Getting Started With Your Web Site

How do I start my website? This is a very commonly asked question, and I hope the following will give a few very basic answers, as well as giving you some starting knowledge of what is involved in creating a personal or business web site. I intend to cover each of these topics individually, and at much greater depth, in coming weeks, but for now here is my basic starter guide to putting the first few feet forward on the path of web site creation. Although aimed at small business and organizations most of these principles apply to web site projects of all types and sizes.

Step One: What Do I Want My Web Site For?

Every web site needs a reason to be, a purpose to fulfill or a job to do! The first step in creating any web site is to define the reason why your site needs to come into being. Have a brainstorming session by yourself or with your team and answer the following questions:

Who are we trying to reach with our website?

It is very important to know the target audience or “demographic” you want to appeal to with your web site (or any form of public marketing for your organization). A site intended for high level industry professionals will and should have a very different look, feel and function to a site intended for children or a site intended for selling fashion accessories. A good thought experiment is to write down the attributes you would want in your “ideal” visitor. This will really help in answering the other questions going forward about your site.

What do we want visitors to our website to be able to do?

A web site can allow a visitor to find and do any number of things and it is up to you to decide what functions you want to provide. Is your site just about information? Are you looking to sell a product or encourage prospective clients to contact you about buying a service? Do you want visitors to be able to get an online quotation or to be able to donate money? Don’t limit your vision. If you don’t have the full budget, or your business isn’t quite ready to service all the features you want, you can always split your project into stages and launch a site that can easily grow, expand and develop when you are ready.

What “call to action” do we want for our visitors?

This is a very important, arguably the MOST important question to answer about your web site before starting any design process. How do you want a visitor to act ideally on finding your web site? Do you simply want to encourage them to telephone your company? Do you want them to make an online request to contact them? Do you want them to go ahead an make a purchase or a booking right there on your site? Do you want them to send you information, or perhaps subscribe to your mailing list? Here again it can help to make a simple point-by-point plan on paper, from “A visitor arrives at your homepage…” to “A visitor leaves your website.” Having this information at hand will enable you or your designer to tailor every element of your site to making this happen.

What “style” do we want for our site?

Almost certainly if you are reading this you have spent some significant time “surfing the web”. By now you know what you like, what you dislike and what you find just plain scrumdelicious. If you are in a business or organization you have very likely spent time browsing your competitors’ web sites, or sites similar to the one you want to build. Bookmark these sites and write down what you like or hate about each. You may love the way a menu works in one site but hate the color scheme. On another you may like the way they take orders, but find the site hard to navigate. At our company we call these sites picked out by a client “exemplars” and they can be invaluable when creating the look, feel and function of a site that will meet what the client’s vision for their project. There is nothing wrong with adapting a good idea from one site to use on your own or taking inspiration from another site in the design of your own. As a web designer, this is actually one of the highest compliments one can receive. On the flip side, don’t try to re-invent the whole web site concept. Visitors expect to find navigation menus in certain places and pages such as a “contact us” are a useful standard. The balance in style is between building a site that looks pleasing, distinctive, and professional, but has the type of functionality a visitor expects and can easily navigate.

What is our budget for this project?

Budget is a very important factor when approaching a web design project. Some costs, such as domain registration and a hosting account, cannot be avoided but if money is extremely tight you may consider building a site yourself or finding a “talented amateur” family member or friend who will give you a hugely discounted price. If you choose to go with a professional you should definitely get several quotes and ask for project proposals and estimates from each of the companies you contact.

Beware of companies that can quote you a price almost without hearing any details of your project. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions! Your web site represents a significant investment and you should get clear explanations of what is involved and how the project is priced. On the other hand you should also be ultra clear and specific about the process flow of your business. Remember, your designer might know little to nothing about your industry and without sufficient specifics from you, there can end up being unexpected costs when the designer has to rework the design and coding.

Step Two: Finding and Registering A Domain Name

So you have your web site planned out. You know who you want to visit your site, what you want them to do when they get there, and have a pretty good idea how you want your site to look. Now it is time to give your site a name. For a web site that means “registering a domain name”. Domain names can be registered pretty cheaply (from about $8 to $15 depending on the domain type).

If you are working with a web design company they may be able to suggest available names and take care of the registration process for you, as this does mean configuring a few variables at the time of registration and many web companies have a bulk account that get’s them a better price on registration. You have almost certainly seen ads on the TV for “domain registration for only $0.99″. Do not be surprised if that bargain price only comes as part of a “package” when purchasing, such as hosting or e-mail accounts.

Don’t be afraid to shop around and read what people say about a registrar online (Google their name plus “reviews” or “customer service”). Of course before you can register you need to find an available name! Every registrar, and a great many design and hosting companies, have a domain name search feature. If your organization name is very much your brand, or something people are likely to search for online buying a domain that reflects this can be a good idea. Alternatively you can search for a name that contains “key words” relevant to your business that visitors may use when searching. Some studies also suggest that having “keywords” in your domain can also slightly help your eventual search engine placement.

A competent web professional should be able to suggest five or six good (and more importantly available) options for you or you can start searching until you find a name you like that can be registered. If you are absolutely set on a name already registered there is a possibility the owner might sell but this can be very slim (75% of owners simply don’t return inquiries about buying their domain names).

Buying an already registered domain from a third party owner can be VERY expensive if not handled with caution, as many domains for sale are heavily overpriced. A web professional should be able to give you guidance if that is a way you are thinking of heading.

You should also be aware of the “extension” (.com, .org, .net, .biz, .co.uk) that will work best for your project. “.com” is the standard for a business, but if you are a charity or social organization you may be better with a “.org”. A quick search of the Internet can help you find more information about domain extensions and domain registration in general. If you are looking to self-register, there are plenty of well established, reliable companies to use. Remember, no company has 100% perfect reviews, but the majority of reviews for a company you use should be positive!

Step Three: Where Will My Web Site Live – Finding A “Host”

So you have your project plan and your domain name (whew! this web thing is a lot of work, but trust me the more you plan the better your website will be!). Now you need somewhere for your web site to live. This is known as hosting. For the newcomer, information about web hosting can be baffling and overwhelming. A great litmus test for any hosting provider is simply to give them a call. If you can’t get a response, spend half an hour talking to a machine or find you have reached a new friend in India, these are bad signs that signal that when you have a problem ,help will be hard to find!

Step Four: Who Will Build My Awesome Web Site?

So, you have a name, a plan and a place for your site to live. Finally, it is time to start designing! The choice here is to try to build yourself, “self-build”, or find a professional to do the job for you. A half way house some use is to find a family member or friend who dabbles in web design and will do the job for as little as a case of beer. I would strongly advise against this route as the design process can be quite intense and is apt to place some strain on any personal relationship if significant redrafting is needed or the design is not all you had hoped for. If your first designer is not up to the project you can fire them and move on. Letting go of a family friend can present far more issues.

If choosing to self-build, you should be aware that there will still be costs, most significantly your time, but also possibly in obtaining software to use for coding or manipulating graphics. Although it may not look the case on the screen a web page is a complicated computer coded document far more involved than a Word document or even a Powerpoint presentation. There are a lot of factors to consider: various screen sizes and types of browser, optimizing images for fast download, and perhaps most importantly building to the best standards for Search Engine Optimization. There are a few simple site-builder programs, many of which come free with your hosting account (such as Yahoo SiteBuilder) that have a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) format but in many cases your design will be limited to templates provided and if you want anything more than basic functionality on your pages you may well find the software struggles to accommodate you. Saying all that, for some people creating a new site these programs are more than sufficient. Another possibility is to use a free content management program such as WordPress or Druple, which are free and easy to install on your hosting space. Many companies, ours included, offer these as standard with hosting accounts and the software can be installed with just a couple of clicks. If your site is mostly informational this may well be the solution for you and both these programs have extensions that can add some dynamic functionality to your pages but you are still looking at a significant time investment and anything beyond fairly simple pages will start to stretch your learning curve if you are new to web design concepts.

The other option, of course, is to hire a professional web designer. Using a good professional can take away all the stress and endless hours of frustration a newcomer finds when building their first web site. A good designer will talk you through the process and go over your needs in detail before providing you with an estimate and a project outline. Again, beware of companies too quick to quote an, often large, off the cuff price. Such companies can be web page “factories” that turn out the site they want to give you, rather than the site you want, with very little recourse.

As with any profession, with web designers there are sharks in the water. Be VERY wary of anyone asking full payment up front, making promises that seem too good to be true, or who seem to be avoiding your questions. Another good rule of thumb is how easy a designer is to contact. If they are quick to return your calls and e-mails that is a good sign they will be responsive to your needs.

Another question often not asked is “do you like the designer?”. For a small business a web design project can mean working quite closely with a designer and a good degree of mutual understanding. A personality clash between client and designer can be a disaster for a project leaving both sides very unsatisfied. If you find a rapport with your designer, the chances for a successful project certainly increase.

There are a lot more issues with self build and hiring a professional that I will go into detail in future articles, but if you think of design like fixing your car you can’t go too far wrong. If you can do the work well yourself, go right ahead, but if you need to hire a professional look for someone trustworthy, well recommended, accessible and competitively priced.

Step Five: Letting The World Know Your Site Is There!

So you finally have a site built and online. Time to sit back and watch the hits fly in? Unfortunately the concept of “if you build it they will come” does not apply to Internet.

The big concern for almost all site owners is how to get the best Search Engine Placement. Search Engine Optimization is a complex and contentious area with millions of words written every year trying to explain it’s mysteries. I cannot cover it all here but there are a few pointers everyone should know.

1. A good web design will start life at launch with all the key factors for optimization in place. Proper use of title and description tags, good keyword density and cross site linking, alt tagging, etc. should all be in place at roll out.

2. If the mantra of the realty business is “location, location, location”, the first cry of good web design is “content, content, content”. I cannot stress this enough. The more value content (interesting, useful and well written) you can put out there on your site, your blog, articles sites, online press releases, your company Facebook profile, your own LinkedIn profile, the better your site will do. Remember, if you are putting content elsewhere but on your own site don’t forget to link back to it! Just as important is to keep content fresh. Sites that haven’t changed a word since 2007 attract less return visits and lower Search Engine placement.

3. You don’t have to pay a company a fortune EACH MONTH to achieve success. Anyone who owns a web site has received the e-mails offering top Google placement for a set monthly fee. In most cases these are empty promises (you just get a set of doctored stats e-mailed to you every month) and worse the company may be using link farming or other techniques considered spam, Spamdexing, that could lead to your site being penalized or worse blacklisted!

4. Get into Web 2.0 (aka Social Networking)! Start a blog (you are reading an example), post a video on YouTube, set up a company page on Facebook, post press releases online, write and post articles about your area of expertise…The possibilities are growing all the time and the more work you put in the better the results you will achieve. Don’t forget to link everything back to your site!!

5. Don’t forget your Offline marketing. Your web address should be on business cards, headed paper, fliers, t-shirts, banners, vehicles, in newspaper ads, television ads, radio ads. If you are lucky enough to be interviewed about your project unashamedly plug your site!! The more people see your site name, the more it will stick in their mind as THE place to go for your kind of product or service.

If you are new to web site creation I hope the above has been useful!

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