The most important step in building any website is the initial preparation. Whether you’re making the site yourself or working with a developer, the process will be easier and the results will be better if you follow a few rules.

Know your target audience: who is the website intended to help?

Knowing who your audience will be is the first step in planning your key messages, your content, your keyword strategy, and even the presentation, such as the images, fonts and colors that you will use. It makes sense if you think about why people search the Internet: they search because they want to solve a problem, like wanting to find the lowest price on a product or looking for some entertainment. So if you know who your website is supposed to help, you’ll have a pretty good idea what problems those people want to solve, and that should help you plan effective messaging, keywords, content and the rest.

Use your existing customers as a resource.

Once you’ve identified the target audience, you need to understand how they think and communicate about whatever it is you do. Most websites are run by people who have some special knowledge in their field and the website will be a means of sharing that knowledge. If the target audience is a peer group that understand the jargon, no worries. But you can’t communicate with casual visitors the same way that you would with a fellow expert. Listen carefully to the words and phrases that your current clients use when they ask you questions. What phrases and terms do they use? Knowing how people in the real world talk about your field, and your website’s topic, will help you find effective keywords.

Keep your website simple.

Everything on a webpage is better if it’s presented in a simple way. Messages. Logos. Navigation. Everything. Why? Because you’ve got about 10 seconds to communicate to a new visitor that your site may solve the problem that brought them there, and if you don’t do that you may lose them forever. Most people scan the page for a clue that tells them if they’ve found a website worth digging into. If you make them hunt to get that understanding, they’ll probably bounce off to the next search result before you can say “boo”. You need to follow certain conventions and provide some types of information in a format or location where people expect to find it, such as navigation placed at the top of the page or an easy-to-find search field. Screw that up and a lot of visitors will abandon your site as if it’s got the plague. It’s even worse making people wait. That slick Flash animation that costs a bundle will also cost you visitors who won’t wait to find out how cool it is. It’s a fundamental fact that people surfing the web are impatient. It’s amazing how many sites get this wrong. Don’t be one of them.

Create a hierarchy of content topics.

Your navigation should lead people from general to specific information so visitors can find exactly what they want as quickly as possible. Say you have a tire store that sells new tires and fixes damaged tires and the two main problems that lead people to your website are 1) they want to get a new tire or set of tires or 2) they want a tire repaired. So New Tires and Tire Repair are two topics at the top of your hierarchy, then under New Tires, you might include more specific navigation to Tire Brands or Truck Tires and Car Tires.

Plan each webpage, one topic at a time.

Each page or blog posts should be devoted to a single, clearly identified topic. The reason for this is simple: focusing on a single topic will help the search engines when they try to match a search to your content, and helping search engines is what Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is all about. That doesn’t mean that you can’t dig into a topic. This post is about stuff to think about while preparing to build a website, but it covers lots of sub-topics. The key is that those sub-topics carry less weight and there is nothing competing on the page for the main topic. With this rule in mind, your home page should establish what the website is about and the types of content people will find as they dig deeper. As you consider the rest of your website, plan to cover each main topic on its own page. If your business does landscaping and house painting, present each of those services on its own page. Separating the website’s content by topics also provides a reason for linking between pages. The more links you have that lead to relevant content, the better off you’ll be when it comes to search results.

Sharing is a search tactic.

Sharing your expertise isn’t giving away the store. It’s one of the most effective means of getting attention and visitors online and it’s the basis for most commercial efforts with social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The idea is to give value, to build trust, and to establish yourself as an expert so people will return to your website to learn more about what you know.

Establish your brand.

In addition to letting people know what the website is about, you need to establish your brand. The brand is how people think about your service, product, company or organization. A logo isn’t a brand, but it represents a brand and it can help instill the emotional connection people feel toward your brand. If a big part of your brand promise is low prices, include a special of the day on the home page or better yet, include a special offer on every page, perhaps using a coupon code to reward site users. New companies need to establish their brand, and since their websites are likely to be the first contact point with customers, the work of creating a connection begins here.

Landing page love.

Not all website visitors arrive on your home page. If you share links to your content on social media sites, or if your visitors share links to your content, then you may get a lot of newcomers arriving on single-topic pages. That means you need to communicate what the site is about on every potential landing page, not just your home page. You have to establish the brand. And you have to provide the same navigation that helps people dig into your content.

Create a content strategy.

Google and the other search engines place a high value on content because content is what people are searching for. But not just any content will do the trick. Your content has to be fresh, relevant and unique. Websites that regularly publish content that is focused on established topics and isn’t duplicated are the winners. Over time, you need to produce new content that gives value to your visitors and helps them solve the problems that lead them to your website. Creating a sustainable strategy is the key. You can start by honestly answering these questions: What topics can you write about? How often can you publish? Who will do the writing? How much time can you devote to this? What assets can you use to illustrate your topics? Will video be part of what you offer?

Don’t put this off. Get growing online as fast as you can.

It’s more important to get your website live than it is to include every conceivable piece of content or tweak every presentation element to perfection. Unlike a TV commercial or a printed brochure, websites are organic. They can and should change and grow over time. Including new content is natural on the web, and the website’s growth is actually a factor that Google takes into account. Pretty much the only thing you achieve by waiting is losing ground to the competition.

Now that you know how to get started, go for it!