This post originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum, where Mashable regularly contributes articles about leveraging social media and technology in small business.

There is one rule that typically holds true for all small businesses — they care about their customers. To a small company, customers aren’t just another cog in the mechanism, they’re the lifeblood of the business. Many small business rely on the support and repeated business of a loyal user base. So as a small business owner, naturally, you want to take care of your customers.

Here are a few tips for how “going the extra mile” can be applied to your web site. We’ve put together a list of five things you can do to make your customer’s time on your site more enjoyable and more productive.


1. Have a Mobile Version of Your Website


With mobile device usage skyrocketing, a mobile-friendly web site is practically essential. A mobile site means your customers can access information on the go, wherever they may be. It also means they’ll be more likely to share your site with friends, since they’ll be able to pull it up and show it to others, even when not at a computer.

As an added bonus, mobile sites can often be more accessible to those with visual impairments, or who may have difficulties using a mouse, but find touch displays easier to manipulate.

If you can’t afford to go all out and have a separate version of your site for mobile users, then at least speak with your developer and make sure they are aware that you want the web site as functional and legible as possible on mobile devices.


2. Provide Supplemental Information


Your users are looking for information. Period. Even if they’ve come to your site to make a purchase, they’ll first want to research their options and check out the details of what it is they’re buying. Consider making this task easier by providing supplemental information that complements your site’s primary content.

Take the time to provide your customers with information such as product manuals, warranty information, manufacturer contact details, sizing charts and troubleshooting guides. This not only says “We care about you,” but it also makes your site an invaluable resource that visitors will keep coming back to again and again for the life the product or service they purchase.


3. Use AJAX for Simple Tasks — But Don’t Overdo It


Implementing AJAX functionality (using JavaScript to load content into portions of your page without reloading the entire web page) can go a long way toward making your visitor’s experience on your site enjoyable. AJAX can make retrieving and browsing information faster and more intuitive, and it also creates a more seamless experience for the user. Be careful, though — too much JavaScript can slow things down and make interactions confusing, causing more harm than good. (It can also make bookmarking or sharing portions of your page more difficult for users.)

Finding the right balance varies based on the type of site you have and the products or services you offer, so it’s best to work out the details with your developer. Some examples of good AJAX usage include: loading and switching between product images and checking for and reporting errors in order forms or updating shopping carts.


4. Make It Easy To Get Help


Sometimes, no matter how much supplemental information or details about your product or service you provide, it’s just not going to be enough. Some of your customers are just going to need more help. Make it easy for them by providing answers to frequently asked questions (include links to additional resources) and by placing your company’s contact information (or help desk information) prominently on your website.

Your users should be able to find a way to contact you from every page, be it an email address in the footer, a phone number in the header or a button or link within the content prompting them to inquire for more information.


5. Keep it Simple and Keep it Organized


We’ve talked a lot about providing additional information, using AJAX to build a responsive website and prominently displaying contact and support information. With all of that in mind, it may seem like your website could quickly get out of hand, and without proper attention to detail, it certainly could. You don’t want your site to look cluttered or give your users a case of information overload, so it’s key to keep your site clean and well-organized. Work with your designer to develop ways to keep information accessible, yet unobtrusive.

If you’re building your own site, a good rule of thumb is to look at the design you’ve chosen and then ask yourself, “What can I remove to make this easier to use?” It could be an entire block of text or simply a background color or border. Once you start de-cluttering, you’ll be able to see if items should be shifted to other places in the layout, different pages or removed entirely. Keep revising until you have a site that’s clean, well organized and easy to navigate.


More Small Business Resources From OPEN Forum:


15 Keyboard Shortcuts To Enhance Your PC Productivity
5 Services For Building Websites On A Budget
10 Accessories To Boost Office Morale
Top 5 Foursquare Mistakes Committed By Small Businesses
How To Use Social Media For Recruiting

More About: Ajax, mobile websites, Small Business Resources, web design, website

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406-google-instant

For years, Google’s search engine remained the safe and familiar option for web users. You typed a term, hit return, and were presented with pages providing 100 billion blue links. It’s all changed during the past 12 months. We’ve had a redesign, a new auto-complete bar, background images, the fade-in effect, an updated image view and now “Instant Search.” What’s going on? Is it competition from Bing? Perhaps it’s all those Google Wave developers with too much time on their hands?

Google has decided that the standard search is too slow and there’s no need for to hit return after typing a term. Google Instant uses Ajaxy goodness to present search results as you type. According to the information page, it saves 2-5 seconds per query. If everyone uses it, it’ll save 3.5 billion seconds a day — or 11 hours every second.

I suggest you try it. It’s available to users in the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia, but you can use it from elsewhere if you’re signed in to your Google account (I found I had to be logged in regardless). It works on Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and IE8 but appears to be disabled in Opera. They won’t be happy in Oslo. I’m sure Google will fix it, but there’s little excuse.

From a technical perspective, Google Instant is impressive. Multiple searches are performed as you type and, although the Ajax response is a highly-compressed string, traffic volumes will have increased significantly. Even the adverts change. Google’s data centers must be smoking, but the response remains fast throughout.

You can try alternative terms and quickly determine whether the results are relevant. However, it’s tempting to experiment so I’m not convinced it’ll result in an overall time saving.

Instant Search is integrated with the standard Google interface and it doesn’t always gel. For example, the moment you type a letter on the home page, the screen clears and the search box moves to the top — it’s a little disorientating. The auto-complete box options and the instant search don’t feel quite right together and the results can differ. I also suspect some people will be distracted by the continually changing results and adverts. Finally, Instant Search isn’t available in other areas, such as news.

I like it, but Google Instant requires further usability testing. That said, perhaps we’ll love it after a few weeks. It can be switched off in the settings if you detest it.

But is Instant Search an improvement? Do you like it? Will you continue to use it? Please cast your vote on the SitePoint poll and leave your comments below.