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)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Part I: Pre-exploration (Building a small business website)

Summary: Should you build your small business website yourself, pay a professional to do it, or do something else?
In this section, I will cover the most important decisions you need to make before you start building a website. For other topics, see:

Table of contents Buy or build?
The first and most important decision you need to make is: whether to hire a professional or build the site yourself (possibly with some help). Either option has pros and cons. Building a website yourself will most likely be the cheapest option. It will also give you full control of the site, so you will not depend on anyone. But the result will most likely (although, not necessarily) look less polished. So if you have a sufficient budget, consider hiring a professional.

How much would hiring a professional cost?
It will cost more than building the site yourself (at least, money-wise), but the exact amount could be $200, $2,000, more, or somewhere in between. The cost will depend on the website's complexity and other factors. Keep in mind that development cost should not be the primary concern when hiring a professional. The first question you need to address is: who (and how) will be in charge of the website maintenance after the site is up and running? Here is a common conversation I often get into when someone (SO) asks me (ME) for help:
- SO: I have a website built a year ago. Can you take a look at it?
- ME: Sure. It looks nice. Who built it? And how much did you pay?
- SO:Some guy from Poland charged me $400 for it.
- ME: That's not bad, not bad at all. So what do you need me for?
- SO: Could you make a small change? I need to update price list on this page?
- ME: Okay, do you know where it is hosted? Or which platform it is built on?
Now the conversation takes a bad turn. The small business owner does not know where the site is hosted (in response to the question about hosting, I normally get the site's URL). Or he may know, but have no idea how to access the control panel or source code. Hardly ever does the owner know which platform (PHP, WordPress, ASP.NET, etc) the site is built on. To make matters worse, the original developer is nowhere to be found or cannot be easily reached. [By the way, I'm not picking on Polish developers here; this can happen with contractors from U.S., Mexico, Russia, China, India, or any other country.] So, the poor small business owner is out of $400 and needs to rebuild the site from scratch.

How to avoid problems when working with a contractor?
Here are some topics you need to consider and discuss with your contractor to avoid common pitfalls (here, I'm focusing only on the aspects most likely to be missed by novices; you will need to discuss requirements, payments and other important topics that should be obvious):
  • Check contractor's experience and the websites he has already built (the longer the contractor has been in business, the more sites he should be able to show you). Do you like them? Notice the sites built for the same type of business (feel free to borrow ideas from them).
  • Determine who will own and maintain the site once it's build. If the contractor will be responsible for maintenance, discuss the associated costs (normally, maintenance involves monthly fees). Make sure you understand terms of maintenance, i.e. what the maintenance fee will cover. Ask for a typical response time (if you need to make a minor update or fix a problem).
  • Ask where the site will be hosted and how long the contractor has been using this host. Were there any issues? How long did it take to resolve them? Check if it would be possible to move to a different host if you experience consistent problems (such as long response time, outages, etc). Make sure you agree on who will be responsible for troubleshooting the issues if the site is down or experiences problems.
  • When discussing costs and fees, ask for a payment breakdown to see how much goes where, e.g. how much web site hosting or domain name registration will cost, how much the contractor will take, etc.
  • Make sure you own your website's domain name. If you cannot be the owner, ask the contractor if he can transfer ownership to you in case you decide to move on.
  • Ask which technology the contractor will use to build the site. Stay away from Adobe Flash-based sites: they can look flashy on your computer, but may not work on other devices (such as iPhone), and will most likely cause you problems in the long run.
  • Request to have a copy of the source code (you will need the complete project). Source code may not make sense to you now (or ever), but if you hire someone else to maintain your site later, source code will be needed.
  • Make sure you website will be optimized for mobile access and will work on slower connections.
  • Ask the contractor about his search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. Don't fall for the paid SEO services.
  • Discuss the separation procedure. If you are not happy with the contractor, or want someone else to take over support or redesign the site, how will you get the source code and other files (such as photos, etc)?
  • Check if you can be allowed to access the site's hosting control panel (in case you want to make changes). If so, do a walkthrough and make sure you know how to log on and get around.
  • Once the site is built, check the following:
    • See how it works using different web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari).
    • Check site for content: read all text, look at images.
    • Test all hyperlinks to make sure they point to the right locations.
    • When hosting files (such as PDF documents), make sure you can download them.
How to be a good client?
Other than being a prompt payer, try to provide the information requested by your contractor on time. Remember that while the contractor takes care of the site's web design and operation you own its content. We know that you are busy with your primary business, but without your feedback, the contractor will have nothing to put on the web pages.

To DIY or to not DIY?
If you have little money or cannot (or do not want to) spend more on the online presence, the do-it-yourself (DIY) is your only option. In the rest of this series, I'll discuss how to make the best of it, but regardless of the path you chose -- buy or DYI -- I hope it will be informational to you.

P.S. After publishing this post, another alternative (in addition to hiring a professional or doing it yourself) came to my mind. Depending on the type of business you are conducting, you may be able to find a provider specializing in hosting small business websites for the folks just like you. For example, my local auto mechanic, hosts his site at Repair Shop Websites. I haven't checked, but I suspect that other businesses may have something similar (e.g. here is one targeting food service businesses: BistroSquare). On the positive side, such providers optimize their services for the needs of specific industry, their websites normally look professional, and they should be more reliable than a random guy you find on the internet. Unfortunately, such services are not inexpensive, at least, when compared to the DIY option. But I would check them out anyway. Maybe you can find a deal that will make sense to you.

<< Introduction Read Part II >>

See also:
4 Easy Steps To Create Your Small Business Website

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How to build a small business website for less

Summary: This series is intended for small business owners who want to establish web presence on a limited budget.
Say, you are a small business owner operating a local bakery. Or maybe you are an accountant. Maybe you manage an auto shop. Or work as a general contractor. You would like to have a website, but think it will cost you too much. Or maybe you just don't know how to start. Worry not: you can build a website yourself (or with little help). And you can do it on the cheap. And it does not have to be bad. In fact, it can be better than an average small business site you find now on the web. In this series, I'll tell you how you can do it.

First, let me set the expectations. This series is not about building the next Amazon.com. A website I have in mind will not get you design awards. It is also not intended for businesses operating primarily online, such as online stores. The idea is to make a basic site with a handful of static pages, which will expose your business to the internet.

Before we start, let me answer a few questions that small business owners often ask:
  • Do I need a website?
    For majority of small business owners: yes, you do... unless you are one of the best or one of the worst. If you are very good, your reputation is spread by the word of mouth, and clients are chasing you instead of you chasing them, then the website will probably not make it better (although, it will not hurt, especially when business slows down). But if customers complain about you a lot, then visibility on the web will do you more harm then good (unless you take it as an opportunity to improve).
  • Will a website help me generate more business?
    Don't expect immediate inflow of customers right after publishing your website. It will take time for search engines and people to find you. There are ways to speed up the process a bit, but even under ideal conditions, you may not see obvious results, at least, not immediately. But in certain cases, it may help, especially, if you consider the competition. Do your competitors have websites? If they do, you can't afford to not have one. If they don't, a website will give you a competitive advantage. Also, web presence can bring you business opportunities that you may not even expect.
  • How much effort will building and maintaining a website take?
    Initial setup will take most of the time. If you already know what you want to put on the website, you can do it in a couple of days. Once your website is up and running, maintenance (if you follow my recommendations) will not take much effort.
  • Can I build a website myself?
    In theory, many people should be able to. In reality (at least, based on my experience), majority of small business owners seek help with initial setup. Hopefully, this series will help you chose the path that is right for you.
  • How much will a website cost?
    My goal is to get you up and running for less than $20 per year for a basic site (with a handful of pages). This assumes that you do everything yourself or get help for a more technically and aesthetically savvy friend or relative. If you need professional assistance for initial setup, it may cost you more, but it would be a one-time cost. Also, if you need some special bells and whistles, it may be more expensive (but not by a lot). I'll discuss costs in more detail later.
So, let's get started, shall we?

Here is the list of topics I will cover (I'll enable links when I make the topics available):
  • Part I: Pre-Exploration
    - Pros and cons of hiring a contractor
    - How to avoid common pitfalls when working with a web developer
    - Why do it yourself?
  • Part II: Exploration
    - Choosing a web host and platform
    - Picking a domain address and registrar
    - Cost allocation
  • Part III: Development
    - How to get started?
    - Basic website structure
    - Where to get graphics?
    - Where to store files?
    - Do's and dont's of web design
    - How to get better?
  • Part IV: Deployment
    - Steps to publish your website
    - Make if visible to search engines (Google, Bing, etc)
    - Website promotion
    - Getting social
  • Part V: Maintenance
    - Things to keep in mind when running your website
    - Examples of small business website
    - Resources
If you have a general question relevant to the subject, please leave a comment.

See also:
The Website as a Business Resume
How To Get Your Small Business Online Today