If you have never considered a web site for your business, ask yourself how much business you would have without your telephone. For centuries, businesses worked just fine without them, but now it’s hard to imagine operating a business without one. At some point, every organization had to make a choice to install a phone line or risk going belly-up. A similar make-or-break point is quickly approaching for businesses without a web site. What debatably is a luxury now will soon become a necessity. But as scary as this scenario may seem, there are steps you can take to make sure your business enterprise makes the transition successfully and, in the process, capitalize on the new avenues to the customer that a web site creates.
So, What is It and What Can It Do? To get us started by using the simplest of terms, the internet can be considered a network of computers around the world sharing information. An individual personal computer that requests the information is called a “client” and the numerous computers that store and dish out the information are called “servers.” A web site is simply a collection of related web pages served from a single server. Pages can be “static” (displaying predetermined pictures and text, also known as “content”) or “dynamic” (interactive pages that can be changed by the visitor). Most web sites for small businesses are stored and operated by a server maintained by an internet service provider, or “host.” Before a web site can be exposed to the world, a host must be chosen. Common considerations in choosing a host are cost, storage space, reliability, security, programming languages supported, and speed (if you’ve ever wondered why some web pages take so long to download to your browser, the speed of the host server is one limiting factor).
The name of the web site (www.getsolidblue.com for example) is called the “domain name.” A master list of domain names is maintained that tells a client which server to contact when a page from a given domain is requested by a browser. Before a web site can be opened, a domain name must be purchased (these can be cheap — mine was $5 per year — or expensive, if the domain name has already been purchased by a “broker,” who holds the domain name hostage until it is sold to the highest bidder). A fancy, expensive domain name is not necessary for most small businesses (all of the common variations on solidblue.com were already taken, for example, so I simply named my site getsolidblue.com instead).
Things to Consider Before Staking Your E-Claim The most important consideration before you jump into the online business world is what your site will be used to do and how complex you want it to be, as this will greatly influence your ultimate cost. If you simply want to tell people what products or services you sell, a small static site will do. If you want potential customers to take an action on your site, like purchase your products (“e-commerce”) or request a catalog, you will need a developer to write the instructions for your application (also known as “code”). Brainstorming possible things to put on a site is one of the real joys of owning one. A distinction must be made at this point between “design” and “development.” While the terms are often used interchangeably, they can in fact require very different skills. For the purpose of this conversation, “design” refers to the attractive placement of graphics and text on a page and “development” refers to the creation of a full application which could include forms for the user to fill out, buttons for ordering and paying for products, and so forth. The complexity of the site is usually determined by its purpose. Advertising by itself requires the sound use of design elements, while e-commerce or another functional purpose also requires proper development, including efficient access to product information, secure order processing, and an intelligent storage scheme for customer account information.
Keep in mind that advertising online is completely different than advertising in a newspaper or on television. The latter are passive media, requiring nothing of the consumer other than looking at the message. The web is an interactive medium, requiring the consumer to actively seek you out. A good way to attract potential customers to your site is by offering them something just for visiting. For example, a carpet retailer might offer a tutorial on the best way to install carpet, which might in turn cause the customer to choose that particular carpet retailer when he or she is ready to purchase.
Another major consideration is whether your site will require a “database.” A database is a storage place for information, organized to store information (or “data”) in a logical and efficient manner. The many uses and inherent power of databases can make a dynamic web site a critical business tool. They can be used to store product information (including pictures), customer purchases and preferences, and even the text and graphics that will appear on your web pages.
That last item is called “content management” and is quickly becoming an expected feature of a well-designed web site. It allows the web site owner to make changes to his or her site by simply changing the data in the database, without requiring a call to the web site developer or designer. It can be used to change the price or description of a product, or to promote weekly or monthly specials or promotions.
Jumping In: What to Look For and what to Avoid Finding the right designer is key to the success of your web project. Do a quick search online and count the number of web designers offering “Three pages for $999!” or similarly vague promises. Purchasing a web site for your business should not be treated like a trip to the local strip mall to buy sneakers. It will be the face of your business for every potential customer that visits it, and the first impression it gives will stick in the visitor’s mind, for better or worse. As such a flexible opportunity to express the merits and values of your business, it makes little sense to adopt a generic, one-size-fits-all strategy.
Designers operating such budget shops depend on high volume to turn a profit. You are unlikely to get any kind of individualized attention, and if you want the technical aspects explained to you in even general terms, you’ll probably be directed to a vanilla “frequently asked questions” list. In addition, changes to your initial design may be prohibitively expensive (this is where budget operations make the bulk of their money), the code may well be insecure and shoddy, and proprietary language in the contract may even prohibit you from allowing a third-party to alter the code.
Likewise, designers that charge flat hourly rates for work performed may be a poor bet as well. You may be charged for things that you could easily do yourself, like registering a domain name, or regularly changing content (provided a robust content management feature is not included in the original design). The open-ended nature of the hourly pricing model leaves you open to cost overruns, as well, and you can bet the designer will try to take as long as possible to get the most money out of you.
A much better option is using a local, flat-fee consultant to create your web site. Your project will be given individual attention, and you will actually be able to meet the person to whom you are entrusting the online aspect of your business. A flat-fee model also ensures that you will know exactly what you are getting and exactly what it will cost. Think about it: don’t you feel better taking your car in to a trusted mechanic and securing an estimate before the work is actually performed? Why would your business deserve any less?
Other things to be wary of are promises to submit your site to 10,000 search engines or something similar. In fact, there are only a handful of search engine providers (like Yahoo!, Google, Ask.com, and MSN) and the others use these mega-indexes to return their results. Also, submitting your URL to search engines is often free and very easy to do; don’t pay someone to do it for you unless you just don’t have a few minutes to do it yourself. If you think search engine positioning is critical to the success of your business, find an advertising agency that specializes in it. Similarly, if you expect the content of your site to change periodically, insist on (and be prepared to pay for) a good conent management system.
Conclusion There is no business that can’t benefit from a well-conceived and well-designed web site. From providing a convenient contact point and advertising space to delivering an easy and secure way to order your products to granting others a way to view internal information that might otherwise be delivered by paper, a proper web site can make or break a business in the 21st century. Key to success is knowing exactly what you want your web site to be and finding the right designer to create it. That would be someone who truly is a “consultant” and not simply someone who will throw things together for the lowest price.
With intelligent planning and a little creative thinking, you will find owning and running a web site to be an incredibly rewarding aspect of doing business.