Building a Commercial Web Site

Your Web site is where customers expect to find information about your business, it's products, it's services and how to contact you.

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Phone, fax, copy machine, e-mail, word processing, web site, stapler - you're in business! Leave off any one of those and you have a problem, because they are things you are just plain expected to have .

Why a Web Site is Essential

Especially in B2B (Business to Business), but increasingly in B2C (Business to Consumer), when people want information about your business, your products or services, they expect to get that information from your Web site.

Both businesses and individuals are hooking up "always on" Internet service as fast as the carriers can get the equipment in. With every computer on the Internet 24-hrs a day, it's by far the easiest way to get information. If they can't get information from your business that way, why bother with your business at all?

If they have any interest in your business, a person will probably "bookmark" your Web address so it's instantly available - faster to file and faster to look up than a phone number.

Further, if you have adequate information on your Web site, it can save you a lot of time (money) answering routine questions on the phone or mailing brochures and product literature. It can save you the cost of even creating, printing and filing all that literature.

Some sites are referred to often if they offer useful information, or are "mini-portals" with lists and links to related sites.

So, what are the consequences of your not offering these benefits to your customers or clients? What if your competitor does? (top)

What Kind and What Cost?

What kind of Web site to deploy is a major business decision and must be considered with great care. Your choices affects both the effectiveness of your Web effort and its cost.

Lets be right up front about this. A Web site is an investment just like a piece of machinery, office equipment or advertising campaign. What you spend on it and what you get from it should be in direct proportion, but, just as with other capital expenditures, it is possible to spend just a little too little and get nothing.

Caution: This industry is entirely unregulated, and there are no standards for pricing or product delivered. It's swarming with people out for a fast buck who promise the world at a very low price. Results will not match expectations, but you've already paid.

  • "Business Card" Site: A single screen with logo, address, phone number, hours of business and brief description of products and/or services, and a link to your email box. An experienced Web person can get this done and up in two to four hours depending on what you want on it - figure $50 to $200. At the very least, it fills the empty space you got with your Internet service.

  • "Brochure" Site: A multi-screen site with extended product and/or services information, perhaps a map, e-mail links and other useful information. Costs are similar to creating a nice professional 4-color brochure of similar scale. Don't think you can just put up your brochure though, the mechanics are way different. At best the designer can cut some graphics and copy some text from your brochure.

  • "Mini-Catalog" Site: A larger version of the brochure site, but more product oriented and may have pricing. There will be forms to place orders, request quotes, etc. Production costs are similar to a color catalog of similar scale.

    This kind of site can be nearly as good a sales tool as an e-commerce site, since most people still pick up the phone to actually place orders. You can't negotiate by filling out a form, after all, and a sales person may know about conditions, new products or price changes that aren't posted on the Web yet. Many people feel their credit card information is more secure that way, too, and given how easily most e-commerce sites are hacked, they're probably right.

  • "Information Site" - "Mini-portal": Sites of this type are designed to bring people back over and over by offering news, reference material, interesting information and links to related sites where even more information can be found. An information site may also include features of the "brochure" or "mini-catalog" site.

    Cost varies in the extreme depending on who is doing the work and how that work is being accounted for. If it can be done as part of normal operations, so much the better. If you can apply volunteer labor, so much the better.

  • "E-Commerce" Site: On-line credit card sales are the hallmark of this type of site. Costs vary in the extreme depending on scale and approach. A site that is a member of an on-line mall can be fairly low cost (though limited). You may be able to get on a mall for $600 or so, but you'll need $15,000 or so to start anything significant.

    Our article E-Commerce - Selling on the Web has information about the risks and advantages of this kind of site.

  • "Integrated E-Commerce" Site: Here the Web site is linked to or integrated with the company's back office processes. The on-line catalog is built dynamically from a database. Availability, on-line customer service inquiry and other "real time" features are integrated into the site. A couple million dollars will get your started.

  • "Portal": If you think you can compete with Yahoo, Microsoft, Yahoo, Alta Vista, and the rest of the big guys, this is for you. A few billion bucks will get you into this game, but doesn't guarantee success.
    (top)

Steps to Success

  1. Business Strategy Planning is the first step, and absolutely essential unless you are fond of flushing money down sewers. What do you expect from your Web site? How will it help your business? How much are you willing to invest in it. Now double that amount so it's more realistic and check the pain level. Discuss your plans with people experienced with Web sites and listen to what they say.

  2. Register a Domain Name. You need your own domain so your e-mail and web addresses are related. People often just type "www." in front of what's after the "@" in your e-mail address and expect your Web site to appear. Having your own domain name also allows you to make your Web and e-mail addresses short and meaningful. Besides, if you don't have your own domain name, people will think you're a really small operation. Maybe you are, but maybe you don't want everyone to know that.

    Registering a domain name costs $75 for the first two years and $35 successive year from Network Solutions, but they now have competitors who do it for less.

    Hosting a domain account costs more, but it's your domain, and you can move that name from service to service without changing your Web address or email boxes as your needs change.

  3. Select Talent. It is almost certain you will not have all the abilities needed in-house. Talent you may need includes:
    • Internet Consultant - to arrange connections, hosting services, set up upload methods, and other network related tasks.
    • Designer - to create the Web pages themselves. The result is totally dependent on the ability and experience of the person doing the design and implementation. That talent must be selected with care.
    • System Consultant - if you chose co-location or in-house hosting.

  4. Define Design Strategy Get everyone on the same wavelength. If you're thinking "fast, easy to use commerce", and your designer is thinking "really cool", your customers aren't likely to be one bit happy with your site and nor are you.

    • Objective: it's customers. Everything should be designed to please the customer. If you are setting up an entertainment site, cool is good. If your customers are going to be looking for product info, cool is very, very bad because cool is slow, and your customers may not have the very latest fastest equipment and Internet connections as a gamer would have. Patience is very short when browsing. Keep that in mind if you expect your site to be used.

      DON'T try to control the appearance of your pages in too much detail. Customers are using different browsers, they have different font settings, screen resolutions and color depths. If you try to control layout and fonts like in a printed brochure, you're in trouble. Design so the browsers can arrange pages in a way that makes sense to them. Concentrate on content, not layout. I realize that's a really difficult concept for a PageMaker jocky, but it's essential.

    • Search Engines: Do design with search engines in mind. Many features designers really like turn off search engines, and if search engines don't like you, they won't list you. Examples of stuff that stops engines cold are "Flash pages", links mapped to graphics, meta tags that don't match the body content, and frames. Designers love frames, but some browsers and most search engines don't like them at all.

      Your designer and your Internet consultant should know how to place "meta tags" on your pages tailored for search engines. Don't use tricks that are too aggressive, as the search engines learn those tricks and simply ignore your site.

    • Tools: Remember the objective: customers, as many as possible. The tools used to create the site can cut into your customer base. For instance, Microsoft tools are designed to produce sites that may not work right (or even be accessible) to people using non-Microsoft browsers. That's nearly 30% of your potential customers. If AOL switches from Internet Explorer to Netscape (as they are likely to do, since they now own Netscape), that will be more like 60% of your potential customers.

      This is not to say you can't do a browser agnostic site using Microsoft tools, but they are designed to discourage you from doing so.

      A skillfully hand coded site will be a faster and have fewer browser problems than one created with, say, Microsoft Front Page. There's nothing you can do with a page creation tool like Front Page that can't be done by hand coding, but hand coding takes a bit more skill and discourages "cool features" (the Automation Access site is 100% hand coded).

      Many popular tools use Microsoft ASP (Active Server Pages), which locks you into hosting on Windows NT/2000 servers running IIS (Internet Information Server). Most ISPs prefer Unix or Linux servers because they are faster, cheaper and crash a lot less. Most ISPs use the Apache Web server because it's faster, more flexible, and more secure than IIS (and, it's free). The result is, NT/2000 hosting generally costs more.

    • Accessibility: Be sure to cover the issue of access by the disabled. This is not yet government mandated, but it is likely to be in the future. Prepare for it (and pick up some additional customers) now so you don't have to completely re-do your site later.

    • Free Stuff: Be sure to include a good amount of "free" stuff in your site. People are used to "free stuff" on the Internet, and expect it. This will likely be stuff you would have a hard time selling anyway. Reference material is always good. Lots of information about products like yours is good. Links to other interesting sites are good.

  5. Develop & Test. Set up a realistic schedule and try to keep developers on target. Minimize significant changes to the site as they will seriously delay the project. If you've done the planning right, you shouldn't need a lot.

    All developing and testing can be done on your own or your designer's computers. You don't need site hosting until you have something ready to put up.

    Be sure to test with several browsers and several versions of each. Netscape, Internet Explorer and Opera at the minimum. Testing with a text only browser like Lynx will go a long way towards assuring universal access.

    Be sure to test through a 33.6 modem. This is a very common speed since it's the best speed many people can get from a 56K modem. Many sites have been tested only on the local network, then fallen flat on their faces in the real world. Once again "cool" can kill.

  6. Select your hosting options. If you intend a Brochure or simple Information site, this is not a big deal. If you expect to implement interactive features or e-commerce anything, you should select your hosting with the aid of a consultant familiar with the subject.

    • Internet Mall or other "pooled" site. You may or may not be able to use your own domain name depending on the hosts rules, and you will get your Internet access from someone else.

    • Domain Hosting Service is the most practical for most small sites, and may include your basic Internet access service as well. Be sure you are getting domain service so you can use your own domain name, and make sure you're getting enough Web space and enough e-mail boxes.

      If your site will just be serving up static pages, the hosting platform does not matter, but if you intend to include interactive features, it becomes very important. There are two choices:

      • Unix/Linux hosting. Supports all Internet standards and CGI scripting, probably Perl, Javascript, Java, and other standard languages. The Internet runs on Unix/Linux and most hosting services are deployed on this platform.
      • Windows NT/2000 hosting. Required if you use Microsoft tools to develop your dynamic content. Persons using non-Microsoft browser may have problems with your site.

      You will maintain your Web site on your own computers and upload new material and changes to the host by ftp (unix/linux) or Front Office (Windows).

    • Co-location: Here you own and maintain your own Web Server and have complete control over all features, including e-commerce, but the server is "co-located" at a facility that provides high speed Internet access (T1 and/or T3 lines), physical security, and backup power in case of power failures. You can also usually contract for equipment maintenance. Here is the point where you become totally responsible for the security of your site.

    • In-House Hosting: Here you own and maintain your own servers and facility, including backup power and Internet access connections. You have the most possible flexibility and the most responsibility.

      In-House hosting wasn't practical for small organizations until very recently. Now, with the availability of economical DSL (from $79 to $300 / month depending on speed) and affordable T1 ($300 to $800 / month) it is much more practical. If you already have DSL service with static IPs, you can build a Linux Web server for practically nothing and have an operating site.

    No matter how you host, be sure you have a handle on security issues, but if you are doing e-commerce, and have customer credit card information on your server, you'd better be very sure you are on top of security. If a service is handling security, find out just how good they are at it.

  7. Maintaining Your Site: Maintenance can be as big an item as setting up the site, depending on the nature of the site. One thing is certain, a site that is not kept up to date is going to be forgotten by both customers and by search engines. Both want to see something new.

    Much maintenance can be done by people with a lot less experience than those who created the site. The source code can always be viewed to see how it works (keep in mind, anyone else can view the source code too - there are no secrets on the Web).

    Just remember to keep monitoring the updates to make sure the site is being kept consistent with it's original design philosophy. You may be able to get by with volunteer students to do your maintenance, but if you don't watch them they're likely to turn it into a "really kool site".
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Promoting your Web Site

Nobody's ever going to see your costly Web site unless you promote it. Sorry, but that's the truth. The day when you just put it up and the search engines found it and sent people to it are long, long, long gone.
  • Make sure every piece of paper you hand out has your Web address printed on it in a very visible way. Business cards, letterhead, product literature, advertisements, e-mail, everything.

  • If you participate in shows, make sure the organizer displays your Web address everywhere your company is mentioned.

  • List it in your local Chamber of Commerce's Web site.

  • Make deals with business associates to exchange Web addresses. Promote each other, it's one of the most effective techniques.

  • Participate in on-line forums, and make sure your Web address is included (but be very, very careful not to step over the line and be labeled a "spammer").

  • Advertise by e-mail, but, again, use extreme care or you'll be labeled a "spammer", the bottom layer in the Internet sludge bucket.

  • Work the search engines. They don't find you automatically and they may not index you at all if they don't like your site. See the Design section for hints on what search engines don't like.

    Somebody has to go to each and every search engine you want to be listed in and register your site. They don't automatically find much of anything anymore because they are too busy trying to keep up with the ones that have registered. Some, like Yahoo! personally evaluate every site registered and decide whether it's worth their trouble to index.

    Try to build up the number of other sites that link to yours, because some search engines use that as a criteria for ranking your site.

    Be sure whoever is doing your meta tags knows what they're doing and doesn't try ticks search engines don't like (not all search engines pay attention to meta tags, by the way).

  • Talk up your Web site when communicating with prospects and customers.

  • "Banner Exchanges" work, if you don't mind having advertising banners on your Web site.

  • Not very effective, and potentially expensive, is paid advertising, whether in print or on other Web sites.
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©:Andrew Grygus - Automation Access - www.aaxnet.com - aax@aaxnet.com
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