It has never been easier to establish a presence on the world wide web, and most people agree that their business should be "out there." However, determining how to get there is sometimes a bit of a challenge.
First and foremost, you need a name. This will loosely take the form of www.yourname.com. Once you have chosen your name, you will need to register it with the governing body of the Internet. Even if you have no plans to immediately implement a web page, reserve your name now. It costs less than a hundred dollars per year to keep your name reserved and is well worth it. However, if anyone has already registered the name you’ve selected, you will have to select another one. Registering can be tedious to do on your own, so I recommend working with an Internet service provider (ISP), who will register your name for a nominal fee.
The next step is to get connected to the word wide web. Whether you chose to connect via a dial-up service or an ISP, you need a way to put the modem on your PC in touch with the web. Research your options and make this choice very carefully. You are going to have a long-term relationship with your vendor, and you want to ensure they have the capacity to serve your needs. Good customer service is essential.
What your ISP will do for you is give you a connection to the Internet, a place on their server to host your web page, and an e-mail account. They may also register your domain name, and may aid you in developing your site. All of this comes with a fee so be sure to determine what they will do for you up front. You will need to have a browser, such as Netscape or Internet Explorer, to access the information on the web, and will want some type of FTP (File Transfer Protocol) software to upload and download information from your host server.
Planning Your Site
With all of this in place, it is time to set objectives. First, decide what type of Internet presence you want, or more importantly, need. Who are your target customers and what specifically do you want to accomplish with the site? Do you simply want a bulletin board where you can post information, a simple electronic flyer with your name and address, or do you want to conduct transactions electronically? Will customers be placing orders? Will you accept payment, etc. Once you have clear objectives it is time to plan your site.
The first page customers see when they type in your web address is your home page. This is the front door to your site and will give customers their first impression. When deciding what to put on your pages, less is sometimes more. There are a great many options available, but they need to be employed cautiously. The more graphics and memory-intensive your pages are, the longer they take to download. Customers do not want to wait for a long time for your page to load. The bottom line is that no matter how beautiful or creative your site is, if it is not convenient, it will not be used.
Create a Site Map
The best way to organize your site is by creating a site map. Start with your home page in the center. Decide what pages will be accessible from the home page, and draw arrows representing hyperlinks from the home page to each second level page. Then, from each of these second level pages, decide what, if any, pages should be accessible as third level pages, drawing arrows for the links, and so on. Also, be aware that the second level pages can link to the third level pages, back to the home page, or to other second level pages. Every level you proceed, the options become more plentiful, and if not done properly, more confusing.
With such a vast array of possibilities, you need to make sure your site is easy to navigate. There is nothing worse than getting lost in a site and not being able to find your way back to areas you need to reference. Simplicity and clarity will lead to ease of navigation and to happier surfers. Use title bars at the top of your pages to let customers know exactly where they are, and be sure to provide links back to other important or related pages and the home page. Also, use simple graphics, common page layout, or color schemes to provide a unified look to a set of pages that are related in content or theme.
It is up to you when you design your site to help your customers establish which part of your site they are in, and make it clear to them how they can quickly get where they want to be. The average surfer will not click more than three or four times to get information they need. Take a look at your site map and be sure that there are no more than four levels, and that each place on your site is no more than four clicks from any other place. It is also valuable to provide e-mail links on your site, so that customers can quickly contact your company with questions or comments.
Create a Site Design
Once you have the basic content and look of your page decided, you need to specifically design each page. Write the text, create the order form, place the graphics and so on. If you are creating the page yourself, this can be done in a web page editing program such as Microsoft Frontpage or Adobe Pagemill. There are many other programs out there, and they all serve the purpose of allowing virtually anyone to create web pages without learning HTML programming code. The goal of these programs is to take what you design on the screen and recreate it identically on the website. As with any software, not all of these are created equal, so do your homework before buying.
Your other option is to hire someone to design your page. You will still need to decide the basic look, format, and content of the site, but they will put it out there and maintain it.
There are a lot of great graphics available to the general public, and also a variety of royalty- free animations that can easily be incorporated into your site. While plain text pages tend to download fairly quickly, graphics and animations tend to plug up the works and slow things down considerably. Think of a four-lane highway bottlenecking down to one lane. This is the effect of a memory -intensive page, and the more memory your page requires, the larger the bottleneck, and the longer the download. It is no less frustrating waiting for a cyber-bottleneck at the computer than to be standing still on the highway. The effect is the same in both instances. We want to get someplace quickly and are being made to wait.
Also be aware that while your page may load quickly on a PC with an fast T-1 connection at your office, if your customer is working on a home computer with a 56K modem on their phone line, downloading time will be much longer.
Finally, be sure to test your site on a variety of browsers. Your pages may display perfectly on Internet Explorer, but when viewed on AOL’s web browser it may look entirely different. You may not be able to display perfectly on every browser, but you should design the layout to view properly on the most popular ones. Even different versions of the same browser may behave differently, so test as many as you can. At the very least be sure to be compatible with Netscape and Explorer.
Marketing Your Site
It is at this point where many companies think they are done. After several months, they wonder why people have not flocked to their site and why the Internet orders have not flooded in. There seems to be a notion regarding websites that "If I build it, they will come." Not so. It is your responsibility to make sure that the general public is aware of your site and has easy access to it. Start by putting your URL and e-mail address on every print item you would put your address or phone number on. Business cards, letterhead, and advertisements should all contain information on your virtual office.
You also need to register with search engines so that the general public can find you when searching for key words such as title insurance or closings. This can be a mundane process, but is necessary and well worth the time. Start by going to common search engine sites (e.g. excite or yahoo) and adding your address and site information. Do this for any search engines you can. The more search engines you register with, the more accessible your site will be to the general public.
There are also special sites designed for multiple registration. Register once at such a site and you are automatically registered at 20 various search engines around the world. These are great tools and can save you many hours of typing and mouse clicking.
Once your site is out there, check it frequently to make sure that the graphics load properly and that the links work. Frequent updating is a must. A stale site with no new information will gradually lose interest to surfers. Updates should not be drastic alterations of format, but simple updates of information within the structure so that the site continues to be useful and interesting.
The bottom line is to be sure that your site is always simple, convenient, and easy for your customers to use. As more of your customers get connected, you will see more traffic on your site. The Internet is not going away anytime soon, so you may as well jump on the information super-highway and enjoy the ride.
Thomas Skoglind is MIS Manager for Schmitt Title & Escrow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-236-1020 or firstname.lastname@example.org .