It’s time to look into my crystal ball. Ooh, the mists are clearing. I see…I think I see something…yes, I can see what your next website will look like.

But first, let’s go back in time to when websites were a new concept. As well as predicting the future, I’ve identified three main phases in web marketing and picked out some recent developments that affect all web marketers. Read on to see whether you agree.

History of websites

Not so many years ago, businesses didn’t need to worry about having a website at all. Then they realised it was essential to be found on the Internet, and reproduced their brochures as static web pages.

The first web developers were mostly techie, and created sites that worked but maybe didn’t look very pretty. Then creative web designers got involved, and built sites that looked great but maybe weren’t as effective as they could be. For example, splash pages coded in Flash that can’t be read by search engines or on mobiles, and that meant one extra click for human visitors before they can even enter the site, which of course is an opportunity to lose them.

Current websites

Now, web marketers and SEO experts influence site design to ensure the structure is simple and easy to navigate, the code compliant, the layout clean and clear, and the copy informative, keyword-rich and with strong calls-to-action.

With the explosion of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn since 2009, businesses need to include ‘added value’ content as well as ‘salesy’ content, in the hope that it will be shared throughout the social media community.

So now it’s important to have a blog as well as, or even instead of, a website. This keeps the content fresh and helps with SEO, as well as demonstrating your brand personality and proving your expertise to human visitors.

What’s more, clients are increasingly demanding the right to do their own updates without paying professionals every time something changes, so Content Management Systems (CMS) and blog sites built on platforms such as WordPress or Joomla are increasingly popular.

But even that is changing.

Recent developments

As a business, you want to get found on search, and Google is still the number 1 search engine, with YouTube (owned by Google) as number 2.

Google launched Google+ in June 2011, with business pages from November 2011 and ‘Search Plus Your World’ in January 2012. This new personal search option means that Google will return different search results when you’re logged in, based on the +1s of you and your network. That’s why Google wants to know you you’re connected with, so it’s wise to open a Google+ account and start putting your friends into ‘circles’. And it’s why you need to be clicking the +1 button on all the web pages you like from now on.

With Pinterest hitting the mainstream in 2012, users started sharing images more than text. This trend is reflected in Facebook’s Timeline that favours pictures and video over words. Happily for professional copywriters like me, copy is still important, but these days you really should include pictures too.

So what’s coming next?

Future of websites

Small businesses should take a lesson from the world’s biggest brands. Their websites don’t even try to sell to new customers these days. Instead, they offer interaction to increase the loyalty of their existing customer base. For example, you can enter a code from the ring pull onto the Coca Cola website, you can play ‘tweet and grow’ on the Kew Gardens site, and Innocent Drinks has a whack-a-mole-style game where you smash fruit with a mallet to fill a juice carton.

Here are a few examples for smaller businesses:

• An expert in contracts has created a free glossary App, to add value and raise brand-awareness
• A security company is planning a game where site visitors have to place fire and burglar alarms on the floorplan of a warehouse, then press ‘go’. If they have protected the building properly, they win. If not, fires break out, burglars break in, and users get the message that perhaps the company knows more about security than they do
• Another client sells lighting for fish and reptiles, so is thinking of adding an online aquarium or viviarium, where people have to equip the tank with the right heating and lighting, and look after their virtual pet correctly to win points and discounts

Admittedly, this approach is not right for all businesses. But what do you think — wouldn’t you prefer to find a certain amount of entertainment on a website, as well as just information?

You can use ideas like this to inspire your own website. Express your unique brand personality to filter out anyone who’s not your target market, add video to keep site visitors engaged, and include games and added-value content for sharing.

I originally wrote this article for Fresh Business Thinking

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