5.9 Building a Website: Introduction

What is a well-designed site? One that does its job. Aesthetics and programming are important, but only an aspect of the business plan. A good web design can only be achieved after all other matters have been finalized: type of business, payment system and marketing strategies. Only then can a company:

1. Provide a working model to the web designer, avoiding costly changes later.
2. Describe the business precisely to the graphic designer: essential if an appropriate brand image is to be created.
3. Suggest models to the site designer from competitors' sites, which their site is to emulate but improve on.
4. Divide the site into pages that individually target optimal keywords. Each page has to be designed specifically to promote those keywords — not only in meta tags, but in layout, graphics labels and page copy.
5. Know how much they can afford to spend on site build so as to achieve their expected return on investment.

Use a Designer or Build Your Own?

HTML, and even some Javascript, is not difficult to master, but most company objectives are not to prove their versatility, but to obtain a professional-looking site as painlessly as possible. A Mom and Pop part-time business will probably build its own site, employing a knowledgeable friend or one of the many software packages available. In all other cases companies would be well advised to use a professional. Supply exceeds demand, and most web designers are keen for work, adjusting their fees accordingly.

Points to consider in selecting a web designer:

1. Designers specialize. Choose one experienced in your field.
2. Scrutinize their own site. It need not be snazzy — they may be too busy to continually update their site — but it should be professional: clear message, attractive to look at, easy to navigate, quick to download, no broken links or typos.
3. Ask for cost estimates. Given precise requirements, the design company should be able to quote, or provide a range of costs.
4. Examine their portfolio and ask to see more of their work. Then contact the clients for references. Phone calls will elicit more information than emails or formal letters.
5. Check that emails and phone calls are promptly answered. Shortcomings won't be remedied when you're a client.
6. Speak if possible to actual designers and programmers: they may not be good salesmen, but they should be friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. These are the folk you'll be in weekly contact with, so you need to get along with them.

Also investigate:

1. Cost of extra pages.
2. Cost of alterations.
3. Maintenance, if the site is hosted by them or (better) a third-party hosting company.
4. Copyright considerations.
5. Guarantees and penalty payments for delays or noncompliance.
6. Financial standing of design company (or guarantees are worthless).
7. Legal aspects of the contract before you sign it. Your requirements may be onerous, but a company unable to meet them won't give you much peace of mind.

Likely Costs

Sites built with 'out of the box solutions', or through 'all-in hosting solutions', are 'free' or have a fixed price. Otherwise, web-build companies should be able to provide reasonable cost estimates once they have accurate specifications. Until that time, for the purposes of initial planning, these may be broadly typical:

Mom & Pop

5 pages. Credit cards taken but not

processed in real time. Third party hosting.

$500

Starter Site

20 page catalog. Credit cards processed

in real time but no merchant account.

Third party hosting.

$1,500

Small Business

50-page catalog. Credit cards processed

in real time with merchant account.

No database. Third party hosting.

$5,000

Small-Medium Business

100-page catalog. Build includes logo

and individual design. Credit cards processed

in real time with merchant account.

Product information from database. Third party hosting.

$15,000

Medium-Sized Business

250-page catalog. Logo and individual design.

Credit cards processed on site with merchant account.

Product information from database.

Dedicated server or in-house hosting.

$50,000+


Student designers and overseas contractors will be cheaper (and riskier).

Build Approaches

Websites are built by these approaches, in order of increasing cost and complexity:

1. Build your own through an all-in ecommerce hosting solution.
2. Build your own with an 'out of the box' package'; host the site with a third-party hosting company.
3. Have the site built by a web design company; host with the design company or with a third-party hosting company.
4. Build in-house; host on your own server.

Features of a Good Website

Whatever the choice, a good ecommerce website has to be:

1. Distinctive, promoting your brand in a memorable fashion.
2. Professional looking, inspiring trust and confidence.
3. Appropriate to the product or service sector.
4. Organized around the purchasing process — attention, interest, desire, decision and purchase.
5. Impossible to get lost in: all customer actions have been anticipated and properly channeled.
6. Fast to download, five seconds at most.
7. Prominent in its display of guarantees and returns policy.
8. Provided with FAQs to cover all eventualities.
9. Complete with a bona fide address, email address and customer support telephone number (toll-free if possible).
10. Broken into sensible sections, i.e. into pages whose appearance in the traffic statistics report helpfully on visitor behavior.

It goes without saying that the site should be without broken links, coding errors or typographic blunders. Using a spell checker is not sufficient: you must follow the journalist's practice of proofing by an expert third party. Friends and potential customers should also assess the site from all the standpoints listed above, especially if the site is homegrown.

Professional website assessment companies exist to probe all aspects of design, including security and performance under heavy traffic, and should be used by larger companies with reputations to protect.

Aesthetics is an intangible matter, and business folk are not always the best judges. Much time is wasted in gently moving clients to a more acceptable design, a process that web-build companies dislike but have to charge for. Therefore get the best design company you can afford, trust what they say, but also ask to see the work of the personnel actually engaged on your site. Go elsewhere if you have doubts.

Specific Points :

Customer Appeal

The site has to look good and function well. Ensure that pages:

1. Have attractively-written and useful content.
2. Follow a consistent design scheme and copy style.
3. Are laid out intuitively, with clear navigational elements.
4. Still look good in 256 color monitor displays.
5. Display properly in the main browsers and their usual versions.

Search Engine Friendliness

Though commonly needing pay-per-click support, search engines still provide the best marketing tools. Ensure you get a good ranking by:

1. Researching the best keywords for each page.
2. Optimizing title, description, page copy, links, alt descriptions and meta keywords for the researched keywords.
3. Avoiding splash pages and lengthy Flash introductions.
4. Avoiding frames and deep directory structures.
5. Moving Javascript/Java coding from the page header as much as possible.
6. Avoiding having all copy generated by database look-up.

Graphic Design Issues

For would-be DIY graphic designers

The usual advice is don't. Graphic design is a very skilled business, and the experience that stamps an essential feel of 'quality' on the page is well worth paying for. No amateur can hope to emulate a top professional, and it's false economy to try. No doubt that's true, but not all professionals are top notch, and it's not unknown for a client to meet the senior partner but have the work done by the trainee just out of art college. The best designers are very good indeed, but the fees can make even big business flinch. What's the solution?

Some general points. Unless yours is a site advertising web or graphic design services (when you'll have your own in-house staff anyway) the graphics needed for an ecommerce site can be very simple. In fact, they should be simple. You don't require full-page designs that take long minutes to download. Likewise be very chary of Flash animation, or splash pages at all. However stunning the effect, they're apt to confuse the search engines and delay the customer getting to the product. A logo occupying the top 15% of the page, plus links in the margin, is usually all that's needed.

Logos

Now the logo. Many companies will already have their own logo. The originating company can be contacted for the artwork, or existing sales literature scanned and the resulting image cleaned up. From the logo flows the general look of the site, and so the graphic design generally. In contrast, a logo becomes necessary when the company:

1. Is newly established and has no logo.
2. Possesses something suitable only for letterhead.
3. Wishes to operate under another name.

How much do logos cost?

The figures may surprise you. But prices in the high hundreds to many thousand dollars reflect the time spent in conceiving and polishing up the final product, commonly through innumerable meetings between management and designers. On logos depend the image of the company: its status, style of business, market sector. And once decided upon, the logo is entrenched in the public consciousness by large sums spent on promotion. It has to be right. Design professionals are magpies, forever creating portfolios of ideas and examples. So must be the student. Design can't be learned out of books, or by slavishly following rules (which is not to say rules don't exist). DIY designers need to visit competitor sites and assess them carefully. They'll each have their strengths and shortcomings. The new site has to adopt those strengths, and then surpass them.

That said, there exist companies that will create respectable logos for around a hundred dollars, perhaps not very individual logos but certainly better than beginners' efforts. An Internet search will locate them.

Outsourcing the Web Build

Most individuals can cope with HTML and scripting languages, but for anything else:

1. Leave it to the experts. Database programming is more than writing correct code.
2. Keep it simple. The site design should include provision for database access, but not add database features until needed. Database sites are much more costly to build, host and maintain. They may also slow down the site.
3. Use a reputable company. Don't be guinea pigs for the 'we can do anything for you' approach, but check references and choose someone who's already built something close to your requirements.
4. Get a copy of the code. Ask to see code at stages in the site build to check that it's correctly laid out. Unreadable code is difficult/impossible to maintain by a subsequent developer.
5. Beware of copyright restrictions. Code is your property, what you've paid good money for. Ensure you get a complete copy when the site is finished, that it works, and keep it in a safe place.
6. Specify exactly what the site is to do. Who does what, and by when, should be specified in the contract. Sites which grow as management gets time to think about them have spiraling costs, leading to recriminations that benefit only lawyers.

Customer Concerns

Security is crucial to ecommerce. Customers are concerned that the item ordered won't materialize, or be as described. And (much worse) they worry about their social security number and credit card details being misappropriated. However rarely, these things do happen, and are widely publicized. Security is always the emerchant's first responsibility, and that means not only ensuring that all stages of the transaction are perfectly safe, but that they are clearly seen to be so. Your guarantees and returns policies must be stated on the website, and they must be adhered to.

Multi-lingual Sites

Companies are increasingly the need for multilingual websites. Non-English speakers now outnumber English speakers among Internet users, and the more go-ahead ecommerce companies are turning to the emerging markets of China, Latin America and India. 95% of people don't live in the USA, and native Chinese-speakers in fact outnumber English-speakers by two to one. Over half of Google's traffic, which offers 97 language interfaces, comes from outside the US.

How do you widen your ecommerce base? There are two matters to consider:

1. Redesigning your website for other languages
2. Adapting to local ways of doing business

Both can be taxing, and the larger corporations are currently spending millions in these areas.

Some suggestions for the smaller entrepreneur:

1. Get translators and web designers to work together on an "international template". Languages may not be as concise as English, and different layouts can be expected.
2. Purchasing is culturally dependent, and new colors, graphics and customer assurances are often needed.
3. Employ a web design company with overseas branches, or a local company (cheaper) in the target countries.
4. See what the market-leaders are doing.
5. Remember that non-US customers may not have fast Internet connections.
6. Pay special attention to logos and brand names, which may not translate easily.
7. Integrate national sites into an international network of websites: customers like the backing of a big name.
8. Experiment and check each step of the way, setting up user groups if necessary.

Translation Services

Simply translating your sales copy into another language won't generally work: copy has to be appropriately nuanced for customers identified by your market research. In choosing a translation agency, therefore, check:

1. Experience in both language and market sector
2. Standing with bodies like the American Translators Association.
3. References for translator actually doing the work and get examples of work.

Other points:
1. Plan well in advance and keep information flowing both ways.
2. Finalize and double-check your English drafts before translation.
3. Agree beforehand on a glossary of technical terms if these are necessary.
4. Avoid last-minute changes as rush fees can be high.
5. Allow sufficient time for review and feedback.
6. Get native speakers to check the work if you don't speak the language yourself.

Most of this is obvious, but a lot rides on getting it right.

Questions

1. What would your brief to a web designer cover?
2. You get three quotes for a website build. How would you assess them?
3. What aspects must be covered by an ecommerce site?
4. Your chief has decided to adapt the company site for the Chinese market. Describe how you'd manage the project.

Sources and Further Reading

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