In spite of the hype surrounding social media, a website remains the central hub for most digital marketing. But its effectiveness depends on it being properly set up for this purpose. Often it’s not. So here are a few ways to make your website more effective as a marketing tool.Anyone can access it, it’s visible to search engines, and you can do more things with a website than with any other digital marketing tool.

Make sure your team can update the site easily

This sounds obvious but unfortunately many websites fall over at this first hurdle. It’s especially true of earlier-generation websites that were designed as online stores or as ‘corporate brochures’.

You should be able to update most content quickly and directly – easy if your website is built with a modern, user-friendly content management system (CMS). Pages can be created and edited online with a Microsoft Word-like editor, and no web designer or special software is needed.

A word of caution: While a CMS will make it easy for your team to add and update content, you should make sure they get some basic training in both web copywriting, and image editing. This will ensure that, even without the hand of a designer, your website will retain a professional appearance, be tuned for online reading, and be optimised for search engines.

Make it easy to share website content

One of the most important requirements is that it must be easy for visitors to share your articles, not just to view them on your site. This builds a bridge to the word-of-mouth power of social networks. There are two key things you’ll need to do.

  1. Produce the content with sharing in mind. For instance, the customer newsletter you spent hours preparing will be wasted as a PDF or Word file on your site. It’s too hard to share. Plain HTML with text and images (ie web pages) is much better. And you should break content into easily shareable pieces, each one dealing with a single topic. A newsletter or long article containing three reviews and an author Q&A will be more widely shared (and more search-friendly) if each review and article has its own web page.
  2. Reduce the effort required to share. One of the best ways to do this is to add social sharing tools to pages – such as those small icons for Facebook, Twitter, and email – which make it quick for visitors to share a page and a comment with their connections. A good CMS will help, but all of the social networks offer simple sharing tools that can be added to any page or site.

Design for readability — and small screens

Your website should be easily readable, well-structured, and have clear navigation. Screen readability uses different techniques from print – a reason why even literary types will benefit from training in basic web copywriting techniques. And if you want your team, not designers, to update the content, it’s best if the site is not too highly designed. An amateur picture or layout looks much worse on a fussily-designed site.

Modern web design practice takes into account the increasing use of mobile devices to access websites. The emerging practice of ‘responsive design’ presents a visitor with different layouts depending on their screen size. This move to relatively simple, light-weight pages reverses the key web design trend of recent years.

Designing with good usability in mind will make your site text-friendly and shareable, and will put you on the right track for the next important element, search engine optimisation.

Optimise each page for search engines

It’s important to remember that you optimise pages, not sites so search engine optimisation should happen as each page is created, not just once when the site is built.

Most of the things you do with this goal in mind will also make your site more human-friendly, so good text-oriented design and ‘discoverability’ go hand-in-hand. A modern CMS lets users optimise articles as they create them without the need to call on a designer for coding.

A quick fix for a marketing-unfriendly website

If your current website would struggle to meet these criteria, and you’re not ready for a major website makeover, don’t despair, delay, or try to shoehorn your digital marketing into a website that was never designed for it.

A quick fix is to add free blog software to your site, linked to it but running on a separate application. This doesn’t mean you have to start ‘a blog’. Blog software is optimised for creating and marketing online content of all sorts, and the best systems are free. Among them are Tumblr and Google’s Blogger, but I strongly recommend WordPress.

WordPress comes in two versions: a hosted service at WordPress.com – there’s nothing to install, it runs in the cloud – and software that you can download from WordPress.org and run yourself. Both options are free.

WordPress is just as easy to use as the others, but it’s much more powerful so you can take it beyond simple blogging if you want to. It’s also the world’s most widely-used content management system, powering almost one in five websites, so plenty of people know it and there’s a huge and very helpful community around it.

Put marketing at the centre of your next website makeover

If your website was built without meeting these key requirements, it might be time to consider a makeover. Of course, there will be other things you’ll need to take into account, such as e-commerce or branding. These can sometimes work against a website’s marketing effectiveness so there might be trade-offs to consider. But if your plan calls for increasing use of digital marketing, follow these guidelines so your website won’t hold you back.
This article was first published in the current issue of  News on Bookselling, the official journal of the Australian Booksellers Association.