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Have a Plan & Find a Host

Now that you've decided it's time to get your business online, start by mapping out your plan of attack. Once that's done, your next step is to find a web hosting company.

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If you're really serious about the success of your business, launching a website is probably one of the most critical moves you can make. Every business needs one. Every retailer, restaurant, accountant, consultant, jewelry designer and auto repair shop needs to be available on the internet today--it's where your customers expect to find you.

If you're ready to take your business to the next level with a website, our 60-step guide can get you there faster. Let's get started.

1. Decide exactly what type of site you'll have. The starting point for putting up a website is to determine exactly what you want it to do--and know what it likely won't do. At the very least, you need a site that provides information so that customers, potential employees, business partners and perhaps even investors can quickly and easily find out more about your business and the products or services you have to offer. If you've already got a brick-and-mortar location or a mail order business, you're probably thinking about including e-commerce capabilities on your site. Or maybe your site is your business--you're going to launch a web-only operation and become a netpreneur. Choose wisely, because the type of site you select will have a serious effect on your bottom line.

2. Create a basic site map. Before you can even start thinking about choosing a web host or getting a domain name, you've got to determine exactly what information you want to include on your site. So make a list of the pages you think your site should include, such as:

  • An "About Us" page, including a company history and background information on the business and the owners or management team
  • A "Contact Us" page, including a street address, phone number(s), fax number, e-mail address, and directions to your location, including a map
  • News and announcements, including recent press releases and updated product or service enhancements
  • Customer support, including product information, troubleshooting help and FAQs
  • Product information, including in-depth product or service descriptions, prices and photos
  • Employment opportunities

3. Gather your materials. Before you can even start thinking about choosing a web host or getting a domain name, you've got to determine exactly what information you want to include on your site. When deciding what your site will contain, it's important to keep in mind that when customers visit your site, they'll want information--and they'll want it to be easily accessible. If they can't find what they're looking for, they can get frustrated pretty quickly and leave, or worse--they could wind up looking to one of your competitors for what they need. To help you plot out your site, it'll help if you:

  • collect your existing marketing materials, including brochures, fliers and newsletters,
  • scan your company logo in to your computer,
  • gather product photos and descriptions of your products and services, including pricing information,
  • pull together information for your "Contact Us" and "About Us" pages, organize any recent press releases, and
  • use a mapping tool to gather driving directions to and a map of your location.

4. Set your budget. Before you do anything else, determine how much money you're able--and willing--to spend on your site, taking into account both set-up, design, and maintenance or upgrades. Should you build and maintain your business website yourself or pay someone to do it for you? To determine the answer, ask yourself these questions: Is building and maintaining websites the key focus of your business? Could your time be better spent doing more important things like running your business? If your answers were no and yes, respectively, then you have no business building and maintaining a website. And remember, every minute you spend focusing on tasks that don't contribute to the growth of your business and thereby increase your bottom line is time wasted.

Many business owners think they can't afford a professionally designed website, but that simply isn't true. There are numerous options out there when it comes to web resources, options that range anywhere from free to "this is going to cost you a pretty penny" and everything in between. Sit down with a pad and a calculator and add up just what you need. Some of your choices include a domain name, a web host, a web designer, a fulfillment company and technical support staff. Then get on the web and do your research to figure out just what these resources cost and how much you can afford to pay. The worst thing you could do is to go into this new venture blind and come out in the red.

5. Determine your "human" resources. Once you know how much you can afford to spend, you need to take a look at your skills and those of your employees and see if there's anyone you already have working for you who can help you--or learn to help you--create and maintain your site. Just because you don't have a technical person on staff now doesn't mean one of your existing employees couldn't learn the necessary skills. While you may still need to hire a designer to create your site from scratch and a web solutions provider to host and service your site, you may be able to have someone on staff update your site, such as when you upgrade products, change prices, add products, or need simple text changed. If there's no one on staff to do it, then you'll need to take this into consideration when hiring a designer or web host.

Finding a Web Host

Once you've mapped out your plan, it's time to start searching for a web host. And whether you're just looking for a provider to host your site or you want a company that will be able to provide you with all the bells and whistles to get your business online, whoever you select will have a big impact on your customers' web experience. Use these tips to help you choose wisely.

6. Getting something for free shouldn't be your top priority. You could use the free space that comes with your ISP account--all providers, from AOL to EarthLink, offer users at least some space as part of the basic package of services. Frankly, though, this space is rarely suited to running a business. Servers are slow during peak traffic hours, and domain names can be cumbersome. This space may be great for putting up test pages and fiddling with a site before you are ready to go live, but when you want to get down to business, you will need a dedicated host.

7. Be ready to grill the candidates. Choosing the right host can be tricky. Thousands of services charge countless fees, make all sorts of promises and raise seemingly endless questions. To help you choose one that'll get the job done, here are the key questions to ask and the answers to insist on:

  • How reliable is their service? You know how important reliability is when it comes to dealing with your customers. Make sure you find a web solutions provider that knows that, too. Uptime, the amount of time your website is up and running and viewable online, is a great measure of reliability. Don't settle for anything less than 99.9 percent uptime. Also, ask what your potential provider does to protect your website data. Regular data backups are an absolute necessity.
  • What kind of performance do they offer? An ideal host has one or more T3 lines connected directly to the internet, not through someone else's network operations center. Servers should be fast, running Windows NT, Linux or another mainstream, high-performance operating system. Let your host know if you plan to use bandwidth-gobbling features like streaming audio and video. And know who you share space with. If other businesses on your server experience large spikes in traffic, you could suffer.
  • How good is their support? In an online world of bits and bytes, it's still people who make things happen. Look for 24/7 phone support available from a live person. Then check it. Call or e-mail the tech support line at 9 p.m. on a Sunday and expect it to be answered. You can't afford to wait hours on hold or days for an e-mail response. When it comes to your business, you need to be able to handle your web solutions on your own schedule.
  • What will it cost? Entry-level service with a single domain name, 20MB hard-drive space, e-mail service and up to 1GB of monthly data transfer (which may also be expressed as hits) should cost no more than $50. Additional services will go up in price accordingly.
  • How do they handle security? Passwords should be required to control the host and manage or modify your site. All files should be backed up daily. Always look for a host that offers secure transactions.
  • How much control will you have? You want to be able to use a variety of background applications, including custom CGI scripts and online forms tailored for your business. Otherwise, you won't be able to design a site that really meets your needs.
  • Can they handle the technology you're using? If your site's software runs on Microsoft Internet Information Server under Windows NT, look for a host that supports that configuration. Personal referrals help, too. Ask your software company if they know of any good hosts.

8. It's not just about having a place to park your website. Look beyond the basics to see what extras a host offers. Free domain registrations, transfers and renewals are great bonuses with a year-long contract. An e-mail solution as part of your hosting package will give your communications a professional edge that's a must for businesses today, since it allows you to use your own business's name instead of one from a free e-mail provider like Yahoo!. And be sure the e-mail package comes with virus and spam protection to help keep your company safe. Search engine submission is another helpful feature to look for. Finally, look for a web host that can give you statistics tools. Those can help you monitor your website's performance and find out information like where your visitors are coming from and at what times your site is busiest.

9. Find a provider that can grow with your business. Your website might start out as a basic informational site, but you could decide you want to sell your products online or want to offer more advanced services to your customers. Check out what packages and services a host offers. You should be able to move up to more sophisticated packages as your business needs increase. Look for the availability of e-commerce services and more advanced e-mail services that can handle your customer and employee growth as needed.

10. Kick the tires. Actually comparing hosts can be difficult, so a good policy is to quietly set up an account and test the host for several weeks before announcing your presence to the world. Isn't that expensive? You bet, when setup fees are factored in. But more expensive--and embarrassing--is to make a big push for traffic, only to have your host drop the ball and leave you with cranky visitors who cannot quite make it in. Better to know your host is operating smoothly before inviting guests to the party.