by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Founder of the EmpoweringSites.com Network
Every business should have a Website to aid in its marketing efforts and help convert Web surfers into prospective customers. While you could also sell items on the Website, the point here is more basic than that. Putting together a Website falls into the same categories as running an ad in the newspaper or yellow pages.
But what should a small-business owner do when you decide it's time the business have some sort of online presence? That question is the focus of this article, which will show you how easy it is to plan, create, and publish a small Website in just five steps.
1. Buy a Domain Name for Your Website. Choosing a domain name (URL, Web address) takes a combination of strategic thinking, competitive research, and creativity.
Your first step is to brainstorm some possible domain names. The key with the domain name you choose is that it should be descriptive of the service you provide and/or to the mission of the business.
If you already have a company name, you could certainly consider using that name as your domain name -- if it is available. (There is also no rule that says you cannot have more than one domain name for your business, so you might want to buy your company name even if it is not descriptive to what you do.)
If you don't have a company name yet, start your brainstorming by examining the service(s) you provide, the problem you solve, and the solution(s) you offer. In making your list, avoid abbreviations or jargon most visitors would not use in searching for a Website. As you are considering domain names, some other things to remember: keep the name as short and simple as possible; do not use words visitors would misspell; and avoid any punctuation marks (such as dashes, underscores, or other characters). Consider testing the list of names with a small focus group of your likely visitors/users.
Next go to Google (or your favorite search engine) and search for competing firms and make note of their domain names.
Once you have a list of possible domain names, go to a domain registrar, such as GoDaddy.com (which I love and use exclusively for all our EmpoweringSites.com domain registrations). Type in the names and see which are available. If some are not available, the site will provide different variations that you may or may not find helpful; consider synonyms and other relevant keywords. Most experts strongly suggest buying only a dotcom name for your main site rather than some of the newer domain extensions that are available (such as .info, .us, .name, .biz, etc.).
Once you decide upon a domain name, consider purchasing it for multiple years to protect your investment. You may also want to purchase some of the other major extensions to block competitors from buying them, but for many small businesses, that may be an excessive investment.
Finally, if you are truly set on a domain name that is already taken, there are services you can hire to attempt to buy it for you -- but will cost you quite a bit more money, and it probably will not be worth the price in the long run.
2. Find a Hosting Company for Your Website. Once you have your domain name, you need to find a company that will host it for you (In order for a Web site to appear on the Web, the files must be hosted on a server.)
There are a vast number of options here, including the possibility of using the same company with which you registered your site. (And yes, GoDaddy.com also does hosting.) You can also search Google or use a site like TopHost.com, which lets you compare Web hosting providers based on the services you seek. Finally, your ISP (Internet service provider) -- the company you use to access the Internet -- may also offer hosting plans
Web hosting for a small-business Website is pretty inexpensive, and you can always upgrade to bigger and better services once the business takes off. If you plan to sell stuff online, you will want to make sure you buy an e-commerce hosting service.
3. Draft a Plan for Your Website on Paper. Before creating any actual content or Web pages, create a map for the logical design of your site -- starting, of course, with your home page, which is always named the index page. Think about how users will move about your site from page to page -- and consider drawing a flowchart showing how all the pages connect. (A rule of thumb is that you never want a visitor to your site to have to make unnecessary clicks through various pages to get to the content s/he is seeking -- because most will not spend the time doing so. There is some debate about the so-called Three-Click Rule that states that users leave a site if they can't find what they are looking for within three clicks of arriving at the site; whether the number is three or five, the point is direct navigation; adding a Website search function easily solves the Three-Click Rule, assuming users choose to use your search.)
But how many other pages do you need besides your index page? The answer varies, but let's examine at the minimum you should have.
A key issue to address in this stage is the composition of your target market/audience. How many different segments (groups) of people do you want to attract to your site -- and what are their specific needs? For example, a university creating a Website has prospective students, current students, faculty and staff, alumni, donors, and other visitors. At Quintessential Careers, our main audience includes students, job-seekers, career-changers, career coaches, and other visitors. The main point here is that you'll want to develop a specific page targeted to each segment. These pages are often referred to as landing pages -- and should have file names that reflect the name of the segments each targets.
Other pages a small business should have include an "about us" page that includes a company profile and history -- and perhaps a short bio of key personnel; a testimonials page that lists actual comments from users; a product catalog or services provided page; a links page that provides links to complementary sites; and several article pages because content is still king, and visitors want to see your expertise. You might want to also include in your plans a media or press page, but that's something you can always add later.
If the majority of your site will be static content (that rarely changes), you might want to consider starting a blog about your business -- or on a subject related to your business. (Starting a blog is a whole other subject, but it's a way to regularly post fresh content. Read more here: How to Start a Blog.)
A final element here is deciding the types of graphics and interactive elements you want on your site. The most important elements in Website design are strong content and easy navigation, but you should consider things like pictures (of your products, people using your products, etc.), audio (perhaps a podcast testimonial), and video. Remember to use only your own graphics -- unless you purchase the graphics for use on your site. There are some free graphics sites, but use these lightly because studies show "stock" photos or generic graphics do nothing for the site, so you might as well just stick to text when you have to rely solely on these graphics. If you want to see the types of photos, clipart, and graphics available, go to FreeImages.com.
4. Create a Design for Your Website. The key to Website design is more functionality than flash, but if you have no knowledge of Web page creation, you'll want to look at other options for developing your site -- but use the plan you developed in the previous step to help you with developing the navigation (internal links among the pages in your site).
Your options for design vary. Some hosting companies have site-building software as part of your hosting package, making it fairly easy to develop a small Website. The downside is that you may be stuck with just a limited design options.
You could also buy Web design software and create the site completely by yourself. (Most of this software is fairly easy to use and very little technical skills are necessary to work it.) The downside here is that there is a learning curve to use the software.
Another option is finding an already designed template that you feel fits your needs and buying it. You'll still need to know how to put your content into the template, but at least the design will look very professional. There are many options here, from very low-cost syndicated designs to one-of-a-kind exclusive designs. You might try looking at TemplateMonster.com and Free Web Templates to get an idea of whether templates are an option for you.
Finally, you could hire a Website designer to create your pages. You can find these folks everywhere -- both online and in your town. They will create a design to your exact specifications, but the problem often occurs when you need to update or change your pages. (The solution here is purchasing a design contract that covers updates.)
In terms of writing the content, make the content valuable to your visitors while also rich in keywords related to your business. Quality writing is important, so consider hiring a freelance writer or editor if your writing skills are weak. When writing for the Web, keep sentences and paragraphs short for easier readability and consider design elements such as subheads and bullets to keep reader interest. Overall page content should be no more than about 2,000 words.
KillerSites.com is a great one-stop design source for small businesses -- as they offer how-to guides for Web designs, Web templates for purchase, and Web designers for hire.
As you're contemplating your Website design, also read these other two articles of mine: Using Basic HTML to Develop a Small-Business Website and Do's and Don'ts of Web Publishing.
5. Publishing and Maintaining Your Website. The last step -- at least in terms of the creation of your business Website -- involves the actual publishing of your Web pages so that they can be viewed online. You'll also want to develop a plan for maintaining and updating the pages to keep the content current.
But wait, your work is not nearly done... in fact, it's just begun. Creating the Website is just the start of the process. Now you need to get your target market to visit your site, which involves a broad category of activities under the umbrella name of SEO -- search engine optimization.
You'll want to read my companion article, SEO Primer for Enhancing Websites.
Web Marketing Guru Dr. Randall S. Hansen, CEO of EmpoweringSites.com -- a growing network of highly ranked educational and inspirational Websites -- has been empowering people his entire adult life. He is also founder and publisher of EmpoweringRetreat.com, MyCollegeSuccessStory.com, and EnhanceMyVocabulary.com. Dr. Hansen is also a published author, with several books, chapters in books, and hundreds of articles. He's often quoted in the media and conducts empowering workshops around the country. Hansen is also an educator, having taught at the college level for more than 15 years. He holds a doctorate in marketing and has been involved in marketing his entire life. Learn more at his personal Website, RandallSHansen.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.