By Sally Koepke
The Web is the most powerful new business tool you can get your hands on, but you have to know how it works to make it work for you.
Websites don’t have to be expensive or elaborate to be effective. Creating a website, however, does involve time, thought and knowing your customer. Whether you do it yourself or have it outsourced, there are important decisions to be made. Here are a few of the questions you will need to answer in the process.
What Kind of Site do you Want?
Brand. You can think of your website as an online brochure for your business. This approach will help potential clients, customers and partners learn about your company and see it in a favorable light. By clearly communicating who you are, what you do, where to find you and how to contact you, you will enhance your image and build awareness for your company. Brand sites also can be populated with product information to drive sales and customer service and support topics such as troubleshooting guides or frequently asked questions. Depending on their scope, brand sites can be easier and cheaper to execute, especially for a beginner.
E-commerce. E-commerce sites are created to facilitate sales over the Internet. They will include some kind of ordering and payment system, as well as in-depth product information. These sites can be more profitable than brand sites and can broaden your reach, allowing you to sell to a national or even international audience.
Both. Of course, there are plenty of sites out there that do both. These sites are more complex and in general are better left to the professionals.
Should You Design it Yourself?
After figuring out the purpose of your site, you need to decide whether to outsource its design or tackle it yourself.
Outsourcing. To do it right, website design requires numerous skill sets not often found in one person. These include:
- HTML knowledge;
- Graphic design capabilities coupled with artistic taste;
- Navigation design and implementation;
- CGI and database programming—necessary for even the most basic “Contact Us” form; and
In light of all that goes into a functioning and effective website, you may find that hiring a website design firm or freelance designer is money well spent. According to e-commerce consultant Dr. Ralph E. Wilson, outsourcing a simple five- or six-page website can cost $750 to $1,500.
Doing it yourself. If money is a big issue, you can teach yourself website design. Go to any bookstore and you will see plenty of beginner books to help you get started. You can also go online to get help. Wilson recommends www.webreference.com , www.webmonkey.com  and www.builder.com . You will need to invest in good Web design software such as Microsoft FrontPage or Macromedia DreamWeaver. Another option is to tackle your site design using built-in templates. Typing “design templates for websites” in a search engine turned up more than a million hits—plenty to get you started in this direction.
What Should the Site Look Like?
Your website should look good, and it should look professional. After all, it is a reflection of you and your business. Again, working with a design professional may be the easiest way to accomplish this. Another great idea is to check out the competition. You want your site to stand out from the crowd, which means knowing what the “crowd” looks like and is doing. Use search engines like Google to find other sites that relate to water treatment. Make a note of competitor strengths and weaknesses, and then model your site on what you think works, avoiding what does not.
What is Worth the Money?
Website hosting. While you can get free website hosting, you are better off in the long run paying for this service because it avoids having to run ads on your site by hosting providers. There are many affordable hosting services that charge under $10 per month—a legitimate business expense that can be tax deductible.
Your own domain name. Your own domain name—e.g., www.yoursite.com—will not only be more professional, it will help in search engine rankings. For instance, if your business is “Elliot Water Treatment,” the domain name might be www.elliotwater.com , or some other variation of the full company name. While the cost of registering a domain name is often included in the cost of hosting a site, you can also register a name before you create the site at a cost of $9 to $35 a year. This guarantees the name will be available when you finally launch your website.
Unlike the movie “Field of Dreams,” where “if you build it, they will come” applies, websites must be marketed to succeed. Here are a few basic approaches to website marketing. Search engine optimization is one way to do this.
Search engines search websites for specified words and then list the sites where those words are found. Making your website search-engine friendly is of critical importance and there are elements you need on every website to entice search engine robots to your site.
Keywords are the most important words that reflect the content of a page. Do not list the same keywords for every page.
The title is what shows up hyperlinked in search engine results, so it should be both provocative and descriptive, and contain the most important keywords.
All headlines and subheads on the page should include your keywords at least once. Make sure your keywords also appear in the first paragraph of copy on the page.
Hypertext links are highlighted or underlined words that connect the user to another website. Search engines rank hyperlinks higher, as they believe the words contained in the hypertext are important. A chain of hypertext links starting at your homepage will take search engines to every page in your entire site.
Search Engine Submissions
You can submit your site for free to Google, MSN Search, Open Directory and LookSmart.
Using paid placements will speed up the listing process and almost certainly generate more search engine-related traffic for your website. In general, paid placement programs charge on a “pay-per-click” basis to your site. There is a minimum per-click charge (typically 5 to 10 cents). You should set a daily or monthly maximum budget for charges to keep costs affordable.
Paid sites to consider include Yahoo Sponsored Search (Overture), Yahoo Search Submit Express, Google Adwords, 7Search, FindWhat, Mamma, LookSmart and Kanoodle.
Another basic first investment to consider is paying $299 for one year in Yahoo’s human-compiled directory to ensure that major crawler-based search engines pick up your home page quickly. However, with good site design, it may be that crawlers will find your page and rank it well even without a Yahoo link. If money is a problem, you may want to launch your website and wait a few months to see how you do before spending the money with Yahoo.
Banner exchanges and Web rings are a quick, easy and effective way to drive traffic to your new website. Banner exchanges connect webmasters who agree to trade banners, posting a banner ad or button on their website to promote their partner sites. Web rings are groups of similar websites with related topics—in your case, water treatment. Webmasters in the Web ring would agree to post banner ads or links back to the other sites in the ring.
Some bulletin boards and newsgroups will post an announcement of your new website while others will not, so be sure to check. You can also participate in newsgroup discussions on water treatment to raise your profile. Be sure to create an e-mail signature that includes your website’s name and address—this will create added publicity for your site.
Three newsgroups that will post site announcements are misc.entrepreneur, alt.business and alt.business.homepc. If your browser is not configured for a news server, you can access newsgroups through the Web at www.googlegroups.com .
This is a goldmine worth the hard work. Here are a few ways to do just that:
- Send out a brief press release about your new website to all the local papers and radio stations.
- Check with local newspapers about free classified ads. This is a great place to advertise your new website.
- List your new website in the online Yellow Pages. The listing is free and, according to yellowpages.com, provides exposure to more than 125 million monthly searches.
- Visit google.com/lbc to create a free local listing of your business. You can list your address, phone number, hours of operation and website. You can even create coupons and display photos and videos. Google will track where your customers come from and what they search for to find you, giving you valuable information for future use.
- Send out an announcement to your customers about the new website. Talk briefly about what the website offers them. If you have e-mail addresses for your customers, make the announcement via e-mail with an embedded link to your website—this will encourage them to visit.
However you choose to market your new website, be sure to stay on top of the numbers. Know your rankings, keyword density and what websites are linking back to you—they are an excellent measure of how well your website is doing.
Remember that websites are never finished—they are always a work in progress. Maintaining your site over time will involve changing the content of existing information (e.g., listing upcoming events, new personnel, new industry directions), adding new pages on your website (e.g., for new products and services) and changing the content of your homepage so that your business and your website appear fresh and vital.