Most people agree that if you're in business, even if it's a teeny weeny little operation where you're chief cook and bottle washer, you need a website. But how to you go about getting your website up and running? Should you pay to have one built professionally, or do it yourself?
Well in the last five years, I've had experience of both, so here are my tips which I hope will help you avoid some common pitfalls and save you money.
Decide what your website needs to do for you.
Sounds banally simple I know, but you'd be surprised how many people get carried away with this. We did when we designed our first site and it definitely cost us money.
The vast majority of small business websites need to communicate who you are, what you do and show examples of your work, so people can decide if they want to start talking to you. It's like having your CV online, or your credentials presentation.
As a rule of thumb, the simpler your needs, the easier it is to do-it-yourself. If you're having it built for you, take the time to put together a good brief for your designer.
Is there someone who would do it for you free of charge, or for a reciprocal service?
These days there are so many more people able to build good quality sites than there were even four or five years ago, that if you have access to someone suitable, it's probably worth asking them for help.
Just remember that it's a skill that's worth paying for, so make sure you offer something equitable in return.
Do you want to generate entirely new business?
Again, this sounds simplistic, of course you do. But for many small companies, the website is more of a badge of status, rather than a selling tool. It's a bit like a business card, you look more professional with one than without one, but it won't make too much difference in a lot of situations.
The reason for asking, is that if you want to get the maximum benefit from your site, you'll need to understand something about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Don't be fooled into thinking that all web designers will do this for you. In my own experience good graphic designers don't guarantee good SEO design. If you're writing your own copy, this is a must if you want to be found by the search engines.
Either take the time to find out some basics for yourself, or make sure whoever builds the site for you has a firm grip on the subject. Because this is what will help you score highly when complete strangers search for the type of service you're offering. You want them to find you, not have to wade through pages and pages of other sites first.
Our first site looked pretty, but was entirely useless as a selling tool because the chap who created it for us although a fabulous designer, had no idea about SEO - indeed he didn't even write any copy - our mistake for not having understood more about it before we were committed - don't make the same mistake.
What we learnt the hard way, is that a good site needs to look professional, which means not going overboard with fonts and colours. Unless you're in the high end advertising or design industry, you don't need flashy graphics moving all over the place. Keep it simple.
It needs to load quickly and look consistently good on whichever platform your visitors view it. If you're not sure, check it out using lots of browsers on your own computer and get your friends to check it out on theirs' too.
It needs to communicate who you are and what you're like - that's the fun and tricky bit.
Keep it flexible - this is really important!
When we had our first site built, we moved offices about two months later. It cost us over £100 simply to have the address updated on the website. After that we were reluctant to make any changes, although there were obvious things we should have changed, like adding new examples of our work. OK we were naive - don't fall into the same trap.
Most small businesses need to change details on their site frequently. You want to be able to add new examples of your work, or testimonials from satisfied customers. Check that you'll be able to do that without it costing you an arm and a leg. And check how quickly it will be done too. A lot of agencies love doing the initial website build, but hardly give you the time of day when you want to make small changes.
To blog or not to blog?
This is just a personal bug-bear, but one thing I hate is looking at corporate websites with blogs where it's only updated about once every six months. This smacks to me of a lack of commitment. I know websites get better rankings at the search engines if they're updated frequently, which is a good argument for blogging, but unless you are really happy to stick to it through thick and thin, don't start.
Have a go at doing it yourself.
Now that I know more about websites and I'm not so afraid of them - although I still couldn't code anything to save my life - I'd always advise having a go yourself at building your site before you pay anyone to do it for you.
If you do your research online, you'll find lots of packages, most of which will give you a basic site with minimal need for technical know-how, for a lot less than a professional would charge. Some are still very techy, but if it looks too complicated, look for something simpler - there's site building software to suit all levels of ability.
If you're even marginally comfortable with design, I'd strongly urge you to try and see how you get on. Even if you decide it's not good enough, it will give you a superb basis for a brief with which to go to a professional builder.
If your copywriting skills aren't top notch, I would recommend getting some professional help. You don't want visitors to your site to be turned off by overly complicated or dense copy.
There's lots of help available online from forums and review sites. It's worth having a look around.
A note for Mac owners.
I built a test site in Serif a couple of years ago, then went out and bought a Mac - result, I had to start all over again as they weren't compatible. But it was a blessing in disguise, because I then discovered Sandvox.
The beauty of Sandvox is that it is incredibly easy to use, and is available to test as a free download. This means you can build your site in your own time, learning as you go along, and deciding if it's right for you before you have to part with your money. It's made a huge difference to me and I'm now a big fan. I've already used it to build our latest business website (FortyTwo Marketing Ltd), and am currently building a new site for my English historic places website, and the more I do with it, the more I discover it is able to do for me.
Small businesses have to be very lean and canny to survive, so unless you're lucky enough to have limitless funds, I'm all in favour of doing it yourself, especially when you're starting out. You can always start squirrelling away money to have a shiny new site built when your business is well and truly bobbing along.
But if you decide it's just not an option, at least do your homework and don't be beguiled by the promises web designers give you. Check out references from really satisfied customers. Speak to the site owners and get a feel for the service you'll receive.
If you've had experience of building a website, I'd love to hear from you. What worked for you and do you have any tips you'd pass on to others.
Have fun and good luck!