The local on-line presence situation
A few years ago business owners did not consider the setting up of a website as a priority, mainly due to their market being a local one and many people just used to call or go to their shops and offices to see what services they offered. However, this scene in the last years started to change a lot.
Nowadays, people are searching for products and services they have interest in on the Internet, where they can easily compare several offers from different competitors, and then make the decision from home, and only after deciding going to the business for buy or order the service or product.
Also, by using a website, you are opening a window to the International Market. People from all over the world can easy see information about your products and services and purchase online. This gives local businesses the chance to increase dramatically their markets.
How to start
For micro to small enterprises, I suggest, at a minimum, to establish a web presence even with a simple site, that can consist of 5 to 6 pages, describing the company, what services or products are offered, a way how to receive feedback back, regularly updated news regarding new products or services, and other company related information.
For medium to large enterprises, or any business, that wish to provide a substantial amount of information available from the website, I do recommend the use of a content management system, which will organise all information in a way that is easily categorised, updated and searched.
Any business that wants to sell its range of products and/or services on-line, an E-Commerce system is a must. An E-Commerce system can be classified into two general categories:
- A bespoke solution, where the entire system is developed from scratch for your particular needs. This will offer you the highest level of customisation, enabling you to decide what features you want and how you want the system to process information.The disadvantage is that it can be quite expensive to produce.
- A customised, off the shelf, solution, is the ideal solution almost for everyone. An off the shelf solution will come with several features, which can be customised according to the customer requirements.
New features can be added, or existing features can be removed. The cost of implementing this system is very low when compared to a bespoke solution.
When you decide to do a website, you should first sit down and think for what you actually need it, what are you hoping to obtain from it.
Then, with a clear idea in your head, you can contact your web design agency of choice, and start planning your website project. When you meet with who will take care of your website project, do not> hesitate to ask any questions you might have.
What you will get at the end of the project must be clearly written and agreed prior to starting the project. This will avoid any problems at the end. You need to consider important aspects, such as how you are going to update the website. Are you going to sub-contract the updates to the web design agency, or are you going to do them yourself? In each case, you need to have clearly defined this prior to starting. If you are going to do the updates yourself, the agency should provide you with a minimal content management system, that is a system where you can log-in and make the updates through a simple to use on-line interface from your browser. If the agency is going to take care of your updates, define the costs and how fast the updates will be done.
You as the client must be highly involved in the decision making activities during the course of the project development. There must be a clear channel of communication between you and the project manager, so you are always informed what is happening. You should have access to several prototypes which you will check and approve before any work is continued. This will avoid the duplication of work, and a more satisfying product at the end.
Before the website is launched, it is a must to test it in different browsers, running in different operating systems, using different resolutions and colour depths. This type of testing would normally be carried out twice by the web design agency, the first time on the prototype and the second time just before launching the website.
Once the website is launched, it should be monitored closely to see how it is performing. Feedback from the customers is very important, and would be the ultimate judgment of the project!
One must note that the process of having a website requires regular maintenance work for the website to be successful. It must be updated regularly with the latest information and latest products and services that you provide. If you stop provide a service, or stop sell a product, update the website to reflect the changes done.
A launch of a new product should have a prominent place on the website, so that your customers are updated with the news and will be able to purchase the new product from you.
Prices also should be updated. There are many websites that still have prices in Maltese lira, and do not have plans to update them. Remember that since Malta is going to introduce the Euro, we are moving in a stage where every business must display dual-pricing, in Maltese Liri and in Euro. This is valid also for the website, not only for your display window in the shop. So, do make the necessary updates!
The fresh look
Regular appearance updates are also welcome, giving the website that fresh look. If you do have an old website, I recommend that you consider a website re-design to give it a new look. There are many local businesses that have set up a website years ago, and just left it there with no updates and how it was.
This is just a plain loss of money with no or minimal return on investment, apart from the fact that you will be giving a bad image of your company to the customers that see your old, not updated website.
Here we are dealing with a technical subject that for many people is a little bit difficult to understand clearly everything. The project manager will try to use the less jargon possible, however, for the correct explanation of the entire process some technical aspects will need to be covered, and you need to understand them in order to follow on. It is the job of the project manager to explain any technical details to you in a way that you can easily understand them without losing any time.
Once your website is ready, you need a place where to store it so that it is accessible from the Internet. This process is called hosting of a website. There are various ways how this can be implanted:
- Having a web server at your company premises. This is the most expensive of the options, because you will need at least multiple, fast, internet connections, power back up, and the hardware necessary to operate a web server, such as routers, firewall, a minimum of 2 web servers with a fail over system, and a regular backup system. However, this will give you the maximum flexibility.You will have total control over the resources and maximum security. This is ideal for very high demanding websites which offer a large quantity of information and generate very high traffic, or for websites that require a level of security only offered by in-house hosting.
- Another option is purchasing or leasing a web server (known as dedicated server hosting), and storing it in a data centre. This will also give you a high level of flexibility and customization, at a drastically reduced cost. This is the most feasible solution for high traffic websites.
- Virtual Private/Dedicated servers are increasing dramatically in popularity. Although in Malta they are still not very popular, in the International hosting market they are now one of the most popular services.A VPS/VDS as they are commonly called, is basically the process of using virtualisation to run several instances of an operating system on a single physical server. In return, you will have several ‘virtual’ servers. Each virtual server will act exactly as a normal dedicated server.The difference is that the resources of the physical server will be split by the number of virtual machines running on it. Virtualisation is used also where you have a number of physical servers that are not being used to their full potential, and consolidating them into one physical server will bring reduced costs.
- Shared Hosting is the most popular form of hosting. Several websites will be stored on a single web server, all sharing the same physical server resources. This is a very good option for small websites that do not require high bandwidth or space, and do not need any special features.The cost of shared hosting is very low. However, you need to take care where you host. It is important that your hosting provider offers a very good uptime (minimum of 99.95%), high speeds, and good resources.
- For business use, just forget any free hosting provider. It is very un-professional to have a website hosted for free on your Internet Service Providers system. You should have at least your own domain name (e.g. www.yourname.com.mt) for the website and email@example.com as the format of email addresses.
In case you want to process sensitive information online, such as credit card data, you need to be sure that the hosting provider can give you a static public I.P address, and the ability to install an SSL certificate.
Also, ask in advance how much do these cost, as some hosting providers charge high rates for these. Through the use of SSL, all information sent from the user to the web server will be encrypted.
A static IP address costs around Lm 0.75 to Lm 3 every month, and SSL certificates vary from Lm 10 to Lm 40 for an entry level certificate, up to hundreds every year for better SSL certificates. However, an entry level certificate is generally enough, since it will provide you with the basic need of data encryption.
A waste of resources is doing a website, and nobody can find it. You need to plan how you are going to market your website. This includes both on-line advertising campaigns (Pay per click, Banners, featured articles and more), and off-line advertising, such as newspapers, printed stationary and more. Viral marketing is also widely used in a website marketing campaign. The important things here are planning and monitoring your campaign.
Regular updates, fresh content, and getting quality, relevant websites putting a link to your website are the most important things to do if you want to get a good ranking on search engines like Google or Yahoo. Using these simple three rules, together with a level of search engine optimisation, and your will do excellent.
I hope that you found this article helpful. Being in this industry for over 10 years, I have managed a large quantity of website projects. This article should provide useful information to a business owner in the process of setting up an on-line presence.