ABSTRACT: These days a business of virtually any size needs a website to be able to trade. Consumers are using the web as their first port of call for information and service this is becoming increasingly true for local services. Whereas consumers' previous instincts were to reach for the Yellow Pages, they now reach for their computer and head to Google. To compete and succeed in this environment, you have to be there when they start looking. Even a client, who knows who you are and has visited before, increasingly uses the web to find your opening hours and telephone number.

Before you even start thinking about a website design or who should build it, the first questions you have to answer are:

1.   What do you want your website to achieve for your practice?

2.   Who are you building your website for?

3.   What will users expect and want from your website?

Website goals

The most basic answer to the first question is that you intend your website to be a resource for existing clients. This translates into two requirements from the site: its basic information (contact details and opening hours) and the ability for a client who knows the name of your practice to find it through the major search engines (Google, Yahoo, MSN, Yell).

A slightly more advanced answer is for your website to be a tool for finding new clients – when people are searching for ‘vets’ they find you.

The final option is that you want your website to help you run your practice more efficiently, keeping in touch with your clients, preventing unnecessary phone calls and ensuring that routine visits and appointments are not missed. This would require a more advanced website than is sensible or affordable for many practices, but as technology becomes more advanced and cheaper over the next decade, it will increasingly become the norm.

Website for whom?

In answering the second question above, understanding your clients will be a key factor in influencing the website you want to build. The requirements of the farming or equine community, for instance, are very different from those of a city-based pet practice.

Questions you should think about include:

   Have a majority of these people already heard of or visited your practice before?

   Do they have broadband internet access (more than likely yes)?

   Will they use e-mail to talk to you (unlikely at the moment) or are they going to just reach for the phone (very likely)?

   How will they find your website – look for an old receipt to find your web address or just go straight to Google?

   What sort of words are they likely to type into their search engine when they are trying to find you and your services?

By answering these questions you will have a better idea of the type of website that is right for your clients and can give the most relevant information to the person who is building or running your website for you.

Meeting expectations

The third and final question to ask is what do your clients expect to find on your website? The most basic things are listed in Table 1.

The next level of information, which perhaps most clients do not expect but would like to see, includes specialist areas or treatments the practice covers, standard charges and payment options, and details about how the practice works alongside pet insurance plans.

One final area of content to consider is the provision of online advice. This could take several forms, the most basic of which would be what to do in general situations if a pet shows common symptoms. Initially this could be produced as a ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ (FAQ) page.

The inherent risk of this type of approach is that if clients follow the advice and the animal gets worse or dies, they may hold it against the practice. So always erring on the side of caution and encouraging them to visit the surgery or contact the vet as quickly as possible is both the safest (and the best business) option.

Building your website

Armed with the answers to these questions, you are ready to make decisions on how best to go about building your website. If you have reasonably advanced computer skills and are only building the site as a basic requirement for people who already know about your practice, then it may be that you could build it yourself using some of the many free tools available online.

The safest solution is probably to use a local specialist company to build your site. However, professionally built websites can cost anything from a few hundred pounds to hundreds of thousands of pounds depending on the functionality required.

These companies generally fall into three different categories:

   freelance web designers operating from home who build basic sites from £500+

   small local web agencies who will design and build sites from £1,000+

   larger regional or national web agencies who will build sites from £5,000+.

Obviously the type of company you select will reflect the size and coverage of your practice. For a basic practice website, a budget of £1,000 to £3,000 from a small local web company should be ample. The more advanced features that you require – such as interactive location maps – the more expensive it will become.

You should go to your website designer having thought through the questions above and be prepared to discuss with them the following points.

How friendly will the site be to search engines?

It is important that the website can be easily indexed by the common search engines.

Websites should be built so that they can be accessed by a wide range of people, some of whom may have disabilities (this is now a legal requirement for commercial sites). The website should be built for the popular browsers – the latest two or three versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari – enabling resizing of text on the page, as well as use with programs such as screen readers for users who suffer from visual impairments.

Pages need to be built in a way that means they are quick to load even for non¬broadband users. Ideally no page should be larger than 150KB in terms of the amount of computer code that is required to download, which means it should be ready to use in less than a second. 

Where will the finished website be 'hosted'?

To access a website, a user’s computer downloads the website from another computer connected to the internet. This computer is said to ‘host’ the website and ideally should be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Ask the web design company who they propose should host the website and what level of availability they offer.

You can organise hosting separately from the design and build of the site, in which case ensure that you arrange for the hosting
company to talk to the design and build company right at the start of the process.

What computer packages will they use to build the website and how will you administer and change the website afterwards?

Check that the package the web designers use is an industry standard so that if you wish to invite another company to work on your website in the future they will be able to alter the existing website without having to completely rebuild it. It may be that the company building the website will use a program called a ‘Content Management System’ (CMS) to build and manage the website.

Note, this enables them to build and update the site easily. However, if they are using their own bespoke CMS, then it is doubtful any other company could run that website for you. If you only wish for a basic site that is not going to be updated frequently it is doubtful you will need a full CMS system to run your website.

Who will own the site?

Ensure you have a written contract or agreement that gives you all rights to the site, its design and any of the computer codes required to run the site once you have paid for it. A typical website ‘design and build’ project should be completed within four to 12 weeks, depending on the complexity of the site.

Administering your website

Once you have built your website, you need to think about how you will keep it live and up-to-date. The most basic way is to pay your hosting provider to keep the site live on its servers. Often if your website hosting is arranged by the same people who have built your website, this is wrapped into a monthly maintenance fee which covers hosting and minor alterations.

If you wish to change the content on your website on a regular basis, then it may be that the most cost effective solution is for your web design and build company to construct the website using a CMS that enables you to go in and alter and manage content yourself. But if you are only likely to be changing content on your website once a month or less, then it makes more sense to leave this to your ‘design and build’ web company.

Website promotion

The easiest and most straightforward way of promoting your website is within the community already served by your practice. Ensure your website address is prominently shown on every piece of material produced by the practice – business cards, appointment cards, signs outside the practice, posters and your letterhead, for example.

However the most commercially significant way of promoting the website is through search engines. Promotion through search engines works in two ways: either through natural listings or by paying.

Google is by far the most important, with around 80 per cent of searches being carried out through this one search engine. If you look at the results page of Google, there are clearly defined areas – ‘sponsored listings’ (labelled as such), and ‘natural listings’, which is the listing down the main part of the page. Sometimes a map will also be shown for local listings.

It requires completely different techniques to appear in each of these sections.

The most clicked area is still the ‘natural listings’. The search engines select who appears here and to influence this you have to look at three separate areas:

1.   Technically the site must be accessible to the search engines and hosted in the right way (a .co.uk domain name and UK hosting will ensure better listings for searches carried out in the UK). It is critical your website can be read or ‘indexed’ by the search engine.

2.   Content is the next most important area. If the search engines can index the website, then it is important that the content they do index is relevant for the type of searches you wish to be found by.

3.   Links are the last – and potentially most important – way to ensure you reach the top of the search engine listings. The more links you have inbound to your website from other sites, the more important the search engine will think your website is and, therefore, the higher up the listing you will appear.

These links must not appear ‘paid for’ for the search engines to count them. The more important the site (such as the BBC), or the more relevant it is to you, the better the link.

No matter what you do, the position you appear in the natural search engine listings is up to the search engine. There is only a limited amount any company can do to help you and none of them can guarantee results. It may take months to achieve even a listing; and similarly you could jump to the front page or sink to page 15 at the whim of the search engine, as it changes the algorithms that it uses to decide which company appears where.

‘Paid for’ listings are a much more controllable way of appearing in the search engines. They do not get clicked on as often as the natural listings, but you can ensure that you appear for key terms such as the name of your practice or terms such as ‘Vet’ and your town name. There is not enough space in this article to go through all the intricacies of ‘paid for’ search marketing, but good starting points are books such as Google Adwords for Dummies or talking to a specialist agency for help.

Finally you should look at uploading your site to appear in Google Maps.

To find out more about this go to www.google.co.uk/places Although Google is the primary search engine used in the UK, it is also worth ensuring you can be found through www.bing.co.uk and yell.co


The key thing to remember before embarking on any website project is that time invested planning and really thinking about your clients – who they are, how they will use the site and how they will find it is more important than any other single component. 


Gavin Sinden

Gavin has been working in digital marketing for 15 years. He has been teaching digital marketing for the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing (IDM) for 10 years and is one of its lecturers and examiners. Gavin started his own agency in 1999; then in 2006, he joined Equi=Media and is currently its digital strategy director. Equi=Media recently redesigned the Petplan website, www.petplan.co.uk

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2011.00074.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 26 pp 282-284

• VOL 26 • August 2011 • Veterinary Nursing Journal