Building a good web site presence

Copy of posting originally made to the UK Busness Forums website in July 2007

Way back in April 2004 (a long time in the internet world), I posted a simple overview on the UK Busness Forums website some of the basic technical things you need to understand when putting a business online. The post has remained in place ever since as a sticky and was locked long-ago. I feel it is time to update it and given the huge increase in experience available in the forum, I thought I would start by republishing the last version with a few minor updates and asking for constructive feedback.

Introduction
Getting web sites right is very important to small businesses but not the most important thing of the many items on the agenda for getting a business going.

Getting a web site wrong though can be very damaging and often businesses would have been better off not touching the web at all.

Purpose of this posting
This posting is intended to provide a brief overview of some key principles/learnings with regard to getting websites up and running. Whilst you may employ someone else to design, build/implement, and manage a website to represent your business or to enable you to provide another sales channel, it is important for you to understand some basics. If you do want to do it yourself, this posting should help get you started.

There are a few links to sources of information about the current trends included in this post.

I plan to edit this message to add more links. I am not intending to attempt to cover in this single post topics like branding, marketing, PR, propositions, etc. – these are better covered off by other members. My focus is on the basics I feel you should be aware of before building a web site (be it done by yourself or by someone else for you). Keep in mind that all the basic principles of business apply in the online world just as much as in the real world (and sometimes more).

Credentials
In my professional life I have been responsible for the development and integration of some of the largest transactional sites in Europe for major retailers and online companies and have been responsible for many million pounds of expenditure in this area. I have learnt a lot from the many companies and individuals I have worked with and have had direct access to a considerable amount of market research and ongoing experience of the dynamics and customer performance of major sites.

Whilst websites representing companies within the SMB community addressed on this forum will typically be more modest, I think that the experience from larger companies is applicable and beneficial.

I am not personally a web developer nor designer although I have developed a few websites myself over the years that do follow many of the principles outlined in this post and which are generally fit-for-purpose.

There are many represented on this forum who are web developers. There are many companies on the forum offering services to build and host websites. I leave you to explore the offerings of each and see how they best fit your needs. At least this post should help you better understand what they are talking about (although the best should, of course, talk your language).

Your own domain?
Domain names along the lines of www.mycompany.co.uk are relatively cheap these days (no more than around £10 a year for a .co.uk domain).

Along with a web address you can have email: some providers will limit email to just a few accounts (e.g. sales@mycompany.co.uk, enquiries@mycomapny.co.uk, etc.) which can be collect independently of each other.

Other providers will let you use an unlimited number of email addresses but will expect you to split them into mailboxes at your end (if you want to). Instead of splitting such emails between people, you can just teach your email program to put messages into different folders for you so you can deal with them when you want to. If you have several staff with several computers though you will probably need to set up one of the machines (or a spare PC/server) to act as a local mailserver.

There are lots of providers out there (many on this forum). You do want a reliable service but there is no need to pay Rolls Royce prices. As always, recommendations from trusted sources are the best way.

Generally, having your own domain creates a much better impression than using something like www.mycompany.ispcompanyname.co.uk.

Websites are located using domain information. Every webserver on the planet that is connected to the internet has a specific numeric address associated to it (the ip address). These addresses take the form of 4 numbers separated by dots, nnn.mmm.xxx.yyy, where each number is in the range 0 to 255 (e.g, 212.58.226.29 – try typing that into your web browser). As numbers are not very memorable, domain names are used instead and a complex and generally very reliable system on the internet is used to share around the real numerical addresses associated with each domain name. Many many websites sit on the same webserver (same ip address) and other techniques are involved in ensuring you get to the right one. In case you are wondering, 4 numbers each in the range 0-255 does not offer much scope in this day and age and is becoming a problem: a new 6 number version is slowly being introduced. Note also that some number ranges are not used on the internet but are kept for use within organisations so can be reused.

Hosting
Your web site has to live on a computer somewhere that is connected to the internet. This is the host.

Although you might well have broadband access for computers in your home/office, running a public website from within your own enviroment is probably a really bad idea. You need webspace sitting where there is a lot of good quality connectivity to the internet that has been specifically configured for the purpose of providing content from websites to people surfing the internet.

It is often most convenient to get the host space (for web content and email) from whoever provides you with (registers for you) the domain but you do not have to do so. The domain provider does need to inform the internet domain system where to find your website information though. Some providers give you a web-based control panel that allows you to change the details of where you mail and webspace are handled.

If you do not have your own domain, then your ISP will probably provide email and webspace you can use.

Once you have a domain, in some cases, the domain provider will redirect web traffic and email traffic to your ISP web space and email service rather than provide dedicated webspace/email services for you. (If your ISP and domain provider is one and the same then this should be very easy.) Depending how webspace and domain are linked, it might or might not look like a genuine domain to the visiting customer. In some cases bookmarks can fail.

Many of the ISPs only allow updates to the web space to be done when connected to the internet through them. This can be a problem when you want other people to be able to create/update the website for you. (Check standard FTP access is available using any internet connection.)

Most ISPs allow email to be collected regardless of how you are connected to the internet. (This means you can usually also check your emails over the internet using a web browser when you are away from your office.)

Watch out for ISPs (e.g. BT Broadband) that only allow you to send email appearing to be from domains (e.g. fred@mycompany.co.uk) that they are the domain provider of. In such cases, you can subscribe to mail relay services that allow you to send out email associated with your domain when connected to the internet through an ISP with whom you do not have your domain registered.

Talk to the providers of domain and hosting services on this forum for more information.

Web pages
The basis of the web is the humble html page (hypertext markup language) or file if you prefer. The http (hypertext transfer protocol) is used by your web browser (e.g. Microsoft Internet Explorer, Opera, Firefox – the open source solution, Safari, etc.) to communicate with a web server (http server) to provide to the browser a copy of a particular html page/file you have asked for. (Note that in Windows html file often have the file extension htm rather than html.)

If you do not specify a particular file, e.g. http://www.lamdesign.co.uk, the web server will assume you mean a default file such as index.html or default.htm.

HTML is really very simple (and much like using bbcodes on this forum). It is mostly chuncks of text that are enclosed in codes to tell the browser what sort of content is meant to be included. The “hypertext” name refers to the way that text can be linked to other text on the same web page, on another web page under the same domain, or a web page somewhere else on the internet allowing you to browse back and forth from reference to reference.

For example: text surround with <h1>text</h1> tags is meant to be a level 1 heading (i.e. the most important heading). The browser, unless instructed otherwise, uses it own default approach for displaying a <h1>heading</h1> that looks different from normal <p>paragraph</p> text.

Various instructions can be included in html files to advise the browser how to display the content. A better way is the use of cascading style sheets (CSS) which provide detailed information about the desired presentation. The presentation does vary from browser to browser and operating system to operating system. You do not have the same control as you do in print media.

Flash, the richer graphical/animated format, is very popular on sites that need to provide you with a much more interactive experience and they offer the developer much greater control of what you see. Some websites are almost entirely Flash based and some use just some Flash elements.

Websites tend to be either static or dynamic. A static website presents information that is pretty much the same for everyone who visits and does not change much. These are often called “brochureware” sites. Even when using Flash, if the content does not change, the site is static.

Dynamic web pages
Sometimes, instead of seeing pagename.htm or pagename.html as the filename, you see things like index.php and aboutus.asp. PHP and ASP (and many many other options) refer to files that need to be understood by the webserver as computer programmes BEFORE being sent to you. The programs are executed by (or on behalf of) the webserver by whatever understands the programming language concerned (php, asp, etc) and returned to the web server (and on to you) as ordinary html text that your browser can understand. This is done to allow much more dynamic content to be presented to you than is possible just referencing static html files. This allows, for example, a search to be carried out against a database for you and the results returned as a web page.

Often, when you are looking around a web site, you will find that the address bar in the browser will have things like …page.php?name=fred&cat=small. The information after the name of the file/page you are after is being passed to the programmes – it is one of the ways information can be passed between programmes (or indeed the same programme as it is executed in stages) as you work your way around the web. The & sign is used to split things up as spaces and commas do not work in web addresses.

The most advanced websites may well give no clues in the address bard as to what is going on. Flash is also used on some major sites to present dynamic content.

Web standards
It is my view that the bedrock of good websites is web standards. The official place for information on this is w3.org although this can be a little hard to digest. Another good source of information (so you know what the web site developers should be doing) is the Web Standards Group.

See a presentation on “The benefits of Web Standards to your visitors, your clients and you!” on the maxdesign website.

See also these newer article: The business case for Web standards-based development.

Accessibility
A key theme in the standards is accessibility and this is supported by legislation in many countries. In the UK it is covered by legislation that came into force in 1999 (yes, 1999) and some companies have had legal proceedings taken against them by disability interest groups because of a lack of accesibility on their websites (so far, all have settled out of court). The A List Apart website has many excellent articles on this topic including explanations of why accessibility is beneficial to businesses. This article from 2004 is especially interesting: Web Accessibility and UK Law: Telling It Like It Is by Trenton Moss (and the follow up). I also like the article by the same author which helps with the accessibility is beneficial to businesses discussions.

The bottom line is that if you do not make content easily available to disabled people when it is not particularly difficult to do so then you may get in trouble. A good example is using an image of some text when text (formatted using CSS) would be a perfectly reasonable alternative suitable for all. (If you have to use an image, then an alternative text version needs to be made available.)

Content and Presentation
Another key theme in the standards is the separation of content from presentation. That is the information can be provided in a structured manner (usually with a hierarchical structure) and presented in many different ways. An extreme example of this (demonstrating the capability rather than the best way of doing things) can be seen on the css zen garden – compare these two web pages for which the content is exactly the same (and I do mean exactly – the same source html file is used) only the presentation varies (using different css files and supporting image files):

Springtime
Comic strip

Spreading the word
There is not much point building a web site if no one finds it. Ensuring that details of the web site appear in all of your postings, emails, letters, leaflets, brochures, adverts, etc. is a good start.

Getting your web site listed in the many web directories, particularly those that specialise in your industry/service area (or have sub-sections for this) or your locality, will be very beneficial. To find these, simply start from the major search engines and start to search for things covering what you do and related activities and the directories will soon show themselves. Some directories are free, others require a fee (often a basic entry is free but a more prominent or fancy entry costs).

Content is king. A decent site will attract and retain interest. What gets your site under people’s noses is good quality links to other sites. Look to link to people offering complimentary products and services. Exchange links with these sites. Have a page of links but also try and focus links on particular sections of your web site.

The big search engines such as Google will find your sites through the above types of links. You can also go to most of the engines and submit your site details (often including summary details). Some will only accept submissions on payment of a fee, others ask for a fee to be certain of a listing or to hasten the process.

It is very very important that you get decent textual content onto your web site and make good use of titles (the details that appear in the border of the web browser) – different, clear and useful titles for each page. Plenty of useful and in context content on every page. Avoid lots of repetition and tricks such as hiding text.

Some search engines give a lot of attention to META tag information on yoru web pages. This is information that is not displayed by web browsers. It includes key words and site/page descriptions or overviews. These have been abused in the past (putting in popular words that have nothing to do with the site for example) and so the biggest search engines such as Google do not give much attention to them now. They are still worth using though. Do not make them very long though. Make sure the key words are justified – most should appear in the body of the page as well. There are different views on how to specify key word lists, for me typing them in without any punctuation is the best way and maximises the combinations the search engine will assume.

Remember that when a search engine looks at your site (spiders it) it is very much like a blind user. The advice given above on keeping content and presentation apart, using clean markup and keeping to good structure siginificantly improves the attractiveness of your site to the search engines.

There is a lot of advice on the web about Search Engine Optimisation – do a search for SEO.

[B]Supplementary Material[/B]

[B]Ecommerce[/B]
You may well want to transact business with customers (consumers or other businesses) over the web via your website. This is a whole new ball game. There are already several articles on the forum about this but here are some basic concepts.

Unless you are doing b2b or bespoke services, most businesses represented on this forum will want cash with order so to speak.

You have to have some means of taking payments. There are normally two key parts to this:
i/ a shopping basket (so specific items can be ordered)
ii/ payment processor

If you have a really limited set of services/products, then the former can be as simple as a few links to preconfigured payment options. More likely, you will need to run some kind of store system on your website.

Store sytems operate as dynamic websites (normally database based). They allow you to manage through some kind of administration screen details of products and attributes (colour, size, etc and price of course). You can purchase complete turn-key solutions from a number of providers and integrate these relatively easily with your website. A suitable google search will give you lots of options.

There are thousands of store solutions available and lots of people willing to implement them and customise them for you. Some solutions are based on open-source technology (so the software costs nothing). Often, the most popular low-cost and free solutions have many low-cost and free templates available to cover “typical” stores.

The more sophisticated the solution, the more option you will have around promotion of products, campaigns, discounts, etc. Tools of the retail trade in other words. All the way to the Amazon like “other customer who bought x also bought y and z”. More sophistication usually means more expensive to implement (even if the software is free), and more work on your part to take advantage of the solution.

Payment processing tends to come down to one of three options.
1. [URL=“http://www.paypal.com”]Paypal[/URL] or similar. This is often the easiest way for most but there are lots of reports of frustrations on this forum in working with PayPal. Customers do not have to be members of PayPal to pay with a credit/debit card but if they are, that is an advantage to you and them. (I like paying with PayPal as it saves me having to dig a card out of my wallet.) PayPal like services are usually the most expensive to use and provide you with the least protection.

2. Agency payment processor
3. Merchant payment processor

I have combined the last two as they are very similar. The difference comes down to whether or not you have a business bank account set up and can get a merchant account linked to it which is specifically authorised to be used for the processing of online payments.

With an Agency, you pay various fees to them for providing you with the means to process payments. With A Merchant arrangement, you tend to pay lower fees overall but split between the payment processor and the provider of your merchant account (your bank). In both cases, there is often a fixed monthly payment as well as % fees so you need decent volume to make this pay. Usually, fees for Agency overall are higher than the combined fees using a Merchant Payment Processor (fees for processing) + your own Merchant Account (fees to bank).

In both cases, you will either get a load of code to incorporate onto your website to use the processors systems (this will normally required you to be running a secure site, one where http[b]s[/b] is used instead of http, typically also shown with a padlock on the browser as well) or you hand over to the processors systems completely (with some look & feel of your site if you are lucky).

Note that if you already have a merchant account to take credit card payments the old fashioned way (using one of those impression copy machines or a portable terminal connected to the phone line), then this does not mean you can take online payments. Online is a different status (more risky from the bank’s point of view). This is true even if you have [i]Customer Not Present[/i] status. There are some solutions that let you encypt and store credit/debit card details for offline processing using the old approach BUT you must get agreement from the bank to work this way (and have a lot of confidence in the encryption/security you are using).

There is a great [URL=“http://www.ukbusinessforums.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=8968”]thread on this[/URL] already in the ecommerce forum on choosing an online payment processor.

There are lots of firms on the forum that offer a wide range of services to help you get up and running. It is worth noting that most transactional websites fail not because of technology but because of one or more of the following:

1. Customer proposition wrong (not offering the right products/service to the right people)
2. Customer proposition is not clear on the website (not clear you have what punter wants)
3. Customer service poor (you just don’t do your job).

This assumes your marketing is sounds and your prices competitive (or at least appropriate) in your chosen market.

An OK site can be a success if everything else is right. A brilliant site will fail if any of those are wrong.

Feedback
Your comments on whether or not a posting along these lines is helpful would be appreciated as would any suggestions on additional content and links.

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