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Thursday 13 December 2007

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Shane’s article as it appears in the National Accountant.

There’s really no excuse for any accountancy firm not to have a website. The main reason is because potential clients will invariably ‘check you out’ from the cloak of anonymity that the internet offers before making contact.

We all do it. We type in the web address and we make an instant judgement when the page loads. You have about 10 seconds to make the right impression. And, remember, we are not talking about words. We are talking about how the site looks.

A website can either work for or against a professional services business. It can make you look really good or, if done poorly and not maintained, it can make you look very ordinary. And if your website looks ordinary, what else should the client or potential client think than to affix the same tag to your professionalism?

Research shows that a well-designed website engenders trust. It really is that simple.

AFTER THE BASICS

Assuming you accept that good design is the starting point, there are a number of other fundamentals that make a professional services website fly.

Communication is the source of all successful marketing, and your website should be thought of as another tool in your marketing arsenal.

Traditionally – an odd concept to apply to a medium that is only decades old – websites have been akin to an online brochure. You publish a summary of what you are about in a structure of pages and people (presumably) come to your site and consume your information.

Of course this is a flawed concept because no one will come unless they are invited to or happen to find your website through search engine results. The idea that your pages will be looked at purely because they are ‘on the internet’ is wishful thinking in the extreme. But it doesn’t have to be this way. And the smart operators these days are leveraging the power of the medium to their advantage.

TAKE THE INITIATIVE

Let’s look at business ‘blogs’ – a shorthand for ‘web log’, rather like an online journal. It’s a terrible word but what it basically means is communicating with clients. And, done properly, blogging does not rely on people coming to your site. I prefer to call it ‘e-news’ which can be delivered to clients automatically. I believe in the principle of doing something once and then using it for multiple purposes.

We structure our professional services websites with a “Latest News” section that our clients update through a back-end content management system (CMS). This news appears on the home page and is later stored in an archive page when it is replaced by something more recent.

What you use for “Latest News” is entirely up to you – it really depends on whom you are communicating with and what you want them to think about you. The more traditional compliance-focused accountant might write about lodgement obligations, ATO rulings or new legislation requirements. However, if you want your clients to think of you more as an advisory member of their board and if you want to attract fast-growing entrepreneurs, you might inject your personality into what you write. In this instance, you might attempt to entertain your readers and impress them with your wit and insights into business and life in general.

This content is, in effect, a blog. It is akin to you telling the rest of the world what you think and how good you are.

GENERATING E-NEWS

That’s all well and good, but how will the rest of the world find you in the global chaos of the web? The answer to this question is: “Because you regularly publish your e-news”. Websites can be constructed to include a function that gathers all the news from a defined period (say a month), compile it into an HTML email and send it to a self-managing mailing list. So, you write your news (blog) and then the website sends it as e-news to your client email list. The site’s functionality can also automatically handle the subscribing and unsubscribing functions that are mandated by Australia’s anti-spam laws.

Email is still the ‘killer application’ of the internet. Using this technique, your words and ideas regularly arrive in your client’s inbox. It is the obverse of the truism “out of sight is out of mind”. You are, in effect, in their face … in the nicest possible way.

HOW TO BE FOUND

In reality, only one search engine is worth being found in – Google.

Google has achieved what Kleenex and Hoover achieved in other eras. It has managed to turn its business name into a verb. To search on the internet is now an interchangeable term with “to google”. Even George W Bush ‘does the google’.

The ins and outs of search engine optimisation (SEO) is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that there are some fundamental principles that need to be observed when building a website to ensure a best possible ‘natural ranking’ (without paying large amounts to the US conglomerate for ‘keywords’ or ‘adwords’).

In summary, the fundamentals are:

  • Your web developer needs to use cascading style sheets (CSS) to lay out and provide primary navigation for your site. In the past, designers used a table structure to lay out web pages – a use which was never intended but which offered a work-around. Graphics were also commonly used for navigation but these old-school practices will result in your website being largely hidden from the “spiders” or “robots” that the search engines send trawling through the internet to index and catalogue your site.
  • The developer also needs a working knowledge and appreciation of the W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium) standards for internet design. The software developers who make web browers (Internet Explorer, Mozilla, Firefox, etc) use these standards to display the code that your web developer writes when creating your internet site. Compliance with these standards, in effect, future-proofs your site while making it accessible to the rest of the world.
  • Your page titles need thought and proper structure. Keep them short. Give the ‘good stuff’ first (such as the name of the page), but also load them up with your business name and geographic location
  • Your page content should be written by someone who understands metadata, keywords and their relevance to SEO.
  • The more links you can arrange from other relevant sites, the higher you will be listed.

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