Today, the website of a company has usurped the front office as the place where first impressions are gleaned. Where it used to take a meeting or a few product samples for a customer to form an opinion about your business, now it's only a matter of a simple Google search – which means you need to make sure that query result is a memorable one.
"Small businesses should be looking to have a personal presence on the Web – something that would back up a sales call or brochure," says Tim Zack, a marketing executive at Red Clay Interactive, an Atlanta-based Web development firm. "It definitely shouldn't be an afterthought – this is a capital investment in the success of your company."
The following guide will teach you the basics on how to start your website, as well as provide tips on designing and marketing the site to help drive business.
How to Start a Website: What Do You Want to Accomplish?
The first thing you should assess before embarking on your online venture is what exactly you want to accomplish with your site. Do you want to sell products? Do you want to create a blog about your company or service? Depending on your industry and the nature of your business, your site may have a combination of different functions.
Below are some of the basic types of the sites, and what they can help you to achieve:
• Brochure/general information: This type of site basically serves as your online business card. It provides information about who you are, what your company does, product or service pricing, possibly previous and current clients, and how customers should contact you. BlueStar Energy and MonaVie are both companies with great examples of what a brochure site should accomplish.
• Retail/e-commerce: An e-commerce site allows your company to sell products directly to customers. Sites like Amazon and Zappos are great examples of the success the e-commerce site can afford a business. It usually employs the use of a shopping cart and payment processing utility, such as PayPal.
• Content-driven sites: These include sites like news aggregator The Huffington Post or streaming video hub Hulu, which generate revenue by posting fresh content on a regular basis, and maintain a library of hundreds or thousands of pages.
• Blogs: The blog can also be considered a content-based site, but more specifically, it involves a person (or people) from the company or site who regularly posts information relevant to their product or industry. Many business owners use this format to help generate a loyal customer following and drive sales. A great example would be the product blog of 37Signals, creator of popular project management tools Campfire and Basecamp.
• Database sites: Examples of these would be the localized classified site Craigslist or travel search engine Kayak, where users can search for content or information that has been amassed from different resources or websites.
• Forum or community sites: These sites usually involve large groups of people who share ideas and comments with one another on various topics. These include Q&A sites, such as Bizmore.
How to Start a Website: Do it Yourself, or Hire Someone?
After you've decided on the basic goals you want to accomplish with your website, next, you need to make the all-important decision of whether or not you're going to build or buy. While there are tools such as GoDaddy.com or Wordpress.com that have made it easier than ever to build a website, keep in mind that the process can still be time-consuming, and that you will probably need at least a passing knowledge of HTML code.
Mitchell York, president of E2E Coaching, a small business consulting firm, and founder of TechWeb, a technology news-related site, advises small businesses to go ahead and make the financial investment in hiring a designer, if they can afford it. "I think most people just find it very hard to do on their own," York says. "If you had a store on Main Street and you had to decorate the window, you could just throw something up there, or hire someone who would do it so you would stop traffic. It's the same thing."
A good designer will likely cost you $1,500 and up, depending on the added tools and number of pages involved in the creation of your site. York suggests going to Elance or 99designs, which are crowdsourcing websites that allow you to post jobs and bid them out to people.
How to Start a Website: Selecting a Domain Name
What's in a Name?
The domain name is what people type in their address bar in order to get to your site, so there are some tips you should keep in mind during your brainstorming session:
• Keep it short. The maximum length for domain names is 63 characters, but it'd behoove you not to try and test the limit.
• Don't use numbers. "We generally tell people to stay away from numbers," says Zack. "They are hard to remember and hard to type." If you feel implored to include a number in your domain name, use the actual number character, such as "44" instead of "forty-four."
• Make it memorable. Try to stay away from awkward phrases or special characters and symbols. You should be able to easily tell a potential customer your domain name over the phone – if not, you could inadvertently end up sending them to a competitor's site.
• Stray away from acronyms and abbreviations. Acronyms and abbreviations are not only hard to remember when typing them, but they are also hard to remember what they mean. Lose the initials and try to stick with the company or product name.
• Try to stick with the "dot com." Zack says extensions like ".biz" and ".net" are surefire ways to confuse a hopeful site visitor. If the desired ".com" name isn't available, try shortening it or adding a word. The website of Zack's company, for example, is RedClayInteractive.com – despite their efforts to snag the easier-to-remember "RedClay.com."
Choosing a domain name can sometimes be tricky – most business owners would like the exact name of their company as the website, but what they soon find is that the name is in use or has been purchased by someone (in hopes that you'll buy it from them). While you can purchase domain names anywhere from $10 to $20 per year on many webhosting sites, buying a name from someone who already owns it can potentially cost hundreds or thousands. However, one way to do this, Zack says, is to use a site that keeps track of domain owners, such as the WHOIS feature provided by technology company Network Solutions, and contact the owner directly.
How to Start a Website: Finding a Home for Your Website
A good web host is essential for building your site. It's the place where your website lives, and how it maintains a connection to the Internet. Most small businesses, unless backed by a fully-staffed IT department, won't be able to afford to host their own sites, so the best option is probably to find an external web host such as JustHost.com or HostGator.
There are three basic kinds of web hosting – shared, dedicated, and cloud. Shared web hosting usually costs less, but the downside is the fact that you'll be sharing a server with other sites – which means if those sites experience heavy traffic, your performance will likely suffer. With dedicated hosting, you get to lease your own server from a host, but be prepared to pay up.
Cloud hosting is a newer type of hosting that allows websites to operate on an online infrastructure of servers, rather than a physical one. Cloud hosts, such as Rackspace, are popular for their speed and scalability, but since site information is hosted on a "cloud" with other sites, doubts have been raised about network security.
Your decision on any of these types of hosts depends on the basic needs of your site. For example, if you'll be using features that could potentially draw a lot of users, such as a forum or e-commerce tools, dedicated hosting might be the best option.
Here are some other things you should consider when looking for a good web host:
• Make sure there's 24/7 technical support. "If your site goes down, it could potentially be a PR nightmare," says Zack. You should ask a representative what kind of support is offered to customers in the event of a server crash.
• Read customer reviews. See what others are saying about their experience with a web host before you invest your money into one.
• Can I add to my service as my company grows? When you're ready to decide on a host, make sure you have the option of adding more space or features as your site expands and attracts more visitors.
How to Start a Website: Basic Site Essentials
People expect a website to have things in a certain place. While it's great to be creative in your design, you should the keep the layout familiar, so that your visitor isn't confused. When someone gets to your home page, they should be able to see a quick description of who you are and what your company does. "Your messaging should solve that problem in a few words, which should be supported by bullet points – not paragraphs," says Gabriel Shaoolian, CEO of Blue Fountain Media, a Web development and online marketing firm in New York City.
Contact information, like phone numbers and an e-mail address, is another vital component of your site. You can associate a "call to action" with your information, such as offering the user to request a free quote or consultation. If clients will be meeting you in person, you should also have your physical location on the site, Shaoolian says. "People like working with people, not this mysterious entity," says Shaoolian. "If a vendor contacts me and I don't see their location, I won't take them seriously."
Another thing that is commonly omitted from business websites, Shaoolian says, is executive or management information. "People want to know who they're dealing with," says Shaoolian. "Who's responsible for this company, and who are the team players? If you're not bringing up their names and talking about them, someone else is." Shaoolian cites one potential client who approached Blue Fountain Media for services – because the company didn't have information about their CFO on its website, his first Google search result was a blurb about a gambling hobby.
Once you have the basics nailed down, here are some other things to keep in mind concerning the design and functionality of your site:
• Don't use too much Flash. Some browsers have trouble supporting sites that are heavily designed with Adobe Flash. Plus, if a user tries to bookmark a section of your site, they'll only be able to bookmark the homepage, says Zack of Red Clay Interactive. "A mixture of Java and HTML can give you the same experience without locking you into a Flash-based site," he says.
• Tie in your company logo. If your company already has a logo, you should incorporate it into your site. Also, Zack says, don't be afraid to modify the logo in order to give it a more modern feel. If you're in need of a good logo, sites like Logoworks or The Logo Company can help.
• Let the home page be the portal. Depending on the amount and type of content on your site, you may have anywhere from five pages to 100. But everything should flow from the home page – don't try to jam everything in one place. "As you're developing the pages, make sure you're always asking, 'What's next?'" suggests Zack. "Will the user find contact information? Ask for a consultation?"
How to Start a Website: Managing Site Content
Above all, you must keep in mind that the content of your site is, essentially, what will keep visitors interested and coming back for more. Site content can include text, images, and even multimedia such as videos and podcasts. Whatever you decide to include, make sure it relates to your company or industry, and answers any questions a potential customer might have. If you decide to include regular blog posts, for example, you can post thoughts on a current event that might affect or showcase the need of your service. Or, you could implement videos to demonstrate new ways to use your product.
Here are some important tips to remember as you create content for your site:
• Update often. One of the quickest ways to lose followers is to let your site become stale. Make sure you have a plan for how often you will post new information. "Pushing out relevant content, making sure it's original and is something people are interested in – that increases your chances of having a following," says Zack.
• Consider hiring a copywriter. If you feel you won't have time to write clear, concise, error-free text for your site, you may want to bring on a copywriter to help.
• Use a content management system. This makes it easier for you, as well as employees, to post new content quickly, without extensive use of HTML code. Two popular content management systems you might want to try are Drupal and Expression Engine. Some web hosts, including GoDaddy.com, also offer content management services, which you may prefer to use instead of an external one.
• Steer clear of over-used images. Try to avoid using pictures that you may have seen on other sites. A good place to find fresh images (for free) is iStockphoto. Depending on your budget, you may want to assign this task to a designer.
How to Start a Website: Marketing Your Site
Now that you've got your site up and running, you want to make sure current and potential customers will be able to find you on the Web. Here are some key strategies that should be included in the marketing of your website:
• Take advantage of social media outlets. As a business owner, you can't afford to not have an account on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. If you don't, your website certainly provides reason to start one now. Posting content from your website to your profiles and statuses on these sites is one of the most effective ways to gain traction.
• Use the power of e-mail. Zack suggests sending out a monthly newsletter to your business contacts to inform them of new information or features on your website. You can also time these e-mails according to a specific time when your product or service might be important. "If you're a lawn care provider," for example, Zack says, "Send out an e-mail making sure their grass is ready for the first barbecue of the year." Also, be sure to include your site URL in all of your e-mail signatures.
• Submit your site to search engines. Search engines, like Google, are basically directories to the Internet, so it's paramount that your site can be found when users are looking for you. If you visit http://www.google.com/addurl/, submitting your site is simply a matter of typing in the homepage of your URL, along with a few keywords describing your site, and you're done.
Tactics like these are just a few of the ways you can boost your website's search engine optimization (SEO), which is essential to increasing traffic, driving sales, and raising awareness of your brand. An example of doing this within your site content is identifying and repeating keywords and phrases associated with your industry or product that are commonly searched for, which Google's keyword tool can help with.
Remember that marketing your website is an ongoing effort, and should go hand in hand with regular upkeep and maintenance of the site. While electronic communication reigns when it comes to promotion, traditional methods like word-of-mouth and print aren't completely dead, says Zack. "Nothing should go out of the door of your business without having your domain name on it," he says. "Make sure all of your clients know what's happening on your site."