Key Steps to Building Your First Small Business Website
15th April by John Carrell
A website is a necessity for entrepreneurs, small businesses, home-based businesses, and anybody selling products or services. Regardless of your other marketing methods, enabling potential customers to either find you through a Google search or learn more about you after they’ve seen your other marketing material is key to creating and developing new customers.
If you’re selling online services or products, having a website is obvious. But even if you don’t sell anything directly online, the website can serve as an extension of your business card, with information about you, your business, and services offered. Most important, your website should detail your background, experience, and other credentials to give you credibility and give potential customers more confidence when deciding whether or not to deal with you.
Creating a website for your small business can be easier than you think. You can do it yourself if you are so inclined or need to keep costs down, you can get a friend to help, or you can hire a Web developer to do it for you at a modest cost if you use available content management software instead of having a website custom developed for you. Whether you do it yourself or hire someone to do it for you, it will be easier if you understand these steps, which are an important part of the process to create your small business website.
1. Decide the Purpose for Your Website
The first step is to decide what your website is going to do for you. It may be fairly static (i.e., no new content added periodically) and simply provide more information to potential clients about your services and credentials if they want to check you out online. Or, you may want to use it for information about your company and provide articles or information you’ve written to provide useful information to clients and potential clients. You may even choose to start a blog to interest and engage potential customers as part of your overall social media strategy. Of course, you might also want to sell products and services directly online.
Knowing what you plan on doing with your website is an important first step because it will guide you on how to develop it going forward. Keep in mind, it’s not a static thing and even if you start off without online sales, for instance, it can be relatively easy to add that at a later date. Whether you write a blog initially or not, you should consider how you will eventually use your website. At some point you may decide that a blog will be a good way to generate interest and attract visits who will then see your company’s services or product. It’s also a great tie-in to other social media techniques you use.
2. Choose Your Web Content Management Software
Based on what you want to do with your website, you have several choices in software. Many of them are even free (open source) with minimal costs for various add-ons. You would probably be surprised at how many websites you visit use one of these solutions, either stock or customized.
If your primary purpose is e-commerce, particularly for products, you should select software which is specifically designed for e-commerce. However, if e-commerce is only a small part of your website’s purpose, you can get free or low-cost add-ons that work with the most popular free content management software discussed below, Joomla! and WordPress. For examples of free e-commerce application, visit the following solutions: VirtueMart Magento osCommerce OpenCart
Joomla! is free content management software that gives you a great deal of flexibility; however, as with all similar software, your website will be limited in how it’s structured. While to a pure Web developer, this is a constraint they may not like, the templates available for Joomla that affect their visual appearance and functionality are extensive and it is likely you will find one that meets your needs. For live examples of Joomla websites, visit their Community Showcase.
In addition to templates, there are thousands of add-ons which give you a great deal of functionality for your website with no programming and very little effort. While many are free, some of the better ones will cost you from $20 to $200 or so. In some cases the free version doesn’t have as many features as the paid version, so be sure to carefully review the features available. If you want to browse the add-ons, visit Joomla’s Extensions Directory.
As a content management system, the idea of Joomla is to avoid needing to code a website from scratch. It also enables very easy changes and updates going forward, something even you could do yourself, with a little assistance on occasion from a Web developer. While it is possible and relatively easy to install and set up Joomla yourself, it will be time consuming, particularly if this is the first time you’ve done it. At the very least, consider finding a Web developer with experience in Joomla who can do it for you.
Similar to Joomla, WordPress is an easy-to-use content management system. It also uses templates to give it different looks and add-ins to provide you with additional functionality. A key difference with WordPress is that its core design is as a blog. While you can use it just like Joomla with regular webpages, its main homepage or even a specific page you select can be set up as an easy-to-use blog with all the typical features you see in the ones you might read today.
You can also get many plugins for WordPress that add functionality, just like Joomla. That includes e-commerce, social media, picture galleries, memberships, podcasts, videos, newsletters, and much more. You can browse many of the WordPress plugins at their Plugin Directory or do a Google search for the functions you want. You will probably be surprised at what is available.
As with Joomla, you may want to consider hiring a Web developer to do the initial setup for you at a minimum.
3. Choose a Web Host
Once you decided on your software, you need to choose a Web host, the remote location where your website and related software will be held and made available to visitors. Your choice of website host will depend in part on the software you choose but also on the speed and number of visits you expect to receive. With some companies, you can start off with less expensive but less powerful shared hosting services and, if required, you can step up to faster and more powerful dedicated hosting. This option is something you should consider when choosing a host, even if you start with the least expensive option.
Another consideration, particularly if you are setting up your website yourself, is whether your host provides for automatic installation of your chosen content management software. Most of the popular hosting services will enable you to do this with the click of a button. And in most cases you can use the same host from more than one website. If you are doing it yourself, the host’s support services should be an important consideration. While few, if any, will support the software, the hosting application and related issues can be complicated.
4. Choose a Template and Plugins for Your Website
Once you’ve chosen your software and decided on a host, you have to start thinking about other features. The first one is the template. With many content management systems, and in particular with Joomla and WordPress, you can pick from hundreds or even thousands of different templates that give your website the look and feel you want. Some templates are fairly generic while others are either themed to a particular type of product or service (with background graphics and other visual elements that reflect the product or service) or have built-in features that may make it attractive for you.
For instance, if you are a real estate agent, you would look for a template that is geared towards selling real estate. This would include a template that might have a relevant background and features that enable you to showcase your listings. Whether you are a consultant, dog groomer, or roofer, you should be able to find a template that meets your requirements.
While free templates are readily available, don’t be shy to spend a small amount for a premium template that most closely matches your needs. In some cases, you can get a template for as little as $25 or you may be required to join a “template club” for $65 or so. Regardless, it’s a cheap way to get a great template. For an idea of what is available, visit these template sites below. For more, search for “Joomla Templates” or “WordPress Themes” Free WordPress Templates Joomla Resource Directory (template providers).
Beyond templates, you may require additional add-ons to provide functionality for your website that makes it easier to use. Like templates, there are many free ones but sometimes the ones you pay are much better, and are also quite reasonably priced. You can go to both the Joomla and WordPress sites and sort through all the add-ons/plugins that are available. Keep in mind that some of the paid versions are listed on their sites. It’s particularly useful to visit Joomla to see what’s available since they have a very good system of categorizing. Even if you go with WordPress, at least you can see the kind of functionality that’s available and search for something similar for WordPress.
Whether you want to add some easy e-commerce, provide social networking share buttons, incorporate videos, start a podcast, require people to sign up to receive free material or downloads, create a portfolio of your photographs, and even run surveys, polls, or a newsletter, just about anything you can think of is available as an add-on.
5. Organize Your Website
At this stage, you need to start thinking about what your website will look like and how it will be used. This includes your logo and other visuals, the menu selections you want to make available, and the kind of information you want to put on each of those pages. With most e-commerce sites, you’ll have choices within the software itself to set up your storefront with different formats and styles. If you choose to use Joomla or WordPress, you’ll also need to decide what to display on each page.
Templates for these content management systems use a structured approach that enables you to add traditional content and also add-ons with specific information and content that you can position on the page, based on the structure of your your particular template. In many cases, you can even change the visual appearance of the different information so you can highlight certain things.
The starting point is certainly your menu. There is always a home selection, but you get to choose what the main menu selections are and chose submenus off each of those main menu selections. It’s important to think carefully about how you want to organize and structure the information on your website to give you the maximum flexibility. Even if you only end up with three main menu selections initially, it’s important to consider what you might add at a later date so that your initial design can accommodate it.
6. Develop Your Website Content
Content can sometimes be the hardest part of your website. It needs to be compelling to visitors and convey the right kind of information at the right level so visitors actually read it instead of moving on to the next website. When you write text, think about it from an advertising perspective.
In addition to text, you also need images. Since you should have chosen a template with visual elements or background images that match your particular business, other images and graphics are generally used to supplement the text content or sometimes even replace it. Making the pages professional looking is particularly important as visual impact and appeal are a key part of any website. This is an area where you should not use clipart, and unless you are very good at creating visuals, you might want to hire someone to help you. Visuals can include stock art graphics, images of your products, headshots of yourself and other staff members, or other graphics that might illustrate your process or approach to delivering the service you’re selling.
7. Populate and Maintain Your Website
Most text and graphics are added using a built-in WYSIWYG (which stands for “what you see is what you get”) webpage editor that is easy to use and does not require you to know anything about web programming. The WYSIWYG editor allows you to cut and paste your text from a Word document and upload images from your computer. It also give you full control over text size, color, font, and other features as well as the sizing and placement of images. You can preview the material before you actually make it available to Web visitors and easily edit it again at a later date. Since it’s so easy to edit content, maintaining your website is easy. If you’re simply updating existing information, it won’t take very much effort. If you’re constantly adding content, including new pages, additional menu choices, new modules, additional add-ons, or blog entries, it’s almost as easy. Each of the software packages provide a control panel which gives you access to all of your material and content, including the Web editor and control over other features of your website.
Of course, if you prefer, you can easily hire a Web developer to do these things on your behalf. Since little if any custom work is required, your costs should be relatively modest.