MANATEE -- Some local businesses seeking to capture the eyes of their online customers wherever they are have invested in new websites this year.
A proliferation of mobile devices, from smartphones and laptops to tablets and netbooks, has made Internet access ubiquitous in the lives of consumers. At the same time, the sheer amount of information available online has made it difficult for businesses to grab and hold the attention of their customers.
Websites designed as recently as five years ago generally can't meet a business's needs for exposure and mobile compatibility, local web developers say. To build an audience and clientele, sites need to persuade busy people to get interested in a product or service.
"You have 6 to 8 seconds to capture someone's attention and convince them to dig into your website," said Troy Newport, business development director for Bradenton-based website developer Webtivity.
This is a lesson several high-profile area businesses and business organizations have taken to heart. Last week, Manatee County's biggest home builder, Neal Communities, launched a new, $50,000 website that had been under development for nine months. Sarasota-based real estate company Michael Saunders & Co. plans to launch its new website in June after taking a year to design it, evaluate it in focus groups and Beta test.
Port Manatee has also started redesigning its website. The Manatee Chamber of Commerce plans to relaunch a major retread of its site by next year.
All undertook the redesigns to make certain their online information translates to any type of web device and is constantly visible. For Neal Communities, this meant tying the website into social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as making the website itself more visually appealing.
The company sold 826 homes in 2013. About 90 percent of buyers previewed those homes online before ever setting foot inside.
"Websites are the new model home," said Leisa Weintraub, Neal's vice president of marketing. "People search online and do their homework and their research before actually coming to your community or model home."
Weintraub said the new site has simplified navigation and reformatted home plans that better translate to mobile devices. It has also been imbued with qualities that keep Neal at the top of Google searches for new homes in Lakewood Ranch and Bradenton.
Michael Saunders & Co. has had to meet many of the same challenges Neal Communities faced in designing a new website. It also had to keep its image-heavy listings moving quickly for home shoppers. Appealing to mobile users is particularly important since 60 percent of hits on the company's website are from mobile devices.
For the past three years, the company has used a stripped down, separate mobile website to reach smartphone and tablet users. Jennifer Horvat, the company's marketing director, said the new site will deliver the slick, smooth-running shopping and sales experience its potential clients expect even on mobile devices.
The company has had a website since 2001 and has updated it periodically. It was a big step to do a wholesale redesign, Horvat said. The company's in-house web developers not only had to build a more attractive and functional site, but were tasked with preserving URL addresses for the site's pages. If those addresses had changed, the navigation landmarks that have kept the site at the top of search engine lists for years would be disconnected.
"We never wanted to be that company that swapped out a whole website and created a new one," Horvat said.
It's important to be able to be found quickly on the web, which is filled with business websites. The U.S. Census Bureau surveyed more than 27 million businesses in 2007 and found that more than 3.5 million had websites. About 10.8 million businesses in the survey didn't have websites, while 12.3 million didn't report one way or the other.
Websites to drive sales
Once visibility is accounted for, businesses need to look at their sites as marketing tools that drive sales, said Webtivity's Newport. Webtivity's clients are looking to get more exposure from their websites and to get more traffic, he said. To do that, they have to get away from the static "brochure" websites that were common a few years ago.
They must also figure out how a new website will provide a needed service to current and potential customers.
For example, Webtivity is redesigning the Manatee Chamber's website to appeal to multiple audiences, including current members, prospective members and people who are new to Manatee County. The site's roughly 7,000 pages of information will also have a more natural flow to them, which will make navigation easier.
The dominant piece of effective web marketing in coming years will likely be adapting to the ongoing development of mobile devices. David Spire, CEO of Bradenton IT consulting company United Systems, said web developers have to design sites that will fit all screen sizes and will deliver the full content of a website to any device. That task will become more difficult, as U.S. consumers are expected to add even more mobile devices to their current inventory of smartphones, tablets and laptops.
"The need to make things user friendly and function on a host of different platforms is critical for businesses," Spire said.
For sites that haven't had an update in a while, compatibility can be the primary focus of a redesign. Virginia Zimmermann, Port Manatee's marketing assistant, said the port's eight-year-old site will be easier to navigate on any device when it's finished later this year.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.