If your business isn’t online, you’re missing out. Of the more than 300 million people living in the United States, nearly 75 percent actively use the Internet for everything from educational research and social networking to online shopping. Worldwide, that number jumps to about 1.6 billion, according to Internet World Stats, a Web site that tracks Internet usage. What’s more, e-commerce accounts for a growing proportion of online activity. According to Forrester Research, this year U.S. online sales excluding travel are expected to increase 11 percent to $156 billion — not bad, considering the economic slowdown.
Whether you’re a brick-and-mortar retailer considering the Web as another sales outlet or you simply want to post an online listing of your services and location, it’s not too late to capitalize on the Web’s potential. Small business owners who invest time, energy, and a modest amount of money into creating an online presence can raise their company’s profile, make themselves more accessible to potential customers and clients, and ultimately boost sales.
Here’s how to get started:
Name Your Domain
For small businesses that don’t have the name recognition of, say, Target or the Gap, much less the marketing budgets to achieve it, chances are, they’ll rely on getting found via search engines such as Google and MSN. In this situation, says Monte Cahn, cofounder of Moniker.com in Pompano Beach, Florida, skip the tantalizing titles and purchase specific but generic brand names such as MintLeaves.com or RunningShoes.com.
“Redefining words into new meanings such as ‘Amazon’ into ‘bookstore’ is very hard to do these days,” says Cahn.
Another way to be specific is to include your business’s actual location. For instance, NYCRunningShoes.com might appeal to an even more targeted audience. For more on picking out a name for your site check out “Picking the Right Domain Name for Your Online Business.”
Select A Web Host
Major Internet companies including Verizon Online, Yahoo! and Lycos offer to “host” your site — that is, provide space on their servers for your business’s site. Additionally, boutique firms including Go Daddy, HostMonster, Hostway Corp., 1&1 Internet Inc. and Network Solutions offer hosting services starting as low as $4 a month. (Set-up fees and monthly domain registration fees may apply.)
Be sure to compare Web-hosting companies as prices and incentives vary. For example, HostMonster and 1&1 Internet offer to register a new domain name or transfer an existing one with the purchase of hosting services. Yahoo! offers its customers a $100 Yahoo! search-engine marketing credit (to be used when you create ads that appear in search results) and a $50 Google AdWords credit while Hostway provides up to $200 in Microsoft adCenter credit and a Google AdWords credit of up to $100, depending on the package you select.
Pick A Package
Since companies typically offer a range of Web-hosting packages to suit your business’s respective needs, be sure to also note requirements such as server type, disk space and bandwidth per month before you settle on a package. For example, every time someone visits your site, data needs to be passed between your server and the browser of your site’s visitor. This back and forth will determine how much bandwidth to purchase. High-traffic sites like Google and AOL, for instance, have very high bandwidth requirements, whereas average sites usually don’t.
However, if you anticipate receiving a multitude of visitors you might consider upping your hosting package. Look for packages that offer both unmetered traffic and unlimited hits per month. “The last thing you’ll want to have happen is for your orders to outpace your site’s requirements,” says James Gabberty, an associate professor of Information Systems at Pace University in New York. In that situation, he says, you’ll be paying each time someone visits your site, let alone buys something.
Prepare For E-Commerce
At this point too, decide if you’ll want e-commerce capabilities, as not every host-company offers them. Such plans typically include lots of disk space, expansive traffic allowances, shopping-cart functionality and hundreds of domain-specific email addresses and can cost more than $1,000 a month.
“Most people [however] start off with just a regular site, and then work up to e-commerce,” says Gabberty. If this sounds like you, he suggests giving yourself room to grow. For instance, opting for more disk space than you currently need may allow you to devote one of your site’s Web pages to an online shopping cart one day. Additionally, keep in mind the number of products you intend to provide, the size of your would-be customer base and special features such as drop-down menus and product images.
Build Your Site
Once you’ve purchased some Web real estate, it’s time to start building your site. You can usually do so via Web-hosting companies or by tapping the services of a Web developer. A Web-hosting company typically offers templates from which you can select the site’s look and tools to build it. Such “do-it-yourself” options basically mean that entrepreneurs both build and design their own sites, while “do-it-for-me” options offer to do the work — usually for hundreds or thousands of dollars for more complicated sites.
You can also build your site for free via open-source content management systems including TYPO3, Joomla! and Mambo. Since the systems are open source, which means users are allowed to tinker with them, you usually can add on extensions such as Web shops.
Keep in mind, says Douglas Shuman, a senior vice president of marketing at Register.com in New York, which also provides Web-hosting services, that “your homepage is your brand online.” It should be unique and speak to your site’s specific needs, he says. For instance, you might want to keep a blog and include some biographic information. Just make sure your site isn’t overloaded and remains easy to navigate, says Shuman. “It should be really easy for a visitor to do stuff from the homepage.”
Plus, says Gabberty, “If you come to a site prepared — that is, you have the content, you know what you want to say, you have the Web pages pretty much down — then you can dramatically reduce the costs of getting yourself online.”
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