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To Web or not to Web

Do I need a web site? That is the question often asked by business owners.

The answer will usually depend upon the type of product or service offered and what the business is trying to achieve. Some products/services are more suited to the web than others. Plus, a well designed web site can be a superb tool for communicating with customers, prospective customers, suppliers and the wider community.

For most service businesses, I'd say "Yes, you do need a web site."

There are many ways to be 'on the net', with ISP's, web designers and web hosting companies offering businesses many options in how this can be achieved. However there are also advertising and sponsorship opportunities that may be cost effective for businesses, either through web sites or email communication.

Is the web for me?

As use of the Internet matures it appears that company/branded web sites are particularly important for products and services that are high-involvement purchases. Examples are cars, finance, computer equipment, and professional services where a buyer will actively seek details for comparison prior to making a purchase.

Conversely, for products that are typically low-involvement or commodity purchases a dedicated web site may not be the best answer. It may be more cost effective to concentrate on building brand awareness via advertising and sponsorships on web pages (or email newsletters) that have content relevant to the target audience for the product.

But the Internet does lure businesses with the potential of trading on a larger scale. It is up to individual business operators to decide how important this opportunity is for them. If you are thinking about creating or expanding your web site it is suggested you focus on being either a major force in your local/regional area, or gear up for servicing a national or global market.

If you decide to join the growing number of businesses using a web site, you must also give thought to the type of site you will use. Apart from the 'look' of the site, content and functionality must be considered.

What are my options?

Web site options range from a single page (long or short) with contact details, to information sites and brochure-ware layouts that incorporate basic product images and descriptions. At the top end are full scale ecommerce sites that process credit card payments online, track your previous purchases, allow interactivity with the site and other customers, and provide personal login facilities to access data.

In many cases the development costs for hand-coded web sites with custom built shopping carts, custom product database and online payment capability starts at around $8,000. For larger sites requiring complex coding and special functionality it's easy to go over this figure.

However, there are now less expensive options available, including the use of Content Management Systems (CMS). A CMS makes it easy to create a site and make changes. No special programming knowledge is required. The CMS interface is very much like using a word processor. And you usually pay by the month. It's like renting your web site. Depending upon your level of skill, you may still need help to create your own graphics or pictures for use on the site. An example of a CMS is www.sitezero.com.au.

Another option is to use a "virtual" web site designer. These are simply web designers that work on a remote basis (i.e. virtual). The virtual designer will create a site to your your individual needs dealing with you by phone, fax and email. They often offer low-cost monthly update services so you never need to worry about learning the technical side of your web site. An example of this type of service is www.bizmagic.com.au.

Some major web directories (e.g. Yahoo) also offer a do-it-yourself online store facility.

Online payment systems

There are numerous options for accepting online credit card transactions that can ecommerce-enable existing HTML web sites. One example of these internet based payment systems is the Australian service www.gopay.com.au. Major banks also offer payment facilities, as do international services such as www.worldpay.com.

Marketing your web site

Once you have your web site up and running, you also need to make sure it is found on search engines, such as Google. It's a fact that for many businesses traffic from search engines is extremely important, with up to 80% of internet users finding sites through search engines.

Online marketing includes: Optimizing your site to achieve high search engine rankings Pay-per-click (PPC) ad's on search engines (e.g. Google and Overture) Listing in directories - Yahoo, DMOZ, industry listings etc Banner ad's on other sites Newsletter (or e-zine) advertising Reciprocal links with other sites And much more, like: - Affiliate programs - Having articles published online - Educational webinars - etc etc...