The Website

The public increasingly expects a professional to have a website, just as he or she is expected to have a business card. But first it is important to understand why a website is necessary and what can be achieved from it. At a minimum, a website can market your services to a global audience. Additionally, it is an excellent vehicle to sell the company's services over the Internet. Remember to consider what information you want prospects to gather from visiting your website. A well designed website can typically be used to:

• Attract enquiries from potential customers

• Provide better service to customers

• Provide more information about the firm and its services

• Obtain feedback from customers on the company's services

• Recruit staff

• Improve efficiency

Using your website to provide a user with better access to your company can reap great benefits. Clients are happier and receive resolutions to problems quickly, and you can devote more of your time to other critical issues. The list of services you can offer via your website is enormous.

For example, it can include project facts and figures, including projects recently executed, company experience, etc. It can also include clarification regarding your firm's structure—who does what. The site can be used to draw attention to upcoming events or time-sensitive information.

Plan Your Approach

The Internet and your website are just another link to your target audience. You have already been implementing all the necessary steps you need to in your day-to-day business. You now need to translate this to the new medium. Think about the image you want to convey to site visitors, and make sure everything on your site contributes something toward that image. Developing and maintaining a website is no small accomplishment.

But whether you are creating a concept for your website for the very first time or trying to update a current site, make sure you look at your site from the user's point of view. For example, what will site visitors want to know when they log on? If you're working with an existing site, ask clients and prospects what they think of the information offered there. What else would they like to see featured on the site? Know your visitors (or future visitors) and what they want and need. If you're starting from scratch, a quick survey may help determine the answers to these questions. Check out other builder/contracting websites to discover additional services that your peers are providing to users.

For each of the objectives you have set for the company website and yourself, you need to decide:

• Who is the target audience?

• What are you trying to get them to do or obtain from your site?

• What do you need to have on your site to attract prospects to the site in the first place and to come back again? Website content and design are both vital for market success.

• What services do you need to provide on- or off-line to back up your "promise" to your visitors?

• How are you going to promote your website and contents to your target audience?

Setting Up the Website

To set up an acceptable commercial website (as opposed to a personal home page) you need the following:

• A domain name, such as www.mysite.com

• Web space—a home for your website's files, provided by a hosting company

• The website itself—a collection of pages and images, linked together to make a complete site

First, a web address or domain name is needed. There are scores of companies such as www.reg-ister.com and www.dotster.com that let you check that the name desired is available and, if so, register the domain name online. Domain registration is not expensive, and often the domain name will be registered with the same hosting company that provides the web space. Most companies will "park" your name until your website is ready.

Web space is space on a computer owned by a hosting company. It is set up so that anyone who types your domain name into their browser will be connected to your site. There are numerous hosting companies, but some research is needed on the Internet to find one that best serves your needs.

Anyone can put a website together, and it seems that just about everyone does, with greater or lesser success. If you can use a word processor, you can create a website. However, creating a good website is an entirely different matter and requires a lot of thinking and details.

Website Components and Details

The website should articulate the services offered. This may be outlined in a mission or vision statement. When you are starting out on the Internet, you are starting with something close to a clean sheet. The majority of Internet users probably won't actually know who you are. You can project any kind of image that you wish, and, moreover, you can emphasize any particular aspect of the organization that you wish to.

Sit down with some colleagues and some paper and brainstorm until you come up with a series of points that match your organization and what you do or wish to do. Next, you need to match these points to the kind of image you want to portray on your site. Consequently, when it comes time to actually put the site together, you can ignore the flashy graphics and animations and concentrate on guiding the user quickly and effectively to the information that they need. Use your site to display your particular abilities to their best advantage; in other words, play to your strengths.

Corporate image comes into play here as well. You will probably want to make sure that the image on the web pages matches that of the image displayed in other formats and media. However, don't forget that you are starting from scratch, so you have a free hand. It might actually make sense to have some subtle changes on the website; if your corporate color is blue, think about changing to another shade or be radical and go for red! Decide on a theme and stick to it. Use the same logo on your pages, in the same position, in the same size.

Today, it is easier than ever to create a website; you can even do it overnight. With a wealth of tools and options available on the web today, you don't need to be a graphic designer or web developer to capture the basics. Templates are a great way to get started in developing your own website, and you can choose from a variety of simple but attractive designs. There's always room to upgrade, and it's easier than ever to find a unique template so you're not simply imitating another site. No coding is involved— you don't even need to learn HTML.

It is illegal to copy another company's web page, but tracking down a free template is simple: just download it from the internet, and you'll have the framework ready to go. Once you've found the right match, take a look at your options for upgrading and customizing it. Not everyone needs a customized website; if you're looking for standard functions and presentation, you'll find plenty of attractive options on the Internet. After installing the templates using your favorite website builder, you can immediately publish to the web. Figure 12.3 shows an example of a template design that has been modified and that you can find on the Internet. These websites offer free web templates as well as design services. The button links may be on the top or on the left side of the page. Both easily take you to where you want to go (e.g., to the mission statement, jobs in progress, services offered, etc.). It is largely a matter of preference as to how the page is composed and designed. However, for a professional-looking website it is strongly recommended to use a professional for its design.

Who do you want to visit your site? This depends very much on the answers that you have already come up with. Existing customers and clients, potential customers, people interested in your subject area who may never have heard of you, organizations, individuals, groups, and so on. If you are a building firm, your groups might look a little like this:

Figure 12.3 Example of a sample home-page template, which can be freely downloaded from the Internet from sites such as www.freewebsitetemplates.com or www.steves-templates.com. This template has been modified to suit a contracting business (based on a www.freewebsitetemplates.com template).

Figure 12.3 Example of a sample home-page template, which can be freely downloaded from the Internet from sites such as www.freewebsitetemplates.com or www.steves-templates.com. This template has been modified to suit a contracting business (based on a www.freewebsitetemplates.com template).

• Property owners and facility managers

• Architects and engineers

Create your list and then prioritize it. For example, if you want to promote an image of a contracting firm that specializes in electrical work, property owners may well take higher priority than casual users. This should be emphasized in the structure of the site's pages and the weighting that you give to it on the home page.

To let users know you are to be trusted, remember what was mentioned earlier—you cannot take it on trust that your viewer knows who you are. The message must be hammered home at every opportunity. Use your company logo, university crest, and so on to reinforce this. If you have won an award, make sure everyone who visits knows this! Your viewers need to be reassured that your firm is to be trusted and that its information is reliable. This must be emphasized on every single page that you publish—there is no telling which page a user will go to first, so be consistent in the positioning of your logo and place it on every page.

You've got less than 15 seconds to make an impact before your visitors leave. You have to work very hard in this small window of opportunity. Make it quite clear what your message is. If you don't know, your viewers won't. Design is vital. Give them enough guidance to let them work their own way(s) through your site. There has to be a reason for people to come and look at your website and a reason for them to keep coming back. You need to offer something of value such as a detailed list of your services with current prices. However, if you can think of some valuable free service (such as free estimates) that you can offer to bring people to your website, they are likely to browse around once they are there.

A successful website is not necessarily an attractive one or one full of the latest web technology. It is not even usually dependent upon how many people visit it. Rather, it is how many come back time and time again and how much business it generates.

Your site is up and you are waiting for the inquiries to come in, but they don't, because no one knows your site is out there. The site must be publicized. Potential customers need to know the website exists. All letterheads, brochures, cards, and advertising should mention the website address and email address.

Submit your site to all the search engines. Generally speaking, it takes at least a few months for a website to become recognized and start to generate responses. That's how long it usually takes the big search engines, especially Google, to index a new site. Also make sure that any expert directories you are listed in are linked to the site. Of course, the popularity of your site and the speed at which it becomes popular really depend on what is being offered and how it is promoted.

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