Get your business on the Web the easy way

If you want to grow your business effectively in the modern age, no matter what kind of business you are involved in, the Web is a vital component. But how do you go about doing it?

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By  Vijaya George Published  October 29, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|Why must you have an online presence?

Having a presence on the Web allows you to reach out to global audiences and that audience, in turn, to know you and contact you. More travellers, for instance, are booking their tickets, hotel accommodation and tour packages online. If you are a tour operator in the United Arab Emirates, for instance, but have no visibility on the Internet, you will have lost out on an entire population of people who are making their bookings online. The only choices before a surfer are those tour operators that are visible on the Web and no matter how good your services may be offline, the surfer has no chance of hearing about you. In short, as more people look for their information online, it is imperative that you have a presence on the Web as well.

Pointers to develop a successful web site:

Define your objective

Ask yourself some pertinent questions. Why am I going online? Is it because my competitor has a Web site up and running, is it to provide information about my products and services or do I also intend to allow my customers to conduct business transactions online? More importantly, how much capital am I willing to invest in such a project? Based on your response to the above, there are different kinds of Web sites that you can get developed.

A ‘business card’ site is the most basic; it involves just a couple of hours of work and has minimum content on it. The main objective behind such a Web site is merely to have an online presence and allow clients with an interest in your business to contact you. This site could have your logo on it, a brief about your business, products and services, your office timings and contact details including a working e-mail address. Web companies in the business of designing pages for customers will discourage such a site because there is no money to be made from it. If you are a bit Web savvy, you could get the site up yourself or get a freelancer to do the job for a one-time fee and you could take care of the maintenance. It would take you as little as $100 to do the whole site including the domain registration. But be warned, with such little effort, there is likely to be little reward.

Most small-and-medium business companies in the Middle East go for a ‘brochure’ or a ‘mini-catalogue’ kind of web site that has their profile, details of their products, services, contact address, location map and, sometimes, interactive forms as well. For designing such a web site of eight to ten pages, a company such as Cyber Gear (www.cyber-gear.com), for instance, would charge a client a one-time fee of $4000 and an annual maintenance fee of $1600.

Web sites for Giordano Middle East (www.giordano-me.com) and Orient Tours (www.orient-tours-uae.com) have been done in a typical ‘brochure’-like style while Deira City Centre www.deiracitycentre.com) has a couple of add-ons such as a virtual tour of the shopping mall and a link to City Life, a full-fledged e-zine covering lifestyle and shopping trends. While entry-level options cost as little as $4000, applications developed for shopping malls such as virtual tours could raise the fee to a good $8000.

||**||Budget and objective determine site content|~||~||~|Depending on your objective, content can be extended to include current industry news, links to related web sites and so on to create a ‘mini’ portal. Additional content such as interactive discussion forums welcoming people to participate, marketing promotions and so on encourage surfers to visit again.

A lot more expensive would be an e-commerce web site, costing anything between $15,000 and $27,000 for a one-time design if it enables the use of credit cards as the mode of transaction. Take a look at Paragon Capital Management (http://www.pmeuae.com). Unfortunately, the region has few banks with an acquiring facility that allow real-time credit card transactions. In the UAE, the Emirates Bank Group and the National Bank of Dubai are said to have the infrastructure.

Some banks charge a nominal flat rate per transaction while others take a percentage cut. Still, small businesses have not got into e-commerce either due to a lack of awareness of the facilities or because they can’t afford the ongoing maintenance.

E-malls such as 14m.com and uaemall.com offer cash-on-delivery features or ask for your credit card details by fax or online but there is no real-time verification of the credit card number. Some businesses that have been keen on going up on the Web have put up a virtual store at an e-mall or like facility such as Comtrust, an Etisalat initiative.

Others who think e-commerce is a waste of money may want to consider a combination of on and offline transactions and features that will increase traffic to your Web site and create greater awareness of your products among customers.

||**||On choosing a domain name|~||~||~|Choosing a domain name:

Once you have decided on the kind of Web site you want to have and what you hope to get out of it, think of a domain name as well. The Domain Name System (DNS) enables users to find their way around the Internet. The DNS procedure allows us to use a naming system that is easy to remember such as www.yahoo.com.

Most of the short domain names have already been taken or people are cyber-squatting on them. Many companies registered their names early on even if they didn’t do too much with them. If the name you want is already taken, think of one that is short, related to your business, and easy to remember.
Domain names typically end in .com, .net or .org depending on the nature of your business but recently others such as .biz, .info and .name have been registered as well. If you plan to do the registration yourself, ensure that you go to an accredited registrar.

A list of registrars accredited by ICANN (www.icann.org) is available on InterNIC (www.internic.com/regist.html). Domain registration could cost you anything between $15 and $35 annually depending on whom you register with. It would be wise to go with a well-known registrar.
The registrar will ask you to provide contact details and technical information for the registration. Records of the contact and technical information will be submitted by the registrar to a central directory known as the "registry." This registry provides other computers on the Internet the information necessary to send you e-mail or to find your web site. You will also be required to enter into a registration contract with the registrar, which sets forth the terms under which your registration is accepted and will be maintained. If you plan to choose a web solutions company to design and maintain your web site, it should ideally handle your domain registration as well.

||**||On selecting a web-solutions company|~||~||~|Selecting your web-solutions company:

The next step would be to choose a company to develop, maintain, host and market your web site. Let's call such a company a Web consultant. Their one-time fee will usually include registering your domain name as well if you haven't already done it. For an annual charge, most site agents maintain your web site as well. Choose your Web consultant with care. Take a good look at their web site, and how innovative they have been with their own design and content.

If they have a list of clients, go to their respective web sites as well, take a look at the Web features and applications they have developed for their clients and consider some of those that you think might be relevant to fulfilling your own objectives.

Make a clear plan of what content you plan to put up on your web site based on whom you intend to target and what your chief objective is. Remember that even if the information on your web site is going to be similar to a print brochure, you need to find a different way to say it because the medium demands it.

Short, simple and clear language is recommended. Surfers have no patience for reams of verbiage. Stop at a maximum of two scrolls for each web page and avoid cramming it with too much information. If there is a great deal to say, classify them into sub sections, put out a side navigation bar and even out the content.

A white background is often thought to be the friendliest. If you absolutely must have flash, offer an html option as well since the simpler you keep it, the more accessible it will be to more surfers. Businessmen are not always known to have the time to upgrade their browsers and download the latest plug-ins.

They are also not known to come to a site merely for visual delights. Design, no doubt, is absolutely essential but it must not take attention away from the content itself. Information is the key factor that draws surfers back to a site repeatedly. Keep in mind that Content is king.

Regularly-updated information, promotions, contests and freebies are likely to draw large audiences.

Ensure that your web site doesn't take a long while to download. Sharad Agarwal, CEO of Cyber Gear says all employees at his company have standing instructions that no web page should be heavier than 40KB.

||**||On updating and maintaining your web site|~||~||~|Ask your Web consultant to develop a site map first. A site map, at a glance, gives all the information that is going to be there on a site. Take part in the decision-making process. “It’s easier to draw the templates and plan the navigation if we get the site map out of the way,” says Mr. Agarwal.

Make sure to tell your consultant that your web site must work well at least with two of the more popular browsers such as Internet Explorer and Netscape. Sometimes, forms and games that work with Internet Explorer return a blank with Netscape because the consultant has not checked if they work on both.
It is highly recommended that you choose a mode of hosting that will cater to your future needs as well. If you plan to use your web site merely to convey information, any server will do but if you intend to have interactive features such as chat, e-commerce facilities and so on eventually, you'll need a server that supports such features. Your consultant will be able to help with this information.

Building functionality into your web site is a good idea. If your site, for instance, has a hundred pages and a surfer needs to find some information, it may be worthwhile to provide him with a search feature that will allow him to cut the chase and go straight to what he's looking for. He’ll be prompted to come back the next time he wants related information.

If, however, you have a larger operation in mind and are considering getting the web site developed in-house, you may need to hire an IT consultant to arrange connections, host services, set up upload methods, and other network-related tasks, and a designer to design your Web pages. Ensure that your designer has a clear idea of your target audience. Funky pages that take a great deal of time to download will fail to appeal to businessmen while it may go well with teenagers.

Setting deadlines and keeping them

Get your consultant to give you a realistic time frame within which your web site will be ready for launch. Ensure that you give him all the raw material in terms of content, photographs and so on in advance so that he can deliver a quality product.

Make sure he develops and tests everything before he puts it up online.

Ensure that there is somebody to monitor incoming mails and respond to them immediately since one of the basic objectives of going online is to generate more business prospects.

Updating your site and maintaining it:

Getting your web site developed is only half the job done. The other half is an ongoing process, which involves updating your site regularly, monitoring it, repairing broken links, adding new features based on the needs of your clients or audience, marketing it on- and off-line to woo more visitors and ensuring that it is maintained regularly. Most Web consultants agree to maintain your web site for an annual fee but providing them with content such as regular updates and features is your share of the work. Consultants such as Cyber Gear provide content for their clients as well for a nominal sum.

||**||Marketing your web site on- and off-line|~||~||~|Marketing your web site:

You don’t have to think of the most expensive ways of marketing your web site. In some cases, the challenge is to bring visitors to your site on a sustained basis while in others, the idea is to ensure visibility so that clients looking for a business such as yours may spot you when they do a search. Most agents offer to track the demographics of your clients for you. Take it. It will enable you to improve your web site as you go along. Get the company that is developing your web site to register you on all the top search engines as part of the deal and ensure that it gets done. Periodically, take the time to search some of the engines to see if a related search gets you among the top ten web sites. Some search engines don’t appreciate graphics or frames while others are turned off by meta tags that have absolutely no relation to body content. Discuss these issues with your programmer and designer/ Web consultant before getting your site developed.

Those businesses that are in a hurry to get registered with Yahoo may opt for Yahoo’s Express Service, which guarantees that your site will be on within seven business days for a sum of $299. Given that almost 70% of clients who visit Middle East sites come through Yahoo, some businesses opt for Yahoo Express.

A good idea about your target audience will enable you to decide the kind of key words that they are likely to type into a search engine. Use meta tags meaningfully drawing only the audiences that you intend to target. Get help from your consultant on the most skilled way in which to ensure that your web site shows up when searches related to your Web site are made.

Ensure that your Web site is listed in online businesses. Make this a part of the deal.

Go in for banner exchanges. It doesn’t cost anything.

Participate in on-line forums, include your Web address without indulging in any spamming.

Mention your Web site when talking with potential customers.

Offline marketing:

Ensure that all official documents such as business cards, letterheads, product literature and advertisements have your Web and e-mail addresses printed on them.

When you participate in shows and exhibitions, your web address must be displayed on the banners as well. The most expensive would be paying for advertisements in print and Web sites and there’s no guarantee that they are necessarily the most effective.

Having a successful web site is essentially a matter of putting together a winning combination and this happens through a certain amount of trial and error. Keeping your target audience and objective in focus will enable you to make the right decision.||**||

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