More than ever, optimizing your website has become an essential part of doing business.

This doesn’t come just as a matter of evolution. While consumer behavior has continually changed to favor web and mobile use over the past decades, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the process, says Pam Vinje, president and CEO of Houston-based Small Screen Producer, a digital media marketing agency for the pool and spa industry. Pandora isn’t likely to go back in the box, so the pool industry will need to keep up.

At a minimum, your website should load quickly, be optimized for mobile devices and search engines, and provide an easy and productive user experience. But, aside from such utility, several modifications can make online shopping easier and more appealing for customers, whether you’re a retailer, service provider, or builder.

To move forward, Vinje says, industry websites should evolve from “brochure sites to 24/7 shopping sites.” Customer preferences have changed. People want the opportunity to shop online 24/7. According to a study conducted in 2013 by author, advisor, and speaker Steven Van Belleghem, 70% of customers expect a company’s website to include a self-service application. Research conducted in 2018 by Statista showed that 88% of customers expect a brand to have an online self-service support portal.

Knowing how customers prefer to interact with your site will help you create the best experience for them, which will lead to more business for you. Take these steps to maximizing your website’s potential.

Assess your current website

Certain tell-tale signs will indicate your website needs an upgrade. If you notice one of these, pay heed.

Consider the age of your website. “If you’ve got a five-year-old website, you’re not on today’s technology,” explains Jeff Pierce, owner of Crosshair, a marketing and website development company based in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

Three years serves as a good rule of thumb for knowing whether or not your website meets current technology standards. Operating systems, web browsers, software and the devices that display your site change rapidly. If a website is three to five years old, “too many of its components have aged beyond being updatable,” he explains.

Website platform hosts such as WordPress issue platform updates, but, like updating your mobile device, you have to make sure the update runs.

Similarly, a site needs immediate attention if it is not optimized for mobile devices, meaning it is not built to display and function well on mobile devices compared with desktops. Check loading speeds on mobile devices with online tools for analyzing performance. Pierce recommends PageSpeed Insights. If on a mobile device, your website does not score a 70 or higher on PageSpeed, or if it takes more than 10 seconds to load, it should be addressed. To find other website analysis tools, search for “tools to analyze website performance,” and several options will come up. Some, like Semrush Site Audit, have free trials.

The website’s copy or text also should generate good search engine optimization, or SEO. That’s what allows Google to find your site and make it discoverable to potential customers. For example, your website text should include the company’s location and services it provides, along with other search terms potential customers will most likely use to find you, explains Marshal Davis, president and founder of The Woodlands, Texas-based Ascendly Marketing and former owner of Beyond Blue Pools.

You can assess your site’s SEO with tools such as Moz or SEMRush. Google has its own guidelines for best practices in creating content with good SEO.

Add features for a self-service experience

As people conduct more transactions online, they expect a smooth self-service experience, even for big-ticket items.

Pierce recommends approaching your online process the same as you would the in-person experience you want to provide. Customers should find one just as rewarding as the other.

“If you’re a ‘brochure’ site, if you don’t have self-service options, that’s the first thing you need to fix,” Vinje says.

Rather than just providing a phone number or even a form to fill out, Vinje builds sites designed to lead customers through a “nurturing sales funnel,” facilitating the journey potential customers go through on their way to a purchase. This funnel will look slightly different for service businesses, retailers and builders.

For pool/spa builders, the funnel might collect information needed to book an appointment with a designer, then lead the prospective customer to an online tool where they can build their dream design. Using the tool keeps them on the site, shows them available options, and allows the builder to upsell by showing decking and outdoor living add-ons. By the time they meet with the designer, they have a better idea of what they want.

Pool/spa retailers can add e-commerce capabilities, allowing customers to purchase items on the site. Otherwise, you risk losing business to those that do. If you can’t finalize the sale of large items such as spas or swim spas online, at least move the customer through the sales funnel by providing tools where they can select the spa and its features. Here again, they remain engaged and save time by coming into the store prepared.

On the service/maintenance side, self-service scheduling can be offered to replace scheduling done over the phone. Vinje created forms on the website for one of her service clients that allow new and returning customers to follow steps requesting a pool opening or closing.

More advanced elements to engage and nurture customers include chatbots. These applications or programs are designed to imitate human conversations and often handle frequently asked questions. They allow users to ask certain questions and get responses 24/7.

Video tutorials can be used to help build credibility and loyalty.

Showcase your brand and work

Testimonials and an updated portfolio of completed projects for builders are still important elements of a website.

On a website, these elements provide benefits besides the more obvious ones — namely, they’re easy to update, keeping your website fresh. As Google prioritizes websites that have newer content, this will help move your site higher in the search results.

For retailers and service businesses, testimonials add a social element to the website, bringing personality and credibility. If you have a Google Business profile, you can take testimonials from there to add to your website, Davis suggests.

Get help with an update

These experts all recommend hiring a professional to help optimize and update your web platform.

While your teenage or college-age child may know the mechanics of building a website, optimizing them requires another layer of expertise. Google’s SEO best practices are a lot to absorb if you’ve never worked with them before, and it requires web development knowledge to work with features for e-commerce and self service. Davis advises building sites on WordPress, as it will be easy to find developers acquainted the popular platform when the time comes for an update.

Some web developers and marketers, like Vinje, also have experience in the pool/spa industry or even specialize in it. Others bring their expertise in business websites in general. When looking for a website development company, Pierce recommends looking for a company that’s done work for businesses that are larger than yours. At the very least, be prepared to provide a company logo, testimonials and high-quality project photos.

Professional websites can cost a few thousand dollars, depending on the number of pages and features. If you’re worried about cost, Vinje suggests looking into a marketing co-op with a manufacturer. Since it’s in their best interest for dealers to have a website that converts, some manufacturers will pay, at least in part, for your website upgrade.

Remember, websites are no longer online brochures to be put up and forgotten. You’ll need an update and maintenance strategy even after a site build or rebuild. Updates include continued modifications to the site’s text, photos or product offerings, and maintenance includes keeping the site functional and up-to-date with current web practices. Some web development companies will do this for an additional fee, or you may opt for a tech-savvy staff member to take it on.