By Karen E. Klein Q: I used to participate in a networking group and set up a Web site pegged to the group's site. I kept it up and running for a little over a year, but never had even a single visitor! Now that I am planning to venture back online, I don't want to see the same miserable result. Can your experts recommend how to set up an online presence? How can I tell if the outfit I deal with is reputable and likely to provide the results I want? -- F.G., Kodiak, Alaska
A: With a Web site that you pay for and set up yourself, you can pretty much control the content and look of the site. If the site that you set up previously was under the umbrella of an online or offline business networking group, it's likely you would have had less control over the style and information displayed. Another drawback with such sites is that advertising content may be placed on your Web pages, as well as included in the e-mail messages you send and receive via the site. All of this undermines your message and makes you look unprofessional.
BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME. Of course, since you never got any traffic to the site, you never had to worry about making a bad impression! Spending money on a Web site that gets no visitors is like putting up a billboard that faces a brick wall. Why bother? In order to attract people, it's important to have a Web address that is easy to remember and a cinch for your customers and prospective customers to find.
The absolute best one is www.YOURCOMPANYNAME.com. If that's already taken, you'll need to come up with a logical alternative that is as close as possible to the name of your business. With the networking group, or with services like AOL Hometown, it is likely that your Web site's address will be long, hard to locate, and easy to mistype. For hobbyists, this isn't a problem. But for a company interested in bringing in new business, it's a big mistake.
The best policy for small businesses new to the Internet is to keep costs down until you have some success. Another good idea is to check out other sites that are successful and find out what can you learn from them. Look at your competitor's sites: How are they set up? Which hosting service do they use? Could your business use a site to interact with customers, in terms of taking orders or getting feedback, or is it going to be more like an online brochure? Over time, if you promote the site correctly and consistently, the visitors will come. As your business grows, the options are there to develop a more sophisticated site.
INSTANT GRATIFICATION. Fortunately, there are simple and cost-effective ways to create your own Web site and establish an online presence within a very short time. Many entrepreneurs feel that they must turn to a vendor to create a Web presence, says Linda Hamburger, a public relations professional based in Florida, who adds that there are do-it-yourself options available that are both easy and affordable for someone making a first move onto the Web. Says Hamburger: "With the new user interfaces at sites such as those introduced by Register.com in July, it is much easier for neophytes to launch and create a great looking Web site."
If you opt for the Register.com system, you can search for a domain name (also used as your Web site's address). Once you find a name (remember to keep it simple and logical), then you have two choices: Select "domain name only" and for $35 annually you get one free Web page included with the purchase of your domain name.
"You can have a Web site up almost immediately using their FirstStepSite option," Hamburger says. If you want more than a single page, select "add a do-it-yourself" site. This option provides users with a five-page site using the WebSiteNOW! feature, and the cost for the whole package is still under $100.
HUNTING LINKS. Hamburger says she has used the service herself and recommended it to friends and clients. "Either option is a great way to establish a Web presence. You save a bundle using the templates that are provided." she says, "It's amazingly quick and easy to update your site so you can keep your information current."
Other companies that offer domain names, Web hosting, and design tools include GoDaddy.com and Homestead.com. Another resource you might try is the Web Site Host Directory. It offers lists of companies, a frequently-asked-questions page, articles about setting up and maintaining Web sites and information specifically for small businesses -- just be forewarned that you will have to wade through lots of ads to get to the informational content.
Once your site is established, don't forget to use one of the free search-engine submission tools available online to alert the various search engines to your presence. You should also send out a press release announcing your new site and make sure that it is noted on all your business cards, letterhead, brochures, and other materials. "Another way to promote the site is by exchanging links with someone else's site," Hamburger notes. "If you find a site that compliments your own, offer to list a link to their Web site on yours, and vice-versa."
Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.