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Have you got your site right? Creating Websites for Business

A functional website is the critical first stage in e-commerce, for any business. Angus Kidman examines the options of scale, cost, hardware and software, and hosting it yourself versus outsourcing

Active ImageAfter a patchy start, Australian businesses are increasingly recognising the potential benefits of creating their own website for business.

According to the 2006 Sensis e-commerce survey, 48 percent of small enterprises in Australia now have a basic internet presence. As business size increases, the likelihood of having a website also rises, with 80 percent of medium businesses having already made the move online. So there’s a clear correlation between business growth and online activity, but moving online requires a careful planning and selection process.

First, you need to consider and plan the scale. Will the site offer just basic information; will content be regularly updated; do you need e-commerce options; will it be built by you or hired professionals; and will it be situated within your company on a dedicated server, or with an external provider?

It can be tempting to create a site featuring every bell and whistle imaginable, especially if you’ve gone to the trouble of hiring an external designer or developer. However, that might not suit your business. Your site needs to reflect your business branding and personality, but it also needs to be easy to navigate for people unfamiliar with your business. While an increasing number of Australians have high-speed broadband internet connections, many still use dial-up. Options such as Flash movies or complex graphics may prove frustratingly slow for these customers (this can be a particular problem for rural businesses)

Any visitor is only one click away from leaving. If your site is difficult or slow to navigate and load, many people will simply dismiss it. In particular, make sure critical business information—what your company does and major contact details—is visible on the entry page. Many experts advise against including your email address, as this can increase the volume of spam mail you receive. Using a contact form, which keeps your email address private but still allows customers to reach you electronically, is a good alternative strategy.

Ideally, you should integrate the site with other marketing activities. If you already produce a customer newsletter, then make that content available online as well.

The complexity of your site will also impact on the overall cost. In a typical site budget, you’ll need to allocate time for basic site design (including proofreading, an often-neglected element) and development. If you’re using site design software, discussed in more detail below, then this may not be a direct cost, but bear in mind that time spent on site design is effectively time that’s not available for other business tasks.

If you’re planning to host the site yourself, you’ll need to include costs for any new servers—typically in the thousands of dollars—and required internet connection upgrades, which are likely to rank in the hundreds of dollars a month. And if you’re planning on using a third-party provider, you’ll need to include ongoing monthly charges. (See our ‘Hire a Host’ section for more on this.)

This need not be excessively expensive, however. Basic website hosting, suitable for a simple business site, is available for as little as $10 a month. Check carefully to see what sort of uptime guarantee is included, as some discount providers have a patchy record on performance. It’s also a good idea to ask for references to other sites hosted with the same provider, and contact those businesses to ask about their experiences.

Prices for such services vary widely. For a basic site (including email services, which are typically bundled in since they will utilise the same internet domain name), you can pay anywhere from around $10 to $40 a month, depending on traffic levels. As prices rise, available services increase, including options such as complex statistical tracking, database-driven sites (useful if content changes frequently, but less relevant otherwise), higher levels of traffic, and support for different development technologies.


If you’re only aiming for a very simple site, you may not need any specialised software at all. Basic productivity suites such as Microsoft Office can create HTML pages (the key elements of a website). For a more professional result, you can use specialised design tools such as Microsoft FrontPage, Adobe Photoshop, or Macromedia Dreamweaver. These are expensive to purchase, however, and you might find the money better spent on getting a professional web designer to do some basic site work for you, and then using a more basic editing tool as and when minor changes are required.

One popular solution is to purchase ‘business-in-a-box’ packages, which include design tools to create sites and e-commerce applications and (in some cases) access to site hosting as well. These can be a useful solution, but review them carefully as some don’t allow many modifications to basic designs or may tie you to a single provider for services such as payment gateways.

A site offering basic information (sometimes derisively referred to as ‘brochureware’) can be a useful adjunct to your business, but increasingly the internet is now also being used as a major sales medium. Adding functionality to your site to enable direct sales isn’t particularly complicated, but it will require additional elements to handle order and payment processing.

Many hosting companies offer built-in shopping features, and shopping cart systems are also included in many self-contained site design systems. Look for a package that lets you import product information from existing systems, rather than requiring you to re-enter information, and which can easily export information into your existing finance systems. This will minimise the labour involved in getting online shopping up and running.

The most complicated element in setting up e-commerce is often payment processing. For low-volume sites, consider a solution like eBay’s PayPal—it has higher per-transaction fees but can be set up with minimal effort. If you expect to handle frequent transactions, you may need a dedicated payment gateway (from your bank or a separate provider, such as eWay), which requires specialised software installation as well as monthly and per-transaction charges.

If you’ve gone to the trouble of setting up on-site sales, it’s also important to consider how you’ll promote your new offering. As well as the obvious and basic options—making sure that your site address is included in all promotional materials, including brochures, mailouts, advertising, letterheads and business cards—you may want to consider online promotional tactics.

Specialist companies offer a service known as ‘search engine optimisation’, which tweaks your site so that it features prominently in search results from major search engines such as Google and Yahoo. Advertising on search sites is also a possibility; most charge on a click-through model, which means you only pay for people who actually click on your advertisement, making it easier to control costs and offering (at least in theory) a better quality of referral.


Website Hosting

A fundamental decision which businesses need to make early in the site design process is whether they will host their site themselves, or outsource the process. If you’re already maintaining a server on site for other tasks (such as email, customer relationship management or database software), then it can be tempting to simply add your site to that server. Bear in mind, however, that you’ll probably have to upgrade your internet connection, and that a sudden surge in traffic may affect the performance of your existing business applications. You’ll also need well-implemented security software to minimise the risk of hackers attacking o
r taking control of your server, and that software will require regular and meticulous updating to handle newer threats.

In practice, for most businesses, there’s relatively little advantage to hosting and managing a website yourself. Forrester Research, which estimates that 37 percent of companies will build their own e-commerce solution, says the notion that having a self-contained site provides competitive advantage is a myth. Their research has found that a firm’s investment in a packaged commerce platform doesn’t mean it can’t provide a unique online customer experience.

Reflecting that, Australia’s biggest companies tend to use large-scale hosting providers rather than managing the process themselves, even though they have considerable IT expertise in-house. The practical and ‘reputational’ risk of a major security breach simply isn’t worth it. Paying monthly fees for hosting is also generally easier in cash flow terms than investing large sums in an on-site server and the staff needed to maintain it.

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