Build a Website for Less Than $500

You don't have to delay launch because you can't afford a web developer. Do it yourself!

Who isn't operating on a tight budget these days? With business owners worried about everything from consumer spending to taxes, entrepreneurs in this country need to cut costs everywhere they can to maintain their success and save for rainy days. But nothing can stop a budding entrepreneur--and watch out for one who has an idea! Sometimes the first thing we need is to test a market or get a web presence and determine what kind of customer base we will have once we get off the ground. In other cases, entrepreneurs have had successful brick-and-mortar stores and now need to expand online to increase sales and business.

So what can an entrepreneur do for $500? More than one might think. While you may not get a full blown e-commerce store, there are many things you can do (including selling products) for $500 or less. Here are some ways to get started. I turned to web architect and designer Phillip Hollowell, owner of PS Web Design Studio , for advice.

First, you need a domain name. This needs to reflect your business name, be a catchy name or--well, think outside the box. Google is a household name, but how many people know what it means? Once you come up with a list of potential names, Hollowell recommends checking inexpensive sites like godaddy.com to see if their corresponding domain name is available. Buying a name from someone else could cost you quite a bit of money, so you'll need one that's available for registration. That's easy to check at sites that let you register a domain. For example, godaddy is as inexpensive as $10.69, and other sites offer deals, too. While you're at it, don't forget to web-search for coupons.

After you have your domain, you have to host your site somewhere. Hostgator.com lets you host for as little as $6.95 per month--but if you really wanted to, you could host your site on a small server at your home office or small-business location on a computer until you see if the business takes off. Don't forget to check the provider's homepage as they often post discount coupons there.

Now you have to move on to content. Content is king, right? Many people think that a Web 2.0 site for les than $500 isn't possible, but it is. Web 2.0 really just means that your users are part of the online community and participate--it's all about the interaction now and providing valuable insight for your customers and a place for them to network with one another.

To start creating content, you can hire a web designer, but you may exceed your budget. Hollowell suggests a Content Management System like Joomla , WordPress or Drupal . You can go to joomla.org and learn how to create sites yourself and save $300 to $500 in monthly updates, too. After you learn how to install a CMS onto your hosted location, you will want to find a low-cost template that you like. Check out templatemonster.com , which charges an average of $55 to $65 per template. Be sure that you search based on the type of CMS you choose--for instance, WordPress templates won't work on Joomla and vice-versa.

Here is where it gets a bit trickier. By now, you may have spent $100 and you still need to edit the template to suit your needs. For instance, the pages will need to be set up so that you can manage them later, and content needs to be added and modules set up for use as you build your site and add to it later on. If you hire a web developer with Search Engine Optimization knowledge, Hollowell recommends entertaining only those quotes that are flat project-based and beware of offshore "developers" (you may not ever see your money again--or your website). The going price for basic content setup would be $300 to $400 for a six-page site.

What now? Take some time to learn to do updates. Learn how to optimize your website for Google and other search engines by looking at YouTube videos and reading blogs and forums about SEO. Is it advantageous to spend thousands of dollars to truly optimize your site? Possibly; but you can start now and do a lot of the work on your own. Today, search engines look at much more than just metadata. They look at everything from tags to video clips to what words are on your web page.

What about integration? Here are some things to consider. All of the CMS systems that are mentioned here have lots of free and very inexpensive ($20 or less) tools and modules online (a quick web search will give you literally hundreds) to let you integrate Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, RSS feeds, contact us pages, community pages and--yes--even storefronts for just a few bucks. If you don't have a merchant account, you can set up PayPal and accept PayPal with just a bit of inexpensive integration that's all controlled through the CMS control panel (which you'll learn all about from the free videos).

What else should you integrate for free? Your blog allows users to register on your site and create accounts to engage with others and quick and easy ways for website visitors to tell others about the great things they found on your site. Examples of sites where you can find great tools for free, or at least trial use before you buy, are http://extensions.joomla.org/ or http://www.bestofjoomla.com/ for joomla. For WordPress, go to http://wordpress.org/extend/ and for Drupal, go to http://drupal.org/project . Integrate YouTube videos where you show others how to do something, and add anything else you can dream up. Be sure to ask your customers what they want, too. If you have a brick-and-mortar store, it might be appointment requests or special notifications about sales. The best ideas often come from the people we are trying to serve.

Some final words of advice: Test your site before you launch it. This includes testing security features and investing in a Secure Socket Layer certificate for secure processing of transactions if you are going to sell products or services online. If you go with a higher grade of hosting such as the Business Account that Hostgator offers, you can actually save on the annual cost of an SSL certificate because it's included in the monthly hosting package price of $14.95. Once you've tested it yourself, ask a few friends and colleagues to test out the site and look for bugs and typographical errors to make sure your site is as clean as possible before launch. When you do launch it, make sure you have a set "launch date" and have everyone you know tweet about it, create a Facebook fan page and a Facebook group page, and use social media as much as possible to tell the world about your new website.

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