How Important is Your Firm's Website?

It has been a while since this column has covered the importance of your web site and the use of web technologies. Let me be as clear as I can: you must have a clear web strategy, an elegant web site that runs in browsers, smartphones and tablets, has clear branding for your firm, integrates social media, and all around is an easy place to do business with your firm. Those needs are pretty easy to say. You may have a few more items to add or some things to remove. But the real trick is how to get a really great web site built and maintained.

Your Web Site is Your Office Front Door

I don’t know who said this first or who to attribute this analogy to, but in today’s market, it is true. How many of you use a phone book to look up a phone number? Most of you have critical numbers stored in your smartphone or use a web search to find a phone number. How many of you look on the web for information about a potential client or competitor? You probably do this almost every day. If you have a question, don’t you frequently “see what Google says?” And, if your search habits are like mine, when you go looking, you only look at the first few pages of web search results or you specifically visit a known good site as your source of information. You check a few web sites to see if they are legitimate if you are looking for something, or you wind up directly on the firm’s web site that has the information you want.

As new, younger, clients look for services, they are often turning online. Potential clients with more specific needs are also using Internet search to find new sources of expertise. What does your CPA firm look like on the web? Does your site look professional and offer broad functionality and client collaboration? Is it still in the 90’s acting only as a yellow page listing? Is your web front door and first impression inviting and responsive? Think about this. How often do you visit a firm’s web site before you go to see them? Do you physically visit many businesses today? How many of your supplier’s businesses have you been in? When was the last time you turned to a phone book to find business services?

Most of us have built our firms based on relationships. Some have built a reputation around a specific expertise. Others have grown the firm based on service levels. All of these strategies are still extremely important, but a new factor in the last 15 years is being found on the web. Many of us are not trying to build a national accounting firm, but simply want a dominant local presence. We want to be found in our own market when businesses are looking for accounting services. Being found in your local market is a technique known as local search engine optimization (SEO). If you search on accountant or CPA in your home town, and you don’t find your firm or yourself on the first page, or better yet in the first two to three results, you have some work to do.

There are clear factors that make certain web sites stand out more than others: design, readability, ease of navigation, loading speed & performance, ability to be found by search engines, localization including local search, and the ability to run in different browsers on different devices. Your website should support your firm’s business model, and that may well include portal capability, integration of online accounting, news feeds and content that you produce yourself through social media. If you have a relatively static “yellow page” website that merely lists team members and services, you are highly unlikely to attract new business to the firm. That approach is “so” last decade.

Before explaining the options available, consider your website as it stands today. Would you be pleased and honored to have unknown guests visit your site? Does it represent the quality and values of your firm? Is your site understandable? To test this, ask your family members, friends or non-employee associates to evaluate your site with you. Although this is clearly an amateur approach, it will give you an immediate sense about the issues with your site. Consider your goals for the firm’s website. Are these clearly communicated and accomplished? What do you want the website to do for your firm? If your current website is accomplishing everything you want it to, well, excellent for you! If not, you are now ready for a conversation with a website professional.

You can acquire or build websites multiple ways, but there are three methods that dominate. The first is to obtain a site from a provider that has canned content and templates, usually for a small upfront fee and a relatively low recurring monthly expense. Most tax & accounting firms take this approach since it carries the least expense. Examples of this approach include CCH ProSystem fx Site Builder, Thomson Reuters Web Builder CS, AccountantsWorld Website Relief, Build Your Firm, CPA Site Solutions, CPAsites, etc. You can find comparative information at www.websites4accountants.com.

The second method involves greater risk and expense. This is where expertise is sought out, sometimes locally and sometimes from a national or international resource. These sites are often built based on a local referral, and the thinking is that you can customize the site to meet your needs and to give your firm a unique look and feel. The issue with this method is that when the website programming resource becomes disinterested or unavailable, you may have to rebuild your entire site. Sometimes the programmers of custom sites can commit to other projects and become unavailable for maintenance or updates.

The third method involves a hybrid of the two other approaches, where professional design and marketing is used on a site and content updated inside these wireframes or designs. You maintain or provide the updated content. Sites built with this technique are cleaner with clearer messaging than the template sites using canned content. Examples of these types of sites include the work being done by the RootWorks Web Development team or BOP Design.

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Getting Your Web Site Right

Most accounting firms have core expertise in Tax and Auditing. Others add specialty areas of wealth management, collaborative accounting, valuation and more. Your web site needs to be part of your marketing engine as well as the primary place for you to do client collaboration. All web sites can use improvement, and all web sites need content that is updated frequently.

How often do you or your own team members write content for your web site, create a posting for a regulation change, or record a video of a firm event or explain in a video something where you have expertise? How coordinated is your business development with your web site and other marketing activities?

How about client service? Do you transfer files via a portal? Is that portal integrated in your web site? Can you interact with business tax, personal tax and audit clients easily through your portal? Do you send any content via email? What about collaborative accounting, payroll, or 401K services? Do you have an easy way for clients to interact with your firm on collaborative accounting, payroll, or 401K services? Do you have an easy way for clients to interact with your firm on your web site?

Here are a few technical design principles that all sites should follow:

  1. Never host your website in-house. The security risk is too high.
  2. Use a content management system, such as Joomla.
  3. Make a significant part of your website visible “above the fold” (not requiring visitors to scroll down).
  4. Include social media integration using YouTube video feeds, RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  5. Make sure your website is usable on mobile devices.
  6. Build your website so it follows search engine optimization (SEO) rules. These rules change over time. Pay particular attention to Local SEO to help your firm be found in your key niches and market areas.
  7. Make sure your site is properly backed up and regularly tested to make sure it can be restored if needed.

Your content management system may help with some of these items, but your website builder’s thoughtful design can make a noticeable difference in your organic or un-manipulated search engine results. Including items like the cities where you operate, key areas of expertise, and other keywords to help people find you and your site can make a big difference, but you can do better.

All sites need SEO. The ideas above are a start, but the steps to do optimization right takes an SEO professional’s touch, some thoughtful setup and guidance from you, and hours (two to 30) of work each month. The heart of SEO is keywords. It generally takes about 40 hours to properly develop a keyword list and get these keywords into the code portion of the website. Then, the keywords need to be used in the text on each page of the site. Keywords also need to be updated periodically to keep up with the internet search engine changes.

This is where SEO starts … not ends, as many people think. The goal is that you appear on the first page of the major search engines when using the search terms that potential clients use to find you. It's not an exact science because the engines don't divulge why they rank things the way they do. Through a community that thrives on testing theories, there have been tried-and-true methods that are known to increase rankings. Often times, these discoveries lead to spammers exploiting it, and then the engines respond by adjusting their algorithm. A focus on the end user experience (providing fresh, relevant content in a quick and easy manner) will lead to the best long-term results, not “chasing the algorithm.”

Search engines view the following:

  1. Domain name
  2. Page title (with  keywords in the title)  * title tags are 69 characters max, typically about 8 words
  3. Headlines
  4. All of the content but concentrating on the first paragraph content
  5. Hidden site description (should contain between 25 and 100 words) The description is not scanned by search engines but will have an impact on the click through rate which does effect rankings
  6. Remaining visible content
  7. Links between other sites
  8. Hidden keywords
  9. The length of time it takes a page to load

Since the majority of all web visits start at a search engine, it is important to ensure that a search strategy is included in the overall website design process. Simple design or programming decisions can have a significant impact on rankings and can remove from search engines entirely. The trick is to understand how people look for you to select the right terms to optimize. SEO can make a huge difference in your results, but it is not cheap. Typical SEO services vary in cost from $500 to $1,000 per month or more. Good SEO is expensive, but it does deliver a very good ROI if done right with a good website. However, if you add just one client that pays fees of $10,000 or more per year or for a single project, this marketing expense has more than paid for itself.

Consider your web presence. If you have a marginal website, outsiders will perceive that your services are marginal, too. If you do the right work with the right professionals, you will have an image that is professional, conveys your key messages, works on multiple browsers and platforms, and allows you to be found easily in your local market. So how much is one client worth?

 

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As a CPA Practice Advisor reader, you can qualify for a free 52 point web site review. You can request this by filling out the form at http://www.nmgi.com/assessment or through helpdesk@nmgi.com, and the NMGI team will do the review and give you actionable items for your IT Team, Web team or contractor to follow. The only cost you will have is if you don’t act!

 

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