Ten Steps to a Successful Web Site
By Steve Cochard, President, Back to the Beach Software
Business software features “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) editors that will typically hide the underlying technologies from you.
Everyone accepts that having a good web site is the “pay-to-play” of today’s businesses — no matter how small the business. But if you’re home-based and on your own, how do you create an effective web site without paying an expensive web designer? Here are the ten fundamental steps to web site success that won’t strain the technical expertise or budget of the home-based business owner.
1. Feature Selection
Start by creating a list of features for your web site. List the things you know you want. Search Google for companies like yours. Visit their sites and add features you like to your list. Deciding on web design software is an important step towards getting online. You’ll spend most of your time in this software during your web project. Spend quality time intelligently choosing software that meets your site’s needs and match your abilities.
2. Web Design Software
Deciding on web design software is an important step towards getting online. You’ll spend most of your time using this software during your web project. Spend quality time choosing software that meets your site’s needs and matches your abilities.
There are many software packages that build web sites, from simple browser-based wizards to Adobe’s DreamWeaver. They range in capabilities, flexibility, price, ease of use and the technical expertise required to use them.
Many people believe they need a professional product. These can do anything, but come at a steep price. Professional software is very complex to learn, understand and use. Unless you’re technically astute and willing to put a great deal of time into learning the technology, you likely don’t want this option.
Basic products are the wizard-based web builders that hosting companies offer. These can work for one- or two-page sites, but they quickly reach their limits and are not appropriate for a business site. Do not use an online web site builder.
Business software features “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) editors that will typically hide the underlying technologies from you. This enables you to concentrate on creating your site instead of on how to force the software to perform. The better ones will accept third-party features; will integrate the components necessary to create and upload the site to the Web; and will automatically manage the hundreds of files involved. Some include hosting, some offer optional hosting, and some even offer domain name registration.
Most web design software is sold on the Web. Read their sites, watch their videos, read customer testimonials, and view sites built with the software. Most importantly, try the software. The better vendors offer a free 30-day trial period. However, some disable their trials. Don’t try disabled software; you need to know how well everything performs. If you find a glitch, call their technical support. You’d be surprised how often a misunderstanding is solved with a quick phone call. If you can’t get help or don’t like the software, stop and try another.
3. Technical Support
Here’s the most important factor in your decision — buying the software and other products and services you’ll need from companies that offer telephone support. You’ll need this not because building a web site is difficult, but because it’s new and different. Most vendors offer free telephone support, some charge, some offer no phone support, and some have no support at all.
Your web site will become a large part of your business. Various aspects of your web site will be subcontracted to vendors you’ve never worked with, and you need to be able to talk directly to them as you do your current vendors.
The host is where your web site resides. You upload it from your software to the host, where it becomes available on the Internet. Hosting is critical to your business — if your host is down, your site isn’t on the Web. Look for reliability, stability and longevity in a host. Forget price. Hosting prices have fallen dramatically. You can get hosting for a few dollars a month. Don’t look for the cheapest.
Today, hosts all offer pretty much the same features. If you’re going to have lots of videos or sound, you should consult with the host to see what size hosting plan they recommend. For everyone else, 1Gb is plenty.
You also need 24/7/365 telephone support. If your site goes down, you need someone to call immediately. Remember your online store is open 24 hours a day, everyday, worldwide. Look for a month-to-month hosting agreement; not a multi-year plan. If you have a problematic host, you may be reluctant to change because you’ve already paid. At $3.00 per month for two years, switching isn’t a huge loss, it is $72. An unreliable host could cost thousands!
You want a host that’s existed for at least five years and owns its equipment. You do not want a host that’s an affiliate of a larger host. These smaller companies resell the host’s services under their own names, and they may not be able to provide the support you need. Your host will give you information about how to upload your web site. You’ll get an FTP address, a user ID, and a password. Keep this information in a safe place.
5. Picking a Domain Name
A domain name is the address of your web site on the Internet. If your web address were http://www.mysite.com, mysite.com would be your site’s domain name. Get a name that matches or closely matches your business name or service type. There are millions of domain names in use. That means many are taken and unfortunately no two names can be the same.Your host probably provides domain names. Some types of web software offer hosting and domain names from within the software itself. This simplifies things and adds a level of compatibility between components.
Domain names are registered for a period of time. Don’t let your domain name expire, or you could lose it and your online store. Once expired, others can get your name. Only register a domain name with a registrar who has, you guessed it, telephone support. If you forget to re-register and you can’t contact your registrar, you could be in big trouble.
Regardless of where you get the name, you’ll enter the name you want with a .com at the end. You’ll get a list of names that match or are similar to your request. Choose the best or continue your search by entering another name. Keep the contact information about your domain name registrar in a safe place along with its expiration date. It could be a year before you need it next, so make it an obvious, safe place.
6. Selecting an E-Commerce Package
E-Commerce, or shopping cart, enables you to sell products and services online. There’s a spectrum of carts each with different features and levels of difficulty. Carts are usually easy to set up and use, and the drag and drop variety are the easiest. You’ll want an easy-to-use cart to start with, but that doesn’t mean feature-less. Many carts with sophisticated features are very easy to use.
A cart has many components, and the cart vendor will provide some or all. There’s a product catalog; a cart page that summarizes the products they’ve chosen; registration pages for contact and shipping information; and a page to enter payment information.
Carts depend on a credit card gateway service. You never see it, but it sends the order information to the credit card’s bank. The bank approves or declines the purchase. Upon approval, a confirmation page is displayed on the site, and the funds are deposited in your bank. The cart vendor provides the gateway service.
With some easy carts you’ll create the product catalog by adding photos, text and an Add-to-Cart button for each product. The easiest will enable you to drag and drop the Add-to-Cart button. This eliminates the need to deal with any programming.
As your product catalog grows in size, you’ll find that keeping it up to date is a chore. This is where a database-driven carts come in. These enable you to enter the product information into the database instead of on your pages. To edit a product, log onto the cart’s control panel. The cart creates the web pages automatically.
Database-driven carts can do shipping and tax calculations automatically. You can also sell subscriptions and gift certificates, take donations, and sell downloadable products like software, PDF files, photos, music, videos, and so on. They include extensive reporting, send confirming e-mails and receipts, accept major credit cards, e-checks, PayPal, and other forms of payment, and enable international sales. The drawback with a database cart is your pages may not look the same as your site. For some with many products, that trade-off may be fine. The 24/7/365 telephone rule applies to the cart as well. This is the pipeline through which your cash will flow.
7. Site Content
You already have most of the content for your site: logo; corporate ID; photos; marketing copy; testimonials; and policies and procedures. Gather these together and their digital files. Get the jpeg files, Word files, photo files and the source files from the programs that created them so you can modify them. Organize the content by page: Home page; Product Catalog; About Us; Contact; Policies; and so on. Put all of the files on your hard drive in appropriately named folders.
8. Page Design
A template is a head start in creating your site. Your web software may have templates. There are lots available on the Web. Get the HTML version of the template, not Flash or Photoshop versions. HTML templates are “sliced and diced” for you. The others require a lot preparation to get web-ready.
Don’t look for a template for your industry, but one that’s visually appealing. The template will be customized with your content. Of course, you can design your own page without a template, which is what most people do.
9. Creating Pages
The Home page is where visitors come first. Put everything on it that you want: graphics; buttons; and text. If using a template, replace everything that needs replacing with your content.
Duplicate that page, and then delete the things that are specific to the Home page. You’ll then have a template with the design elements that are common to all pages. For each page, duplicate your new template and add the page-specific content.
10. Search Engine Optimization
A search engine’s goal is to provide highly relevant pages to visitors. They have determined that the text on the page is one of the best indicators of relevance. Search engines read the text on your page. For each word, the engine analyzes font size, heading style, text style, vertical position on the page, and frequency of occurrence.
Make a list of keywords that describe your business and products. Use these keywords as much as you can since frequency counts. Optimize pages that make sense like product pages and the Home page, but not a contact information page.
People believe “meta tags” are required for high rankings. This was true in the past, and adding them won’t hurt. But what’s most important is the text of your page. There are various techniques devised to “trick” search engines. If you know of any tricks, don’t use them. The search engines ban sites that attempt to trick them — for life.
Off and Running
Follow these ten fundamental steps, and you’ll be off to a great start with your online business. Heed the warnings, and you’ll avoid the trouble many get into. Now, stop reading this and start planning your web site! HBM
Steve Cochard is founder and president of Back to the Beach Software, developers of Web Studio 4.0 web design software available at www.webstudio.com. Web Studio is the easiest web design software to create and manage small business web sites. Cochard has been developing innovative, award-winning productivity software for over 20 years, including tools for word processing, contact management, business graphics, desktop publishing and web design. Cochard has designed software titles for companies such as Adobe Systems, Aldus Corporation, Silicon Beach Software, Vivendi Universal, Sierra Home, Knowledge Adventure, Houghton Mifflin, and many more. Cochard previously served as Director of Engineering at Adobe Systems. Cochard received his bachelor’s of science degree from Penn State University.