Web site design is the process of creating a site, or homepage, on the World Wide Web, which is one part of the international series of computer networks collectively known as the Internet. Computer users use a software program known as a web browser to visit those homepages, each of which has a distinct address and can consist of text, graphics, audio, video, and animation. For businesses, these Web sites are virtual "storefronts" that enable companies to sell products and services to customers and clients around the world at a relatively small price.
The most common way that small companies establish a presence on the Web is by setting up a simple homepage that provides potential customers with information on the company and its products. The essentially limitless storage space of the computer network means that businesses are free to post as much information as they wish about themselves—computerized versions of brochures and press releases; product catalogs, complete with photos; a company overview; news and notes related to the industry the company serves; and contact and technical support information. This makes it easy for consumers to locate information about the company 24 hours a day.
Business Web sites also provide visitors with the means to order goods and services electronically. With direct online purchasing, customers identify an item they wish to purchase from the company, fill out an order form and provide their credit card number, and then transmit that information electronically to the company. The product is then shipped directly to the customer. The advantages to this method of selling are obvious. Instead of being restricted to a local market, even the smallest company can now reach users around the world. Customers can locate information about the company or order a product 24 hours a day. Customers with questions can now find very specific information about a company's products or services.
HOW TO DESIGN A WEB PAGE
When designing a Web page, certain information should always be included:
* Basic Company Information—This can include vision or mission statements, a history of the business, a summary of business philosophy, etc. The key is to sell the customer on the company.
* Product Line Information—Commercial Web pages should include photos and text descriptions outlining the benefits of the products. Features, applications, and examples can also be highlighted. Consultants often recommend that businesses establish separate pages or sections for each major product line—connected, of course, to the main company Web site.
* Technical support—Frequently asked questions, parts information, product diagrams, and technical specifications are just some of the ways a company can provide support from its Web site.
* Ordering information—Companies should include an electronic mail or hardcopy form with instructions on how to order a product.
* Service section—Free information that is of interest to potential customers, designed to keep them coming back to the site. Industry news and trends are good examples of this kind of information, which is a feature of increasing numbers of business-oriented sites.
* "What's New"—This section is essentially intended to inform visitors of new initiatives, products, etc., that are covered on the Web site.
Once you decide what to put on your homepage, it is time to actually create the site. Web pages are written using a language called the Hypertext Mark-up Language. HTML, as it is more commonly known, is a series of tags and codes that instruct a Web browser on how the text on that page should be displayed. Once a page has been written using HTML, the page must be placed on the host computer, or server, of an Internet provider. HTML can be created using any common word processing package or via any one of the proliferating HTML editor software packages available in the marketplace.
One of the most important features of HTML is the "hypertext" feature. This means that text can be highlighted on a Web page so that when a customer clicks on a word or an image, a link to a new page on that site (or even another site altogether) is called up on the computer screen. This allows customers to move freely on a site and allows for design creativity and flexibility.
Learning the basics of HTML coding is not difficult, and an ambitious business owner who has the time and the initiative may create his or her own homepage from scratch. However, as the Web has continued to grow, pages have become far more sophisticated in appearance, convincing some businesses to outsource the design and creation of the site to firms that specialize in providing such services.
Small business owners should also recognize that the development of a Web site does not constitute an ironclad guarantee of e-commerce success. "It takes a lot of market support [to maintain a site]," said Dawn Dayton of the Michigan Small Business Development Center in Entrepreneur magazine. "If you put up a site and nobody knows [about it], it's not going to do you any good." Web design firms will make sure people know about your site by advertising it in other Internet locations and by registering the site with the dozens of Internet directory services that exist.
Another trap that snares some small businesses is the flawed Web site. Company e-sites with errors in content, structure, or navigation have the capacity to plunge businesses far behind their competitors and obliterate painstaking calculations of return on investment. "Making changes to a Web site once it's finished can be a costly and painful experience," warned Lisa Schmeiser in Macworld. "But you can avoid this scenario by first creating and testing a prototype of your site—a scaled-down working model of the finished product. A prototype lets you get a first look at what users will see as they click through your site, and it can expose unforeseen flaws in your structure and navigation. This gives you a chance to fix glitches before they send your site—and your reputation—up in flames."
Whether you choose to create your company's Web site yourself or outsource it, the expense of creating a basic informational site is relatively modest. Small business owners should also keep several other cost factors in mind when weighing an entrance onto the Web, however. For instance, businesses who do not serve as their own Web server are required to pay a monthly charge to a professional Internet hosting firm. Some companies choose to serve as their own host for control and security reasons, but others prefer to enlist a professional hosting firm, which can provide technical support and e-commerce experience at a relatively modest price (hosting fees vary from $10 to $100 a month).
Once the site is on a host computer, users from around the world can then access the homepage, which is given an address that is unique to the entire Web. That address is one part of naming your site. The chosen name can be secured through a domain provider, if the company chooses to go the in-house route. Otherwise, the contracted outside server will purchase the domain name.
POSITIONING AND MAINTAINING A BUSINESS HOMEPAGE
Sites can be freestanding, or they can be a part of a larger online "mall." Hundreds of retail malls have opened on the Web, some more successful than others. Before choosing an Internet provider to store your homepage, do some research on popular online malls and see where your company might best fit in. Visit the sites yourself, and see what you like and do not like. This research step can be an essential component of Internet success for companies, because location can be just as important on the Web as it is in real life.
Even after your Web site has been successfully launched and is up and running, the work does not end. The site needs to be updated on a regular basis to ensure continued content integrity. Areas to monitor include:
* Price changes
* Product changes
* Adding pages to describe other parts of your business
* Adding new links and eliminating obsolete links
* Updating images
* Overhauling the entire site when it becomes tired looking
Once again, you will have to decide if you want to undertake the updating yourself or if you want to hire a firm to handle the work for you.