your business online

Developing a website for your business

This article explains the main options for planning and building a basic website for your business. It looks at design, maintenance, costs and getting outside help, and explains how you can get started. It also offers pointers to numerous sources of further information and provides some useful hints and tips.

Getting started

To start with, you should consider the following practical questions:

  • How will your website be designed and built?
  • Do you feel you have the skills to build it yourself using an off-the-shelf package, or will you need to commission a specialised web designer?
  • Where will your website be hosted? Small firms usually rely on an outside business to host their websites; they buy a certain amount of space on a web server and have access to upload and change their website files as required.
  • How will you maintain your website?
  • Do you have the time and technical knowledge to alter your website when aspects of your business change, and to keep it looking fresh and up-to-date?

Setting up a website is not necessary for every business – although we would still advise every business should have a website – even if it's just to put a contact form on a telephone number or your address, so you need to make sure that it would actually add value to your enterprise. The benefits must at least justify the cost of setting up the site.

What are your options for setting up a website?

Building a website yourself has a clear cost advantage (in monetary terms – although it may end up costing you more in other resources - especially your time), nowadays you don't even require a basic knowledge of HTML, CSS or Javascript. Simple websites that only contain business information and contact details are increasingly easy to set up using software such as Dreamweaver and Wordpress. Software packages such as Dreamweaver cost around $300, Wordpress is free although you can end up paying out for various themes. However, these options can also be time-consuming, and you may find yourself giving more time to the development and maintenance of the website than you can spare.

Using off-the-shelf websites and templates

Using an off-the-shelf website, or set of website template pages, is one of the simplest ways of setting up a basic website. In most cases, anyone with a basic knowledge of the Internet can set up a website in this way. Most web hosts and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer this service, and you only need to adjust the template layout and add your own text to customise the site to your requirements. Don't get too critical of yourself for using a cheap template – many professional web designers start with templates and then modify them to suit their needs – why re-invent the wheel?

Hiring a professional web designer

You may decide to commission a web designer, who will look at your business requirements and how the website will fit into your wider strategy. Such an approach is more expensive – although costs have come down greatly, but by working in consultation with your web designer you can give your site exactly the look you are after, and help to make sure it fits your business objectives.

Designers usually charge by the hour or offer package deals. You should try to get quotes from at least three designers or design agencies for the same project. Elance is a good place to get freelance designers.

Developing a project plan for your website

Before you get started on either building your website yourself or commissioning a web designer to do so, you need to develop a detailed project plan to summarise and clarify several key issues. These include:

What are your business objectives for the site?

Do you want it to attract more potential customers and make it easier for them to get in touch with you, by providing them with access to your contact details and information about your products and services? Will your website be used in your marketing strategy?

What information should you include in your website?

Wherever possible, you should aim to encourage visitors to return to your site. Beyond displaying your business contact details and an indication of what you do, you might choose to include some of the following features:

  • A summary of work previously done or clients already served, with testimonials from satisfied customers.
  • News stories and articles to keep your pages fresh and show you are up-to-date with industry trends and the latest developments in your sector.
  • Images, such as photographs of your products or your business and staff, will help create a visually appealing site – make sure these images are sourced properly – you don't want to run into copyright issues – Getty for instance are sending out letters to many website owners and asking for thousands of dollars per image used (Read more here: www.extortionletterinfo.com). If in doubt ask the designer where they got the image from.

What are the technical requirements?

What additional hardware and software will you need to invest in to get your site up and running, and to maintain it? Who will host your website, and how much space will the site require for hosting?

We would totally advise going with a free hosting solution such as with your ISP – this just makes your business look cheap! How many vans we have seen with hotmail or AOL e-mail addresses on the side – it's quite embarrassing!

What are the functional requirements?

What do you want your website to be able to do for visitors? Do they need to be able to contact you or to view a brochure of your products and services? If you do want people to contact you always use a form which doesn't display your e-mail address in the source code as e-mail addresses can be harvested – see the Dreamweaver video tutorial on how to create a form – you don't need Dreamweaver to view the video and you don't need Dreamweaver to create your very own form.

It's a good idea to make a list of all your requirements and draw up a basic storyboard of how you visualise the finished site looking before you start doing anything technical. This will help you decide what software to use if you plan to set up your website yourself, or will help you brief a web designer.

Are there any laws affecting website design?

Copyright legislation is important. The text and images you use on the site will need to be protected by copyright, and you should also ensure that you do not breach someone else's copyright. If you publish copyright material on your website without permission you risk legal action, which could lead to fines or even imprisonment.

Laws relating to advertising and trade descriptions will affect the way you promote your products and services via your website.

Also don't forget that certain people using the internet are hard of sight – it's important that these users can be able to “read” the words for more information see - http://www.webaim.org/articles/visual/blind.php

Testing and maintaining your website

With the right technical know-how, you can maintain your own site and the cost will simply be the time it takes to create your required content, test it and upload it to the server. You can use content management software such as Wordpress, Dreamweaver to update your own site without the need for in-depth technical knowledge. Although buying a software package will add to the cost initially, the total ongoing cost of the site will be reduced because you will be able to update it yourself. The biggest advantage of maintaining your own site are that you can keep it up to date quicker – if you have a design company do the work – it may take them a few days to update it.

Before launching your website, you should ensure it displays properly with all the major browsers, including Microsoft's Internet Explorer (www.microsoft.com/windows/ie), Firefox (www.mozilla.org/products/firefox), Safari (www.apple.com/macosx/features/safari) and Google Chrome (www.google.com/chrome). The best thing to do is install all the possible browsers on your machine.

Once your site is up and running, it should be checked daily to ensure there are no technical problems preventing visitors from accessing it. You should regularly set aside time to check that all the links on the site work, that graphics are not too large in file size (which will make them slow to download), and that your colour scheme is displayed correctly.

Periodically check your hosting provider's 'uptime' - the amount of time your website has been available - which should be consistently close to 100%.

The information you provide about your business should be accurate, particularly your contact details and product prices, if you list them. Make sure telephone numbers or e-mail addresses work and don't forget to update your website if these details change.

Frequent updates are an important part of ensuring customers return regularly. This might involve changing the layout of your site, or providing a regularly updated news service. You could consider launching a weblog ('blog') on your homepage using readily available, low-cost software such as Movable Type (www.movabletype.org). This will keep your website looking fresh, give visitors a reason to return regularly to see what is new on the blog, and can also engage your customers in discussion and provide useful feedback about your business.

Attracting visitors to your site

Attracting the right target audience, and turning visitors into paying customers, takes time and imagination. You will need to consider some of the following methods to attract more traffic to your site:

  • Probably the most important aspect is to have a content-rich site that will educate your visitors with information that is relevant and specific to your business.
  • Keep your site fresh and current by regularly updating it with articles, news and other information relevant to your target audience.
  • Promote your website offline - on letterheads, business cards and advertising - so people who find you in the real world are aware that you also have a website.
  • Give visitors a call to action on your site to encourage them to take the next step - for example, 'Click here to order' or 'Sign up here'.
  • Include information about your business, such as your postal address and phone number, to show that you have a real, bricks-and-mortar presence and to give visitors an easy way to contact you.
  • Getting links to your website

A good search engine ranking is also an important part of promoting your business online. The design of your site is an important aspect of achieving a good ranking. Many basic 'search engine optimisation' techniques, which are ways to improve your website's ranking in the search engines, are simple to learn and cost-free to implement.

Get your keywords right. The more carefully you populate the textual content of your site with keywords relevant to your business sector, the more opportunities there will be for search engine spiders to find it. You can check your level of keywording against other sites at www.gorank.com/seotools.

Work on your link popularity – the more relevant sites that link to yours the better. Although don't just get links for the sake of it. Joining forums that are related to your business and posting regularly will attract visitors to your site. The more websites that link to yours, the higher your site will appear in search results. Try contacting non-competing, related businesses and persuade them to put a link to you on their site.

Hints and tips

Unless you have a large budget for your website and it will be central to your business strategy, it is wise to start small and simple. More complicated features can be added later as your business evolves. Remember a website should be evolving all the time – so don't worry to much if it isn't completely polished to begin with – I know too many companies say that it isn't ready yet to upload and just leave a message on their site saying – "website under construction." Don't ever do that – it only takes 10 minutes to put some basic details (with keywords) of what your company does – so do that while you are working on your masterpiece.

A website is a chance to emphasise the human side of your business. Staff photographs, information about the way you work and the products you make, or even an account of the problems you face will all help create an image of friendliness and approachability.

Try not to use too many pictures, fancy graphics or animations - it can be tempting to go overboard but this can make your site appear confusing and 'busy', as well as affecting the time pages take to load – although that is less of a problem than it used to be with the high speed connections we have today – although if you are selling globally – there will be many users who are still using Dial-Up.

Don't forget to give visitors to your website a call to action. You could urge them to submit an online enquiry via your contact form, register their details to be entered into a prize draw, or call you to benefit from a discount on their next purchase.

Test your site to make sure it is easy to navigate. Important information such as your contact details should be clearly signposted if they're not prominent on your homepage.

Remember that people scan, rather than read, information online. Break up paragraphs of text into smaller chunks, use subheadings to emphasise key points, and make sure your copy is clear and easy to understand, avoiding overly long words and jargon. Most importantly, get everything proofread before your site is launched!

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