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5 Guidelines for a small business website

For many local small businesses their website may become their most important marketing asset. Even if you don’t generate a lot of your revenue from your website today consider that internet related commerce has exploded on the scene and that it is likely to become even more important to you in the future. It is a very low cost way to reach many thousands of potential customers, even if it’s only to tell them where you are and when you’re open. The advice in this article assumes that you believe that your website will become an essential part of your marketing strategy. If you expect that your website will have a marginal impact on your business then you can safely ignore this advice.

It’s as essential to your business as phone service. If your customers can’t find you online, they may not be able to find you at all. It’s important to get it right the first time and if you didn’t get it right the first time then you should at least get it right this time. Given this there are a number of guidelines that every small business person should bear in mind when considering creating, upgrading or redesigning a small business website.

  1. You should be in complete control of your website.
  2. You should be able to manage your website, hopefully without a lot of new technical skills.
  3. You should be able to easily add or modify the content.
  4. It should be able to grow as your business grows.
  5. You should be able to easily hire help with it without giving up the above.

You may have noticed that this list doesn’t speak to the appearance or content of the site. These are obviously important as well but they can be different from business to business and are likely to change over time. However the above guidelines apply universally to all small business and shouldn’t change as technology and fashion change.

You should be in complete control of your website

This rule includes all of the administrative elements of being on line as well as being completely independent from any particular consultant and from any proprietary software.

  • You should register and own your own domain name. A traditional approach to business web design is for the designer or consultant to be in control of the domain name. When this happens and you part company with the consultant or they go out of business or they stop paying their bills you could lose your website even if you’ve paid your bills. In addition many of the large low cost business hosting companies actually control the domains of their clients. This can be a real problem for you if you decide to change hosts.
  • You should purchase your own hosting account. Along with the traditional approach to domain name control it is often the case that businesses purchase their hosting directly from their web design firm. This has exactly the same problems listed above. It’s also common to buy hosting from resellers. These are “hosts” who have purchased the right to sell access to you from an actual hosting provider. Again, if something happens to your reseller you can lose your website. In addition, if there is a problem they are unlikely to be able to solve it themselves and will need to contact their hosting provider to resolve issues.
  • You shouldn’t use proprietary software. Most hosting providers offer some form of easy “website builder” system. They often are free for a certain number of pages and then cost you monthly to have more pages or more functionality. This is a horrible idea for a small business for a number of reasons.
  • You should use software that is portable. If you use software like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal or DotNetNuke you can transfer all of your website to another hosting provider relatively easily. These software packages are open source (free) and like standard HTML can be used on virtually any modern webserver. The only limitation here is that some software packages require Microsoft Windows server system and others require a Unix based server system. However, each has hundreds of hosting providers to choose from.
  • This is all about flexibility and security. You want to know that your website is under your immediate and complete control and that you can move it, without help from the previous hosting provider at a moment’s notice.

You should be able to manage your website without being overly dependent on technical knowledge

It used to be that in order to build a website you needed to know programming languages such as HTML, XML, CSS & Java script. You started with a blank page and a text editor and started coding. This required a substantial amount of technical knowledge that you generally would have to learn on your own. It’s no wonder that businesses handed over their websites to designers and programmers. It wasn’t worth a business owner’s time to learn how to do it themselves. This is also why an effective website was so expensive to develop.

Now with the advent of WordPress and other web applications it is possible to have the software handle the technical coding while using a Microsoft Office like interface for organizing the site and adding the content.

You should be able to easily add or modify the content on your site.

In order for your website to be effective it needs to be current. You need to be able to add holiday hours or announce new promotional offers. A traditional business website would require you to hire someone who can code in HTML to add or change the content of the site. This made it very difficult and expensive to make quick little changes.

  • Your web application should allow you to add additional pages as the information about your business grows.
  • Your web application should allow you to easily modify content, such as service descriptions, hours of operation and promotional specials without any technical knowledge.
  • You should be able to add increased functionality without any programming skills.

Your website should be able to grow as your business grows.

You hear about small business owners redesigning their websites from scratch. They discover that they need to add functionality or want to change the layout and their original system couldn’t handle the upgrade. The right application can grow so that each new change to your website builds on the structure of the existing website.

  • Your web application should be open source. Open source software is not only free you also have complete access to the entire source code which means that you can easily hire a programmer to modify or tweak it if the desired functionality isn’t present.
  • Your web application should have an active development community with hundreds or thousands of programmers routinely innovating on it. This means that the web application is constantly changing to meet the changing needs of the community. It is always current.
  • Your web application should have a large number of free and premium add-ons that can be easily obtained and implemented.
  • Your web application should be able to easily scale to hundreds or even thousands of “pages”.
  • Your web application should be able to do everything you want it to do now.

You should be able to easily hire someone to help you with it.

Even if you are beginning by building your entire website yourself, the time may come where you decide you’d like to add some functionality that requires a programmer or designer. You should choose a web application that allows you to hire someone for a discreet task without requiring them to take over complete control of the site or otherwise contravening the previous 3 guidelines.

  • You should use open source software so the code is easily accessible to programmers.
  • You should use a web application that has an easy system for changing the organization and appearance of the web site.
  • You should use a web application with lots of local designers and developers that work with it. Search on Google or Craigslist to get a sense of who is in your area.
  • You should use a web application where it is easy to outsource some tasks. There are hundreds of consultants listed on Elance.com that advertise WordPress development. This can be a low cost, low risk solution to customization.

WordPress to the rescue

In my opinion WordPress is the ideal open source web application for small business owners to use to develop their own web sites. It can be used on hundreds of hosts, it is relatively easily portable and can be used without knowledge of HTML and CSS. It is very easy to add or modify content. It has a simple but powerful user interface, a huge developer community and has thousands of free and premium add-ons. You can easily find a web designer or web developer with lots of experience with WordPress. Best of all, you can maintain complete control of all aspects of your website.