If you’ve ever contemplated setting up your own business then this new series could be just what you need to get the cogs turning. In the coming weeks we’ll be exploring all aspects of going it alone – from determining a clear proposition and plan, sourcing premises, sorting equipment, making decisions on hardware and software, marketing and promotion, finances and staying on the right side of employment law. Our aim being to help you consider what’s important before you realise in your enthusiasm you haven’t properly considered something or that the decisions you’ve made have boxed you into a corner.
This time, websites - do you need one and, if so, how do you get one and what should you put on it?
Do you need a website for your business?
A website is increasingly essential for any kind of business, allowing potential customers to find out more about your products and searches, either via a direct link from traditional marketing collateral (a brochure with your web address on it, for example) or from your visibility for a particular search term in your search engine of choice.
Much like a presence on the High Street, a website serves as a shop window for what you have to offer your customers but unlike High Street premises, or you, your website never sleeps - it can be open for business 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, allowing customers to engage with you and what you offer when it's convenient for them. Moreover, websites can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection regardless of where they are in the country, or the world, opening up a mass market of potential opportunities.
What do you want your website to do?
At a basic level a website can serve as an extension of your business card - providing key information about how to get in touch with you and what kind of services you provide. Over time you might broaden out the information your provide about your company and even expand to produce articles you've written that may be of interest to potential clients and serve to showcase your expertise and knowledge. You may even want to introduce ways for customers to buy products and services.
Though it pays to think carefully about how you plan to use your website, bear in mind that it can be as dynamic or static (with little or no new content added) as you want it to be, and it's reasonably easy to change tack later on.
How do you create a website?
In the most basic terms a website is just a collection of files that sit on a server. In the early days of the web these files would likely be coded by hand by someone with technical knowledge of HyperText Markup Language (HTML). Over time software tools developed allowing users without lots of technical knowledge the ability to add text and images easily to a site with coded templates. In time these tools were largely usurped by Content Management Systems (CMS for short) - these also offer an interface by which users without technical knowledge can create and manage content on a site. The content edited using a CMS is all stored in a database and this is fetched by the server, added to a page template and then displayed when a site visitor requests a page.
There are a wide range of CMSes available with prices ranging from free to thousands of pounds (with often surprisingly little to differentiate in terms of functionality). Which to use comes down to the preferences of your developer, those who will be using to tool to generate and manage content, and to some extent the range of support, theme templates, tools and plug-ins that can be used to add functionality to your site.
TopTenReviews have a handy comparison table showing functionalities of ten popular content management systems including WordPress, Drupal and Joomla.
Do you need bespoke templates or will off-the-shelf suffice?
The advent of the CMS means non-technical users need never engage with code. If they can use a word processing package then a CMS is not much more difficult to use. It's the templates or themes that govern the look and feel of your site that may require more technical knowledge - though even here there are many increasingly sophisicated themes available to buy off-the-shelf. These can often be extensively customised without ever touching the code - being able to switch navigation from top to bottom or left or right, for example. Search online for themes or templates to see the range on offer.
Do bear in mind that templates for sale are generally on sale to all willing to pay the useage fee so the most popular themes can be found decorating an ever-expanding library of similar looking sites. That isn't necessarily a problem but if you want to stand out as the unique and distinct company that you are, it could be worth getting a developer to heavily customise an existing template or design something to meet your particular needs from scratch.
You should ensure that the templates you buy employ what is known as 'responsive' design - in other words that they adjust the layout components to make best use of the screen size of whatever device is being used to access the website.
It's also worth mentioning another option when it comes to creating a website - there are a number of online tools that allow you to select from a series of pre defined templates and then 'drag and drop' elements into place on screen, before adding text and images..
Examples include Wix and Squarespace . These tools have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years although again template options are likely to be set and, if in future you want to add in more complex features you may find yourself with little option but to start from scratch.
What about hosting?
The files that make up your website are stored on a web server (a PC running software designed to deliver web services to users) that is connected to the internet. You can choose to setup and manage this server yourself or pay for space on someone else's server instead. For most websites a dedicated server is likely to be overkill and much more expensive than paying someone else to host your files. An internet search will turn up a range of companies offering hosting services and subscriptions offering set amounts of bandwidth (limits on the amounts of data your server is allowed to deliver per day, week or month).
Many factors can affect how much bandwidth your site consumes - making changes to layout can increase the file size of your page, adding more pages to your site will increase the number of pageviews from visitors and the 'robots' search engines send to index (crawl) your site. Any increase in number of visitors, whether predictable or unexpected, will also burn through your allowances.
It's hard to predict exactly how much bandwidth you might need so opting for a provider that allows you to easily change your package as your needs change (and as you become more used to 'normal' traffic to the site) will be key.
Other factors to consider when choosing a hosting provider include customer support (both online and over the phone) and the kinds of features and functionality you are able to access allowing you to configure your server. There's a huge variety in both the form and function of these 'online control panels' so it's worth seeking out reviews of providers to avoid those who fall short.
Do I need a domain name?
The first thing you'll need when creating a website is a domain name. The domain name for the website you're reading is theNBS.com. This is mapped to the actual Internet Protocol or IP address of the server (or servers) hosting your files. IP addresses take the form of a series of numbers punctuated by full stops - hard to remember, hence the need for domain names! You'll find a range of organisations online that can register a domain name for you - some also include hosting (the space to put the files that will become your website) too.
You can check on the availability of domain names by visiting the relevant domain name registry for the suffix. As an example, Nominet , administers the registration of a range of domain names ending .co.uk.
Many hosting company websites include a tool that allows you to check key words and phrases across multiple registrars. For example, the UK2.net site includes a tool that shows which domain names are available and which taken across a range of suffixes.
Beyond the website and the significance of social media
Your website is not the only thing to consider when thinking about your presence online. Most companies will also have a channel (or multiple channels) on social media too. You should actively seek out the spaces and places that people you want to engage with naturally choose to congregate in and interact. Not everyone will come to your premises. Not everyone will come to your website. Not everyone will come to your Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or YouTube channel but you can, with careful planning, engage with audiences who would not otherwise be aware that Amazeco Enterprises exists.
We'll go into more detail about the importance of social media for both posting and monitoring or engaging later in the series.
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