When it comes to websites, things have changed significantly in the past decade. You may have heard that “every business needs a website” in order to become successful. Today, I think local businesses actually need a website when they become successful.
Cottage food operators often put too much stock into having their own website. They might think that their home food business will be hampered if they don’t have one, or they’ll be behind the times without one. Sometimes they even spend hundreds of dollars to get one designed and built, only to later find that it’s not generating much business for them.
Is a website worth your time and/or money? What are the benefits and what are the costs? Why are some websites successful while others are not?
I have been working on websites for the past decade, and I’ve been freelancing as an independent web developer since 2012. I’ve worked with many clients who need a website and a consistent brand, and I spend much of my time thinking about how I can make websites more effective for them. In some ways, part of my job is knowing if a site will benefit a client, and conversely, in knowing when a potential client doesn’t actually need what they are asking for.
Why Have A Website?
Since most cottage food laws restrict or prohibit online sales, most cottage food operations (CFOs) are entirely local businesses with in-person sales.
However, CFOs still need to market their businesses as effectively as possible, and the internet can be an extremely effective tool for doing so.
Here are some reasons a cottage food operator may want to build a website:
- To have an online space their business can call home
- To give customers a place to learn more
- To grow their business via people finding them online
- Because every business needs to have a website these days
It’s those last two points (above) that bother me. I see many entrepreneurs who think that a website will help them on their pathway to success, but they don’t necessarily know how it will do that.
First of all, it’s important to understand that the internet is an enormous place. There are about a billion websites online, so if you build a website, you will be one in a billion. If you live in the Western Hemisphere, you know what that feels like: if you add up everyone in every country in the Americas, that’s almost a billion people!
Here’s the truth: very, very few people will organically and randomly find your website via Google or Bing search. The web is simply too huge for anyone to notice you. In other words, merely having a website doesn’t automatically give you traffic (aka visitors) for free.
How The Internet Really Works
But some people do have successful websites… how do they get noticed amongst a billion others?
There are two basic ways to get traffic to a website: work or money.
Some of the ways to get people to your site via work/time/effort:
- Tell your family / friends about the website
- Place the website address on your marketing materials / business cards / etc. and distribute those
- Create content that is so useful that other people decide to tell their friends about it (or more importantly, put links to your website on their website)
- Talk about your business elsewhere (like other websites) and ask people to visit your website
Some of the ways to get people to your site via money:
- Pay Google Adwords to place ads about your business in search results and on other websites
- Pay Facebook to advertise your business
- Pay another advertiser to generate traffic for your business
- Pay someone to create great content for your website
Because the internet is so huge, websites cannot be static. Google notices when a website changes, and generally speaking, the more often it changes, the better. If one of my clients wants to get search engine traffic (Google, Bing), I usually advise them to change their site at least once a week, usually by posting some new content to it.
As a website ages, it quickly dies (we’re talking months, not years). Many people think that when they’re finished building the website, the project is done for awhile. In reality, it’s more like a home: it needs to be continually maintained or else it will lose much of its value.
Building An Online Presence
For most CFOs, it isn’t worth the time, effort, or money to maintain and grow a website in order to acquire Google/Bing search engine traffic. In other words, assume that a website will not help grow your business by itself. But to reference above, there are a couple of other good reasons to have a website:
- To have an online space you can call home
- To give customers a place to learn more
Here’s the catch: you no longer need a website to do those things.
For most CFOs, a Facebook page is a perfectly adequate online space for their business. In fact, it’s usually much more effective than a website because so many people are already on Facebook quite often. And it comes with a couple bonuses: it’s very easy to create a Facebook page, and it’s easy to update it and keep it fresh. I see a lot of CFOs that start out with a website and Facebook page, and then they eventually drop the website.
Many CFOs should also list themselves on Google Maps. It is not difficult to do, and you will be much more likely to appear in local Google search results than your website would. Some people aren’t comfortable listing their home as a business on Google Maps, but many people do it without having any problems.
There are other platforms that may help build your online presence, like Yelp, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, etc. However, keep in mind that it’s very easy to stretch yourself out too thin online. Focus on one or two platforms that work well for you, and don’t worry about the rest. Twitter might be very useful in one area and irrelevant in another. You can try platforms to see what works, but for many CFOs, a Facebook page is sufficient for their early stage business needs.
When To Get A Website
I’m not trying to say that you should never create a website. Instead, I’m suggesting that — as a small, local business — you might consider waiting before building one.
When you have many people going online to specifically look for your business, that’s when you could really use a website. Before that point, your site is unlikely to get found or used much by strangers.
There are many online tools these days that allow you to build a decent website fairly easily, for free. If you’d like to build one for your business, I think that’s fine… just don’t expect too much from it, that’s all. I would definitely advise against spending any money for a website when you’re just getting started.
Although you may have heard those claims that “every business needs a website”, I think that mindset has reached its limits. It now may be more accurate to say that “every business needs an online presence”. How will you build yours?