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Getting Your Small Business Online Part 1


As people become comfortable being on the Internet, businesses are expected to be online or have some sort of web presence be it simple email or a complete web store. If you've decided to take your business online, you need to know how. We'll show you how over the next installments of this three part series. Expect to be educated about:

Part 1 - Planning Stage - Domain Names
Part 2 - Developing Your Website - Managing and Maintaining Your Website
Part 3 - Promoting Your Website

Let's get started!

Planning Stage

As starting any business endeavor, you need to plan. One of the most important issues to review is your reason.

Why are you getting online?

The public may want you to be online, but what precisely do they expect? “Getting online” is a very loose term. Do they want the option to contact you via email, do they want to be able to research your product at their convenience before purchasing, do they want to settle their accounts online, or do they want to buy online? Also ask yourself what you want to achieve. Each results in different types of online presence.

There are many types of websites. Most websites fall into these categories:

  • Web store
  • Brochure ware
  • Customer service

Let's look at each in detail.

Web Store

This is probably the most well known form of online presence. For example, a web store selling mostly software for personal digital assistants or PDA's such as Palm and Pocket PC was from day one a business run entirely online in the form of a web store. All its operations, from product catalog to purchasing are conducted through their website. Web stores are very exciting. You get to reach customers your store can't, you get to give your customers flexibility of ordering at their convenience, you can also get a piece of the growing e-commerce pie and more.

This is sounds like a very attractive proposition for any business but keep in mind, if you have a physical store, your web store should be considered as a separate profit center. Maintaining, promoting and running a web store requires many man-hours and certain amount of specialty knowledge. Very likely a small percentage of your existing customers will shop online. They know you and are comfortable with your physical setting. The web store would be an added convenience rather than main shopping venue for them especially if you allow in store pickup.

On the other hand, you're likely to attract a new set of customers such as those out of town or state. They might also have different income or education levels compared to existing customers who'll respond to different marketing techniques.

Once you decide on a web store, you'll need to figure out the operations.

  • Merchant Account
    • Does your existing account allow for online payment processing?
  • Order processing
    • A suitable shopping cart although this can be further discussed when developing the website
  • Order fulfillment
    • Where do you route the order? Who packs and ships it assuming you have a physical product. How do you track order status?
  • Delivery
    • If a physical product, which shipping company should you choose? Should you enter into a contract or pay as you go? Should you have more than one company? Determine your shipping costs but don't forget packaging costs too. If electronically delivered product, do you email or provide a download link? How would you minimize piracy? Should you have a unique key per customer?
  • Customer Support
    • Most online buyers expect to have some way to track their orders. How would you handle pre and post sale questions? Live chat, toll free number, email or help desk? Regardless of which you choose, effort must be made to respond quickly. Purchasing online by itself is a very impersonal process. Imagine how neglected a customer might feel if they're made to hold or use automated response when they call. This is of utmost importance if your sole sales channel is done online.

Brochure Ware ( ) is a type of brochure ware website. They don't sell directly on online but fill it with information to educate buyers and help find a suitable dealer. The website also serves investors, job seekers, press or anyone interested in the company. This is very typical of companies who sell their products through franchisees, agents or dealers.

On first impression, brochure ware sites do not seem to be a powerful reason to be online. That was true of many early websites. However businesses are realizing the Internet is a fairly inexpensive way to educate customers. Buyers also like the feeling of first hand contact with the manufacturer especially if the product is of significant value like a car.

More websites are also beginning to utilize their website as an outlet to gain feedback, announce jobs, post press releases, give investors up to date information and even as a marketing channel. Consider M&M's ( ). While they do have a web store, their main website has a lot of marketing/advertising related activity such as games, e-cards, wall papers, screensavers all around their latest commercial, a clever way to increase an advertising campaign's effectiveness.

Customer Service

These are websites that exist as a contact point for your customer. Typically utility companies and software developers have such a website. These websites offer the customer a convenient way to review their account, pay their bills, and ask for help or request a quote.

In most cases, a website will have a combination of these elements. Usually, the main reason for a company to be online determines the website's theme.

After considering your reasons and responsibilities, you are ready to assemble the parts and start getting your website off the ground.

Domain name

Your domain name is like your online address. Domain names need to be registered through an ICANN accredited registrar such as ( ). Domain names cost anything from $8.95 and up, depending who you register with.

How should you choose your domain name? Typically, businesses use their company name; example that+ instantly identifies the business. Sometimes, your product or brand name is more prominent than your business name so you'll want to use the brand name. Or you could register it all. It could pay to register more than one domain name and routing them all to a single website. Doing this will ensure that you get maximum exposure and coverage, making it easy for your market to locate you online with a name that they best remember about your business.

Some experts advise to register a keyword rich domain name. This means a domain name that is composed of likely words someone might use when searching for a product similar to yours. For example if you sell work boots, is a keyword rich domain. The idea is, search engines are more likely to pick up and position your website fairly high in a search. However, search engine technology is focusing more on website content. We'll cover more about search engine positioning later.

Domain names are universal, meaning anyone in the world can register a name and it is first come, first serve. Many common English words and terms have long been registered. Often, you'll find the domain of choice is already taken. If so, you'll have to modify or rethink your name. You could try to approach the existing owner of the domain to see if they'll sell it to you. This is however unlikely if the domain is a highly desired one or is home to an active website.

Another alternative is to look for expired domain names. These are names that have previously been registered but been ‘released' either due to closing of the website or failure to renew on time. Some believe if you find a popular existing domain name, you would jumpstart the hits to your website. Sometimes you'll find gems among expired names but you'll have to exercise caution particularly if the domain is a misspelling or very close to a copyrighted name. A good place to search for expired names is ( ).

Web Hosting

Just like your business needs a premise to operate from, your website needs to reside on a web server. There are numerous companies who rent out computer space to businesses and individuals to serve web pages therefore known as web hosts. They provide and maintain the hardware and software to run and present your website online. You can also host your website from your own computers however there is extensive cost involved and rarely do small businesses benefit from doing so, especially if the website is new.

Many designers offer web hosting as a package. Remember, if you decide to change designers or bring it in house, you'll have to rely on the designer's good faith to access your website files while you move your website. Though not always a problem, moving web hosts can be stressful. Be sure to read our exclusive on changing web hosts ( ) and our article, “Don't Make These Hosting Mistakes!” ( ).

Finally, when ready to purchase web-hosting plans, you can quickly obtain quotes from several web hosts using HostVoice ( ) free, interactive service. It works simply by submitting a quick one-page questionnaire about your hosting needs and budget. This information will be channeled to the appropriate web hosts who will then contact you with a quote. You get to decide which company is best for you.

Now that we've covered the basics, it's time to develop the website itself. Join us in our next installment, when we'll go through

  • The development process
  • Managing your website

Article reprinted with kind permission of:
When Hosts Compete, You Win
- When Hosts Compete, You Win
This series is brought to you by the team at EchoMedia Solutions, Inc. – a company that helps small business owners setup their presence online and market their services.
23 Jan 2004
09 dec 2003 - 1374


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