It's the rare business that doesn't have a Web site, but among those that do, there are many different ways of doing things, and not all succeed.
What should the purpose of a business Web site be? That's the main question you should ask yourself if you're considering establishing a site. Are you providing information, advertising your services, selling a product or some combination of the three? At the very least, the site should be more than just a simple contact form. You want it to offer a good sense of what your business does, who you are, what you stand for and what you can offer clients.
The next consideration is the all-important domain name, the URL. For a professional site, it's essential to get a personalized domain name. That name is your brand (and should be your company name or something similar), and it's what people will most readily associate with your site. Strive for distinctive without being too complicated. A domain name with multiple hyphens or numbers or that's excessively long may make it more difficult for users to find your site.
Then there's the matter of design. If it's a serious business, you likely will want to turn to a professional Web designer, perhaps an independent contractor or a larger design firm. Many hosting services provide free templates, but they're often bare bones and may not have the polished look you want for your business. It may also not be as customizable and fully featured as what a professional designer can provide. However, if on a budget, some sort of premade template could be useful in initially establishing your site.
Most designers charge by the project. The cost may range from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands, depending on the scope of the project and the experience of the designer. With the designer, you will discuss the vision for the site, with particular focus on the following items:
- The brand
- Target audience
- Goals for the Web site
- Measurements of success
The designer will also likely help you to find a hosting service. In addition, he or she should help you to establish what kinds of resources you need -- hosting, security services, shopping engines and other such features.
OK, you're ready for the next step.
Business Domain Name Registration
Numerous companies provide domain-name registration services. Simply registering myawesomebusiness.com might cost you $10 for a year, but other perks, such as preventing your registration information from being shown in a publicly searchable database, might cost you extra.
Some services claim to provide free domain registration, but there is a catch. They may require to be the administrator for a while or to transfer ownership of the site to you later, so buyer beware.
After you've decided on your domain name, you may want to buy it for multiple so-called "top-level" domains. That means you may register the .net, .com and .org versions of your domain so that no one else can take it and possibly impersonate your company.
For hosting -- a place to store your data and possibly to provide you with ways to trick out your site -- many options exist, depending on the combination of services you need. You could pay nothing or hundreds of dollars a month. Like shopping for a car, consider the amenities you need.
- Data storage: You don't want to have to spread your data across multiple hosting services.
- Data transfer limits: Some sites limit your monthly traffic, which can pose a problem if you become "too" popular.
- E-mail: Does your host provide @yourdomain.com e-mail addresses, and how many do you need?
Throughout the process, ask questions, both of your potential host, friends, colleagues and your Web designer. You're investing in this site, so be persistent. Does the site have around-the-clock FTP access? What is its tech support situation? Does it provide e-commerce tools, like a shopping cart and purchasing system? How secure are these tools? Do they have SSL encryption (the industry standard)? Do the e-commerce tools allow for multiple payment methods, such as credit card and PayPal? Does your account come with marketing tools, such as credits toward Google AdWords?
All of the above questions can help you to find the best possible host for your needs. And don't forget what may be most important: uptime, or how often a service crashes. Many small businesses have faced problems with unreliable hosts whose service is disrupted for days at a time without any explanation. Most leading hosting services report 99.9 percent uptime.
Besides consulting reviews and colleagues, sites like FindMyHost.com allow you to fill out a search form and find a service that fits your combination of needs.
Great. You're up and running. Now what?
Maintaining a Business Web Site
Depending on your arrangement with your Web site designer, you may be responsible for updating your site. Your host will likely provide security and customer support services, but those only concern the site's infrastructure. If, like many small businesses, you use a hosting service like Yahoo! or Crosswinds, then you don't need a webmaster.
If you decide to forego a hosting service and put your own server online, security will be a major concern. Hackers could attack your server within minutes of going online [source: Nice]. In that case, you or the webmaster will have to remain vigilant, monitoring security, applying patches and looking for problems on a daily basis. If your server goes down and your site is unavailable, it will then be up to you and your webmaster to fix things. There will be no company to turn to and no promises of 99.9 percent uptime or data backup solutions.
When maintaining a business site, you also have to consider standards governing e-commerce. If you run a site that stores customer information, such as credit card numbers, then you must be PCI certified. (PCI certification refers to a mandatory security standard for processing online credit card payments.) Many hosting services are already PCI certified, and it can be quite a hassle to certify your own system.
Similarly, if you're interested in selling products, educate yourself about the tax laws associated with e-commerce and consider a program that makes it easier to add shopping and purchasing functionality. For example, Americart software allows a site proprietor to quickly put a shopping cart function on any page that includes a product listing.
Remember that the dominant methods for buying products over the Web are credit cards and PayPal. If your e-commerce site can't support these products, your competition almost certainly will.
Read on to learn how to satisfy users and keep them coming back.
User Experience on a Business Web Site
Congratulations if you've managed to put your site online, but your work isn't done yet. It's essential that you look continually for ways to improve the user experience. Numerous tools allow you to customize how your site looks for individual users and to increase levels of interactivity. Companies like BroadVision sell products that allow a webmaster to provide features such as product recommendations, targeted ads and automatic e-mail responses to questions.
Consider other ways to personalize the site for customers. Some news and shopping sites allow users to set preferences for content based on the region in which they live. A shopping or tech support Web site might provide a user with a series of questions that eventually leads to a few potential products (or solutions, in the case of, say, a tech support or medical site).
Think about other interactivity tools like discussion forums or a blog that allows readers to comment. Don't just throw up these features and hope they stick; integrate them into the life of the site, cross-link with other content on the site and keep them refreshed with new content. But don't forget that any feature that allows users to contribute may require some extra work on your part, as you'll have to keep an eye out for disruptive or inappropriate comments.
Although there are numerous possibilities for expanding a site's functionality, don't overload on features, flash, videos and other gizmos that may overshadow the purpose of the site or overwhelm the user with content. A video message from the CEO might seem cool, but it's probably not necessary for a site hawking band T-shirts.
Even so, keep the site fresh. That doesn't mean that you have to change the content just for the sake of doing so. But including updates on products, the company, the field in which the business operates -- all can help to keep users coming back and feeling as if the site has more to offer than its competitors.
Above all, make sure your site is straightforward and useable. If you can't afford some sort of focus-group testing, try it out with friends and clients. Solicit feedback. Make sure that there's a clearly marked portion of the site where users can contact you. You want to appear open to concerns and suggestions for improvement. Network with others in your field -- it can help you to learn what works and also to exchange useful information and contacts.
Promoting a Business Web Site
Take advantage of free and cheap opportunities to promote your site. Use e-mail: It's hardly on the cutting edge of technology, but it's still useful -- and free. A regular e-newsletter, which you may have to pay a modest fee to distribute via a Web service, can keep your customers informed regarding what your company is doing and offer a way to approach them directly. In a newsletter, you can present information about sales, partnerships and other important developments.
With a blog for nearly every subculture and field of interest, there is likely at least one blog or online community -- possibly many -- relating to the field in which your business operates. Contact bloggers, make yourself open to them for questions and interviews, send them press releases, include them on mailing lists and ask them to review your services. If your business hosts parties or is unveiling a new product, invite bloggers, journalists and other similarly influential types to the event.
There are numerous services for paid advertising, such as Google AdWords, and what is most appropriate for your site depends on your budget. Consider also consulting with your designer or webmaster about which advertising services they recommend.
If you can't afford to pay to market your site, take advantage of free tools. For example, Google Webmaster Tools lets you make your site more search engine friendly by making sure Google is aware of your Web site and will include it in search listings. Google also hosts a webmaster community in which people ask questions.
Social networking sites for business, such as LinkedIn, provide free forums in which you can connect with other professionals in your field. Learn which organizations and associations they belong to, as that process may lead you to an even wider community of experts and helpful resources. Other social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are now popular for businesses reaching out to consumers. With the lines between the professional and personal worlds blurring, these sites can be good places to interact with customers, teach them about what you're doing and show that your company is more than simply another business.
For more information about running a business Web site, e-commerce and other related topics, look over some of the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Chamberlain, Jennifer. Pixel Pop Designs. Personal communication. April 16, 2009.
- "Creating a Great Web Site on the Cheap." Inc. http://www.inc.com/guides/start_biz/20685.html
- Dreisbach, Crystal. "Pick a Business Model That Works for You." Inc. June 2000.http://www.inc.com/articles/2000/06/20003.html
- Google. "Google Webmasters." http://www.google.com/webmasters/
- "How to Set Up Your Own Online Business." eWorkingWomen. http://www.eworkingwomen.com/experts/ebiz11.html
- Matthews, Carole. "Taking Business Online." Inc. October 2003. http://www.inc.com/articles/2003/10/websitedesign.html
- Nice, Karim. FridgeFilters.com. Personal communication. April 12, 2009.
- Schommer, David. "Set Up Your Business Web Site Cheaply." KPHO. http://www.kpho.com/smallbusiness/14663181/detail.html
- Sterne, Jim. "Come In. I've Been Expecting You." Inc. March 2000.http://www.inc.com/magazine/20000315/17884.html
- "Top Ten Small Business Web Site Marketing Tips." PawPrint.http://www.pawprint.net/internet-marketing/small-business-web-site.php