A Guide to Starting a Website

The web and Internet are becoming an integral part of the lives of more and more people each year across age, social-economic and geographic boundaries, however, there still exists very little understanding among general users of the web on how the web actually works. For those who do not make their living designing and developing websites and applications, the web is like a microwave oven; you know what buttons to push to make it work but you do not know how to build one.

While creating a website is not as complicated as building a microwave oven, the web landscape does change more quickly than microwave oven technology. Small businesses and non-profit organizations may not have someone with a web skill set in their organization to do their website development. In addition, attempting to figure out how to create a website can be difficult when you do not know where to start. A lot of the information out there, both in books and on the web, is outdated and not accurate for today’s and tomorrow’s websites. So how do you find the right path to a modern website that will stand out and allow you to compete against the largest competitors?

I believe that the first step to your success is creating a website plan. The following four items are critical to creating a plan that you, and anyone you involve along the way, can follow to a successful completion.

Have a Purpose

The first question you must ask yourself is what purpose the site should serve. So many people either overlook this question or provide the answer “to be on the web”. Ten years ago, that may have been an acceptable, albeit unmotivated, answer. Today you need to have a better understanding of what your site is to accomplish to compete. If it is a dedicated on-line business, then the purpose is obvious, but more detail must be developed (mapped out) for your site to succeed. For brick-and-mortar stores creating or updating a web presence, you need a list of goals, such as expanding your geographic customer base, connecting with existing customers, or launching a new product division. Even for a personal site, be it a blog, photoblog or other personal site, there should be a purpose for the site established so that the site does not drift aimlessly while you figure out what you want.

Have a Budget

Knowing the budget for the site is also very important. This will determine the scope and ambition of the site. A more limited budget may require some planned features to be cut.

The budget contains two components, site management and site development, both of which can have initial start up costs and ongoing recurring costs.

Site management consists of the purchase of the domain name for the site and host charges. Most management charges are recurring and will be continuous charges as long as you want to keep the site. Domain names are not really purchased, but leased. Domain name term lengths can be for as little as one year and for as many as ten years. Purchasing years in advance usually provides a discount and gives the convenience of not having to renew as often, but it does require a larger outlay of cash at start up. Hosting charges consist of the cost of renting space from a host for the website. This includes space for the web pages, any databases needed and mail accounts and files. Hosts will normally charge on a monthly basis with potential discounts for pre-payment. Host charges are also recurring for as long as you keep the site. You may also decide to pay someone to maintain your host account for you or to perform these duties yourself. This consists of administrating backups, installed applications, upgrades, logs and traffic statistics among other things.

Site development involves the creation of the website or pages themselves. This may involve a designer, developer or both. These charges can be avoided if you take on these roles yourself, which is certainly possible using open source applications for even the most novice person with a little advice, reading and dedication. Deciding to outsource this job will result in some start-up costs for development and potentially ongoing costs if regular updates are required. My recommendation is that anyone looking for site development help should seek out someone willing to setup a content management system. This, in most cases, will usually be cheaper that what many companies charge for simple static content template sites and puts the power of updates in your hands, relieving you from paying ongoing costs for updates.

Have a Plan

Your high-level plan should include the site requirements necessary to meet your purpose and the timing around implementing the site. Based on budget, resources and time your site may be implemented in phases or all at once. For instance, you may be able to implement your site requirements with an established content management system right from the start. That may be only the first phase, however, with the addition of more intensive phases such as integrated product gallery or an e-business component to come later as resources and budget allows.

The time spent defining the exact requirements and order of implementation is not only important for organizing your needs and “nice to haves”, but it is critical for seeing the overall size of the project and understanding the preliminary work required before any site work is even attempted. This includes having all the copy and images for the site prepared as well as planning all of the site design and interface. This detailed pre-work is the most forgotten piece of planning I see on sites. Usually when faced with such quantities of work clients want to either quit or cut corners. Hastily throwing the content of the site together will reveal itself in the success of the site as content is the most important component of a website.

Have (the proper) Expectations

Another common fantasy I have encountered in many individuals and small businesses is that anyone can create a website with very little effort and watch the money roll in. This is a fallacy in two ways.

First, there is a lot of effort required to create a site and most of that work falls on the site owner. You need to be deeply involved with defining your site’s purpose, planning the requirements and design of the site and creating much of the content for the site. Completing this work yourself or having a professional enhance and perfect your plan may take more time, but your understanding of what works for you and what does not will show in the result. Do not expect your designer or site manager to produce content for you; that is not their expertise. They are not familiar with your business or your inner vision for the site.

Second, expectations of becoming an Internet millionaire overnight should be shelved. Your goals should be realistic, starting with the number of visitors your site will receive and how fast your traffic will grow. These realistic goals should be tied to your purpose as well. If you want your site to provide an informational resource to a limited audience of cactus growers, then you should not be disappointed when less than a million visitors a month visit the site.

Finally, the work never ends. To meet your goals and keep your site fresh and growing it will constantly need effort on your part. This may be in the form of new content or new features/products being added. Listen to your visitors and customers and implement their suggestions, if possible. Where you can take your site is only limited by your imagination and time.

Conclusion

So starting a website is a lot of work, whether you do it yourself or hire someone for design, development and management. Deciding on your purpose, budget, plan and expectations can help keep you focused on the path to your goals. There are no short cuts to success, but an experienced web professional can accelerate the process with their background knowledge instead of researching it yourself.