Setting up your first website
The lack of a website these days can send the wrong signals to customers: you don’t look serious, you are behind the times. Even if you still use Yellow Pages as an important part of your advertising, you can’t be at the end of the phone 24/7: your website is never closed.
Without a website you’re also missing out on numerous free opportunities to be noticed: through Google search, on Google Places/Google+ and free business listings in London.
However, the thought of setting up your first website can be daunting. There are many solutions on the market and many are very low cost or even free, but you do need to do some homework before jumping in too quickly.
In this article I’ll try to take you through some of the key considerations and terminology in plain English. Your website does need to be a solution designed for you, not a template imposed on you, but I hope this will provide a fairly comprehensive overview applicable to most people.
Getting started: what do you need?
Broadly a website can provide three types of facility:
- Website: a collection of static pages, which will need updating but not too regularly
- Blog: regular news and opinion articles (like this one) usually updated very frequently
- E-commerce: selling and taking money directly through your website (as part of your website, or you may be able to use sites such as Etsy and Spotify).
This site, http://www.leytonstonetoday.net combines both a blog and ‘static’ website and this is increasingly a common format to use.
What you will need for any website
Platform (the software or content management system (CMS) you use): there are lots of options. Don’t just jump in and be technology led. You need to think about your marketing strategy and then select the right solution for you.
Hosting: the monthly cost of your website being stored and being made available to the worldwide web. Hosting typically costs £5-£10 month, though there are lots of special deals and WordPress.com is completely free.
A domain name: your ‘www’ address. You can run a website without a ‘www’ address but it will have less chance of being found by people searching and will have an ugly address starting ‘http://’, which people find difficult to remember and write down. A domain name typically costs £10-£20 per year.
Analytics: you will need some statistics to see how your site is performing. Most software/content management systems come with some analytics built-in, some allow you to connect to Google Analytics instead, which is free. How sophisticated you need the analytics to be is a key factor in deciding which platform you need.
Content: you can write the content yourself, but the way the content is written can heavily influence your chance of being found by the big search engines (eg Google, Bing and Yahoo).
Photos: you will need some photos and these will need to be sized to fit where they will be placed on the site and you need to add what is known as an ‘alt-tag’ to photos and graphics (a text description of what the photo shows). Your software/CMS may include basic photo-editing capabilities and there are a number of free software packages you can download, but make sure you know a bit about how to edit photos and what is the correct size and format for your site.
Graphics: you will need your logo, you will probably need a header banner to be created and you may need other graphic images. You can’t usually create graphics with your web software/CMS so you may need to have these made up for you.
Contact form: you may be satisfied with giving a simple email address as the method of contact (as well as a phone number, but never just a phone number, people who are online expect to be able to email!). Contact forms are sometimes quite easy to set up as they often come with the software/content management system, but you do need to think about how the data will be collected — will people expect an instant reply, will you need the data to go into an Excel spreadsheet or database automatically, how will you handle replies? There’s no point asking people to contact you if you can’t handle the response, it’s like putting a phone number and leaving the phone off the hook. You also need to make sure you collect data in a way that is compliant with the Data Protection Act and to structure the way the data is set out so that it is easy to use later for mailmerges or e-newsletters and to keep the data clean.
Some words of caution
I’m not going to knock any provider, but there are a few things you should be wary of from some of the cheaper, heavily promoted solutions:
- Using other people’s photos: some sites provide stock photos for you to use. There’s no harm in this to some extent if they have full copyright/royalty clearance but you should clearly caption them as library shots. But do also be careful of not getting caught by ‘passing off’ legislation. If you show pictures which appear to make out your business is something it is not, not only is that dishonest and bad marketing, you may find yourself on a trading standards investigation and with a criminal record.
- Using supplied text: again, this may be helpful as a guide, but if you sound like somebody you’re not your customers will soon rumble you. Text really does need to be personalised, and proofread, and the way text is written and the order it appears on the page influences your search rankings.
- A fixed number of pages: some suppliers offer a fixed number of pages (I’ve seen as low as three) and then they charge more per page. As an absolutely bare minimum you need:
- A home page
- A contact details page
- So if you only get three pages that doesn’t leave a lot to explain your business! In fact, you will almost certainly find you’ll need a lot more, even for the smallest business, and suddenly the cheap offer doesn’t look so cheap after all.
- A fixed number of updates: some packages offer a fixed number of updates a month (again I’ve seen as low as two). Google likes sites to be updated regularly and, if you’re managing your site properly, you’re highly unlikely to be satisfied with only a few updates a month, so again you may find additional charges for updates soon making some cheap offers look not so attractive.
- A guarantee that you’ll be top of Google’s search rankings: only Google knows exactly how it ranks websites on search criteria, and they don’t publish the criteria. They do also change their criteria regularly (some changes are almost daily). And they do state very clearly that nobody can guarantee rankings. They are some very clever specialist companies who can do a lot for what is called search engine optimisation (or ‘SEO’), though you can learn bit by bit to do a lot yourself — Google and Bing publish a lot of free guideline, though some are rather geeky. But do steer clear of ‘guarantees’. After all, one factor which affects your rankings is what your competitors are doing to optimise their site (and your ‘competitors’ to Google may be people on the other side of the world you don’t even know exist).
- No HTML knowledge needed: HTML (hypertext mark-up language) is the code that runs web pages. Let’s be fair and say, it’s not pretty, But it’s not programming either and the basics aren’t that difficult to learn. Most software will create the HTML code for you and you will never need to go near it. But, like learning to drive a car, you will increasingly find that occasionally you might like to look under the bonnet to check the water and oil, and know how to change a tyre, rather than pay a garage for basic things like that. And you may find that there are a few more advanced things you’d like to do where cutting and pasting a bit of HTML code, without really knowing what it means, can be a benefit. Not having access to under the bonnet suddenly then becomes unattractive, and on some software you really don’t have access, the bonnet is locked and the key thrown away to stop you tinkering. Will that be an advantage, or disadvantage (only you know, or will know that later)?
- Mobile websites: more and more people are viewing websites on the move, whether on their phone or an iPad or similar device. A website has to adjust to different size screens and there are two basic ways to do this: have a website that is ‘responsive’ (ie automatically adjusts) or have a separate mobile website. Both solutions have their advantages and disadvantages — I can’t say what is best for you, but you need to consider both options before picking a solution.
Thinking strategic and longer-term
- How does your website fit into your wider marketing strategy? More on this in a later post.
- How might it fit in a year or two’s time — does it have the capability to grow with your business or will it become a constraint on growth?
How I host this website
This website (which, as I mentioned earlier, combines a blog and website), is currently run and hosted on WordPress.com. WordPress is one of the largest and most respected website platforms in the world. It comes in two versions:
WordPress.com: this provides the software (CMS), which is free and provides totally free hosting. They also take care of worrying about security and updates. Of course, there are some restrictions: you don’t have total flexibility to make changes to the design (though there is quite a lot you can do), you can’t accept paid advertising, and you can’t do some of the more advanced things, like e-commerce. However, you can later upgrade to WordPress.org if you need more advanced features.
WordPress.org: this is the more advanced version. The software/CMS is free, but you have to pay monthly hosting, and look after software updates and security patches yourself. You do however have a lot more choice over design and can install numerous ‘plug-ins’ to add on all sort so of extra functionality.
There are a number of sites in Leytonstone using WordPress, such as Leytonstone Museum, The Stone Space, Leytonstone Film Club and The Lion Heart Market. WordPress won’t suit everyone, but if cost is your reason for not having a website, you can’t get much cheaper than WordPress.com — it’s totally free!
If WordPress isn’t the right solution for you there are lots of other options too.
Blog articles in this series
Look out for these blog articles which I will be producing during 15-21 October 2012.
• Starting out with social media
• Setting up your first website
• E-publications and other ways to get online
• Getting strategic
• Some free ways for Leytonstone businesses to promote themselves
See also these new pages: