The news this week that customers are deserting small businesses online for established brands is grim but unsurprising. It was obviously going to happen for two reasons. First the findings are from research commissioned by online aggregator eDeals, so you might find there’s some vested interest in there. Second and more seriously, the customer is going to buy from where it looks safest to do so – and for the moment that’s not small business.

I hate to have to say that. But I was talking to a business backer this week who found had a client that couldn’t open a bank account. They didn’t want to borrow money, the banks just said they didn’t want another start-up on the books. My instinct is that there’s got to be a bigger story behind why banks would turn a non-borrower’s money down but it illustrates how crazy the recession is getting.

The answer, to my mind, is to make sure your site is a good one. Naming no names because I don’t want to be sued – nor to get Microsoft into trouble (as if…) – here are some of the things I’ve seen on websites lately.

1. A selection of most of the fonts from the publishing program being used. One or maybe two is enough.

2. Ditto the colour scheme. Oh, and an online identity that looks nothing like the physical shop in terms of logo and colours, so I’m halfway convinced I’m on the wrong website.

3. Several steps to go through before I can actually buy anything on the site.

Less avoidably, I find there are still bookseller sites out there that try to compete with Amazon (hint: you can’t, they can throw millions at marketing), or clothes shops that try to compete with Marks and Spencer.

You can compete with these people but you’ve got to persuade me, the customer, you’re different and worth visiting. I buy a few shirts from Charles Tyrwhitt, - they’re good classic clothes and yes, I could get something from Marks and Sparks instead, but they make it appear they specialise in quality and in men’s clothing at that (dig a little deeper and you find the word ‘shirtmaker’ is a figleaf for ‘general clothes maker’ and they do indeed cater for women as well…but by that time you’re already drawn in).

So that’s a guide to bad sites – poor, gaudy design, difficult navigation and too much duplication of stuff that’s already out there from bigger concerns. There are plenty out there – the good news is that should make it easier for the better businesses to compete.

This is a guest-post from Guy Clapperton, a freelance journalist who has specialised in the small business arena for over a decade.

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