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July 29, 2009

Cookie-Cutter vs Custom Web Site

There are many large web companies offering specialty web sites for retail stores, real estate, restaurants, travel, insurance, non-profit organizations and more. Many of them are very sophisticated and offer much more than your local web company.

The high quality web vendors have custom design, search engine friendly pages, content management systems, and plenty of bells and whistles. However, they often come with expensive setup fees ($10K or more) and monthly charges ($200 – $1,000/month or more). While these sites are professionally designed and can work very well, you can often duplicate this type of site with a local or inhouse webmaster who has access to programmers, designers, and other web professionals. Much of the site can be built for roughly the same price or slightly more than the setup fees, but the monthly fees can be kept to a minimum.

You need the proper host for the type of database and content managment system you’ll be using. For most small businesses, a simple hosting program for under $10/month will suffice. For many real estate sites where large daily downloads of MLS datafeeds are necessary, a virtual server may be required. These can generally be maintained for less than $50/month.

The problem with cookie cutter sites is not only do they have expensive monthly costs associated with them that can run from $200 to $1,000 per month, but they’re not portable. If you want to move your site to your own server, where you’re in control, you’re out of luck. If you want to hire your own webmaster for custom changes or a programmer for application changes, you’ll have to use theirs at extremely high rates, often exceeding $150/hour.

In an economy like we’re currently experiencing, large monthly fees can be devastating. What’s worse, if your web vendor happens to fall into their own financial woes, you could be left without the site you paid dearly for in setup fees. And have to start over from scratch!

It would be wiser to have your own site, your own hosting, control of your own domain names, and hire your own webmaster, designer and programmer as necessary, expanding as you go. Work with a trusted webmaster or hire one in-house (highly recommended), and contract out large scale programming or design projects through your webmaster.

Most webmasters have plenty of contacts with different areas of expertise such as programming, design, copywriting, search engine optimization, networking, content management and more. There are literally hundreds of disciplines used in the development of web sites, many of which overlap, and many of which are just different approaches to accomplishing the same goal. Your webmaster should be fluent in several of them, but no webmaster will know everything.

Many small business owners take on the web themselves, learning as they go, and hiring professionals for those things that just take too much time to learn while trying to run a business. These are the most likely to be successful, and will know who to hire and what services to procure to insure their web presence is most profitable, efficient and effective, depending on your needs.

If you don’t want to have anything to do with the technical details of running a web site, then a local or inhouse webmaster could be the best solution for you. Although they may not be the top in every facet of web development, they should be familiar with each discipline, and have the capability to expand on outsourced work. Your webmaster should be familiar with HTML, CSS, Javascript, web design, graphic design, copywriting, search engine optimization, site architecture, and at least one programming language such as PHP, ASP, C#, Java, PERL or a similar programming language to use in applications. They should also be familiar with at least one database program such as mySQL, SQL, MS Access, Oracle, or a similar database program that’s widely used with web sites. (You can use this list to qualify a potential webmaster).

In reality, anyone can build a web site in an afternoon. Software and online applications have been around for at least a decade that will allow even a 10-year-old to do this. But to have a web site that works for you, is customized to your needs, and delivers visitors that will purchase your product or services on a regular basis takes years of experience. All in all, by taking and retaining control over your web site, you’ll win in the long run.

July 15, 2009

Web Sites That Don’t Work Efficiently

Everyone wants a professional looking site with all the latest bells and whistles. But, are these gadgets driving potential visitors and search engines away? Flash files and javascript are the most common culprits.

If you have a new site designed, and when you first view it you’re prompted to download a file in order to use some of the features of the site, that’s your first clue. For visitors, a great deal of them are going to back out rather than download the plug-in. That’s a problem. What’s worse, sometimes the plug-in doesn’t install correctly, so the site doesn’t appear as it was meant to. These plug-ins are generally associated with flash files.

Flash files are not a problem if they’re commonly supported in most browsers. Generally, it’s just the latest and greatest new gadgets that may require an upgrade to a new plug-in. Sure, we all want to impress our visitors. But we don’t want to make them jump through hoops. If you’re selling Flash software, that’s a different story. But, most sites aren’t.

Another problem with flash files is that many search engines can’t read them. Search engines prefer text. That’s how they determine what your site is about, and what each page on your site is about… by reading the text. Flash files often use images that look like text. They do this to manipulate the images so they float across the screen, or fade away into another text image. Google had been working to improve the reading of text within flash files, because the actual text does exist within the flash file. But, if javascript is used in any way to display or trigger the flash file, that could block Google. 

Javascript is another problem for search engines. Most search engines generally ignore javascript. The reason for this is simple: malicious scripts can cause problems. Your webmaster should be able to find ways to insure that search engines have no difficulty in following the links in your site.

It’s great to have a smart looking site, but it’s even better to have a site that’s extremely accessible to your visitors and search engines. Make sure the company or web designer that creates your site is aware of these issues.

A good site design should also look very similar on various internet browsers such as Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera and Netscape. Many of these render sites differently, and not all of them support the same standards.

You should also look at your site in various screen resolutions. While the most common screen resolutions will be the default setting on most monitors, many people like to change it to widen the screen, make everything bigger, or make everything smaller.  Sometimes different resolutions can make your site almost unusable. Typically, smaller screen resolutions cause the most problems because they’ll try to squeeze a site into the screen, and different columns and elements of the site will overlap.

Make sure you go over all of these issues with your site designer before you sign off. You need to present a consistent look to as many visitors as possible. It’s imperative to insure that your site is accessible to as many visitors as possible, including search engines.

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