Monday, October 15, 2012

Part II: Exploration (Building a small business website)

Summary: Basic things you need to do when building a small business website.
In this section, I will describe the basic aspects of building a small business website. For other topics, see:

Table of contents How to pick a platform?
If you decide to build a website for a small business, you need to pick a platform or technology which you will use. The most obvious options include:
  • Build it from scratch
    If you are familiar with programming and feel comfortable around web technologies such as PHP, ASP.NET, or Ruby on Rails, you can try building your small business website from scratch, but in most cases and for most people, this would be the least recommended approach. Without getting into the gory details, take my word: don't even think about it.
  • Create a Facebook page
    In case you did not know, you can create a Facebook page for a small business website (see these examples). It will not cost you any money (at least, at this time, Facebook does not charge for hosting small business pages). While having a Facebook page is an excellent idea (and I'll come back to it in an upcoming post), I would not recommend Facebook as a primary website for a number of reasons. For example, it will not allow you to have your own domain address, which may make it harder for customers to find you. Your website's Google ranking will also suffer.
  • Use a blogging engine
    Currently, both Google's Blogger and WordPress.com allow you to create static pages for you website. It's a nice idea, but the last time I checked, the features were very limited, and the website templates looked really unprofessional. I hope that these services improve with time because they definitely have potential, but for now, I would skip them. Another alternative would be to use a self-hosted version of WordPress.org, but this option belongs to the next category of content management systems (CMS).
  • Use content management system (CMS)
    Popular CMS options include: Joomla, Drupal, and WordPress (see comparison of these three platforms). This is another option for tech-savvy users and unless you have already done this before or plan to make it a carrier skill, I would not recommend it. Keep in mind that you will need to find a hosting company that supports the CMS of your choice (charges normally start around $5/month).
  • Use a website builder
    A website builder allows you to build a website using available templates. You pick a template and start adding pages. You can customize the layout of each page, although customization options are limited to the widgets that the website builder supports. Some website builders charge fees, while others are free.
I think that for a typical small business owner, a website builder is the best option for a number of reasons.

Why use a website builder?
Many reasons, such as:
  • It's cheap
    If you do not mind a couple of minor limitations, you can host your website for free. You can also upgrade to a fee-based hosting package (with no limitations), most of which are not terribly expensive.
  • You're the boss
    Once you get a website, you will not depend on anyone and can do changes any time you want. No need to call or email anyone, and wait for the change.
  • Quick setup
    You can get a few pages done in (literally) a few minutes. Sure, they will probably not look very professional, but once you find a more-or-less decent template and make a few tweaks, they can look no worse than an average web page you find online.
  • Easy to maintain
    I'm not gonna lie: initial setup of the site will take some time and effort to get a semi-professional look, but once done, it should be really easy to make changes (assuming that you do not want to do a major redesign).
  • Limited technical knowledge is needed
    Some understanding of basic HTML and web design will definitely be helpful, but you don't need to be a technical guru to build and maintain the site and your sense of aesthetics will be more important than technical skills.
  • Self-hosted
    Since website builders also provide hosting, you don't have to look for a hosting company.
  • Self-contained
    You will not need any tools (other than a web browser) to build your website. No need to keep a local project and deal with backups, etc. Your website's control panel will be available from anywhere.
  • Optimized for mobile
    Most website builders automatically optimize your web pages for mobile browsers clients, such as iPhone or iPad.
However, you must be realistic and understand that all website builders have limitations. The major limitation is that your design capabilities are constrained by the limitations of the available templates, page widgets, and page layouts. And a typical selection of templates is rather small (especially if you count multiple versions of the same template with different color schemes as one). Majority of templates I've seen look like they were put together for a high school project in the late 90's. But you should be able to find one or two better templates. I believe that most small business websites can live with these limitations.

Which website builder to choose?
My criteria for choosing a website builder includes the following:
  1. Must offer a free hosting package with few limitations.
  2. Free package should not contain banner ads.
  3. Free package should not have silly bandwidth restrictions (e.g. 1,000 page views and then it will die).
  4. Free package must allow custom domains.
  5. A premium package must be reasonably priced (I'd say $120 or less/year).
  6. Website must be built as regular HTML (must not be Flash-based).
Currently, these requirements limit my choices to the following options: I played with Google Sites just a little bit, but did not like what I saw: the site template looked really basic, very amateurish. Unless Google adds features and makes the site template more visually pleasing, I'd stay away from it.

Wix used to produce Flash-based websites, but they stopped this silliness a while ago, so it's worth checking out. (NOTE: It looks like Wix requires you to purchase a premium support package to use custom domains, which is significant limitation.) I have more intimate experience with Yola and Weebly, and at this time, I prefer Weebly, although Yola keeps adding improvements, so I'd recommend both of them (for a detailed comparison between the two, see my Free web site builders: Weebly vs. Yola post).

It's not going to cost you anything (other than time) to create a website, so register for each service, poke around, and see which one you like best. Here are some tutorials, which can help you get started (you can find more by googling terms such as "getting started Yola" or "beginner's guide Wix" or "tutorial Weebly"): For the rest of this discussion, I'll assume that you will build your small business website with the help of one of the free website builders. I'll make my recommendations generic enough to apply to either service.

Do I need a domain name?
Regardless of where you host your small business website, you will need a domain name (i.e. unique web address by which your site will be known on the internet, such as myverysmallbusiness.com). Technically, while you're playing with the website builder, you don't really need a domain name (your website can be tested and even published as a subdomain of the website builder, such as myverysmallbusiness.weebly.com), but once your site goes public, you better have your own domain. It will cost you very little, make your website more professional, and help you in future, e.g. if you decide to migrate your site to a new host.

How to pick a good domain name?
Your domain name should ideally be named after the registered name of your business, but since small business names are not unique, it's likely that the name is already taken either бы a functioning website or simply reserved for future use (some people buy the whole ranges of domain names hoping to resell them later for more money). If your desired domain name is already taken, don't get discouraged. First, check if the same name is available under a different top-level domain (TLD), e.g. myverysmallbusiness.com may be taken, but myverysmallbusiness.biz is not. If the name is not available under any desired TLD, try improvising:
  • Use a more (or less) formal name, e.g. myverysmallbusinessllc.com, or myverysmallbusinessinc.com.
  • Add name of the city or county to the name, e.g. myverysmallbusinessNYC.com.
  • Instead of (or in addition to) using the name of your business, try describing the nature of your business using the keywords by which you want the potential customers to find you online. For example, if you operate a printing business, and you want a link to your web by searching for "custom signs posters", try something like customsigns.com, customposters.com, customsignsposters.com, or signspostersetc.com.
Keep in mind that, while it's desirable, your website's domain name does not necessarily have to match the registered name of your business. Just make sure that it's descriptive and easy to spell (try spelling it out for an imaginary customer). Never use uncommon abbreviations. Avoid punctuation (unless the name of your business contains special characters -- such as dashes -- stick with alpha-numeric characters).

Which TLD to use: .com, .net, .org, .biz, etc?
If you are running a non-profit, start with .org. The best option for everybody else is .com. If .com is not available, try .biz (keep in mind that domain name registration for .biz is more expensive by a couple of bucks per year). If neither option is available, try .net. Although, there are other TLDs available, I would be very cautious using them because they are not common (they may sound suspicious to your customers).

Where to register a domain name?
A service that allows you to register a domain name is called a domain name registrar. Most registrars will let you purchase the first year registration at a steep discount (such as 99 cents or $1.99). Before you fall for the first year promotion, check the regular price; otherwise, you may find yourself in a trap similar to the recent Yahoo! scam (Yahoo! have been offering a very low first year registration fee, but at some point it tripled the renewal fees for the existing customers). It is possible to transfer your domain name registration from one registrar to another, but it involves a bit of a hassle, which may not be worth a few bucks you're planning to save. So if you have no reason to chose a particular registrar, start with GoDaddy. It offers frequent promotions, but even the regular prices are reasonable.

IMPORTANT: Most website builders allow you to purchase a custom domain name through them. Do not fall for this offer! For one, their fees are normally higher than you would get from an external domain name registrar. Also, at some point, you may want to move your website to a different website builder or a brand new hosting provider, so having your domain name registered elsewhere would eliminate one more hassle in the process.

How much will I have to spend?
At the very minimum, your costs will be limited to the cost of domain name registration (and the corresponding fees). For a typical domain this would amount to about $15 per year. In many cases, the first year can cost you close to $1. When you are about to renew the registration, check if the registrar offers any coupons or promotions (notice that promotions for the first time registration normally do not apply to renewals). Keep in mind that when you register a domain name, the personal information you submit will become public. If you want to protect your privacy, opt for a private domain registration that most registrars offer for a few extra bucks (normally, less than $10). Registrars also offer a whole range of other add-on services, but you will most likely not ever need them.

Now, as I have mentioned, I assume that you will be using a free version of the website builder. If you decide to upgrade to a fee-based package, it will be extra cost. I would not recommend doing this immediately. Try staying on the free version for a couple of years and see how it works out for you. If you find the limitations of the free package burdensome, consider upgrading. A fee-based package will give you some bonuses. For example, in the case of Weebly, you will be able to remove the sponsorship footer (it's rather unobtrusive, though) and use a favicon.

So, should you upgrade or not? Here is my logic. A typical web hosting service fee starts somewhere around $5 per month (this comes to $60 per year plus any processing fees). So if an upgraded package costs less $100 or so, why not help out the company that offers you a valuable service? Help the business and bring good karma. But if the cost of the premium package is significantly higher, or if you do not mind living with the limitations of the free hosting package, or if you are in dire straights and are counting every dollar, be free.

<< Read Part I Read Part III >>

See also:
About That Small Business Website Of Yours
Find the right website builder
Build a Website for Your Small Business: 5 DIY Services
How Much Does A Small Business Website Cost in 2013?
Five Free Website Builders
A Web Presence Without a Website
10 Facebook Business Page Features You Should Be Using
Plato Web Design (see prices)

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