Website Advice For Small Businesses

By Guest Author: Edward Clarke

Why have a website for your business?

Owning a website is seen as the thing to do these days. Why? "Every other small business has one" is the most common phrase I hear. There is an element of this and it's one of the main reasons people invest in one. Their first biggest mistake.

So why should any small business have a website? Well, what is a website? Understanding this is the first step to making a decision to invest. To some people, it's an electronic brochure that helps lower costs by giving prospective clients information about products and services they can view anytime without having to mail out leaflets and information. To others, it's a marketing tool acting as bait to pull in new clients and serve existing ones.

Identify what you want your website to do by making a list of goals and setting expectations.

Design agency or DIY?

Any investment in business is a scary time and weighing up the pros and cons can take an awful lot of time. The big decision is whether to attempt to build a website yourself or not. The answer may have already been made for you as you have little or no skills in web development and if this is the case, rather than learn about how to build a website, find out what's involved in building a website as understanding this will save you money. As with many industries, the more you know the less you pay and this is especially true in the world of information technology.

Before we move on to the different website development paths, there are a few common technical points that all websites must adhere to. Technical specification of a website

First of all, I'd like to introduce the W3C. All you need to know is they set the standards for the internet and know what they're talking about so all website developers and browser manufacturers are duty bound to follow their rules (even though most don't).

Following standards ensures the internet is universal and can be accessed regardless of device, browser, platform, language or disability.

The W3C is more concerned with construction and accessibility than anything else and that's only half the story in building a website. Check out the rules below that are all a must for any website. The five points you want your website to score in are:
  1. The HTML code must be validated at http://validator.w3.org/.
  2. Follow the WCAG checklist. This can be checked by running your web pages through Cynthia's content quality WAI checker.
  3. Your website must be optimised for the search engines. This means well structured content using proper headings and paragraphs as well as using descriptive "search engine friendly" keyphrases in the content.
  4. Marketing is critical so you need to ensure that your website is effectively listed in all the major search engines, you have an abundance of quality inbound links and you have comprehensive statistics to analyse and measure the marketing.
  5. A website must be reliable. Don't go for the cheapest hosting deal you find. There are plenty of quality hosts with their own servers in London HEX offering a great deal for peanuts.
How to build a website myself

The first thing you'll need to do is find a tool that can help you along. If you already have Microsoft FrontPage or Macromedia Dreamweaver then lucky you, that's all you'll need to get started. For those that don't there are plenty of free tools around that can do this for you.
  1. Mozilla Suite
  2. NVU
Both the above editors work on Windows, Mac and Linux so you should be OK. Best of all though, they're completely free. See which one you get on with best and start playing around.

Once you have your editor installed and running, you need to create a template with which you can build your site on. In the spirit of the W3C, I'm going to take a chance and lead you down the CSS layout route. This is a technically more challenging path in terms of layout but the end result is far more rewarding.

There are two great resources that can do the hard work for you.
  1. CSS layout generator
  2. Open source web design
Have a nose through and see what fits your needs. Once you have got a basis for your template, you can open the files you downloaded in your editor and begin to build you website. If you need further advice on building a website then the internet has all the answers. Fire up your favourite search engine and ask away. Someone, somewhere is struggling like you are and have asked all the same questions before. There are countless tutorials and examples on links, images, writing good copy etc.

How to approach an agency for a website

So, you can't build a website. Don't worry, plenty of people can't. Hopefully by now you should have some idea what's involved in running a website but I'll recap what you need before presenting yourself to a design agency.
  1. Get a list of websites you like the look of. Write down what it is that strikes you about it, eg. colours, fonts, images etc.
  2. Look for a layout. Study websites in terms of how easy they are to use and the way they work. Write down what works for you.
  3. Type out all the content you wish to use. Get it spell checked and grammatically correct.
  4. Arm yourself with the knowledge of the latest deals in terms of domain names and hosting. We'll look at this a little later on in this article.
  5. Remember the W3C guidelines and make sure the designer knows too.
  6. Carefully study the search engines for online competition. Identify them, read their content, see how they pitch their services.
With all the above information at hand, you'll be in a position to see an agency, be clear in your head what you want your website to do, how you want it to look and what the website will be competing with in the search engines.

The more you can do before seeing a designer the less there is for them to do which in turn should offer a faster turn around time and lower cost.

Never rely on one quote either. The downside to approaching more than one designer is that you'll get a variety of points of view. This does nothing but confuse an already confusing issue. Remember, the more you know the less you pay so start researching.

Don't ask me how much a website costs either. Designers prices will vary by how busy they are to how much they think they're worth. This is why it's important to get the specification right and to get the designers to bat off each other to get the best deal.

Domain name and hosting

These are your ongoing annual costs so beware. Learn what these are and how much these cost. Every website needs a domain name and hosting. Let's start to break down what these are.

1. Domain name

This is your name on the internet, for example www.bigjohnspetshop.com would be a domain name. There are a variety of domains to be had such as .net, .co.uk, .org etc and they are all called top level domains, or TLD's. Most UK companies would go for the .co.uk TLD as this represents a UK company. I would recommend however that if it's available, you also go for the .com address too. This is to protect your online identity from cybersquatters. They are people that register domain names that are similar to yours and try to either sell to you at an inflated price or start up as competition against you.

My preferred website for buying domains is www.123reg.co.uk as it's about as cheap as it gets in the UK and I've been using them for years. Other countries will no doubt have their own favourites. Once you own a domain name, you need to think about hosting for your website.

2. Website hosting

Hosting is space on the web. You need your website to be held somewhere and it's this that offers you that service. Not only does hosting give you space, it also gives you email too. Hosting can potentially be another dodgy area as too many people are reselling other peoples services and creating a chain of middle-men, or middle-persons (pc).

A website hosting provider must own their own servers and preferably locate their servers in Londons HEX data centre or some such quality place. I don't have experience of other countries hosting services but in the UK, stick with London.

How do you know this? Well, the list below offer great services and low prices. I'm not on a kick back either so have nothing to gain from promoting these guys other than the fact that I have used them before and am happy with their service. Check out their websites and look at some of the prices. They start at around 20 including VAT. Remember these specifications and prices when getting quoted by a design agency because they will mark these prices up, sometimes quite considerably. Some hosting companies also offer domain registration as part of the deal and it's usually easier to do this as it simplifies the whole setup process.

All these hosting companies will assist in helping you setup your email and getting your website displayed.

FTP

More acronyms eh? The world of computers is full of them but what they mean to you isn't that imporant, it's what it can do for you that is. FTP means File Transfer Protocol. Still means nothing? It means it can get files such as images and web pages from your computer onto your web host and then on the internet.

The good news is if you have a Windows machine, you can download plenty of free FTP software. Mac users however may be limited in terms of choice of software.
  1. Filezilla
  2. SmartFTP
  3. BlazeFTP
The hosting company will give you all the details you need to connect your FTP software to your host. Once connected, you can drag and drop files to and from your website anytime you wish. Again, a web designer may offer to do all this for you but bear in mind that any changes made will mean an invoice so be warned. Learning FTP, web design and managing your own hosting is a big task but can be very rewarding and extremely cost effective.

Search engine optimisation

You think you've finished now you have a domain name and your lovely new website is published? You haven't even started yet. What you've covered is the easy part. Building a website does take time but making it work is hardest of all. The first thing you have to do is make sure the site is search engine friendly.

I have a very comprehensive article on search engine optimisation, or SEO as we'll call it. Rather than recap the article I'll summarise it by saying there are two main areas to consider. The first is to ensure all the content of your website is well structured, grammatically correct, spell checked and content rich. The second part is to ensure that the content is keyphrase descriptive.

People search for a service in a region, "plumber in london", "car hire in paris" etc. Following this pattern in phrases in your website will offer more benefit than being very concise about your products or services. Search engines love text and the more the better so get writing.

There is also an unwritten rule about the amount of keywords on a page. Known as keyword density, you need to aim for about 5%-8%. If you need to add more keywords, then add more content. Don't flood the page with repetitive phrases.

Website marketing

All the above relates to construction and setup and is just the beginning. The article previously linked to will offer in depth marketing advice but the gist is you need to get your website listed in all the major search engines and directories.

Marketing is about creating impressions on the internet and being seen. Too many people are out there looking to prey on small websites and target them with tools designed to get them to #1 of all the leading search engines. You have to be aware of the sharks, arm yourself with the right information and be persistent. Endurance is the key to success with marketing a site. Never get complacent or lazy when you've got the results you aimed for as a competitor will wipe the smile off your face.

My advice is to read my SEO article as this has enough information to get you going and give you the knowledge to avoid getting ripped off.

Comprehensive website statistics

Statistics are everything. How else do you measure your website? Forget hits, they don't mean a thing. You need to know which search engine people used to find you, the phrase they used in the search engine and the page they landed on. This sort of data doesn't come from hit counters but free tools such as Webalizer or StatCounter. Stats are your weapons against the bigger websites. By understanding how to read them and then how to act upon the data, you'll create a powerful marketing tool for your business that will easily reap in more than the investment.

Further reading
  1. The business benefits of web standards
  2. Search engine optimisation



About the author:
Author of Optimising Your Website, and an IT Consultant for local UK Government and various European Union initiatives, Edward Clarke specialises in website accessibility, css, web standards and search engine optimisation. Visit Edward's consultancy website and his blog for more information.













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