As the saying goes, information wants to be free. Unfortunately, many of the tools needed to publish that information are not. However, the rush to the Web has recently given rise to an avalanche of low-cost online publishing options. If you know what you are doing, you can post a professional quality site for less than a $500 investment - and you can get by for next to nothing if you're willing to live without some of the extras. However, what is most important is that you commit to investing the necessary dollars to produce a high-quality, well-designed and well-written Web site.
Inexpensive Web site development is due in large part to shareware, a cash-poor developer's best friend. Shareware versions of everything from HTML editors to animation builders are available for trial and usually cost less than $50 to register. You may need one or two commercial products as well, but they don't have to clean out your wallet. Many manufacturers have less expensive versions of high-end hardware and software aimed at amateur Web designers. Many software manufacturers also offer free beta or demo versions of their programs, so you can try them before buying the commercial package.
Budget-minded Web site designers can also stand on the shoulders of other Web developers. By modifying pre-made Web programming gadgets, buttons, backgrounds, and multimedia doodads, you can deliver cutting-edge quality without having to do it all yourself. You can create a dynamite site simply by finding the best place from which to borrow.
Just a few years ago there were no Web sites, but today there are more than 60 million. If you don't have a Web site for your business, it's like not having your phone number in the yellow pages.
But there's a sweet side to this crusade to get on the Web. A Web page helps small businesses create an image of a large company, which may help increase the perception among potential customers that your company is credible and able to perform.
So what's holding you back? The main hurdle to publishing a small business Web site is the belief that doing so is difficult, technically demanding work. While that might have been true a few years ago when the Web first took flight, Web page authoring is no longer the sole province of techno-wizards. Plenty of easy-to-use software is on the market, and a newcomer can usually post an initial site in a matter of hours.
Better still, all of this can be accomplished at very low cost. Even the smallest business can afford to be on the Web. Don't believe it? Following are step-by-step tips for producing your first Web site - from choosing the right tools and putting them to use finding space to build your site and telling the world about it. Just follow the steps, and in a few hours, you'll be in business on the Web.
The starting point for putting up a Web site is knowing what you want it to do - and what it probably won't do. The Web is not going to help most small companies strike it rich. A very few start-ups have prospered on the Web, most notably Amazon.com and Virtual Vineyards, but the online cash register rarely rings for most small businesses.
In that case, why put up a Web page? Even if the site is little more than an electronic billboard for your company, it's still a powerful tool for building a business. On the Web, for instance, time no longer matters, nor do time zones or date lines. Your business can be open 24 hours a day, seven days and on holidays.
Better still, a well-executed Web site is a great way to build customer loyalty. Many Web-savvy businesses use the technology to provide detailed customer assistance tips at a very low cost. When a customer can get a question answered 24 hours a day, their loyalty will be much stronger.
You should also use the Web to provide information on your products or services. Before, communicating with customers and prospects cost money - for printing, stamps and so on. The Web allows you to communicate worldwide at a minimum of cost.
Add it all up and small businesses are missing out on a lot if they do not utilize the Web.
Once, building a Web site meant hours of laborious wrestling with HTML (hypertext markup language). But newer Web site authoring tools are solidly "WYSIWYG," meaning "what you see is what you get," and building a page now involves little more than pointing and clicking with your mouse.
Which software package should you use? There are many, ranging from high-end programs such as Macromedia Dreamweaver to more affordable programs such as Microsoft's FrontPage, Claris' Home Page, DeltaPoint QuickSite, as well as many others.
Most programs come bundled with an assortment of templates that need only a little tweaking before you've got your own Web site. Stick with the templates, and completing a Web page in 30 minutes is feasible. These templates provide thorough instructions, and you type in your own information over the template's boilerplate.
Some programs demand a more hands-on approach to site development. The templates are more like blueprints than ready-to-use pages, but the result is you'll get a highly customized Web site.
But you do not need specific Web-authoring software to create a Web page. Many programs designed to fill other needs also include basic Web-authoring tools. Microsoft Word 97 and Lotus' Word Pro 97 include handsome templates for setting up Web pages. Netscape Communicator also comes with Web-authoring software that is extremely easy to use.
The Web is a graphical medium - words matter, but images are at least as important in attracting and holding viewers. That's why some Web-development software packages come bundled with collections of free art-buttons, page backgrounds, arrows and other visual elements to help readers navigate a site. Images are skimpier with word processing programs.
It is important that your Web site is not simply an online brochure. Rather, it must include regularly updated information that keeps visitors coming back time and again. A well balanced Web site consists of the following elements: strong content (articles, interviews, tips, Q&A, testimonials, etc.), easy navigation, logical flow, appealing graphics that download quickly, directions on how to order your products or services, customer service information such as a FAQ sheet is appropriate, and contact information (including names, addresses, phone and fax numbers and email addresses).
You can spend days downloading images. The Web is swamped with terrific free art. But use it sparingly: A chief beef of Web surfers is the long wait for graphic-heavy pages to come up on screen.
Another caveat: Before uploading any images to your site, read the fine print on the artist's page. Some prohibit use on commercial sites. If in doubt, ask permission, which will protect you against future complications.
Once you've created your page, you have to find a place to put it. Free space is available to members of online services such as America Online and ISP's such as Earthlink. Earthlink offers up to 10MB of space available to members. If your ISP doesn't have some space available for your site, head over to Geocities or Tripod which provide 2MB of free server space to members; membership is free to anyone who registers at the sites.
There are some drawbacks to free space, however. For instance, some sites require that advertisements for their service appear on your pages. The hitch is that selling at sites erected on free space is generally prohibited. Find out by checking the provider's terms of service, which is usually prominently flagged on the home page. But that doesn't necessarily rule out this space for business. You can still erect a cyber billboard that offers plenty of information about products and services in these free spaces. For many businesses, that's the surest way to get initiated to the Web.
Have bigger ambitions? If you want more space - especially if you want to retail on the Web - you've got to open your wallet and sign up with a Web-hosting service that will provide up to 30 MB or more of space. These services will also allow you to set up several POP3 email accounts per site for free and additional accounts for an extra charge. A POP3 account would be something like email@example.com. A low-budget option is the SimpleNet service, which provides unlimited Web storage space starting at $10 per month. Hundreds of other Web-hosting options are available; search for candidates using a search engine. Ask any potential Web-hosting service for email addresses of current customers. Contact a dozen or so and ask for feedback: How reliable and fast is the server? Do the tech support personnel promptly answer cries for help? If their customers are unhappy with the service, yours probably will be to.
Building a site is only the beginning. You can't build it and assume potential customers will automatically come. This isn't the Field of Dreams, this is CyberSpace. You must promote your site the way you promote your address and phone number. Otherwise, only accidental tourists will find you.
The first step to drawing visitors is to visit the major search engines. All feature simple procedures for adding a URL, the "universal resource locator," that is, your site's address.
What about the estimated 300-plus other search engines on the Web? Many Webmasters skip them; others pay a service to do the submissions to them. Shop around for a service that will do the submissions for you and find the one that best suits your needs. Just adding a URL to a search engine is still no guarantee of visitors. Get more exposure for your site by enrolling in a free link exchange programs that will display your banner on other sites if you make space for third party banners on yours. Generally, every two 'hits" on your site results in one view of your banner on another site. Just with search engines, there are many link exchange programs, but the two biggest and most reliable are LinkExchange and SmartClicks. Enrollment is a matter of filling out a simple form and pasting hypertext code - supplied by the link exchange - into pages at your site.
The last step, neglected by a shocking number of businesses, is to put your site's address on your letterhead, business cards, fax cover sheets and all other printed material your business gives out. It's a low-cost way to build awareness of your site.
Survey the experts and they will agree: The quickest route to Web site failure is not delivering on what you promised. If you solicit customer feedback by email, that email has to be answered promptly. Promise spec sheets, and they must be available online. If you are unwilling to take the time to communicate or follow up with people via the Web, then you shouldn't bother with it. You will only convey an image of being unresponsive.
Won't you need to still put in more time on the Web? Absolutely, but the investment is warranted. The Internet is a frontier with almost unlimited possibilities. Now is the time to experiment - before lack of competency puts you out of business. If you are not on the Web, you are missing out on resources, and potential customers. So now what's holding you back?