You see them everywhere today - www.anything.com, on delivery vans, in newspaper ads, on television. Hopefully by now you’ve got your own web site and domain name. If you’re still on the sidelines, consider these numbers from a Gartner Group study as encouragement to get into the game (find the October 30, 2000 press release announcing this study, titled “Gartner Says Average U.S. Internet User is 41 Years Old With an Income of $65,000”, at http://www.gartner.com/):
- There are 127 million internet users in the U.S., up from 108 million at the end of 1998.
- Online holiday sales are projected to reach $19.5 billion in 2000, an 85% increase since 1999.
- 86 million Americans shop online.
Obviously this is a segment of the market that no business can afford to ignore, regardless of the size of your company or your market segment. The bigger question is “how can your business best use the world-wide web?”
Spend 5 minutes surfing the web and you’ll see an incredible range of web sites, from simple online brochures to dynamic sites of hundreds, even thousands, of pages. What’s important to keep in mind is that even small companies with limited resources can compete on a level playing field with companies of all sizes, from countries around the world. The rest of this article will introduce you to the steps required to get an effective web site up and running. We’ll then discuss some innovative ways to use the web that you may not have considered.
The first, and arguably one of the most important steps in setting up your web site is registering your domain name. This is the short name used to refer to your web site, commonly referred to as your URL. For example, Irish Rose Consulting can be found on the internet at http://www.irose.com. Our domain name is, therefore, irose.com. The biggest problem in registering a domain name is finding a name that is available. You can go to sites such as http://www.networksolutions.com to search the domain database for availability. If your company name is made up of common words, you may find you have to select an abbreviation or unique arrangement to find an available name.
Going hand-in-hand with domain registration is finding a place to host your web site. Most small and mid-size businesses will want to rent hosting space from a provider rather than setting up their own web server. With hosting available for as little as $10-$20 per month, it just isn’t cost effective for most businesses to run their own web server. Most companies that host web sites will allow you to register your domain name at the time you sign up for web hosting. It’s important to determine, through the host’s service agreement, who retains ownership of the domain name. You’ll want to retain ownership in case you change hosting companies down the road. To find a local host, you can look in your local yellow pages or contact your local Chamber of Commerce. Remember, you can host your site anywhere in the world, since all your updates will be done over the internet. You can find a large list of web hosts at http://www.thelist.com. Here are some things to keep in mind as you evaluate potential hosts:
- What kind of volume do you expect to serve? Many web hosts have charges based on the amount of data transferred from your web site. A high-volume site can cause your charges to vary significantly.
- What is the provider’s uptime guarantee (i.e. how much time in a given month is your web site going to be functioning)? If your web site is merely an online brochure, down-time probably is not too critical. However, if you’re making sales through your web site, down-time can cost you money. Be sure to inquire about guarantees and refund or insurance options provided by your host. Find out if your host has personnel on-site 24 hours a day, or if they have pager notification for down-time.
- Does the host offer redundant servers and connections to the internet? This is a factor in the uptime guarantee, but can also affect the speed and responsiveness of your site when you get high traffic.
- Does the host offer access to web logs or provide traffic reporting? An important part of any web site is tracking the usage statistics to determine it’s effectiveness.
Once you’ve selected a web host, it’s time to design your web site. Like any good project, you’ll want to lay out your goals before committing to a design. This can be as simple as a cocktail napkin sketch, or a complete design document specifying the site design. You may want to use your current marketing materials as a design guide - all your materials will be stronger if they present a unified design. You can find some good information about web design at CNet Builder.com (http://www.builder.com) and at WebMonkey (http://www.webmonkey.com). As with any complex technology project, if your resources allow, you may want to consider hiring some design or development assistance. See the article “How to Hire Consultants” on our web site for some tips on hiring consultants to assist you.
With a completed design, you’re left with implementing the web site. There are many WYSIWYG (what-you-see is what-you-get) web tools on the market. Users familiar with word processing or desktop publishing programs will probably have little difficulty in developing web pages. Many community colleges now offer courses in beginning and advanced web development. As you develop your site, be careful to maintain a consistent navigation theme throughout the site. If users have difficulty finding their way through your site, they probably won’t spend time exploring it. Also, constantly check your site using different web browsers - Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer will often display pages with not-so-subtle differences. Take care to make your pages small enough to download quickly, even over a dial-up connection. If you make users wait too long for page loading, they’ll often leave rather than wait. Finally, make sure you provide easy-to-find contact information throughout your site so your site visitors can contact you for more information.
The last issue to discuss is web site publicity. Feature your web address prominently on all your marketing materials and at your business locations. Do a press release for the local paper to announce your site unveiling. Through all these efforts, track statistics about visitors to your web site. This will allow you to measure the impact of your marketing - traffic rates after a newspaper ad can tell you whether to consider running another ad.
As with all aspects of your company, you have the choice to either produce your web site in-house, or hire outside expertise. When making this decision, remember that your web site will be your first impression for potentially thousands of people. Take care to put your best foot forward!
Consulting group that provides internet studies and statistics.
One of many domain name registration companies.
A large listing of internet service providers and web hosting providers.
A site with lots of resources for web builders.
Another site with lots of web developer information.