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Keeping Your Website Fresh and Competitive

Website design trends can change quickly, which means that sites that aren’t kept up-to-date can get stale over time in the minds of their users. When people come to a website that appears outdated, they’re less likely to make a purchase. And because very few people will come out and tell you that your site looks a bit old-fashioned, it’s important to understand what makes a site look “modern” in the eyes of its users.

Here are a few factors that can help your website stay fresh and competitive:

* Logos and icons. Including Facebook and Twitter icons on your site lets people know that you’re active in the social media realm. Conversely, hit counters and animated GIF files make your site look a bit dated. Every once in a while, it pays to weed out yesterday’s fashions in the same way you would clean out a clothes closet.
* Trust indicators. People want to believe in your site before they call you or make a purchase. Security seals and BBB logos can add credibility. To be the most effective, trust indicators should be above the fold on the website or near critical points in the checkout process. A security seal at the bottom of a page will go unnoticed by most site visitors.
* Pricing. Your prices should be current and should be competitive with major sellers of the same product, unless you can explain the value that someone gets from paying more for your product. In a “shop and compare” world, people often see pricing in sponsored ads before they see your website, so a high price is most likely going to terminate the customer’s visit.
* Value-added features. Compared to your top competitors, are you upselling and cross-selling as well as you could? Some time ago, Amazon.com popularized the “people who bought this bought that” concept, which is a great way to improve your ROI for each shopper. Coupon codes and other online specials can often make shoppers feel like they’re getting a better deal.
* Site speed. Previously, people who accessed the Internet through dial-up were used to slow page loading, but now a 5-second wait for a page can be a deal breaker. Aside from being a factor in search engine rankings, a slow-loading site also reduces conversions because people get tired of waiting around for the next page. Sometimes, you can increase page-load time by compressing the images, Flash elements, and scripting. In other cases, faster servers are necessary.
* Pain-free checkout process. A confusing, ugly, or misleading checkout process can turn away interested buyers in seconds. Any barrier to checking out—such as a signup requirement or a sudden change in site appearance—can raise red flags in a customer’s mind. If you need to take customers to a third-party cart to make a purchase, then you may want to use your logo and template colors on those pages to reduce the buyer’s anxiety levels. Likewise, surprise price increases, like extra shipping and tax charges, can literally make potential customers put their credit cards back in their wallets.

In some cases, we’ve seen stale websites that performed at an average level of profitability for years, while their owners were oblivious to additional revenue growth opportunities that could be achieved through modernization. For example, a site that operates off its branding or name recognition may be blinded to emerging trends and new marketplace conditions to the extent that its revenue model becomes eclipsed by more nimble competitors. This is the type of site that loses value and market share over time, which can have negative consequences for the entire company.

To avoid looking like an online dinosaur, it pays to conduct periodic audits of your website design, functionality, and pricing. One way to get an unvarnished (and free) appraisal of your site is to ask your detractors what they prefer about a competitor’s site design. Any opportunity to get an outside look at the site, even from a customer or critic, can give you a list of suggestions for further improvement.

Considering the speed of change in the online world, it makes sense to look at your website as a project in continuous improvement. Periodic changes provide extra value for returning visitors and new users. After a time, the cumulative effect of little tweaks and upgrades will keep you ahead of new players in the industry, while you keep your Web pages off of the “stale site” plateau.

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