Mastering Small Business Website Development: From Concept to Conversion

Small business website development is not just a matter of putting up a website. A website is a marketing tool that requires as much care as any other marketing effort. The small business website development effort requires:

  • A clear idea about the purpose of the website
  • Layout and content designed to achieve that purpose
  • Implementation of a strategy to bring interested visitors to the site

Let us review these requirements in a little more detail. A clear picture of the work involved in your small business website development could help you decide whether to go for eCommerce at your small business start.

Before discussing the small business website development process, we would see what a website is, and what is special about small business websites.

What Is A Website?

A website can be compared to a folder that is stored in your filing cabinet. The folder could contain different kinds of documents, such as text, drawings, and photographs. A Web site also has different kinds of documents, more kinds, in fact. There could be text, image, and sound documents, even video clips.

A Web site usually consists of several Web ‘pages’, each of which could contain one or more kinds of ‘files’. A single image or video clip is usually a separate file, called by the page at appropriate places. All the pages of a good Web site would be related i.e. a good Web site would focus on a single topic.

What distinguishes your Web site from a traditional folder is that it resides on the Internet. Instead of a filing cabinet, websites are stored on servers that are connected to the Internet.

For creating the Web pages, and for communicating across the Net, Web sites follow the World Wide Web – WWW or W3 – protocol (rules). There are other kinds of sites, such as Gopher sites that follow a different protocol. None of them has the kind of popularity that Web sites have achieved, however.

Small Business Website

Most small business website development is undertaken with market expansion objectives. And your small business website development exercise is usually a phased process. Starting as a simple site introducing your business, it progresses in phases to become a full e-commerce website with Product Catalog, Order Pages, and Payment Pages.

We discuss Small Business Websites in a separate article.

Creating A Website

Your small business website development program starts with a plan. You decide what the site should achieve. Next, you lay out a step-by-step approach to achieve the desired goal. Then comes the task of developing individual pages corresponding to each of the steps.

The Web pages are created using HyperText Markup Language or HTML, standardized by WWW. HTML is a simple language consisting of “tags” that tell browsers (like Internet Explorer) how to lay out the page and what contents to display. If you wish, you can learn the basics of HTML in a few hours, by going to such free sources as the HTML Tutorial.

The Essentials of A Good Website

Certain characteristics of Web sites make them rouse and keep the interest of visitors. Without such interest, the message of your Web site would not reach its intended readers. During your small business website development, ensure that all your pages:

  • Have an attractive look and feel:
  • A simple, clean layout and artistic use of colors create the right feelings
  • Easily readable content, preferably black on a white background that conforms to usual business practice
  • Avoidance of unnecessary graphics and other distracting elements
  • Load reasonably quickly. Graphics and other elements with large file sizes slow down the page loading. If a page doesn’t load in a few seconds, web surfers would click on another site. Try to minimize the total page size by minimal use of graphics, and using only small file-size graphics
  • Contains interesting copy. Unless the first headline and the immediately following words catch the reader’s fancy, that person would click away. For business sites, these initial words must clearly hint at the specific benefits to the reader from what follows
  • Have a good ‘navigation’ structure. Readers must be able to see what the important pages of the site contain, and how to go to these pages. This could be a problem if the website has many pages. A tiered structure, with each tier page linking to sub-pages, is the usual solution.

Simple, and E-commerce, Websites

Creating a basic website that is mostly text content with some graphics thrown in is easy. However, small business website development includes much more and could be quite a complex exercise. We look at some of the typical elements.

Forms allow site visitors to enter data that would be transmitted to the web administrator. You can receive queries, comments, or other data through forms on the website. One good use of forms is to get subscriptions to your newsletters, used to maintain continuing contact with visitors.

The database is another constituent of e-commerce Web sites. If you are selling a number of products from your site, you would need to maintain a database of products – with pictures, descriptions, prices, and such information. This database would have to be integrated with the website so that visitors could browse through the product catalog. Databases must also be kept updated, say, with current prices and other changeable information.

A Shopping Cart is another essential element needed. As customers go through the product details, they could click a button labeled ‘Add to Order’ or something similar and the item gets added to the online shopping cart. A ‘Remove’ button allows them to select any product included in the order and remove it. A shopping cart software integrated with your website makes these possible.

Yet another element is the facility to accept customer payments in different forms. Accepting payments by credit cards involves using payment processing software. The software allows the customer to enter his or her credit card details in a form. The details are then usually verified for the availability of funds etc. and accepted or rejected by the software.

You need a merchant account to accept credit cards. For opening a merchant account, you would have to deal with bankers. They charge fees for setting up accounts and also for processing each transaction.

Creating A Small Business Website

For a small business Web site that sells products, you need to include good product photographs, specifications, descriptions, and prices in your Web pages. Also, point out any benefits that are unique to your offer. With HTML, it is a simple task to lay out all these elements in a pleasing manner, if you have some design sense.

Resist the temptation to include all kinds of stuff on your small business Web site. Firstly, your customers are looking for information, not for cool effects. Secondly, graphics and video files are large and your small business Web site might take a great deal of time to get displayed on customer computers. They might have gone to some competitor site by that time.

The Web site needs to incorporate special provisions for taking orders and accepting payments for them, as discussed in the previous section. Integrating a Database, Shopping Cart and Payment Processing software is an essential part of small business website development. HTML cannot process databases or run complex programs. You would need to develop “Web applications” using other languages (or tools) to do these things.

Putting Your Small Business Website on the Internet

Now that you have created your small business website pages showing and describing your products, and explaining clearly how these products would provide a gain (or cure a pain) for your customer, you have to make it accessible to that person. And that person could be anywhere in the world.

You do this by uploading your small business website to the Internet. The pages of your site would then become accessible to anybody connected to the Internet.

There are some preliminaries you have to attend to. You must get a unique name for your small business website. It must not be confused with another website. You do this by registering such a name through a ‘Domain Name Registrar’. There are a number of approved registrars who would help you check the availability of domain names and register a name for you.

Next, you have to hire space on an Internet server to put your pages. The domain name registrars would most likely make server space available to you. They become ‘web hosts’ who accommodate your small business website on their server.

After these preliminaries, you upload the web pages, graphics, and other files to the web host’s server. This is done using an FTP program (FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol). Your web host is likely to provide you with a suitable program, as well as instructions for uploading.

Web Site Development Skills

Small business website development thus involves a good deal of work. Some of the work, like creating a simple brochure website, can be done with simple skills. Others require skills that are not easy to pick up, and hence more expensive to hire.

The skills requirements are outlined below:

  • HTML skills: HTML is the language used to create web pages. It is easy to learn though you would need practice to master the different features. You could create text content, graphic images, links to other pages or sites or email programs, etc with just HTML
  • Graphic design skills: While you could include graphics using HTML, making the layout attractive requires some design skills. You could either copy the good design from good websites or seek the assistance of someone with good taste
  • Navigation design: Where your website has more than a few pages, good navigation would be needed to enable visitors to go where they want. Here again, you could see how other websites do it and select a design that would be appropriate for you
  • JavaScript: With JavaScript, you could do such things as pop up a new window (to invite subscriptions to your newsletter, for example), create animation effects, use cookies, and such. These could prove quite valuable for your success
  • CGI and database programming: Even processing of the simple form requires some CGI programming. Shopping cart and Credit Card acceptance programming are too complex for even experienced programmers. You buy this readymade. Database programming is also a formidable task

Instead of acquiring all these different skills, you could become skilled in using Web site development tools like Microsoft’s FrontPage Express or MacroMedia’s DreamWeaver. These tools allow you to work with WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editors. The necessary code is generated in the background, without any effort on your part. However, a basic familiarity with HTML and databases would help you fine-tune the final pages. And a sense of good design would allow the creation of tasteful layouts.

And the Most Important Skill For Making Your Site Sell!

Your small business website development efforts would be wasted if the website does not bring in sales. Even a full-fledged e-commerce website with a shopping cart and credit card acceptance facilities could fail to bring orders.

So how could you ensure that your site sells?

To quote a publication that is considered the Bible of net selling, Make Your Site Sell!, you need just three things to make your sales site a success:

  1. A great product that is suited to selling over the Internet
  2. A website designed to get the sale, and
  3. Plenty of ‘interested’ visitors to that website

MakeYourSiteSell!, available for immediate download online, explains how to do each of these critical tasks. Using simple language and in exhaustive detail, it takes you step by step into net sales know-how.

Web Site Promotion

Your small business website development effort becomes complete only through effective promotion of the website among your prospective customers. How do you do this?

The most inexpensive way to promote your website is through search engine marketing. Search engine marketing involves:

Identifying the keywords your prospects use and optimizing your web pages to show up for those keywords

Bidding at PayPerClick search engines to show your web pages at top positions when someone types in those keywords

Website promotion is a big topic in itself, and we devote a separate article to it.

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