Sense: How to launch a business website

Originally published in Sense magazine

1. Getting started… what do you want from your website?
Websites are essential marketing tools, whatever your business. But a poorly thought-out or inaccessible page is worse than none at all. “The most common mistake is to not have a clear idea of your needs. Take the time to work out your objectives,” says Stuart Dowling, director of The Website Store (a4internet.com).
Your site can be a showcase of your work, an informative page about a service you offer, or a full-fledged online shop, but you must always remember you’re pitching to a fast-moving customer base that is spoiled for choice. Web surfers spend a maximum of five seconds waiting for a page to load before they click away, so your mantra should be: clear, simple and accessible.
Once you have a plan for your site find and register a suitable domain name. You may need to try a few variations on your business name before you find a free domain. Go to nominet.org.uk for exhaustive information on finding and registering a domain name.

2. Check out the competition
Once you’ve decided on the main objectives of your website do your research. What are similar businesses offering? How well do your competitors’ websites work? If you find yourself clicking away, ask why. Your responses as a consumer should feed back into your own design. Equally, if you find a website you like, take inspiration from its best features.

3. Find a web developer
The simplest way to find a developer is to find a website you like and contact its designer (developers always put a link to their company on the sites they build.) You can also try sites designed to match you with a designer, such as web-development.com/UK or services like approvedwebdesigners.co.uk which lets you input basic requirements (type of site, budget, etc) and returns with quotes from developers.
There is no overall UK accreditation programme for web designers but look for qualifications such as Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS), degrees in web design or IT, and membership in bodies like UK Web Design Association (ukwda.org). Remember, though, web design is incredibly fast moving. Academic and professional qualifications are a important but the fundamental question is: can they deliver what you want? Get as much advice and as many personal recommendations as possible. A good web designer will be happy to share their portfolio and references.

4. Finances
As with any building project, be prepared for snafus and budgetary surprises. For a timely and cost-effective build agree, in writing, on a payment structure based on delivery.
You also need to think about maintenance costs. If you have good IT skills a CMS (content management system) site will allow you to update it yourself, reducing your ongoing costs. If you don’t want to maintain the site yourself, budget for updates.
Online stores need to factor in the cost of security because you’re responsible for protecting your customers’ information. PayPal (paypal.co.uk) is a simple, inexpensive option for handling payments securely. If you want to accept credit cards in your own right first research the requirements on sites like ecommerce-digest.com, then find a firm like Netcraft (audited.netcraft.com) which can provide you with appropriate security.
Don’t forget to budget for promotion, too! (Which we’ll discuss in a moment.)

5. Developing your site
Choosing the right designer is critical, but you can’t hand over the reins entirely. Artisan Laura Long (lauralong.co.uk) creates unique handmade gifts and jewellery, and wanted a site that communicates her passions. This meant providing words and images, collaborating on page layout and making sure the designer tagged her site with the right keywords to help her customers find her on the web. “It was time consuming, but I got exactly what I wanted,” she says.
Once all the elements are in place, give the site a dry run. Read the copy carefully – spelling and grammatical mistakes don’t inspire confidence – and check to ensure buttons function, pictures display correctly and links open. Test the site using different browsers and operating systems (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Windows, Mac, Linux, etc) and on different speed modems and broadband to ensure every customer will see your site to its best advantage.

6. Promoting your webpage
Hiring a web marketing firm to promote your site will save you time and stress. There are literally hundreds out there, so apply the same principles as looking for a designer to find a reliable partner.
If you want to do it yourself, get a free online tutorial at net-commerce-solutions.co.uk, or pick up one of the dozens of books covering online marketing. Register your new site with the major search engines, familiarise yourself with search engine optimisation (there are loads of free online articles and pointers) and explore the marketing tools offered by the likes of Google (google.co.uk/services, etc).
Posting on forums related to your area of business, sending out newsletters, even putting up flyers around town, will all help drive traffic to your site.
And remember, being number one on Google isn’t for everyone. Efficient marketing means delivering customers, so target your region or interest group for maximum returns. To do this, you’ll need to analyse who’s using your site, and how. Be sure and ask your designer about data capture – your server will have software that will tell you how many unique visitors you have, where they come from, which pages they’ve looked at, etc. Or turn over the job to a marketing company like redeye.com who will analyse your site usage and report back. With this information you can focus your promotional efforts, tailor your advertising spend for maximum return, improve your customer service and make your virtual business a real-world success!

At a glance:
Expect to pay: From £200 for a basic site.
From £1500 for an e-commerce site.
Timescale: Depending on the project, between 1-10 weeks. The key is agreeing your objectives and a reasonable delivery time with your developer.
Pros: Unique to your business, adapts to your needs, is always open, is easily accessible to millions of potential customers, helps you gather information about your customers and refine your offer.
Cons: Maintenance can be time consuming/costly, technical problems beyond your control and security breaches can cost you money and credibility, may be susceptible to hackers and viruses.

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