Web sites for the typical tax and accounting firm tend to be whatever was thrown online as the firm was established or a site that has been expanded with content and information – perhaps for years. The result is that the site is either a monolithic, unchanging “electronic business card” or so cluttered with content that navigation becomes a nightmare.
Obviously, large firms have the resources to make their web sites spectacular – professionally designed, with the assistance of a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) firm, and with a full-time webmaster to manage additional content and adhere to guidelines. But the typical firm has a smaller full-time staff and more limited resources.
For these firms, a review and redesign of the web site is critical in 2015 due to five key factors:
- The rise of mobile computing. On April 21, 2015, Google announced that its search engines for mobile devices would give favorable positioning to web sites that are mobile- friendly. With increasing numbers of potential clients accessing your web site from a tablet or cell phone, a redesign of the web site is essential.
- The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). The requirement for tax professions to assist in the management of ACA compliance and taxes may not loom large yet, but these will increase each year for the foreseeable future. Your ability as assist both individual and business tax clients in health care matters must be reflected on your web site.
- The issue of professional credentials. For unlicensed tax preparers, demonstrating the firm’s cumulative knowledge, professional credentials, certificates of training and competence, and other statements is becoming more important for both taxpayers and organizations, including the Internal Revenue Service. Even for CPA firms, Enrolled Agents and others whose tax activities are subject to regulation, a demonstration of credentials is an essential part of new business development.
- Changes in the industry. Several of the large national tax prep firms report that the number of returns processed and the average income per return were either flat or declined slightly this year. That will mean increasing competition for new business, which makes effective marketing critical going into next year.
- Internet Explorer is going away. With the advent of Windows 10 this summer, Microsoft is retiring its web browser, Internet Explorer, in favor of a new Microsoft Edge browser. Edge promises to remove many of the proprietary standards and features that have made Internet Explorer unpopular with web designers, instead aligning it with established web standards already used by Microsoft competitors. If your site is optimized for IE, it will need to be redesigned around more common standards for Edge.
Designing or redesigning a web site is a process fraught with rules and requirements: making the site mobile friendly, ensuring disabled-accessibility, and implementing search engine optimization. Luckily, there are free online tools that can help:
- Mobile-friendly web sites – Google provides a Mobile Friendly Test Page.
- Disabled access rules – The W3C offers a Web Accessibility Initiative site contains guidelines and online tools.
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Microsoft’s free SEO Toolkit includes links and other tools.
- Basics of web design – Smashing Magazine offers some basic principles of web site design and redesign.
The Redesign Process
Where should you begin?
First, consider the purpose of your website: otherwise known as the mission statement. Is it designed to attract new clients or new employees? Should it provide a resource for prospective staff hires, with information about working for the firm? Or will it provide critical tax information to current and prospective customers? You should also determine how much of the web site should be committed to the business partners (attorneys, financial planners, payroll services, etc.). Remember, the mission statement should be closely tied to the mission of the firm and its other marketing communication efforts.
Gather the information needed to meet this mission. At a minimum, this should describe what the firm is, who it serves, what differentiates you from the scores of competitors in your market, the experience and expertise of partners and staff, and contact information. Remember, this is the minimum amount of information – the site may contain more information, but never less.
Contact information is critical. It is amazing how many tax and accounting web sites have little or no contact information (missing addresses, phone numbers or email addresses). Remember that “blind” email addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org are a disincentive to contact you – as are the use of online contact forms – and few prospects will leave a message no one answers the listed number. They will simply call the next accountant on their list.
Conduct a physical audit of the site, looking for the following red flags:
- Clashing colors
- “Ransom note designs” (using so many fonts that it looks like it was pasted together with magazine clippings)
- Misspelled words and bad grammar
- Broken links, both to other web sites and other pages on the firm’s site.
- Missing page titles
- Missing meta elements
- Difficult navigation
Once the audit is finished, have the web site reviewed by your full-time staff and gather their input. To ease the process, ask each staff member to list three questions they commonly get from clients that can be answered on the web site.
It isn’t just a matter of updating information and refreshing content. Like fashions, car makes, music genres, and other design-driven industries, websites need to be refreshed every few years. What was once innovative and effective will eventually look stale and dated. Every three to five years, a designer should look at the firm’s site and recommend tweaks to keep it fresh.
After all the pieces are in place, complete the redesign. As noted in other blog posts, if the firm cannot afford to pay a designer there are generally students at local colleges and graphics art schools who are willing to assist in a redesign project for a minimal investment on your part. Just remember that the firm’s mission, not the styles favored by the student, must dictate the design. As always, stay away from proprietary software, design elements and applications.
Ten Tips to Improve Your Site
Beyond the mechanics of a web site update or re-design, there are a host of tips that can make your web site just a little bit better for little cost. Here are 10 to consider:
- Get the contact information out of the gutter. Many firms elect to place their contact information at the bottom of the first (or “index”) page of their web site. This creates two problems – first, if the information can be read in a standard browser window, the valuable space on the index page is not being well utilized. The site needs more content. Conversely, if the visitor to the site has to scroll down screen after screen in search of this information, that person will likely move on to another accounting web site.
- NoIndex your site. As you are adjusting and updating the web site, search engines such as Google automatically index your content to make it faster to find and load. However, you take the risk that any further improvements will not be indexed – the search engine concludes it is already done with your site – and some new pages may never be seen. There is a handy Noindex utility that will force the search engine to re-index once all the changes are made.
- Forget the Flash. Abode Flash, Abode Shockwave and Microsoft Silverlight can all deliver a richer multimedia experience for your web site – but at a cost. On a slower connection they may take longer to load, frustrating potential clients and visitors and driving them to seek out other sites. Worse yet, the majority of web security firms recommend not using these animation and effects because of inherent and ongoing security issues.
- Provide links to social media. Once created, the content of the web site should also be shared with social media sites – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter at the minimum. Remember, however, that these media generally have less space to present the full value of your firm and its services. Therefore, each of the social media should also have a link back to the web site.
- Update your Footer. Nothing quite spells “dead web site” as an outdated copyright notice and date stamp. If the copyright years have not been updated for some time, it is likely that the content has not been, either. The process of updating these statements is easily automated – see the information at UpdateYourFooter.com.
- Make use of white space. While the web site’s pages are valuable real estate in terms of getting a message across, clutter is the enemy of communication. As it is with news releases, newsletters and white papers, a clean look helps to emphasize that the messages on any given page are important. In addition, the use of white space (which isn’t always “white,” it is just called that from the old days of newspapering) will help to keep the web page visually appealing and easier to navigate. This may mean using wider margins, more space between lines, and text that is not both left and right justified.
- Backup the old site, delete it, and start clean. Continuous improvements are made to the structure and operation of the World Wide Web to make it easier to find exactly what a customer is looking for. But the 20-plus year old web isn’t perfect, and unless the updating process is done correctly and the servers that point to your web site are updated, your visitors can be carried back to the old and outdated site for years to come. To get around this problem, do not make changes directly to the existing site. Rather, rebuild the web site on a different computer or server; then backup the existing web site for archiving purposes; delete the old site from your web server; and update the new site clean to the web server.
- Use two navigation menus. No matter how carefully you construct and place the navigation menu, it will be inconvenient for someone. If it is at the top, anyone who scrolls to the bottom of the page will need to scroll all the way back up to select another menu item. The most common scheme has a menu at the top of each page and another somewhere else convenient.
- Own your Internet Domain. There is nothing quite as unprofessional as a web/email address that reads something like “http://www.BillyBobsInternetCom/SmithAccounting” or “Accountant 4433@AOLCom,” respectively. While using the free web site that comes with your Internet service, use of such cheap and easy solutions literally screams “Internet novice” or “fly-by-night tax preparer” – two messages you do not want to broadcast regarding your service. Domains are relatively inexpensive (popular service GoDaddy.Com will charge $1 per month for the first year, and renewal at $11.95 per month thereafter). And don’t believe that all the best names are taken. There is plenty of room for your domain.
- Manage the web site administration. Most web hosting services are ethical, well-run and work diligently to provide your firm with an effective presence on the Internet. But there are always a few bad apples who can ruin your firm’s presence simply by going out of business – something that does happen in a fragile economy and the very fragmented web hosting industry. If you do not keep track of domain renewals and other details, you may find that the firm’s email and web address have been sold to a fraudster trading on your good name – or that you are unable to access your own site to make changes. At a minimum, have the responsible party in your firm registered as the owner and administrative contact for your site – and keep the information updated.
No web site stands forever with its initial content and design. To keep it interesting, current, and of value to the mission of the firm, it must be refreshed on a regular basis. In few years has this been as important as in 2015, when the forces of regulation, compliance, competition, and changing technology are intersecting in support of the tax preparation industry.