10 New Questions to Ask Before Setting Up a Web site

10 NEW QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE SETTING UP A WEB SITE

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You’re probably too young to remember 1997, but it was a wild period of growth for the Web. Dancing babies appeared on every other Web site. Amazon.com sold only books. People used their new email accounts to frantically warn loved ones about the ring of kidney snatchers that left their victims in bathtubs full of ice. Some of the first non-Star Trek-related personal Web sites appeared. People were inundated with unsolicited email called “spam”. Well, some things don’t change.

It was in ’97 that I wrote an article called “Ten Questions to Ask Before Setting Up a Website” that appeared in our newsletter and on our site. At the bottom of each article on our site is a form that a visitor can use to email that article to a friend. By far, the “10 Questions” article has been sent most often.

However, it’s been an Internet lifetime since I wrote that article. The boom and the bust are behind us and it’s time to reexamine these questions. There’s still no one correct answer, but the questions apply to everyone.

1. Do I need a Web site?
Maybe you don’t. It could be that your marketing dollars are better spent somewhere else. However, many people won’t discover your services through any other means. The Internet has become an expected tool of modern business like the phone or fax, and companies or professionals without one may appear out-of-step.

2. What are my goals for the site?
If you do decide to move ahead, it’s important to know why you’re building the site. Is it for sales or marketing? Is it a tool for communication or an online brochure? Do you want to sell products through the site, or just educate consumers about them? Do you want to increase membership in your organization, or offer Web-based benefits to current members? Do you want visitors to email you? Call you? Subscribe to a newsletter? Knowing your goals will help focus your ideas for the site.

3. What am I trying to sell or promote?
Even if you don’t like the idea of selling yourself, it’s what we all do, every day, if we want to be successful. Don’t be afraid of sales and marketing. Finding the answer to this question will determine what are the most important themes of the site, what to name the buttons, and the tone to use when writing the content.

4. What are the components to getting a website up and running?

  • Design & Development: The architecture of the site needs to be built. An appropriate look and feel must be designed. The copy needs to be written and any additional tools such as online forms, shopping carts and audio clips need to be added.
  • Hosting: Just as you might rent office space, your Web site needs to be hosted somewhere so people can reach it.
  • Upkeep: Once live, a good site continues to post fresh material, giving people a reason to return.

5. What content do I need to build the site?
First, create an outline around the themes you want to promote. Second, remember that each line of the outline is a page that needs content–text and images that will help educate your visitors. The images may include a logo or photos of people or products. Poor quality photos or bad clip art can make the most attractive site look amateurish; sometimes no photos can be better than poor ones.

6. Do I hire a professional or do it myself?
If you have the skills, the time, the talent and most importantly the desire to design and develop the site, then by all means, do so. However, keep in mind that when you hire a professional–whether it’s to create a Web site, change your oil, or give you financial advice–you immediately acquire thousands of hours of experience, access to the latest tools of the trade and insider knowledge of the industry. Since an unprofessional Web site can be worse than no site at all, I strongly suggest to do what you do best and outsource the rest.

7. What are my responsibilities to create an effective site?
Even if you hire a professional Web developer your input is essential since no one knows your business as well as you do. Before you hire a developer you should review their portfolio and ask for referrals. You should expect to help develop a site outline with your developer, pull the copy together and give input on the layouts presented to you. Once your site is live you should also budget time to add content on a regular basis. You should reply to emails and inquiries in a timely fashion to show you haven’t abandoned your site.

8. What will this cost for start-up? For ongoing maintenance?
This is a young industry so there’s still a wide range in billing rates. The Pricing Guide for Web Services, Second Edition, found pricing from $25 – $250 per hour for Web work, and Web pages from $30 – $1,500. (Whoever’s paying $1,500 per page, please call me so I can save you a few bucks.) As a rule, you get what you pay for. An experienced designer and developer are worth their weight in gold.

Here are some rough (January 2002) costs: you’ll need a Web address for about $35/year and a one-time setup fee on a Web server of $25-50. A simple site between 5 – 15 pages might cost between $1,200 and $3,500; add $1,000 or more for e-commerce. Add-ons such as Bulletin Boards, multi-media, online newsletters and forms will all cost extra.

You should also budget money for search engine submissions, which were once free, but now can run into hundreds of dollars. We’re currently recommending our clients budget $500 for this.

Ongoing costs include hosting fees that can range from $30 – $100 per month. Regular updates to your site (which is a good idea) can run another $25-100 and up per incident, depending on the amount of content involved.

9. How do I attract more traffic to my site?
Search engines, links, advertising and more. A good developer will make your site search engine friendly and submit your site to search engines and directories on your behalf. You should create reciprocal links with complementary sites. Consider advertising on specific search engines, email newsletters, and traditional media. Put your url (Web site address) on your business cards, stationery, voice mail, and so on. Send out free email newsletters. Add a Recommend This Site to a Friend form on your Web site. Continually update and improve on your site. Reviewing your site’s traffic reports can alert you to what visitors are finding interesting and what they’re ignoring.

10. How will I know that my site is successful?
Look at your goals every 3 to 6 months. Have you met them? If so, is it time to create new, more challenging goals?

–Rich Brooks
President, flyte new media

Creating Content

CREATING CONTENT FOR WEB SITES

In my very first newsletter I wrote an article about content that began: Why do people say “Content is King”? Because alliteration is fun. It wasn’t all that clever then and it hasn’t aged well. Still, I haven’t come up with anything better in three and a half years, so that’ll have to do. The definition of content, like “e-commerce”, “profitability” and most other Internet-related terms, varies from person to person. For the purposes of this article we’ll define content as the stuff people come to see. (Or hear. And one day soon, smell.) If you’re not giving people a compelling reason to visit, they won’t.

How Much Content Do You Need?

Not every site needs hundreds of pages of unique content. Maybe your site is primarily “brochureware”; an electronic pamphlet used solely to entice a visitor into contacting you. If so, a description of your services and hours of operation may be enough.

However, there’s great competition for eyeballs on the Internet that increases with every site that’s launched. As Einstein said, “Content = Weight”. He said some other stuff, too, but nothing as memorable. Many visitors to your site may not otherwise know you, so the content you post may be their only way to gauge your legitimacy. The more content you add to your site, the more weight you give to your implied argument that visitors should use your services, buy your products, or subscribe to your newsletter.

As always, you have to look at your audience to determine why they might visit your site.

How Do I Get Content?

Many of our clients are writers by nature; they already have plenty of articles to repurpose for the Web, or they can choose to create fresh material. If you find yourself in this group, consider yourself lucky. You may be able to turn this desire to write into a monthly column that can be sent out as an email newsletter, as well as posted to your site.

Even if you’re not the world’s greatest writer, people may still be interested in what you have to say if you’ve got knowledge in a particular area. They may overlook poor grammar, bad puns, and self-serving rhetoric to uncover information that could be of use to them. After all, you’re still reading this, right?

Putting Your Visitors to Work For You

There’s another way of creating content if you don’t feel you have the time or the skills to bake something from scratch. Ask your visitors. Below are three levels of visitor-created (or at least inspired) content that you can use to fill your site.

F.A.Q. or Ask the Wizard/Sage/Know-It-All

If you’re just launching a Web site you may choose to include an F.A.Q. (which stands for Frequently Asked Questions). To start, you can come up with a few questions that you think the average visitor might ask, and create your own answers, no matter how self-serving they may be. This content then gets posted to your site.

By adding an online form, or even a simple email link, you can empower your visitors to ask their own questions. Add a disclaimer asking permission to use their questions (with or without their names) and you have a steady stream of fresh content to add to your site or newsletter.

The nice feature of the F.A.Q. or Ask the Wizard is that you don’t need a lot of traffic to start one. It’s the perfect solution for new sites.

Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) a.k.a. Message Boards

If you have enough traffic the BBS may be for you. It is also an important tool for community building. Visitors can post questions and comments at your site that can be viewed publicly. Both you and other visitors can post replies to these comment, thus creating a “thread”. This is a compelling reason for return visits as people will want to see the replies to their post. There is a plethora of different ways to configure the BBS software depending on your needs. You can allow anyone to read or post messages, require them to log in first, or add private forums where only invitees can enter.

Pinnacle Systems Software Solutions uses their BBS to allow users of their special effects software products to ask questions of top Hollywood FX masters and to trade tips and tricks. (http://www.commotionpro.com). Parents and Teachers of Explosive Kids has set up a BBS for these groups to trade experiences and bring this community closer together. (http://www.explosivekids.org). The Center for Development and Learning (CDL) has placed their BBS in their Members Only section, adding value to their paid membership. Not only can educators trade stories of teaching strategies and successes, the CDL also sponsors monthly forums hosted by education specialists like Robert Brooks and Reid Lyon. (http://www.cdl.org).

Chat Rooms

The chat room is not something to be entered into lightly. It requires a large amount of regular traffic to your site. Many clients come to us with requests for chat rooms, but we advise them to crawl before they sprint. Although many people point to AOL’s huge number of chat rooms as an example that chat rooms work, AOL’s dirty little secret is that the popular chat rooms are all adult-oriented. (So I’ve read; I don’t have any first hand experience and you can’t prove that I do.) For an example of what an under-utilized chat room might feel like, walk into an empty room, close the door behind you and start a conversation. A chat room with only one visitor is even worse than an empty one.

The CDL will be opening its own chat room soon and are going about it the right way. Instead of keeping the chat open 24/7, they instead are hosting planned chats at schedule times so parents can pose questions to specialists and get immediate answers. One of the nicest features of chats is the real-time interaction.

Coda

In deciding what type of content you need, ask these questions: How much traffic am I getting or expecting? Does my service or offering lend itself to a community building experience like BBS or chats? Do I have the time to create the content needed? What is my audience looking to me to provide?

Once you consider these questions you can move ahead with the right content creation plan for you.

–Rich Brooks
President, flyte new media

(Re)Designing Your Web site

(RE) DESIGNING YOUR WEB SITE

I once had a client (don’t worry–it’s not you–I took him off my mailing list) who had a lot of important information he wanted to promote on his home page. Every time I showed him a revision of his site he would tell me that Item A was being lost in the page and could I make it bigger, bolder, blinking, or something so people would see it. And so I would.

Then I would show him another revision, which would invariably make him worried that people might miss Items B & C, and could I make them louder, redder, pulsing or something so people would notice them. And so I would.

Before I let all the text on his home page become red, blinking and caps, I had an intervention. I sat down with this client–let’s call him “Dad” to protect his identity–and we began the process of organizing his site.*

For many people Web page design and Web site design are one in the same. However, this is not the case. Page design involves colors, photos, text, fonts, and other layout items. The goal is often to duplicate or compliment all other marketing materials.

Site design refers to the structure and navigation of the site. Because the Web is a unique medium, the structure of the site won’t necessarily reflect the structure of other marketing material. A Web page can contain much more information than would fit on an 8.5 x 11″ page, can be more interactive than television, and can be easier to get to than the mall, with better hours.

The downside is that unlike printed materials, a Web site is difficult to take with you into the john (wireless Web-based products not-withstanding). Where television communicates with image, sound and fury, too much audio and video at your site may discourage visitors with a slow connection without the proper plug-in. No one ever missed an episode of Seinfeld because they didn’t have the right plug-in. And even in a poorly laid out department store, it’s generally more time consuming to leave the store and shop somewhere else than to keep hunting for the product. In contrast, on the Internet people will often click to a competitor if they can’t immediately find what they’re looking for at your site.

Whether you’re tackling a Web site on your own or consulting with a professional Web development company, you’ll want to do some planning first. The most important questions to ask are:

  1. What is my Web site supposed to accomplish?
  2. Who is my audience?
  3. What information do I want to put out there?

Once you have these questions answered, or have at least considered them, you can begin the most joyous part of the process: making an outline. O.K., maybe it’s not the most joyous, but it will help focus the Web site and allow you to decide which items are most important and which can be grouped under a broader heading.

Think of the bigger topics, often the ones with the Roman numerals in front of them, as the buttons in your navigation bar (navbar). Home, Services, Store, About Us, Contact, or whatever else is most important to your site. Try and keep these to a minimum; the more buttons on your site, the less important each one becomes. Can Staff Bios and Mission Statement go under the About Us section? Can Programs and Services become Programs & Services? Can your Links section go under Resources, with archived issues of your Newsletter? As long as the broader heading encompasses the subtopic in the mind of the average visitor, you’re all set.

At the same time you don’t want to bury important information 15 clicks down. You can draw attention to something a few layers down with a link to it from the home page in a “What’s New” or “Featured” section. There’s no “magic number” of buttons to have on a site**, but too many buttons create confusion and muddy your message. If you can’t seem to get the buttons down to a manageable number, it’s O.K. to remove the Home button as long as you have a company logo or name that links back to the home page. Also, since the Internet is ultimately about communication, always try and keep Contact as one of the buttons. Cut away the fat, but not the bone. We almost always design sites with additional links at the bottom of each page that not only duplicate the buttons in the navbar, but add quick links to other pages at the site: Site Map, Privacy Statement, Terms and Conditions, and so on.

Once you’ve settled on an outline , or approved one that has been submitted to you by your Web developer, it’s time to add the content. Know that every single line in your outline will need content. On your home page you may want to have a brief introduction or a What’s New section. If you have a Resources area with pages for Links, Articles and an F.A.Q. (Frequently Asked Questions), remember that you’ll want to have some sort of copy on the Resources home page, even if it’s a simple introduction to the three other pages. The Links page may state that you’ve approved the following sites for inclusion and that visitors should email you if they have a suggestion for other sites. And so on. Having all the pieces ready to go at the beginning of the job will streamline the process.

Another benefit of this process is that you will gain a better idea of the scope of the project. By creating the outline and writing the copy in advance you know exactly where the finish line is. Because the Web is such a fluid medium it’s often difficult to know when you have “completed” your site. The outline allows you to determine what is part of Phase I and what will wait until Phase II. It’s a good way to prevent “job creep”.

Although we’ve been talking as though we’re developing an initial site, this information can be equally helpful in redesigning or relaunching an existing Web site. In fact, you’ve already got the outline done (at least in part) by looking at your current site. You may also have a better idea of what’s working and what could be improved.

If you have family or friends who haven’t spent time at your Web site, ask them to go there and give you feedback. Although positive feedback is good, it won’t be as helpful as constructive criticism. You may know why something is listed in Programs and not Services, but it may not be obvious to an outsider.

Ask them to take notes so you can talk to them later. Did they find it easy to contact you through the site? Did they find everything they were looking for? Is there something that could be made easier to understand? Were they able to navigate the site successfully, without having to constantly use the “Back” button on their browser? (Now, there’s nothing wrong with using the “Back” button, but a visitor should be able to access any section or important page from wherever they are on your site.)

Don’t base your judgements on just one person. That person may be too familiar with your business to accurately represent a new visitor to your site. Try and recruit people who represent your target audience. Interviewing several people will better represent the range of visitors to your site. Use this feedback to clarify your goals and reorganize your site outline.

Ultimately, the more planning you do the smoother the construction of the site will be.

* For those of you who know my dad, I have to admit he is NOT the client in the story. I just felt that after years of him using me as the example in his speeches, it was time for a little “payback”. The client is in fact both an amalgamation and an exaggeration.

** The magic number is 5.

–Rich Brooks
President, flyte new media

The Importance of Being Popular

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING POPULAR

Anybody who ever went to public high school knows how important it is to be popular, and those of us who were popular remember how great it was. The good-natured ribbing the jocks gave us, the librarians who overlooked our late returns because we worked the slide projector, how the girls mentally undressed us when we wore our band uniforms. Good times, good times.

Well, for many of us it’s equally important for our Web sites to be popular. If you never look at your traffic reports it’s hard to know whether your site is the belle of the ball or a wallflower. (Note: Different sites have different popularity requirements. Some sites are just more needy than others.) The most basic piece of information that people are interested in—and where many people stop looking—is visitors. This is the supposed number of unique sessions over a given amount of time.

Why supposed? Well, without getting too technical, when many people come at once from one Internet Service Provider or ISP—for example AOL—they may appear as just one visitor. Other times a large corporation using a proxy server might request a page just once but show a copy of that page to several people. As far as you know, only one person visited.

These traffic reports will often tell you which pages at your site were requested most frequently. Why is this important? Give the people what they want! Maybe everyone wants to check out your recipe for homemade salsa, but your homemade chutney soda is a dud. You now know that you should post more south-of-the-border treats and that chutney and carbonation don’t mix.

If you want to dig a little deeper, many reports will tell you where people are coming from. This doesn’t mean that you know their names and email addresses (thank God) but which Web site they were at when they decided to click to your site.

If they were at a search engine, you may also be able to find out which search words they used to find your site. This can give you a better idea of what people are searching for when they find a site like yours. (Personally, I get the most traffic for the Winchester Mystery House. Attack of the 50″ Woman is mighty popular, too.) Often you’ll find search terms that you hadn’t thought of when promoting your site and now you can add them. If you’re feeling really industrious you can visit that search engine, enter those search terms, and see which sites are appearing higher than yours. A little more investigative work and you might discover why these sites are coming up higher, and perhaps you can tweak your own site.

Many search engines these days (as opposed to the search engines of yore) are making link popularity a more important variable in their algorithms. What does this mean? I’m not sure, I cribbed it from InfoWeek. Actually, it means that they believe that the more people who link to your site the more relevant the material must be, so your site will come up higher in searches.

Whether or not their belief is true, you should get people to link to your site. The first step is to link to theirs. If you don’t have a links or resources page, consider creating one. Chances are you can’t answer all the questions and problems of the visitors coming to your site. Having offsite resources can support your own message. If you’re afraid of losing visitors, consider having the link open in a new window; or if you’re completely paranoid, keep the new site in a frame set so part of your site is always showing. (This doesn’t always go over well with other site owners whom you may soon be asking for a reciprocal link.)

Once you’ve created this page and posted it to the Web, contact the Webmaster for each site. Let them know that you’ve created a link to their site but if they want it taken down you’ll be happy to comply. Don’t worry, they never want it taken down; who wants to lose potential traffic? Tell them that you feel that your visitors will benefit from the material on their site. Hopefully this is true so you won’t have to lie. Tell them that you think their visitors will also benefit from the content on your site, and could they create a reciprocal link? My experience is that you’ll have great results this way.

Another way to create links to your site is through email. Sure, many of my clients have already realized the benefit of sending out a monthly newsletter embedded with links to their home page and new features at their site. But testimonials carry more weight when you don’t write them yourself. I learned that during the college admissions process. But how can you get people to email their friends about your site? Well, you could forge their name to an email, but let’s take the high road.

The easier you make it for your visitors to tell their friends about your site the more likely they are to do so. Our site, the Center for Development & Learning’s site, and Dr. Larry Kutner’s site all employ an “Email This Article to a Friend” form. It allows people to quickly email the contents of an article and a personal message to a friend or colleague. When it arrives, it also comes with a message about your site and a link back to it.

A stripped-down version of this is a simple “Recommend This Site” form. It can be placed on your contact page or anywhere else on your site. Some people are just born helpers. My grandfather cuts out every article from the Ft. Lauderdale Ledger that even remotely mentions the Internet and mails it to me. Make it easy for these people by adding this simple form.

With these few Pygmalion-like steps, your site can be a Homecoming King or Queen, too. Or at least it won’t get stuffed into its own gym locker.

–Rich Brooks
President, flyte new media

Multi-Media, New Media and Your Web site

MULTI-MEDIA, NEW MEDIA AND YOUR WEB SITE

Over the years a number of my clients have requested audio, video and
other multi-media to spice up their Web sites. My feeling had always been
that the average visitor to their site didn’t have the patience for these
huge files to download. That their visitors were looking for a clean,
attractive site where they could quickly find the information they were
looking for. That developing huge multi-media files was best left to the
major entertainment companies and adult Web sites that charged per-minute
fees.

However, recent changes have made me reconsider this position.
Mainly, I’ve sunk a freaking lot of time and money into a wide
variety of multi-media authoring platforms. So I can say without
bias that you all need these options on your Web sites…immediately.

Well, maybe a little bias.

The truth is, things are changing. More and more people have
faster access to the Internet, whether it’s cable modems, DSL
(Digital Subscriber Lines,) or LANs (Local Access Networks) at
the workplace. Computers are also getting more powerful; new
models ship with 400MHz processors and up to better handle these
large files once they reach our homes. The Phantom Menace trailer
was downloaded over 23 million times and counting with most people
choosing to download the highest-quality version at around 25MB.

Does this mean that you all need to add Flash movies or MP3
songs to your Web sites? Of course not. Just because you can
do something doesn’t mean you should. What it does mean is that
you can add some audio or video to your sites–when appropriate–and
not turn off visitors.

For example, a Web site for a professional speaker might include
testimonial letters and the topics she speaks on. Adding some
flashy graphic to her site that does cool things with the letters
in her name probably won’t increase her business. It might even
turn off prospective organizations for tres gauche. However,
adding a video clip of a speech she gave may give a decision-maker
the information he needs to choose her over someone else. That
video clip would be configured so that it would only download
if requested; not everyone will have the need or the desire to
view the file.

There are just too many multi-media options to mention every
one here, nor is there time to get into any one in great depth.
The purpose of this column is to touch on a few of the platforms
that are most prevalent on the Web today.

All of these multi-media and new media options need some sort
of plug-in or player to work in someone’s browser. In other words:
No Player, No Play. However, all the players are free and you
can create links to the free downloads on your site.

QuickTime Movies and QTVR

I’m grouping these two items together
because they require the same player, the QuickTime Player.
(Seems like an obvious name, doesn’t it? However, until the most
recent release, the movie player for QuickTime movies was called…Movie
Player.)

QuickTime (QT) Movies are standard movies that play within the
QT Player. Many movie trailers are delivered via QT. The reason
why The Phantom Menace is only available via QT instead of RealPlayer
or Windows Media Player is because of Lucas Arts’ focus on quality;
none of the other platforms provide the quality that QT delivers.

QTVR, or QuickTime Virtual Reality takes two forms. The first
is a QTVR Panorama. When you come upon these panoramas on the
Web they appear to be simple photographs. But by clicking and
dragging your mouse within the photograph you can change the
direction of your view 360 degrees! You can also look up, down,
and zoom in or out. A panorama is also known as a “node”.
Different “nodes” can be linked together so you could
give a visitor a full tour of a new house, a museum, a ballpark
or any three-dimensional space. Ambient sounds can also be added
so that different sound effects or tracks can be heard depending
on the direction a visitor is “facing.”

The other form of QTVR is called an Object Movie. Instead of
spinning around on a node, an object movie gives many perspectives
on one object. A visitor to your site can “pick up” an
object and turn it around in their hands. Different versions
of this Object Movie can be stitched together so that when a
visitor is rotating an Object Movie of a model car in their browser
the trunk and hood might open or the headlights turn on and off.

RealPlayer

RealPlayer plays both streaming audio and video over
the Web. “Streaming” media
refers to media files that begin to play before they fully download
by using a buffer. Personally, I feel the video component is
currently below acceptable standards; it’s the size of a stamp
and often the image is so murky as to make it impossible to see
what’s going on. While the audio is nowhere near the quality
of MP3 files–the current choice of college students trading
pirated music–it’s ubiquitous nature gives it a leg up on the
competition. If you want to share audio files with your visitors
RealPlayer may be for you.

Flash Movies

Flash is a product by Macromedia, a company that
creates a number of products for graphic designers and Web
developers. It manipulates vector graphics which are often much
smaller (in byte size) than traditional bitmapped graphics for
quicker download over the Web. It also allows for a much more
interactive experience for your visitors. Entire sites can be
built using Flash technology or it can be used in smaller doses
to add, well, flash to a site. By visiting http://www.flytemedia.com
you can see a small Flash Movie [Defunct] for flyte new media
and/or download the Flash Movie Player if you don’t have it.
Graphic designers who are looking to add some spark to their
sites should really take a closer look at this technology.

Adobe Acrobat

Although the Web is fairly “cross-platform” inconsistencies
do exist. Also, different browsers and computer settings can
change the way a Web page or other document is seen by prospective
clients. If you have forms you want people to be able to view,
download and print, but you’re concerned about how they are going
to look once they get to that person’s computer, Adobe Acrobat
could be your answer.

Acrobat can convert any document to a PDF file (Adobe’s Portable
Document Format) which is cross-platform. Anybody with the free
Acrobat reader will be able to view or print your document as
it was intended. Simple brochures and entire software manuals
are moved across the Internet using this format. Chances are
you already have the reader on your computer.

Multi-media can enhance a Web site when used correctly and strengthen
the message you’re trying to get across. The trick is in choosing
the right format to best present your material and using it judiciously.

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media

E-Commerce Considerations for Small Businesses

E-COMMERCE CONSIDERATIONS FOR SMALL BUSINESS

When I was a traveling salesman, knocking on nursing home doors throughout New England, I was forced to eat out a lot. (Tuna sandwiches tend to go bad sitting on your dashboard all morning. This was back in the early nineties and coolers had yet to be invented.) Although I spent many a noontime meal under the golden arches or at a Papa Gino’s, there are times when you need more variety. When choosing a random restaurant the first thing I always noticed was the sign. If the sign was unattractive I wouldn’t go in there unless a good friend recommended the place. Even if the sign coerced me inside, the rest of the restaurant would have to be clean, well-lit, rat-free, etc., before I would eat there. Why is this important? Well, if you’re in Northboro, MA, check out a deli called Pickles. Good sign, good food.

On a completely unrelated topic, there’s been a lot of interest in e-commerce these days. It seems like anyone with (or without) a connection to the Internet, 10 minutes of free time and a product to sell can instantly make a mint on the Internet, go public and sell their company to Amazon.com for a few hundred million dollars.

Don’t believe the hype. Although there are a few of those lucky souls out there, they’re usually just there to make our travails seem trivial. Building a good e-commerce site is a slow, ongoing process of trial and error. However, we can use someone else’s errors many of the times to cut down on our own trial time.

Over the last year I’ve spent time developing different e-commerce solutions for a variety of clients, as well as attending the ICE (Internet Commerce Expo) Show earlier this year in Boston. Each solution I’ve seen has its plusses and minuses, and ultimately you’ll have to decide which one is going to work best for your site. I’ll explore these different options more in my next newsletter; for now I’ll concentrate on some things that hold true for any online store, even if you’re not taking orders over the ‘net.

First Impressions

And you thought that opening paragraph was just a stream-of-consciousness plug for a deli I used to frequent. Let’s face facts: we’re all not Amazon.com, nor have we reserved names like shopping.com or buy.com that people might type in by chance. It’s a good guess that our prospective customer doesn’t know us from a hole in the wall and first impressions count. A home page–for either your store or your site–is like a first date: it should be clean and attractive and not make the other person wait too long. How many commercial Web sites have you clicked away from because of ugly or slow-loading graphics, or just because of a completely unprofessional look? (I mention slow-loading graphics because both Yahoo! Stores and Amazon.com have incredibly quick-loading sites that are clean and attractive.)

Show ’em the Goods

You may think that the gardening hose you want to sell is the same as any other one, so there’s no point of putting up a picture. Studies show that people are 57% more likely to buy a product on the Internet if they can see an image of it. (By the way, I just made up that statistic, but the point is it could be true. Sounds true, doesn’t it?)

If you don’t have a product picture from a brochure, take the picture yourself or hire someone. I know a number of excellent photographers who do product shots. In some cases the manufacturer has images of the product on their Web site and would be happy to share since you’re promoting their product. Even if it’s just a bottle of shampoo that looks like the other 7 bottles of shampoo or conditioner you’re selling, put up another picture. If you’re not showing your customer the product, you’re hiding it.

(Get the latest “Ecommerce Marketing and Advertising Tips“)

Lost in the Supermarket

When your product selection gets to a certain size it may be time to categorize your inventory. A little corner shop may be able to put the plastic combs next to the Pez, but Wal-Mart needs to put the Pez dispensers next to the Pez refills in the Pez aisle which is nowhere near the combs and brushes. You aren’t the proprietor of a used book store featuring rare and out-of-print books where people enjoy browsing all day long while inhaling the musty fumes of decaying bindings. People don’t want to spend too much time looking for what they need; it’s easier to find the exit online than in the real world.

Rotate the Inventory

There was a liquor store near where I used to live that advertised its weekly special: “12 PACK BUSCH – $11.99”. First of all, a 12 pack of Busch for $11.99 is never special. Second of all, it was a weekly special for the five or so years I lived in Boston, and may still be. The bottom line is: feature and promote different products each month, week or day depending on your sales volume.

Take Credit Cards If You Possibly Can

More and more sites accept credit card orders, and so should you. There are added expenses in taking credit card orders but it may be worth it in the long run. If you don’t have a merchant number there are ways to get one. Also, some e-commerce hubs that rent space to small businesses will handle all credit card orders themselves, for a fee. This fee can be high, so it may only be workable for bigger ticket items.

Take Names (or at least emails)

To complete a credit card order over the Internet your customer is going to have to fill out a small form: name, address, credit card number and so on. This is a perfect opportunity to keep in touch with your customer. An email address is almost always a required field in these forms, and for good reason. It is a great, free way of contacting your customer again. With just a little extra work on your Web master’s part, that email address can be added to a growing list of customers who you can contact all at once about new specials and discounts at your store.

Now, as someone who gets copious amounts of spam, or unwanted emails solicitations, I implore you to do this the correct way. You’ll never make any friends or repeat customers by spamming people. My recommendation is to have an opt-in or opt-out option at the bottom of your form. An opt-in would be a button that people can click that signs them up for future mailings; an opt-out would do the opposite. You’ll get better response with an opt-out because people tend to want to get to the submit button as quickly as possible. If someone has already bought products from you I think an opt-out option is best.

Now you have a growing list of people who you know are interested in what you have to sell. Periodic email flyers to these people about new products and sales are a great way to get repeat business and help grow your online business.

–Rich Brooks
President, flyte new media

Using Forms on Your Web site

USING FORMS ON YOUR WEB SITE

Finding out more about one’s customers has been around long before
the Internet. Back in prehistoric times traders would often ask their
customers, “Where did you hear about our pelts? What cave walls have
you read in the last six months?” and “We often sell our smoke
signal list to other traders that you might be interested in bartering
with…if you want to opt-out, grunt twice.”

I swear. It’s documented.

Forms have improved a lot since those days of carrying around
giant stone rolodexes. Forms are a common part of many Web sites,
but often are used for little more than a glorified email that
can be sent to a person behind the Web site.

What Forms Are Made Of:

Forms are visually created on a Web page in basic HTML using
a series of text boxes and fields, radio buttons, check boxes,
pull down menus and submit or reset buttons. Here’s a
breakdown of how they might be used:

Text Boxes – Any short answer: name, address, email,
etc.

Text Fields – Longer, open-ended comments, body of
an email message.

Radio Buttons – Where only one answer is appropriate,
like the buttons on a car radio

Check Boxes – Where one or more answers are appropriate; i.e. what
search engines have you used in the past 6 months.

Pull Down Menus – A way of letting someone choose one option from
a menu; often used navigate a Web site or select a profession in a questionnaire.

Submit and Reset Buttons – to complete the form or start anew.

The Back-End:

However, a form based solely on the elements above
wouldn’t
do much. A person could fill it out, but once they clicked “Submit” at
the bottom, nothing would happen. That’s because a form
itself does nothing; it would be like filling out a magazine
subscription card and not mailing it in. The form you see on
a Web page is just a structure where visitors can put in information.

It’s behind-the-scenes where the real action takes place.
When the submit button is clicked on a working form the information
is most often “passed” or sent to the server, the computer
that sends the Web pages to your browser. (Occasionally forms
are handled right on the page by the use of JavaScript, but that’s
not nearly as common.) Back at the server the information is
sent to a folder with CGI Scripts, (Common Gateway Interface.)
Once the correct script is located the script takes the information
and handles it the way it was programmed.

What You Can Do With Forms:

The CGI scripts can handle the information
in a number of ways. It can create an email addressed from the
submitter to you that will show up in your email box. It can
also send a copy of that email to your Web master if that’s
helpful. When you hit “reply” to that email it will
automatically go back to them, (assuming they gave you a correct
email address.)

Forms can also be helpful if you use a database to manage a
mailing list. The information that is passed can be entered into
a password protected document on the Internet. Every time someone
submits a form their pertinent information gets added to this
document. Every once in a while you can download that file to
your hard drive and then you can import it into your database
program. It will save you from retyping all those people who
want more information on your wares.

Another form option would allow you to get personal information
from a visitor who wants to read an article. Instead of posting
the article on your site, a form is created that when completed
emails the article to the visitor.

Forms can also be combined with a secure server to handle credit
card orders.

Things to Keep In Mind When Designing a Form:

Through personal experience in working with clients, I’ve
discovered that the best way to create a form is let the client
create it on paper and then I turn it into a working online form.
Only the client knows whether they need both daytime and nighttime
phone numbers, whether the person’s position within a company
is relevant, or if a person’s sex is germane to the conversation.

Before my clients write out the information they’re looking
for I remind them to balance all the information they would like
to gather with the amount of time someone is going to be willing
to spend on completing a form. If someone wants to drop you a
quick note that they just read your last book and they loved
it, they don’t want to fill out a ten-page questionnaire
on which books stores, kiosks and flea markets they’ve
visited in the last six months. On the other hand, if they are
looking for more information on a specialty medical device your
company has just patented, you can feel free to ask a few more
questions before answering.

You can also set some questions as mandatory. You may require
people to enter a name and email address, but allow them to skip
their fax number. If they don’t fill out the required fields,
they get a warning message that their form was not processed
and a request to go back to the original page.

Forms are a great way to gather information on the people interested
in your products. It’s not invasive as they are volunteering
this information to you. By collecting these names, addresses
and emails you will also be able to let people know the release
date of your next book, a recent update on your software, or
a great vacation give away for people in their sixties.

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media

E-Commerce: Do You Need It?

E-COMMERCE: DO YOU NEED IT?

There has been a lot written about ecommerce in the past couple months.
Articles have appeared in BusinessWeek, Inc. magazine and Newsweek, among
others. Generally this type of buzz starts in the computer magazines,
and if it sticks around long enough, the general trades pick it up.

Since I read a number of computer magazines each month, I get
a view of the coming storm when it’s just a butterfly’s wing
flapping. Some times these ideas come to fruition, most times
not. Does anyone remember the hype surrounding Push Technology?
Micro-payments? How banner ads would pay for content on the Web?

All of these things have fallen short of expectations or died
entirely. The only type of Push Technology you see now is email.
Micro-payments didn’t even get their 15 minutes. Banner ad rates
are plummeting as Web surfers are maturing and less likely to
click on every ad they see.

So what to make of ecommerce? Well here’s my .02: it’s here
to stay. What shape it will finally take or even what it will
look like a year from now I don’t pretend to know, but technology
costs money, so businesses need to make money off of it. Two
years ago every consultant worth their salt was saying that companies
needed a Web site to survive. Last year these same consultants
told businesses they needed content to increase repeat visitors.
This year it’s ecommerce.

(Get the latest “Ecommerce Marketing and Advertising Tips“)

Let me tell you something you already know: every business is
different. Every business’s Web site is different. Morton’s
Salt
does not need ecommerce. Apple
Computer
does. Even if you have
something to sell, ecommerce may not be the best option for you.
If your best customers and clients use you because of your “hands
on” approach, maybe ecommerce isn’t where you should be
investing your time and money. If your work is mostly customized
perhaps face-to-face or even over the phone might be your best
close.

However, if you have something to sell that only needs to be
seen or described, ecommerce could be a good option. If you have
a product that can be utilized throughout the country or even
the world, ecommerce could bring you lots of business. If you
have big enough margins, high enough prices or plan on selling
enough product, ecommerce could become a major part of your business
plan.

Ecommerce allows people from all over the world, (or wherever
you’re willing to ship,) to purchase products from you day or
night. It can bring extra sales to your business and not cost
you any more in salaries. If nothing else, it could help bring
down your monthly cost of being online.

Ecommerce is not as inexpensive as setting up a Web site. Your
hosting service must have a secure server so people can feel
confident in putting their credit card information over the Internet.
(Aside: it’s easier to steal someone’s wallet and use their credit
cards at a gas pump or a store than it is to steal their card
number of the Internet, but people are still leery.) In general
this costs extra money for your hosting service, and thus for
you.

You (or your Webmaster) must set up forms using scripts that
will handle your order taking; these scripts are more difficult
to create than simple HTML; even if you can get your hands on
generic scripts, reworking them to your needs can be a nightmare
if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Your business must also have a merchant number; a number you
can get from a bank or credit union that will allow you to accept
credit cards both online or in the real world. Some of these
institutions are uncomfortable dealing with online transactions
and set high premiums and costs as a result.

There are also banks and other companies that put together “store
front” or “shopping cart” packages for you, handling
much of the headaches. These vary in price, but plan on spending
over a thousand dollars to set it up and $500-1000 and up per
month in costs. If you plan on doing a lot of business, these
options can be a good choice. However, they may not be your first
choice.

As always, there are a few companies out there who will do some
of this for free. iCat allows you 10 products to sell over the
Internet for no fee, at least for now. More products than 10
and you have to get an account with them. Also, there is still
a certain amount of work involved and you should be comfortable
with HTML and general Internet knowledge if you don’t have someone
doing it for you.

In the final analysis, (as of today, tomorrow might bring another
answer,) ecommerce can be very beneficial for the right sites.
It allows your doors to stay open 24/7 so you never have to turn
away a customer. It takes orders when you’re sick as a dog, or
on Christmas or your highest of High Holidays. But don’t include
it on your site if it’s not needed. If the goal of your site
is to be brochureware: a place for people to learn more about
your company without pressure, don’t worry about it. Certain
sites will be commerce sites and certain sites will be advertising
and marketing sites. I myself have no plans to add ecommerce
to my site. Anyone who remembers my “Rich Brooks
1998 Beefcake Calendar
” fiasco will know why.

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media

Affiliate Programs

AFFILIATE PROGRAMS: THEY’RE HOT, THEY’RE HAPPENING, BUT ARE THEY HYPE?

Most Americans with a passing knowledge of the Internet are aware of
Amazon.com, the first major Web-based bookstore. They have relationships
with (i.e. they’ve bought real estate on) such major portals as Excite!,
AOL, Alta Vista and Netscape. Barnes & Noble has also spent a lot
of money launching a Web site and buying up property on HotBot & Lycos
among others. There are also a handful of upstarts such as Books.com and Bookserve. All of these companies have affiliate programs.

What are affiliate programs? I’m glad you asked. (And if you
didn’t ask, let’s show a little enthusiasm here, people.) Affiliate
programs reward you for sending buyers to these companies’ Web
sites. The details vary, but basically you do some work on your
end, create the links and the money just starts rolling in. (Well,
that’s the way they describe it happening.) Sites that have a
certain focus, such as sci-fi, gardening or erotica could point
visitors towards appropriate reading at these online bookstores
and get a commission on books sold.

I figured a good guinea pig…er, test case would be my father.
He currently has books and tapes available through his Web site,
but only for people paying by check or money order, not online,
secure ordering. Also, he has to send out the books and tapes
by hand. I figured I could save him a little work and make it
easier for visitors to buy his book since they wouldn’t have
to get out their checkbook, mail or fax in an order, etc.

I started my research by reading the archived articles in one
of my favorite online listservs, LinkExchange Digest. Website
designers post questions and answers on marketing a Web site,
selling online and “Geek Tips”. You can receive it
via email or go to http://www.le-digest.com/archive.html.

Maybe these people are just big whiners, or maybe they’re on
to something. Many complain of sending several hundred visitors
to Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com, but get very little or no
compensation. Others counter that this first group didn’t do
enough to get the visitors excited, (i.e. reviews, recommendations,
etc.) to make a purchase once they arrived at an affiliate site.

Another possible downside is the loss of traffic; any time you
send someone to another site, you risk losing that person for
ever. In general, the people who had the best experiences did
indepth reviews of books in a certain category, and consistently
updated the list of books to get people coming back to their
site.

Mark Welch, a frequent contributor to that listserv has a Web
site dedicated to ranking different affiliate programs, and it
can be found at http://www.markwelch.com. He had a number of
affiliate programs ranked above Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble,
but for one reason or another they didn’t meet my criteria. Some
were too specialized, others didn’t offer any tracking, etc.

Despite this general negative view, I proceeded to go forward.
First, I felt the affiliate program would benefit a site like
my father’s: one that wasn’t trying to make wads of money, but
rather was interested in making it easier for the visitors to
purchase the book while online. Second, I really needed a topic
for this issue. I chose Amazon because they carried not only
my dad’s newest book, “The Self-Esteem Teacher”, but
also “So That’s How I Was Born!”, dedicated “To
Richard and Douglas, who taught me the questions children really
ask about the facts of life.” I figured if I was his best
source of material, it was time to turn the tables.

And so began my journey…

I went to Amazon.com, scrolled down the page and found the “Associates” link.
Following it, I read the “Terms and Agreements”; first
time in my life I’ve read a “Terms and Agreements”.
(I did it for you, people.) Besides the general “everything
we do is o.k. and subject to change, everything you do better
be o.k. with us,” I did find a couple of things a little
hard to swallow. Commission is paid on a quarterly basis, 30
days after the quarter is finished. Having come from a background
in sales, I know that a quarter is a looooong time. Also, they
won’t pay you until your commission reaches the magic $100 mark.
Otherwise they hold onto it until the next quarter. Figuring
that my dad’s book currently goes for $12.95, and he would get
15% for directly linking to it, he would only have to sell just
over 51 copies to get a check after the first quarter. Good thing
we’re not in it for the money.

After I clicked “agree” I quickly received an email
from Amazon outlining the three options I had for being an associate:
1. Link to their home page. As far as I can see, no real benefit
except to Amazon. 2. Put one of their Amazon search boxes on
our site. Perhaps it would be a benefit for another site, but
our purpose is solely to make it easier for visitors to purchase
Dr. Brooks’ books while online. 3. Link to individual products.
Ah-ha!

The email spells out how to put the link in, all you need to
do is replace their special page number (which shows a current
best-seller) with the page you are interested in by searching
for the product in question. I also decided to “frame” the
Amazon site so there would always be a visible link back to my
father’s page. To see how this is all laid out please visit http://www.drrobertbrooks.com/books.shtml
and click on either of the Amazon.com logos.

The entire process took me a little over an hour to complete,
not too bad in terms of time. The question still remains if this
will prove to be a benefit for the visitors to his site. I’ll
keep you posted.

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media

Search Engine Considerations

SEARCH ENGINE CONSIDERATIONS

Note: This article was written back in 1998 and is woefully out of date.
Here’s a newer version which isn’t quite as out of date.

In the past few months I’ve received a number of questions from clients
about why they can’t find their site when they use a search engine.
There are a number of reasons why this might be, including the site is
too new, the topic too broad or their search query is too vague. Sometimes
there’s no good reason, and a resubmission of the site takes care of the
problem. Many search engine gurus suggest resubmitting your site once
a month to avoid disappearing.

In this article I’m going to give you a basic overview of search
engines. There’s more information on search engines that I could
ever put into one article, and if you’re interested in this topic
I suggest you look at http://www.searchenginewatch.com by Danny
Sullivan. It’s just one of the search engine resources you can
find on my resources page at http://www.writeitdown.com/resources.html.
[Defunct.]

While search engines are a very common method that people use
to information on the web, they’re not the only way. The latest
statistics (as reported in the Wall Street Journal) put the number
of web pages at 350 million and growing exponentially, so it’s
going to become harder and harder to get your site into the top
ten most relevant pages in a given search. Especially if your
type of business is well represented on the Web; i.e. graphic
designers, X-Files collectibles, or sadly, web site designers.
In other words, don’t ignore search engine considerations, but
don’t lose sleep over them either. (That’s my job.)

Before we start, some quick definitions. (Don’t worry, this
will be painless.) Search engines are applications that “search” the
web, using programs called spiders or robots to gather information
from web pages and bring it back to a search engine’s database.
When you enter a search query, (i.e. Tibet,) the engine generally
searches against its own index, not the entire web. This is why
some search engines won’t show your pages for up to a couple
of months even if you submit the pages to them. Also, services
like Yahoo! are not search engines, but directories. This means
there is a team of humans–those living, breathing bipeds–who
take submitted URL’s (uniform resource locators or “website
addresses”,) review them and add the page to their directory
if they see fit. There are several major search engines and directories,
and everybody has a favorite. Some of the most popular are Yahoo!
(http://www.yahoo.com), Alta Vista (http://www.digital.alta-vista.com),
HotBot, (http://www.hotbot.com), Excite! (http://www.excite.com),
Lycos, (http://www.lycos.com), Webcrawler, (http://www.webcrawler.com),
and Northern Light (you guessed it, http://www.northernlight.com).

When you enter your query the engine looks through its database
and pulls up documents–web sites in most cases–that it thinks
meets your criteria. The number of documents returned depends
on how broad (Tibet) or narrow (Tibetan rap bands) your query
is, bringing the results to your browser window, generally 10
or so at a time.

Search engine administrators are constantly trying to improve
their products so that they return more targeted and relevant
results while many website creators are constantly trying to
tweak their websites so they come up higher in the ranking. These
two goals often come into conflict as many website owners continually
try to push the limits of acceptable behavior while the search
engines are trying to keep the playing field level. Some tricks
website owners use fall into the category of spamming. Some examples
include over-repetition of keywords, using same color text and
background (so the search engine sees the text but not the viewer)
or using keywords that don’t reflect the site’s topic. For instance,
sites may add a mention of “Monica Lewinsky” because
they know people will perform searches on her, (so to speak).
Search engines have moved to disallow pages using these techniques.

However, what passes for spamming isn’t universal. Also, many
of the engines continually change their own rules to further
frustrate spammers. They believe that if people searching for
information feel the search engine isn’t returning relevant documents,
they’ll stop using that engine for another one, which then brings
down the search engine’s value to advertisers. (Doesn’t it always
come back to money?)

Tips: Although every search engine has its own mechanism for
determining relevance, there are some tips you can use to improve
your ranking. Perhaps the most important aspect of your page
is the title. “Welcome!” or “My
Company’s Home Page
” are not good. Nobody searches for these words. (If
they did, they would receive over a million irrelevant documents.) “Tibet:
The History of a People
” or “New Techniques
for Fighting Halitosis
” are more likely to bring people to your site
who are interested in these topics.

Meta-Tags: These tags aren’t seen by visitors, but many search
engines use them for relevancy ratings. It allows the creator
to give the search engine a brief description of the page, the
keywords, who the author is, and any other information the creator
wants to pass along. Certain search engines ignore meta-tags
since some website designers use inappropriate keywords. For
example, a children’s clothes shop may use “child safety” to
lure parents to their site. Many sites use adult-oriented keywords
to attract visitors even if their site is about real estate.
(Adult topics are still the most popular queries.)

Since some search engines count the number of words on the page
as part of their relevancy testing, a short page that mentions “New
England Patriots” twice might be deemed more relevant than
a longer page that mentions next year’s Super Bowl champs five
times.

Duplicate pages: I’m not sure if this is considered spamming,
but I’ve had some luck creating duplicate versions of the same
page, changing around some keywords or shortening the page, and
submitting both pages. (I generally don’t submit them on the
same day as some search engines consider that to be spamming.)
Sometimes it’s just interesting to see where almost identical
pages match up.

For example, if your media relations company has offices in
Boston and L.A. you could duplicate your home page and put Boston-related
keywords on one page, saving it as boston.html and L.A.-related
keywords on the other, saving it as la.html. Submitting both
pages might get you a higher rating if someone searched under “Boston
media”.

Search Engine specific pages: If a search engine ignores meta-tags
it might be good to duplicate a page, take out the tags and submit
it specifically to that search engine.

There are many other variables that affect relevancy including
JavaScript, use of frames or tables, subject matter, the waxing
and waning of the moon….If you are still hungry for information
please go to http://www.writeitdown.com/search_engines.html [Defunct]
and check out some of the links there.

Remember, search engines aren’t the only methods of bringing
people to your site. Traditional media, banner swap programs,
online malls, and web rings are just a few alternative methods
to alerting people to your offerings.

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media