makes all of these other items easy to find.