How to Create a Successful Web Site For Nothing (or Almost Nothing)
Have you got eight hours and $10? Then you can build a Web site for your business.
Thanks to competition among Web-hosting providers, and the falling costs of Web storage, it's never been easier to get a Web site up and running -- from buying the domain name to building a site to setting up a payment system to tracking traffic.
But many small businesses still seem intimidated by the job. In a survey published last year, JupiterResearch LLC found that just 36% of online small businesses -- that is, businesses with fewer than 100 employees, where managers access the Web at least once a month -- have Web sites.
So, here's a guide for owners looking to make the leap online. We'll lay out all the steps you need to take to build your site, and present some expert opinion about getting it noticed and keeping track of customers -- all with no technical background required.
1. BUY A WEB ADDRESS
First, you have to buy a domain name -- e.g., YourCompany.com -- for about $10 a year. As an example, we'll show how to buy a domain using the registrar Go Daddy Group Inc., but you can shop around at others, such as Tucows Inc. and Register.com Inc.
Type the domain name you want in the search box at GoDaddy.com. If it's taken, try another. When you've settled on one, scroll to the bottom of the page and click "Proceed to Checkout." Ignore the offers for additional products and services, continue to the checkout page, enter your payment information and hit "Checkout Now."
You're now the owner of a Web address.
2. FIND A HOME
For years, companies have charged small businesses a fee to "host" sites -- store the sites' content on their computers. According to a recent survey from Jupiter, about a third of small-business executives say they pay up to $1,000 a year for Web hosting, and about another third pay more than $1,000.
Fortunately, in the past year, a number of companies have begun providing hosting services free of charge. They often make money by charging for premium services or running ads on your Web pages.
All you need to do is visit the Web site for one of these hosting services -- such as Microsoft Corp.'s Office Live Small Business, Weebly Inc. or SynthaSite Inc. -- and enter a user name, a password and some other details. Then visit your domain-name registrar and tweak your settings so that your Web address points to the service you've chosen. The hosting service will give you instructions on how to do this.
3. BUILD YOUR SITE
Once you've got a host, you'll want to design your site. The good news: Most of the free hosting services provide tools that let you build a site quickly, without lots of technical know-how.
Among the things you'll need: a welcoming home page; an "About" page that describes you and your business; and a "Contact" page that tells people where you're located and how to reach you. The rest depends on your business. If you own a restaurant, you might include a "Menu" page. If you're selling a product, you might include a "Store" page where people can buy your wares.
Adding those things can be simple. In Weebly, for instance, click on the "Pages" tab, then choose "New Page." In Office Live, click "Web pages" in the top left-hand corner of the editor and choose "New page." In SynthaSite, click "New Page" at the top of the editor.
In each case, doing so calls up a blank page template, like opening a new document in Microsoft Word. Once you've created a page, you usually can add content simply by typing the text you want into the template and dragging and dropping graphics.
There are some downsides to these free hosting services. Each offers several dozen design templates, but you could still end up with a site that looks pretty generic, unless you have Web-design skills or hire someone who does. What's more, most of these services don't offer an easy, one-click way to add flourishes such as shopping carts or more than two columns on a page; that, too, takes some know-how. Mostly, you just arrange pictures, text and other elements, and that's it. And, sometimes, even doing that can be tricky for nontechies.
There's one more free and easy way to improve the design of your site -- using HTML programming code. Fortunately, you don't need to have programming skills to use HTML. All you need to know is that a block of HTML -- essentially, a bunch of gobbledygook words and symbols -- can add extra features to your site. And numerous third-party sites offer handy HTML blocks you can plug into your site, as easily as copying and pasting text in Microsoft Word.
Ali Shapiro, a health counselor in Philadelphia, recently found one such program -- an appointments calendar -- at Scheduly Ltd.'s site. She copied a snippet of HTML from Scheduly and pasted it into the "Contact" page at her own site, PyourNutrition.com. The result: Visitors to Ms. Shapiro's site can see a calendar with her free time slots and sign up for appointments over the Web.
4. GET PAID
Probably the easiest way to let customers pay you online is to let somebody else handle the technical work. One popular option is PayPal, from eBay Inc. The service lets people pay you by clicking a button on your Web site, which takes them to a PayPal page where they can enter payment information. You don't have to do any work to process the transaction.
The basic service is free, but you have to pay a fee each time someone pays you: 30 cents, plus 1.9% to 2.9% of the transaction. This basic service isn't fancy -- if you want to build a full-blown retail site, you'll probably want to buy special e-commerce software -- but to offer a basic payment option on your site, it's enough.
To set up an account, click on the "Business" tab at PayPal.com and follow the instructions. Once you've done this, click on the "Merchant Services" tab. Then, choose "Website Payments Standard," from the left-hand column.
You'll see three orange buttons you can place on your site: "Buy Now," "Add to Cart" and "Donate." If your customers are likely to purchase one item at a time -- say, a yoga lesson or a day-care session -- click on the link under the "Buy Now" button, which will send them directly to a page where they can pay for the item. If your customers might want to browse around your site for different types of items before paying, choose the "Add to Cart" button, which lets buyers fill a shopping cart with several items before checking out. The "Donate" option is mostly for people who aren't selling anything, like bloggers soliciting donations.
You can then follow the instructions to create a button for each item you want to sell. PayPal will give you some HTML that you can paste into your Web site to add the buttons. You should put these buttons on your "Store" page, next to a picture and description of each item.
The service has been a boon for Graydon Blair of Syracuse, Utah, who sells biodiesel supplies at UtahBiodieselSupply.com. When he started his company, MGBJ Enterprises LLC, he looked for software to add a shopping cart to his site. "All of them wanted me to pay them lots of money, and I thought their stupid shopping carts didn't look nice," he says. So, "I built my little Web site, and threw some PayPal buttons on there."
Visitors to his Web site can use a "Click here to purchase" button to add an item to their shopping cart and buy it via PayPal. Payments get sent directly to Mr. Graydon's PayPal account, minus the PayPal fee. He says he now does 100 to 150 PayPal transactions a week. He brought in $750,000 in revenue last year and is on track for more than $1 million this year.
5. GET SPONSORS
It's easy to add advertisements to your Web site to make extra cash. Every time someone clicks on an ad on your page, you get paid a small amount, which varies depending on the particulars of the ad.
One of the most popular services is Google Inc.'s AdSense. Advertisers pay Google to place ads on Web sites throughout the Internet; site owners, meanwhile, can sign up at Google.com/adsense to host those ads on their pages.
You've probably seen the ads, which often appear as blocks of text along the right-hand column of a Web site. Google scans the content of participating sites to decide which ads would work best on the pages. For instance, an ad for used cars might appear on a site with car reviews.
But you need to ask: Will ads actually improve your site? Showing the wrong ads -- or, sometimes, any ads at all -- could turn off potential customers. If you run a funeral parlor, for instance, ads could come across as distasteful. Also, you'll probably need a lot of traffic to make significant money from the ads, since you typically get just a few cents when someone clicks.
For Tim Carter, ads made a lot of sense. Mr. Carter, a former carpenter, wrote a home-improvement column running in papers across the U.S. The only problem: Publishers were paying him a pittance.
In 2004, Mr. Carter figured out how to make serious money from his work -- by tapping into AdSense. He had been posting his work on his own site, AskTheBuilder.com, for nearly a decade. Google scans his site -- which has separate pages for topics like cabinets, fences and mold -- and places appropriate ads on each page, such as pitches for kitchen cabinets and mold removal.
He has since branched out by selling other types of ads. Taken together, his ads bring in close to $2,000 a day, based on daily traffic of about 40,000 visitors. He has also branched out by hawking his own products, like a stain-removal bleach. In total, his site brought in more than $1 million in revenue last year.
"I'll tell people in my columns, 'Look, this is what you need to do.' But they're still going to need the products to do it -- and that's what they see in those ads," Mr. Carter says.
6. GET KNOWN
So, you've got your site up and running. Next, you'll want to be sure people can find it.
We asked two experts, Bruce Clay of Bruce Clay Inc. and Alan Rabinowitz of SEO Image Inc., to reveal some tricks about search-engine optimization -- moving your site to the top of search-engine results.
Start with your site itself. You should use language on the site that is associated with the business. Let's say you're a florist. Most likely, you'll show up prominently in search results if people search for the exact name of your business. But the trick is to show up when people search for complicated terms related to your business, like "wedding flower arrangements." That's because you want to attract people who might not know about your business but are looking for something that you provide.
Mr. Clay offers two shorthand ways to do this. First, ask your employees to send you a couple of words or phrases that describe what your company does and incorporate that language into your site. Second, do a Web search for terms related to your business and look at the language used in the top search results. For instance, a search for "cowboy boots" turns up several Web sites that also use the phrase "Western wear." The fact that those sites turn up so high in search results means that they're doing something right. So, if you sell cowboy boots, you should also refer to Western wear on your site to draw additional traffic.
You should also make sure to include those phrases in your page titles -- the headings that appear in the blue bar at the top of a browser window -- since search engines pay particular attention to these. (How do you change the title bar? In Weebly, click the "Settings" tab and type in the "Site Title" field. In Office Live, click the "Page Editor" tab, then click "Page Properties" and type in the "Page title" field for each page. In SynthaSite, click the "Properties" tab and type in the "Window Title" field.)
If you primarily do business locally, there are other ways to get noticed. Start by trying this exercise: Type "Seattle spas" in Google and pay attention to the results. At the top of the page, you'll see several spa listings, with phone numbers, reviews and Web-site links, next to a map showing each spa's location.
Below that, you'll see traditional search results, but many of the links won't send you to a specific spa's Web site. Instead, they'll send you to a news or review site, like Citysearch or Yelp, that talks about area spas.
So, it's important to get into the listings at the top of the page, next to the map, as well as into the news and review sites. To do that, first register your business with Google's Local Business Center (Google.com/local/add). By entering some details, like your business's address and phone number, you can automatically be listed in Google's local results at the top of the page.
Next, the news and review sites. Say you're a spa owner in Seattle: Click on the Citysearch page that comes up in a search for "Seattle spas" and find contact information for a Citysearch editor who might want to include your spa in the site's list.
Also click on the links for review sites like Yelp, which solicit reviews from businesses' customers and often give businesses a way to list themselves. Don't review your own business on these sites (it's usually against the rules), but you can encourage your customers to post reviews, as long as you don't bribe them with freebies (also usually against the rules).
7. TRACK YOUR TRAFFIC
A bunch of companies offer free tools to help you track who visits your Web site, how they find it and what they do once they're there. This can help you tweak your Web site to attract more potential customers.
The best-known provider of tools is Google; you can find its offerings at Google Webmaster Central (Google.com/webmasters). We'll focus on one of the programs: Google Webmaster Tools (Google.com/webmasters/tools).
To set this up, follow Google's instructions for uploading a file to your Web site so that Google can track it. Once you've done this, look at a few areas on the Google Webmaster page.
In the "Statistics" area, click on "Top search queries." This shows you two things: the search queries for which your Web site turned up, and the queries from which people actually visited your Web site. If a search term appears in the first list but not in the second, it means your Web site is showing up in search results for that term, but people aren't clicking on it.
To improve your site's performance for that term, you should tailor the language in your Web site. Say your Web site shows up in searches for "experienced Seattle therapists," but nobody is clicking on it; that suggests that you might want to describe your level of experience on your site to improve your performance.
You can find another handy feature of Webmaster Tools in the "Links" area. Click on "Pages with external links" to see a list of other sites that include links to your site. This can give an insight into how others view your site. For instance, if you run a bar and see that a local hotel links to it from its own Web site, you can guess that the hotel is recommending your bar to its customers. So, you might offer special discounts to that hotel's visitors.