The Wonderful Web

Would you like a website for your business but don’t know how to get started? Read on for a basic web primer.

Web Basics For Dummies

First, what is the web? The WEB (or INTERNET) is a network of computers spanning the world. You access the web through a BROWSER, a software program that allows you to see pages on the web. Examples of browsers include Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Opera, and Netscape Navigator. A browser is a free piece of software that typically comes installed on your computer. You can have multiple browsers should you choose.

Browsers allow you to view WEBSITES which are collections of files owned by companies or individuals that are stored in a certain part of the web and accessed by their own domain names. A DOMAIN NAME is a unique name you choose to identify your site. Examples include verizon.net and netflix.com. Tip: yournamehere@gmail.com is NOT a domain name but an email address. The domain name in this instance is gmail.com. Domain names must be purchased through an authorized registrar. See www.internic.com, the central organization for domain name registration, for more information on how this system works.

A URL (Uniform Resource Locator) is essentially your web address and is made up of parts including the protocol, a method of transferring files (for example, http://); the host, which is your domain name, (for example, www.cats.com); and the path to a particular file or folder (for example, siamese). Put together, the URL for this example is http://www.cats.com/siamese. HTTP stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol, a method used to transfer information via the Internet.

Once you have a domain name, you need to find a WEB HOSTING SERVER. Numerous companies offer this service. Your files are stored on a computer directly connected to the Internet that responds to requests from a user to view a website. Tip: your home computer is not a server. You can find a server by searching online or asking a design company.

Now that you have a handle on web basics, you are ready to start thinking about how to design your site! Start by reading Web Design Basics.

If all this talk of HTML, URL, HTTP, domain names, and hosting services has you crossing your eyes and rubbing your head, don’t despair! There are many design companies out there to help you through the complicated world of building a website. Too expensive? Read on to discover what to do when you can’t afford a web designer.

What To Do When You Can’t Afford A Web Designer

If web design prices have your head spinning, why not join the ranks of others and build your own? It may take a little more time, but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you did it yourself. This is a particularly good route for new business owners or for people wanting to build a family or hobby website. Hiring a designer could cost you anywhere from $750 and up, but you can build your own for much less. Be sure you have plenty of time to invest, because there can be a substantial learning curve.

Let’s start with some assumptions. I’m assuming you don’t know and don’t want to learn the basic coding languages for building websites: HTML (hypertext markup language) or CSS (cascading style sheets). I’m also assuming you don’t own and don’t want to buy any professional design software such as the Adobe suite of products that include Dreamweaver and Photoshop. I do assume that you have a working knowledge of the Internet, email, digital photography, and word processing programs. If not, you’ll need to do a little remedial learning before starting on your website project.

SMALL BUSINESS
Small business owners should first check with their industry’s professional organizations to see if they provide or can refer you to any website providers. Then try a search online for the name of your industry plus “web builder.” There are companies out there that specialize in websites for a particular industry like dentalwebbuilder.com for dentists and photobiz.com for photographers. Or look into general do-it-yourself small business site builders like smallbusiness.officelive.com, hostway.com, citymax.com, and homestead.com. Some of these, like Homestead, offer web-based templates that you can customize with just a few clicks. You’ll still need to pay for these services, but it should be cheaper than hiring a professional to start from scratch.

PERSONAL SITES
For hobby and family sites, which don’t necessarily need a professional look, you have more choices. Try any of the following: vistaprint.com, geocities.yahoo.com, google.com, or weebly.com. Also check with your Internet service provider to see if they offer anything in the way of websites. Most of these sites offer free websites and templates that you can customize to suit your needs.

BLOGGING
If you are in the market for a blog, try wordpress.com, typepad.com, or blogger.com. There are many others, as well. You can find them by typing “blogging” into any search engine. Most are either free or inexpensive. If you have strong writing skills and can commit to at least one post per week, a blog might be a great way to get your business or personal site on line quickly. Disadvantages include not being able to customize the site to the extent you might want and being limited to a yourwebsite.bloggingsite.com domain name.

ECOMMERCE
Design of e-commerce sites is best left to professionals, but if your budget precludes this cost, you can still get your goods online in a variety of ways. First and foremost, consider an eBay store. If your item is handmade, see if etsy.com is a good fit for you. If you make t-shirts, stationery, or coffee mugs, try cafepress.com. Yahoo Small Business has a web-based e-commerce solution for new businesses selling small volumes. If you want to save money and bypass a designer, this might be a good option for you. Find out more at smallbusiness.yahoo.com. If you sell books or goods, you could use Amazon.com’s business solutions. Go to the bottom of their site and click on “Build an eCommerce Site”. Another option is designer218.com. These are just a few ways to get started selling your items online. There are many other e-commerce solutions out there for the do-it-yourselfer. Just do a Google search on “do-it-yourself websites” or “e-commerce.”

SOFTWARE
If you’re not crazy about the web-based solutions I’ve outlined above, you can try to take your site to the next level by designing it yourself using free (or inexpensive) software. There are a number of HTML editors available. Try coffeecup.com, barebones.com/products/bbedit, or w3.org/Amaya/Amaya.html. Irfanview.com offers free graphic software as does getpaint.net. See freebyte.com/graphicprograms for a comprehensive list of other freebies.

A brief glance at the web sites highlighted above should give you confidence in your ability to select the most appropriate one for your level of skill and for your degree of interest as well as for the kind of subject matter you wish to convey. As you become more knowledgeable, your site will no doubt become more attractive and more informative. Good luck in your new business venture or personal site!

Blogging: What is it and should you be doing it?

What is a Blog?
A blog is an online diary or journal, usually devoted to a particular topic, that combines text, images, and links. Entries are arranged in a reverse chronological order, are permanently archived, and can be retrieved by category. Most blogs are text-based, consisting of a series of observations, news, or commentary, but there are also video blogs and photo blogs. Several million people worldwide use blogs for publishing web content.

Blogs can be personal or business oriented. Personal blogs relate life stories, lessons learned, opinion, or commentary on any variety of topics. Business blogs are tools for communicating with current customers to share knowledge and with potential customers to build confidence in a brand or product. Business blogs can also build website traffic, increase search engine ratings, and expose a small business to a larger audience. One business blog that is effectively managed is blogs.ancestry.com for the Ancestry genealogy site which posts news and tutorials for their software and new products. To see more blogs, visit delawareonline.com/blogs.

Anatomy of a Blog

A blog archives content in reverse chronological order, with the most recent post appearing at the top of the page. Earlier postings can be retrieved by clicking on the appropriate link. Postings can also be assigned a category to help organize the content. For example, in a blog about pets, posts would be assigned to categories like cats, dogs, and birds, enabling the user to browse content in the category of his choice. Each post has a title, a date, and keywords associated with it.

Characteristics of a Good Blog

A good blog should provide interesting and valuable content that is updated regularly. A good blog stays on topic; don’t get sidetracked writing about your young child’s cute antics on a site devoted to fishing. Original material is key to a successful blog. No matter how well-written the post, if it doesn’t say something worthwhile, it won’t be read. Be prepared to spend a chunk of time every week creating new material for your blog; many blogs are abandoned because their owners lose interest or don’t have time to update them.

Some Blogging Terms

The word blog is derived from web log. A post is an entry in your blog. Think of it as a short article about a particular topic. Each post receives comments from readers. These are usually listed underneath the post or are accessible through a link. Comments can be problematic because they can be used as spam. A permalink is a permanent URL or a path to a specific post in your blog.

Publicize Your Blog

A blog’s content will eventually be picked up by a search engine and indexed like any other webpage. However, bloggers can go a step further to spread the word about their new blog. Many search engines now have sections devoted to blogs. Go to blogsearch.google.com and type in any subject for a list of related blogs. Technorati.com and blogsearchengine.com are other useful sites to publicize your blog.

Getting Started

You can start a free blog at movabletype.com, blogger.com, or wordpress.com, as well as at many other blogging sites. This is an ideal choice for a personal blog. Blogs can be set up in a matter of minutes so you can start posting content immediately. You can also choose from a number of designs to change the look of your blog.

For business bloggers or those wishing a more customizable platform, or a more specific domain name, try wordpress.org or textpattern.com. Setting up a blog this way requires some coding knowledge, access to a server, and possibly some specialized software. A web designer can help in this area.

To Blog or Not to Blog?

Do you have a unique viewpoint or specialized knowledge about a subject or event? If so, sharing your opinion or expertise with the world at large may be a great idea. Perhaps your business might benefit from a blog where additional content can be posted, the availability of extra information convincing a potential customer to purchase your product or service. So, to blog or not to blog? Why not! Reaching out to others through the written word has a long history of success. You can do it, too!

Web Design Basics

Imagine this scenario: a potential customer lands on your website and wants to find out about your business. She starts to surf around on your page. What is this experience like for her? Does she see a clear focal point with a short description of what your site or business will do for her? Is she able to navigate from page to page, easily finding the information she is looking for? Does she notice clear graphics that load quickly and complement the content?If your website falls short in these areas, your potential customer may become confused or frustrated and leave your site for someone else’s. Don’t let that happen! Incorporate good design techniques to not only increase traffic to your site but, ultimately, to sell more products or services.

FOCAL POINT

How many times have you landed on a site that gives no indication of what it is about? Don’t do this to your potential customers! Give your visitor a clear idea of what your site is about by using an identifiable business logo and name near the top of the page with short explanatory text that conveys what you do and the service you offer.

NAVIGATION

Once your visitor has landed on your home page and has had time to orient herself to your site, you need to provide her with an easy way to move through your site. Make sure your navigational links are easy to read and understand and are consistent throughout your site. Don’t force your visitor to guess which button will lead her to your contact page – spell it out for her by adding text to your buttons. So-called “Mystery Meat” navigation is fine for a teenager’s personal website, but NOT for your business.

WHITE SPACE

Don’t fill up your entire page with graphics and text – give yourself and your readers some room to breathe. If you have a text-heavy site, don’t despair, simply break up your large blocks of verbiage with headlines and subheaders, bullet points and numbers, and shorter paragraphs. Add a well-placed graphic for emphasis and you are all set.

GRAPHICS

Please, please, please make sure your graphics are of high quality and are crisp and clear. But don’t make them too large or too small; just like Goldilocks’ bed and bowl of porridge, they should be just right. Don’t clutter up your page with them. Choose an appropriate number (always a judgment call, like everything else) and stick with it. Use Photoshop’s “Save for Web” feature (or something similar for other imaging software) to compress your graphics appropriately. Use tags to add a text descriptor for those using a screen reader. Know the difference between a gif and a jpeg. Lastly, make sure that every graphic supports and substantiates your content.

COLOR

Choose colors that complement your business type. For example, trendy colors work well for a clothing boutique while more somber tones are appropriate for a law office. Use darker text on a lighter background for readability. Limit the number of colors you use (it’s a website, not a rainbow).

AND MORE

There are many other components of a good website design, but these will get you started down the right path toward design success. To learn more, try searching online for design tutorials.

6 DESIGN MISTAKES:

  1. Advertisements – Please don’t subject your visitors to pop-up ads for unrelated businesses or those Google ads you see everywhere. Why dilute your message? Keep the focus of your website about your business.
  2. Frames – Nasty things from the 1990’s, frames are no longer de rigueur for web design – lose them!
  3. Font tags – These are deprecated (outdated) in HTML 4.01. While they won’t become obsolete any time soon, why not start now to rid your pages of extraneous code? For more control and flexibility, use CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) instead.
  4. Tables – Way back in the old days of web design (like a few years ago!), designers depended on code-heavy tables filled with sliced graphics to lay out a design. No more. Today’s designers use
    (division) tags with a CSS style sheet to create a design. Not that tables are evil and need to be eradicated from the face of the earth, mind you; au contraire, mon ami, many sites still use them for presenting data and forms. The key is to use them wisely and as needed.
  5. Hard-to-find contact information – Why force your visitors to search high and low for a way to contact you? Don’t! Instead, place your contact information on EVERY page. You want more customers, right? Well then, make it easy for them to get in touch with you.
  6. Annoying animated gifs – If you have one of those little gifs of a flag blowing in the wind on your website, remove it immediately! These horrible creations proliferated in the early days of web design but just are no longer cool.

To find out more about design mistakes (and for a good laugh), visit webpagesthatsuck.com. For more on design that works, browse through webdesignfromscratch.com. The advice and information in these two sites, along with some of the basics covered here, will provide a solid foundation of good design elements for your business website. Good luck and happy designing!

Building Web Content

You sit down in front of your computer and put your hands on the keyboard. A blank monitor screen stares back at you. You want to write some copy for your new website, but where do you start? Lucky for you, website content has coalesced from a random collection of information into a cohesive set of standardized pages that web surfers are not only accustomed to, but expect. Follow this basic formula for sure-fire success:

Home Page

Think of the home page as a storefront window. Here, surfers will peer in at your contents and decide whether to enter your site or keep on walking by. Weigh that choice in your favor by making your home page visually appealing and easy to comprehend. Surfers want to find out about your product or service, and they want to do it with a minimum of effort. They’ll be asking themselves, “What kind of site is this?” and “What can I do here” along with the most important, “How do I contact this company?” Make it easy for them! Provide links to each major area of your site, much like a table of contents. But don’t clutter up the home page with too many elements. Keep it simple and allow your page (and the people looking at it) a chance to breathe.

Products or Services

This page is probably the most important one after the home page. Here you will describe for your customers what types of products and services you offer along with prices or rates. Don’t just list them randomly – categorize and subcategorize to make the information more user-friendly. For example, a garden center might categorize its services as Landscaping Design/Build; Retail Sales; Garden Maintenance; and Planting Services, with a short description of each and links to a separate page of more detailed information.

News

Use this page to post relevant content about your business. If you are expanding your business, tell about it here. Sales or special promotions can go here as well. Post informational articles related to your products or services here. For example, if you run a yoga studio, including an article about proper breathing techniques can go a long way toward keeping surfers on your site AND coming back. Informative, well-written, interesting articles will build your company’s reputation by positioning you as an expert in your field.

Company History/About Us

Potential customers who are uncertain whether to buy from you will be reassured by a short company history emphasizing your solidity as a business. This is your chance to establish your reliable reputation and your company’s worth. Familiarize visitors with your qualifications, describe how your business has grown, and to provide a human face for your organization.

Just remember two points when writing this page:

  1. Forget the word history. Avoid droning on and on about the founding CEO’s childhood or the fact that your deliveries were once made by horse and buggy. Think CliffsNotes rather than encyclopedia.
  2. Promote a professional appearance and profile. Get a professional photographer to take your picture instead of posting that snapshot of yourself in a Hawaiian shirt at the beach. Keep the focus on professional accomplishments. Nobody cares about your favorite pet cat Fluffymittens needing a flea dip. Save this for your personal blog.

Testimonials

How many times have you wanted to try a product or service, but were unsure of its worth? What do you do? Ask your friends! In an online environment, people want reassurance when buying items they cannot see in person or when engaging services from an unknown business. The customer who hesitates decreases your sales margin, but increases your bandwidth by returning to your site again and again as she makes up her mind. Tip the balance in your favor by providing her with testimonials to help her feel confident and ready to buy. Testimonials are statements, written by a third party, that endorse your product or service. There are many ways to collect these; the simplest is to ask for permission to quote when a customer compliments your business. Put your testimonials on a separate page linked to from the bottom of your company history page.

FAQ

If you find yourself repeatedly answering the same types of customer questions (Where are you located? Do you take credit cards? Do you deliver?), you might need a Frequently Asked Questions page. Ask the people who answer the phones and those at the front desk at your business what questions are asked most often. Don’t get carried away with this, however. Nobody wants to scroll through hundreds of lines of text to find the answer to a single question. Perversely, if your FAQ is too extensive, people will simply give up and call you, exactly what you were trying to minimize in the first place.

Contact Page

Usually composed of an email link or form that permits users to contact you, your contact page allows visitors to find out how to get in touch with your business. But don’t make it the only place. Your business address and phone should be posted on every page of your website. Make it easy for your valuable potential customers to find and contact you. Include a street address, even if you don’t use it for mailing. A physical location reassures customers that you have a permanent business presence and aren’t just some fly-by-night charlatan. Driving directions and business hours can also be posted to the contact page.

While each business is different and has its own set of requirements for a website, these 7 basic pages will ensure that you are off to a good start. If the task still seems unmanageable, try jotting down the information using bullet points. Once you have listed all your facts, it will be easier to combine the phrases into complete sentences. (That’s how this article was written!) As you shape your rough copy into sparkling web content, keep in mind some of the following guidelines for good writing.

Effective Writing

Reading text on a monitor screen for long periods of time creates eye fatigue. People will be reluctant to read reams of information at your site. Attention spans are short, so keep your copy short and to the point. Break up large blocks of content with subheaders. Use bullet points to allow readers to quickly scan for the item of interest. Provide “find out more” links that point to additional content. Put the most important information at the top of the page where it will most readily be seen. Use good grammar and correct spelling or hire a proof reader or copy editor. Write in the active voice. Instead of: “The passive voice should not be used,” try “Don’t use the passive voice,” or better yet, make it a positive statement, “Write in the active voice.” Revise, revise, revise.

Once you have completed your text and posted it to your site, you may be tempted to check off that task and forget about it. Instead, be sure to return periodically and reread your web content with a critical eye. Refresh your site with new photographs and revised text. Good content is worth every minute you spend on it. Communicating effectively to your customers will ensure good long-term business relationships. So get those fingers typing and fill up that blank screen!

Increase Your Website Traffic

So you’ve got your website up and running. Now you can sit back and watch new customers pouring in, right? Well, maybe. First your potential customers have to find your site. How do you ensure that this will happen? Of the millions of websites in existence today, how do your customers find yours? The answer is a combination of a good marketing campaign and good design and coding techniques which will result in increased search engine ratings. In this article, we’ll discuss marketing.

Put Your Address Everywhere

One of the most important steps to take in publicizing your website is the simplest one of all: put your website address everywhere. Put it on your business cards, print ads, newsletters, brochures, magnets, pens, even your company car. Set up a signature on your email so that your name, business name, contact information and website is automatically added to the bottom of every new email you send. (Look under “Tools > Options > Signatures” for Microsoft Outlook or some combination of the above for other email programs.) Drop your website name into every business conversation. For example, if someone calls for hours or directions, give the answer and add that the information is also available on your website.

Search Engines

Submit your website address to the top search engines, including Google, Duck Duck Go, Yahoo, MSN, AltaVista, Ask, and Dogpile. Look for a link called “Add URL” and follow instructions for each search engine. Once your website has been added to a search engine’s database, you can work on pushing your site up in the rankings. Very few surfers will browse past the third results page so it’s important to be listed in the first few pages. (This is where good design and appropriate coding come into play.)

Local Search

Don’t overlook the local search options on Google and Yahoo. Start with Google Maps and look for a link reading, “Add or Edit Your Business.” You can add not only your website address, but email, hours of operation, photos, and a short description of your business. You can even add a coupon. Yahoo Local has a choice of paid or free listings. Start with the free one. You’ll need a Yahoo account but that is also free to set up. Yellowpages.com permits free listings and has a section for reviews. Finally, submit your site to a local directory like delawareontheweb.com.

Collect Inbound Links

How do those search engine sites determine who shows up at the top of the ratings anyway? Nobody knows for sure! They use carefully guarded algorithms that are not shared with web designers or the general public. But we do know that the number of inbound links a site has helps to determine page rank. Inbound links are links on someone else’s page that point to your site. The more you have, the better. How do you get them?

  • Contribute to an industry specific site like brandywinebuzz.com, a family activity site for the Brandywine Valley, or shoplocal.com for retail stores. ” Join the local tourist bureau for a listing on the web and in printed guidebooks. This is ideal for restaurants, hotels, museums, retail stores, and other tourist attractions.
  • Add your business to a professional association website. National directory sites exist for many industries, including allpropertymanagement.com for real estate property managers; yoga.com for yoga studios; dojolocator.com for martial arts dojos; and asla.org for landscape architects. Chances are there is some kind of professional organization geared toward your industry. Find it and ask them to post a link to your website.
  • Write an article for an online magazine. These can be industry specific (aikidojournal.com) or regional (thewomensjournal.com). Make sure there is a link back to your website.
  • Leave a comment on someone’s blog. Usually there is a place to leave a website link after you enter your name and comments. Be sure to leave a pertinent comment or it may be blocked as spam. Pick a blog whose content is related to your business.
  • Start a “friends” section on your website and have other business owners you are friendly with do the same. Everyone will benefit from increased links to each other’s sites. Increasing your site’s traffic may take some legwork, but the payoff in the long run is more customers coming to your website and more sales for your business.

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