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Should You Buy a Prepackaged Website?

It's a great way to get started quickly, but you need to understand what you're buying.

The small-business website seems to be one of the simplest things to launch today. Everywhere you turn, companies are giving you what appears to be the perfect website for a startup. It's like walking into Ikea and buying a bookshelf: All you need to do is put it together. Seems simple enough, but before you buy an off-the-shelf website, understand what you're buying and what you need for your business.

Take a moment to sketch out what you need from your website. Today's websites are more than just online brochures, and the first thing to do is outline what you need from your website. Here are few features you may want to think about when creating your list of needs:

Content Control
We all want to control content on our websites and be able to add and edit text. How flexible do you need the text control to be on your website? Do you have special features in mind for working with your website content? Are you concerned about the number of pages? Will you be starting with five pages today, but grow the site to 15 or 20 pages in the next few months?

Design and Layout
Do you have an idea about how you want your website to look and work? Do you want your website to have a navigation bar at the top of your webpage, the side or both? Are you hoping to have some pages with a layout that is in one color and a separate section in another color? Some template services only allow one theme, so this is an important question.

Online Forms
Do you need your website to collect information through online forms? Will you need more than one form on your website? Where will you want these forms? For example, will you want the web from to be apart of the design like a price quote or only on the contact page?

Audio/Video
Will your website be providing audio or video? Do you have the know-how to code these items for the web, or do you need your website application to help with this service? Do you know how large your average file size on your video will be? Some applications limit uploads over certain sizes.

Sales
Are you planning to sell online? How many products? Do you want your website to have all the tools needed to collect credit cards securely? Do you want to show two or three views of your product? Do you want exact shipping costs calculated based on your products' weights? Will you need your website to provide the orders to a third-party fulfillment company or distribution center?

There are many questions here, and many more you should ask yourself. By taking the time to outline your needs now, you can know what you're shopping for in a website application provider. Think of it like making a grocery list before you go food shopping: If you don't have it on the list you may forget it, and then get distracted by the other things on the shelf. Buying off the shelf means knowing what tools you need that application to provide. This outline will also prepare you to review set-up costs and monthly budget.

When you use an existing application, you're essentially borrowing it. The design and function doesn't belong to you. You provide the images, video and content but the application is licensed to your business.

Evaluating Web Applications
Now that you have your list, you can go shopping find the prepackaged tools that fit your needs. Start by reviewing magazine articles, blogs and support pages. These resources will provide you with expert reviews, customer feedback and a realistic expectation about support. Most applications provide a test drive, but until you really use something you never know what it's missing. The support pages or knowledge bases on web applications will tell you about issues, past bugs and open items. Another great place to start understanding the application you may be interested in are the customer forums. Not all applications offer this type of community, but those that do are giving you a great place to look around and see what they and other customers do to support one another. Remember: A website uses technology and with new browsers and upgrades things can change. Be aware of how they handle change.

Read the Fine Print
It's not really fine print: The terms of service agreement on every website application tool is open and available for review at any time. Take a few moments to read through this agreement because you'll have to check that box before you work with the company. Outlined on the service agreement page are the acceptable use policies, fees, licensing agreement and copyrights. It will also outline the company's policies regarding protection against fraud.

Once you've found an application that meets most of your needs, recognize that a web application will never be perfect. Buying off the shelf means cost-effective, and with this decision you're telling yourself that's the priority. Perfect means custom, and that's a different journey with a different budget. When you're starting out or growing, "compromise" is a word every business owner comes to know. When buying a website in a box, you'll find the right solution for your budget if you understand it's a compromise that will lead you to a successful tomorrow.

Jennifer Shaheen, the e-marketing and Technology Therapist, has more than 10 years experience working with small- to mid-sized businesses on their e-marketing and web development needs. You can learn more about her by visiting her web site, TechnologyTherapy.com

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