You have a message to share. And whether it’s about a product, service or issue, making that message available online will help you reach a larger audience.
Provided you do the job right, of course.
We’d like to show you how…
Rent or Own?
This is your first decision point.
There are many ways to create your online presence.
A Twitter account, a Facebook page, even a YouTube channel; there are all vehicles for broadcasting your message. But you don’t own these platforms, and that’s an important consideration. A change in policy, a copyright challenge, even a technical error could shut down your page.
And let’s not dismiss the importance of branding.
When you use a free online platform, you’re tying your brand to that service’s brand. Think: If you staked your online presence on MySpace or Second Life, you wouldn’t be looking too cool right now.
By building your own web site, however, you can establish your permanent “home” on the Internet in a way that reflects your brand.
While we believe you should continue to engage your community across social media channels, those channels shouldn’t be your only touchpoint–and they should all serve as the one authoritative anchor for your online presence: Your website.
What’s in a Web Site?
A web site is made up of several related products and services. You’ll need:
- A web host
- A domain name
- An SSL Certificate (optional for some sites, though still ideal)
You can certainly manage these yourself, but if you feel yourself entering intimidating territory, a web developer can coordinate them for you.
Now I’m going to get a little geeky here, but stay with me. These are the things a web developer will charge you for.
At its heart, a web site is a program. But instead of responding to key strokes and mouse clicks, this program accepts requests from web browsers and returns text, images, video and other content. The browser software then displays that content on a web page.
The computer the web site software is running on is usually called a “host” or “server.” Unlike your laptop computer, these machines are always on, have consistent Internet connection, and are optimized to serve up web pages. (While your personal computer could host a web site, it’s much better to host on a machine dedicated to the task.)
There are so many companies maintaining servers and renting them out for reasonable recurring fees, that it doesn’t make sense for most of our clients to run their own servers. So, they subscribe to a “web hosting” service to give their site a permanent “home.”
Every device on the Internet, including your web server, has an Internet Address–and these numeric addresses are used primarily by other computers. (They’re unwieldy numbers, and not exactly the sort of thing we humans are good at remembering.)
Luckily, there’s a system called the Domain Name System (“DNS”) that assigns names to those numeric addresses, not unlike a phone book.
22.214.171.124? You know it as Google.com.
And you’ll need to have a name associated with your Internet address if you want people to find your web site.
Registering A Domain Name
How do you do it?
First, you reserve the name with a Domain Name Registrar, like networksolutions.com or enom.com. In turn, they’ll register your name and get it published to the DNS. That way, people can find you when they search your name on the Internet.
Of course, there’s a fee to maintain your registration, charged annually, though you can register in advance, for up to 10 years. We recommend that you pay for as many years as you are comfortable with (prices seem to be going up these past few years anyway.) Remember–if your registration lapses, users won’t be able to access anything using your name. Not just your web site, but your email as well. And if it lapses for too long, it can be expensive to reclaim it and eventually someone else could snatch it up.
Also, make sure the registration is in your name, not the the developer’s. We hear horror stories all the time about companies that are stuck. They can’t change something about their web site because a developer “owns” their domain and they either went out of business or want to charge for those changes. So, make sure you protect yourself, here.
We talked a little bit about how a web browser connects to a server.
In addition to that basic mechanism used in most web requests, there is a second mechanism called SSL (“Secure Socket Layer”) that’s used when the web browser needs to guarantee the authenticity of the remote web server. Additionally, SSL protects all the information transmitted between the web browser and the server from being snooped on.
If your web site deals with financial or private information, your web server must support the SSL protocol.
What that means, is that you must purchase an SSL Certificate and have it installed on your web server.
Since this is a similar process to registering a domain name, it’s very likely your Domain Name Registrar also sells SSL Certificates. In addition, there are a number of companies that specialize and just sell SSL Certificates.
As we mentioned before, a web server is simply a computer running specialized software, and your web site is made of files that the software hands out to web browsers.
These systems can range from the trivial (returning a document) to very complex (accessing a third party database and coordinating it with a user’s information.)
Let’s take a look at these systems in order, from most basic to most complex:
A static web site consists of documents marked up with special notation known as HTML (HyperText Markup Language), and those documents are sent directly to a user’s web browser. The web browser knows how to interpret the HTML notation, so the document can include images, sound, and links to other documents, which are then translated into a complete web page.
It’s important to note that static sites are difficult to edit, since you must know HTML. If you don’t, you’ll need the support of a web developer to manage future web site updates.
CMS (Content Management System)
A Content Management System makes updating a website easy. If you’re comfortable working in an app like Word, you’ll most likely be able to modify the content of your site.
A CMS does this by separating the design and structure of the site from the site’s content. The combination of visual design and structure is usually referred to as a “template” or “theme.”
The words and pictures (“content”) of your site, that you can edit through the CMS, are then merged into the template to create the final web pages.
Some CMSs also offer tools that allow you to modify the design and structure of your site.
In a future post, we’ll take a look at some of the most popular, off-the-shelf CMS products and help you select the one that’s right for you.
If your needs extend beyond editing the content of your site, then you’ve entered the realm of custom software.
In most cases, your developer will extend or modify an existing CMS system.
In other cases, your developer will use an established programming “framework” to provide many of the basic functions your project requires.
In rare cases, your developer with create a site “from scratch.” But even these “scratch” web sites will often incorporate third-party modules to ease the development and support of your site, while reducing development costs.
If you sell anything on the web, then you will need some sort of eCommerce solution. This can be as simple as a PayPal “Buy Now” button or as complicated as an integrated inventory management and shipping system.
Developing an effective eCommerce site is an involved process, so we’ll cover eCommerce, Merchant Accounts, and Payment Gateways in an upcoming article.
“Content is King,” as the saying goes.
If your site doesn’t say anything, it’s unlikely anyone will visit it.
So, part of the planning for your web site should include a plan to create the initial content of your site and an ongoing plan to keep the content current. In fact, we highly recommend that content development comes first in the web development process. This is the information that will illustrate your development needs and provide direction to your web designer.
We’ll also be writing about this in the future. Content is so important, and is ever changing, so stay tuned for updates from time to time.
Keep it Going
Much like any other part of your business, you will have to perform periodic maintenance on your web site. Some of these important, recurring needs include:
Keep your web site current and product information up-to-date is key. Also, routinely refreshing your site with new content will encourage return visits from your audience and win you favor with the search engines, increasing your rankings and visibility.
At the very least, you’ll have to pay to keep your hosting account active.
You’ll want to know if your web site is working and performing. Is anyone even visiting your site? This is where Analytics come into play; a topic we’ll explore in more depth shortly.
You’ll need to keep your registration active. Registering for multiple years and setting the account to lock the domain from transfer and to auto-renew will help ensure that you keep your name.
If you have one, you will need to keep your Certificate active and current. Without it, users will not be able to access your site using secure protocols.
Build or Buy?
You can hire a developer to build your site, or you can subscribe to a service that does it all.
Services such as SquareSpace, WordPress.com, and Shopify provide software, hosting, and management all in one product.
Each has their strengths and weaknesses, but all are good solutions. Like all tools, the way to use and manage them is the critical factor in success.
Unlike a house, there will be no previous owner who broke the heater, but there will be a history of previous users who shaped the design choices of the developers.
If you need a highly customized site or you need to include unusual features, then you should hire a developer to help you put together a custom solution.
The fine folks at GeekBeat.TV interviewed their web developer and it’s a video well worth your time.
We’re on the Internet
So getting your company “on the Internet” isn’t as simple as a Yellow Page listing. Even the simplest site needs to have a name, hosting, and regular content updates.
And, like other forms of marketing or promotion, your web site will have some costs associated with it–even if you tackle the work yourself.
It is a worthwhile process, however, and I hope this post has helped you gain an understanding of the pieces needed to complete your web development puzzle.