Archive for March, 1998

On the Web!

Sunday, March 1st, 1998

(This column first appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Dive Report)

My last several columns have gone to great lengths to explain how to get on and use the Internet as a power user. With this column, I’ll start taking you through the process of getting your very own Web site on-line, so you can join the thousands of businesses using this great marketing vehicle.

In order to get your Web site up and running we should take a look at the typical goals of having a Web site:

  • Providing current, up to date information about your business
  • A means for potential customers to contact you (or at least find your contact information)
  • A way for potential customers to quickly locate specific information about what you offer
  • Potentially, a method of taking on-line orders or requests

If we condense these goals into simple themes, first and foremost, a Web site is a marketing tool. Secondly, it’s a sales tool. Third, it’s a potential revenue tool. Companies which assume that having a Web site will drastically increase sales are almost always very disappointed with the results, while companies which use Web sites as a way to promote their products and services, as an adjunct to existing paper-based marketing materials are usually the most satisfied with the results. The biggest reason for this is that people use the Web primarily as a resource and research tool.

Remote or Local?
In order to meet this need of having on-line marketing material, via a Web site, you need to figure out where to put the Web site. Web sites sit on Web servers, and a Web server is a computer which “serves” Web pages to any computer that requests them, such as that of a potential customer. For those of you tracking computer terms, such a requesting computer is called a “client”, which is how the term “client/server” comes into play.

Since a public Web site needs to sit on the Internet, it turns out that it doesn’t matter where your Web server is, as long as it’s reasonably accessible by the broadest segment of your potential customer base. For example, even though I’m on Bonaire in the technological boonies of the Caribbean, all my Web sites, and those of companies I’ve helped get on-line, are remotely hosted on Web servers located in New Hampshire. In my case (and most cases, no matter where you are located), remote hosting of Web sites is very cost efficient, especially compared to local hosting of Web sites.

To locally host a Web site, that is host it at your company, you need a dedicated computer, a high-speed (real 56K bits per second, bare minimum), 24 hour a day Internet connection, and someone available to monitor and maintain the system, never mind the Web site. The Internet connection alone runs several hundred dollars per month, if not more. The computer will cost at least a couple of thousand dollars. And, the specialist will cost you quite a bit in hourly fees. So, unless you happen to already have all these components in place at your company, or have a very real need to have your Web server located on-site (and I honestly can’t think of any), you should look at remote hosting.

Remote Web hosting for companies generally runs between as little as $20 and $100 per month, with higher fees to be expected for large Web sites with lots of traffic and with special features, like secure credit card processing. There’s usually also a one-time set-up fee involved, ranging from $20 to $300. There’s no set formula as to the exact magnitude of the set-up and monthly fees, but generally, those companies charging very little provide very little in the way of assistance in getting people up and running with their own Web sites, while those charging more tend to provide more support. Note that these prices are for having your very own Web site composed of a practically unlimited number of pages, with your own domain name (see The Richter Scale, July/August 1997 issue of Dive Report).

I should mention that you may be solicited by companies which have an “umbrella” Web site that covers a specific theme like a region (Southern California, for example) or activity (like diving) on which to host your company’s Web site. Unless you have only a single page to post, and the match between your needs and that of the “umbrella” Web site is really good, you should look at getting your own Web site, as it will be more cost effective in the long run. Also, your own Web site and domain provide your company with its own distinct image, so you won’t get lost in the noise of an umbrella site.

In terms of finding a good remote Web hosting company, you might not need to look any further than the ISP (see The Richter Scale, May/June 1997 issue of Dive Report) you should already be using for your Internet access. Virtually all ISPs also provide Web hosting services, and if you have a good relationship with your ISP, you’re likely to be happy with their Web hosting too.

Putting stuff on your Web site is straightforward. If your Web site is locally hosted, you generally just need to copy the files that make up your Web site from a floppy onto the server. With a remotely hosted Web site, you update your Web site via an Internet connection instead. This is most often done with a program that handles “FTP” – File Transfer Protocol, a standard way of sending and receiving files to and from a remote server. Each Web site has its own special user name and password which have to be used in order to update the site with new files. So, unless you’re careless with this access information, no one else can update the information on your Web site without your permission.

Who Does What?
I’ve covered where your Web site sits and how to put stuff on it in broad terms, but a key part that’s missing is what that stuff is. In other words, where does the content of your Web site come from?

You have two simple choices: you do it yourself, or someone you pay creates the contents of your Web site. The least expensive route is to develop the Web site yourself. However, that’s not always the best way to produce a professional looking Web site. You may remember when desktop publishing first became a new application of computers – people went crazy with fonts, formatting, layouts, and as a result, produced some pretty ghastly things, solely because they could (and because they didn’t know better). Creating and publishing Web sites is just the next evolutionary step in desktop publishing, if you think about it. That means that it’s really easy to produce pages with great information about your company and its products, but not so easy to make those pages look polished and visually balanced and therefore attractive to passersby.

The most expensive route is that you hire a large firm that specializes in advertising or creating marketing materials. They know how to make things look good, but probably don’t have a great understanding of your business or products. You pay these people by the hour, most likely, and it can be a steep hourly fee at that. As someone who consults on Web development, and occasionally does Web site design for pay, I’m sure I’m somewhat biased in saying that I think that the best approach to implementing a Web site is to get just enough outside help to get you over the rough spots,  and then figure out how to best allocate your time and resources to complete the project. I’ve found that this way, companies who want to get on the Web end up with a Web site that they are happy with, and they have learned something about layout, design, and Web pages in the process. If this approach interests you, chances are that your ISP can recommend someone locally that their other customers have had success in working with.

How Do I?…

If you’re developing your own Web site, or working in conjunction with another person or company to do so, it’s important that you use the same Web design tools to get your job done. Web tools can be as simple as your word processing software (most packages these days offer the ability to create Web pages from documents), or as complex as high-end publishing packages. At the end of this article, I’ve listed a number of tools I’ve worked with, with prices ranging from $79 to $295.Of these packages, there are a few noteworthy ones. If you’re looking at site design as a whole, and are familiar with desktop publishing software, I can definitely recommend NetObject’s Fusion. This software makes it really simple to build a multi-page site very quickly. Instead of the page by page approach most of the other software I’ve listed uses, Fusion has you start designing the complete site layout and style first, and then lets you insert pages as you see the need. Fusion automatically  updates all the links from each page to all the others as you modify things, and also comes with a healthy set of Web site templates you can model your site after. A “lite” version of Fusion is packaged in as part of Netscape’s Publishing Suite.

To some extent, SoftQuad’s HoTMetaL Pro and Microsoft’s FrontPage do the same thing, but using different approaches. HoTMetaL Pro has you working on pages and then helps you combine them into a site, and FrontPage does much the same, except that it also offers additional features that require you to have extra software installed on your Web server, which I find to be annoying. FrontPage also make certain assumptions about how you want to do things in terms of creating Web sites and running the software, which in my case were very far off base. That’s a shame, because the Web page editor portion of FrontPage is actually quite nice.

In terms of the most complete package, Corel’s Webmaster Suite can’t be beat. It comes with a plethora of excellent graphics tools, page editing software, site management software, and lots of Web specific clipart. If you want something simple to work with, on a page by page basis, then Symantec’s Visual Page, Claris HomePage, and Adobe PageMill all offer good page editing capabilities. I should also mention that most of these packages are available in 30-day trial versions off the respective companies’ Web sites.

Now you have your Web publishing tools, your Web host, and probably a consultant or a company to help you create a Web site. Great! Well, you need something else, namely a plan.

In my experience, first time Web site owners have grand ideas about all the zillions of things they will put on their Web site, and how wonderful it’s going to be. In fact, I had the same grand ideas years ago when I first started working with the Web. Well, the reality is that unless you have unlimited human and financial resources, you need to plan your Web site deployment in stages.

The beauty of the Web is that it’s very dynamic. If you want to change something, it can be done very quickly. Taking this concept one step further, it’s perfectly acceptable to start with a small, one to five page Web site, and as you get more comfortable with the medium, expand the site to include more and more information and features. If you don’t follow this approach, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed and end up with a Web site that’s tough to use and of questionable value.

It’s always important to maintain control over the Web site. Outside of the zillion page syndrome, a Web site can get out of control if too many people work on it at the same time without close coordination, or when you pass the effort entirely off to an outside company. In this latter case, the problem arises if there isn’t some sort of agreement that once the outside company finishes the implementation you agreed to and paid for, you own all the pages they developed for you. Part of the agreement should also state that you have the sole right to continue the maintenance of the site yourself or via someone else, not necessarily the original company that developed the site for you. To emphasize this control problem with outside companies, several years ago here in the Caribbean, some companies came in, signed up a bunch of tourist-oriented businesses for Web page design and page hosting at high rates because that was the only way to go at the time. Now, as creating and maintaining one’s own Web pages has become a common and well understood effort, these same hosting companies are claiming copyright ownership of all the material they created for  their customers, which forces their erstwhile customers to have to start completely from scratch for their own Web sites or continue to be held hostage.

Finally, another major set of pitfalls await in the design of Web sites, but I’ll have to let that discussion wait until my next column, where I’ll help you figure out what your Web site should look like, and explain what some common Web site design mistakes are and how to easily avoid them.

Product Company URL Estimated Retail Price
Adobe PageMill* $99
Claris HomePage* $99
Corel WebMaster Suite $149
Microsoft FrontPage $129
NetObjects Fusion* $295
Netscape Publishing Suite* $149
SoftQuad HoTMetaL Pro $129
Symantec VisualPage $79
* = Also available for Macintosh computers

Popular Web editing software packages