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.

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

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

1. Decide exactly what type of site you'll have. Thestarting point for putting up a website is to determine exactlywhat you want it to do--and know what it likely won't do. Atthe very least, you need a site that provides information so thatcustomers, potential employees, business partners and perhaps eveninvestors can quickly and easily find out more about your businessand the products or services you have to offer. If you'vealready got a brick-and-mortar location or a mail order business,you're probably thinking about including e-commercecapabilities on your site. Or maybe your site is yourbusiness--you're going to launch a web-only operation andbecome a netpreneur. Choose wisely, because the type of site youselect will have a serious effect on your bottom line.

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

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

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

  • 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 andservices, 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 ofyour location.

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

Many business owners think they can't afford aprofessionally designed website, but that simply isn't true.There are numerous options out there when it comes to webresources, options that range anywhere from free to "this isgoing 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 webdesigner, a fulfillment company and technical support staff. Thenget on the web and do your research to figure out just what theseresources cost and how much you can afford to pay. The worst thingyou could do is to go into this new venture blind and come out inthe red.

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

Finding a Web Host
Once you've mapped out your plan, it's time to startsearching for a web host. And whether you're just looking for aprovider to host your site or you want a company that will be ableto provide you with all the bells and whistles to get your businessonline, whoever you select will have a big impact on yourcustomers' web experience. Use these tips to help you choosewisely.

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

7. Be ready to grill the candidates. Choosing the righthost 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 thekey questions to ask and the answers to insist on:

  • How reliable is their service? You know how importantreliability is when it comes to dealing with your customers. Makesure you find a web solutions provider that knows that, too.Uptime, the amount of time your website is up and running andviewable online, is a great measure of reliability. Don'tsettle for anything less than 99.9 percent uptime. Also, ask whatyour potential provider does to protect your website data. Regulardata backups are an absolute necessity.
  • What kind of performance do they offer? An ideal hosthas one or more T3 lines connected directly to the internet, notthrough someone else's network operations center. Serversshould be fast, running Windows NT, Linux or another mainstream,high-performance operating system. Let your host know if you planto use bandwidth-gobbling features like streaming audio and video.And know who you share space with. If other businesses on yourserver experience large spikes in traffic, you could suffer.
  • How good is their support? In an online world of bitsand bytes, it's still people who make things happen. Look for24/7 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 andexpect it to be answered. You can't afford to wait hours onhold or days for an e-mail response. When it comes to yourbusiness, you need to be able to handle your web solutions on yourown schedule.
  • What will it cost? Entry-level service with a singledomain name, 20MB hard-drive space, e-mail service and up to 1GB ofmonthly data transfer (which may also be expressed as hits) shouldcost no more than $50. Additional services will go up in priceaccordingly.
  • How do they handle security? Passwords should berequired to control the host and manage or modify your site. Allfiles should be backed up daily. Always look for a host that offerssecure transactions.
  • How much control will you have? You want to be able touse a variety of background applications, including custom CGIscripts and online forms tailored for your business. Otherwise, youwon't be able to design a site that really meets yourneeds.
  • Can they handle the technology you're using? If yoursite's software runs on Microsoft Internet Information Serverunder Windows NT, look for a host that supports that configuration.Personal referrals help, too. Ask your software company if theyknow of any good hosts.

8. It's not just about having a place to park yourwebsite. Look beyond the basics to see what extras a hostoffers. Free domain registrations, transfers and renewals are greatbonuses with a year-long contract. An e-mail solution as part ofyour hosting package will give your communications a professionaledge that's a must for businesses today, since it allows you touse your own business's name instead of one from a free e-mailprovider like Yahoo!. And be sure the e-mail package comes withvirus and spam protection to help keep your company safe. Searchengine submission is another helpful feature to look for. Finally,look for a web host that can give you statistics tools. Those canhelp you monitor your website's performance and find outinformation like where your visitors are coming from and at whattimes your site is busiest.

9. Find a provider that can grow with your business. Yourwebsite might start out as a basic informational site, but youcould decide you want to sell your products online or want to offermore advanced services to your customers. Check out what packagesand services a host offers. You should be able to move up to moresophisticated packages as your business needs increase. Look forthe availability of e-commerce services and more advanced e-mailservices that can handle your customer and employee growth asneeded.

10. Kick the tires. Actually comparing hosts can bedifficult, so a good policy is to quietly set up an account andtest the host for several weeks before announcing your presence tothe world. Isn't that expensive? You bet, when setup fees arefactored in. But more expensive--and embarrassing--is to make a bigpush for traffic, only to have your host drop the ball and leaveyou with cranky visitors who cannot quite make it in. Better toknow your host is operating smoothly before inviting guests to theparty.

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