By Rieva Lesonsky

It still boggles my mind that so many small businesses don’t have their own websites. I talked to Suhaib Zaheer, SVP and General Manager of Bluehost to learn more about why it’s so important for small businesses to be online and have mobile-friendly and secure websites.

Rieva Lesonsky: Too many business owners still don’t have a website for their businesses. What would you tell these business owners? Why are websites so essential to small businesses?

Suhaib Zaheer: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 60% of small business owners do not have a website. That statistic is alarming! However, studies show that between 70-80% of people research a company online before visiting the small business or marking a purchase decision. Consumers are not only searching on desktops, in fact, nearly 60% of searches are conducted on mobile devices. If you don’t have a business website, today’s digital-savvy (and on-the-go) customers may look elsewhere.

Nobody wants to work at 3am, but some people like to shop then. Websites function as a small business owner’s 24/7 salesperson. Your business doesn’t have to be open for visitors to do things like book appointments, purchase products or process payments through your website. Website URLs can easily be shared like business cards for word-of-mouth marketing, making it easy for customers to refer friends.

Building a website, especially on a powerful platform like WordPress, can be intimidating. At Bluehost, we help customers harness the power of WordPress through easy-to-use tools and expert guidance. We want everyone to be successful online, and we are here to help customers throughout their journey—from the initial steps to adding specialized functionality down the road as customers grow their business.

Lesonsky: Websites are not just for growing businesses, right? Startups and people with side hustles need them too. Why?

Zaheer: Exactly, websites are necessary for everyone looking to establish a presence on the internet. A website serves as a central hub that is owned by an individual, where you are the owner of the information about your business. Unlike social media, websites can be customized to your exact specifications and grow with a start-up or individual as their needs evolve. And what happens when a social channel goes down for a day or, gasp, forever?? Your website will always be your home base.

Lesonsky: Many are worried websites are too hard to create and/or too costly to maintain. What can you say to convince them otherwise?

Zaheer: When I was managing my small business years ago, I spent thousands of dollars and years working with developers trying to get a website to look the way I wanted it to. However, this is not the case today. For a couple of dollars a month, individuals can build a website in a few short steps. Additionally, there are so many resources available to individuals (that I didn’t have when I started) that can help anyone get online regardless of technical experience.

For example, Bluehost launched a service called Blue Flash that is designed to help novice users get a website published quickly and easily. This free service is available to all new Bluehost customers who need a little extra help navigating WordPress and the website building process. Our consultants work one-on-one with customers to identify their website goals then offer individual advice and next step recommendations. Not only do our Blue Flash consultants help folks get online, but they are available down the road when needs get more complex and goals change.

To combat this anxiety and fear people are having with website building, Bluehost created Bluetopa, a pop-up in NYC where people had the opportunity to explore colorful, imaginative rooms that brought websites to life. Bluehost wants people to think outside the template and build a website to their liking without hesitation.

Lesonsky: What elements “must” websites have today?

Zaheer: There are several “must-haves” for websites today. Three things I would strongly recommend would be a mobile-friendly design, website security with a Secure Socket Layer certificate (SSL), and accessible contact information from all devices.

Given that 80% of internet users own a smartphone, a mobile-friendly design is a must. If you’re launching a new website, the question isn’t, “Will my visitors access my site using mobile devices as well as desktop displays?” Instead, it’s, “What do I need to do to make my site accessible to mobile users?” According to Google, responsive website design offers a number of different benefits, including boosting SEO.

An SSL certificate on the front end is the badge that lets all of your visitors or potential customers know that the information they submit via your site is safe. Security is important, privacy is important, trust is important! That’s the beauty of an SSL certificate. It lets your site’s visitors know those things are important to you too.

Many small business owners, particularly those with home offices, lose sales by making people search for contact information—or providing none at all. Your name, email, and phone number should be in an easy-to-find place on every page of your website. It will make it easier for people to do business with you. The more information you can provide, the more secure you make customers feel because if something goes wrong with a product or service, they know how to reach you.

Lesonsky: How do you pick a good web host? What factors should you look for?

Zaheer: There are many factors to consider when selecting a web host, but below are a couple of the top things to look for:

Support: If your site ever experiences problems you can’t fix, the fastest way to get things up and running is usually to speak with a real person who knows what they’re doing. Make sure your host provides great customer service and has experience working with small business owners like yourself. Depending on your level of experience, look for hosts with guidance and support via both chat and over the phone.

Interface (Control Panel): Make sure your hosting provider has an interface that is easy to understand and use. If you can’t figure out what you’re working with, it’ll make building a website much more confusing and time-consuming than it needs to be. Tasks such as installing WordPress, monitoring metrics, and plug-ins should be easy to find and understand. This will save you a lot of time and frustration!

Features: Finally, consider what makes your top hosting choices special. If you’re choosing to build on WordPress, look for a 1-click installation like we have at Bluehost. It makes it easy to get online fast and provides a seamless WordPress experience. Other features to look out for are regular backups, a free domain name, free SSL certificates. Are their tools up to date and easy to use? Do they offer upgrades and add-ons in-house like Microsoft Office to make it easy to expand your hosting account when you need to?

Lesonsky: What’s the best way to drive people to your site?

Zaheer: We know that one of the top priorities for small business websites is to increase traffic. However, this can only be accomplished by doing a combination of activities like email marketing, social media and SEO. In fact, only 17% of small business owners are investing in search engine optimization (SEO), but 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine. SEO is one of the most under-utilized and effective ways small businesses can drive traffic. Websites can be optimized for SEO in several ways, but a couple of easy fixes include improving site speed, optimizing for mobile and avoiding duplicate content.

Lesonsky: Can you give us an estimate of costs, both to start and to maintain?

Zaheer: The cost of building and maintaining a website varies depending on a number of factors. I recommend building on WordPress because the platform is free for anyone to download and offers incredible flexibility (remember, your business needs now may evolve and grow over time – you want something that can adapt easily). WordPress is integrated with most web hosts with easy installation and provides access to more than 50,000 plugins and themes, many of which are free to use. While the content management system is free, website owners will need to purchase a domain name, web hosting and additional functionality such as plug-ins or premium themes.

Web hosting varies based on needs, but website owners can start as low as a couple of dollars a month. This should include essential website components like storage space, a domain name, as well as an SSL certificate to protect website visitors.

Maintaining a website largely depends on its popularity. The more traffic a website receives, the more maintenance it will need to keep its content fresh and relevant. On average, users can expect around $150 a year for ongoing website maintenance for things such as backup storage, malware protection, and marketing tools.

Websites stock photo by PureSolution/Shutterstock