Here begins the fun…
What I’ll do is brain dump from the surface layer of my subconscious, which is chock-full of the most frequently asked questions my clients have thrown at me. Usually, these questions are asked via an informal phone interview, and (like a recurring dream) I’ve answered, by and large, the same questions hundreds of times.
Here, I’ll answer them in the approximate order most commonly asked, using time-tested rationale befitting the small business manager.
1. How hard is it to build a shopping cart?
I’m answering this question first because it’s usually asked first by a certain type of client (plus, I find it expedient to address it immediately). Obviously, there are various ways this question is phrased, but the gist of the inquiry is the same. For the record, most of my clients do not care about building shopping carts since they are not this certain type of client.
What do I mean, specifically?
Categorizing in broad strokes, there are three types of small businesses, based on website objective:
- To make money online only (a “virtual” business)
- To support and promote an offline enterprise (a “brick and mortar” or “service” business)
- To do both, if feasible (a “hybrid” business”)
The certain type of client who immediately asks about building a shopping cart, in my experience, has ambitions toward making money online only. (This assumes much, I know, primarily that the client does not have a website currently.) Compared to my “hybrid” business clients, who talk first in terms of their offline enterprises before inquiring about the possibility of online sales, the “virtual” business client has a shopping cart mission from the get-go, and they know it. When designing a website for a “virtual” business, I will certainly focus on the unique tools required to make online sales possible, but aside from those tools, most of my advice on the fundamental strategies of website design are identical. Where my advice will differ significantly is in offsite marketing and promotional strategies, which is not the topic at hand here.
Regarding this question, my aim is to point out that, while there are unique differences in the implementation of the required tools and marketing plans for the “virtual” business, the fundamentals of website design still apply no matter what type of small business you have. In my experience, surviving and thriving as a small business is largely a result of sound decision-making, and one tenet that holds true, even in the digital age, is you don’t put the cart before the horse.
To understand the basic concepts of website design is to understand the horse.
You need a solid horse no matter what your website objective.
Rest assured, the contents herein will serve you well no matter what type of small business you currently manage (or dream of).
To answer this question, for those concerned, it is not hard for a website designer to build a shopping cart. For a layperson, though, it can prove challenging, especially beyond the most simple implementation. Often, the complexity of your inventory management needs will determine the complexity of your shopping cart “system.” For small business clients, my recommendation is almost always to start with a handful of online offerings and to use a simple shopping cart implementation. It can be inexpensive and rewarding at this level. Personally, I am very enthusiastic when clients wish to sell things online as long as they’re wanting to start small and grow from there, as needed.
Since most of my clients, though, would not benefit significantly from selling things online (due to the core nature of their offline enterprise), I will not elaborate further on shopping carts or selling things online as part of this website design topic. It can more thoroughly and effectively be addressed as a subject of its own.
2. How much does a website cost?
This question is an obligatory standard in nearly all industries, so I’ll not bemoan it’s innocence in regard to the construction of a small business website. I will say this, what people don’t know is ultimately what bites them in the wallet.
The reason this question is asked is more important than the question itself. It suggests a fundamental misunderstanding about what a website is. A website is not a product to be purchased once, like a piece of software. Nor is it a service to be purchased once, like new brakes for a car.
A website is an ongoing thing.
Regarding it’s construction and maintenance, there is no end. Much like an office building or a warehouse, no limits are imposed, by definition, as to how much you can spend. If you want fancy wallpaper, you can have it. If you want top-quality furniture, it’s yours. If you want a steel roof, no problem. However, all “items” that can be added to a website have a cost. Sometimes this costs is in the form of an accessory purchase (for example, a product to keep spammers from bombarding your comment pages). Sometimes this cost is in the form of design time (for example, you want 100 photos added, including descriptions, to five separate project galleries, and each photo must be re-sized and/or rotated for consistency). To your heart’s content, you can spend.
In this regard, you must think of construction and maintenance as a variable cost. Much of it depends on your particular wants and “needs.” Your particular balance of time and money must also be considered when deciding on your budget for both.
Regarding your website’s existence on the internet, you must understand it as you do a light bulb. You bought the light bulb, you installed it, but it won’t turn on without a constant supply of electricity from the power company. The power company will provide the juice as long as someone provides them cash every month. If not, lights out. A website is just a bunch of digital files assembled on the fly by code, and these files need to be stored on a physical computer that people can visit over the world wide web. People navigate to this computer’s internet address via their browser, and, as long as you’ve paid your “hosting” fee, the utility company opens the gate and lets the visitors see the files you’ve stored there. If you neglect to pay this fee, the hosting company slaps a padlock on the gate.
Think of your website’s accessibility on the internet as a recurring, “somewhat-fixed” cost. This is the big-business realm where the price-war offerings of $1.99 per month exist.
3. So my monthly recurring fee will be $1.99?
Furthermore, I don’t believe that rational business people actually expect to pay so little for something so valuable as their business website, but an explanation is warranted to counter the unrealistic impressions generated by mass-market advertising campaigns, and then, quite often, spread like a virus by uninformed word of mouth.
There are many ways to skin a cat, as the saying goes. But the whole cat isn’t skinned until all the skin is off. One starts at the neck for $1.99, and then the knife cuts further, by necessity, in order to get the complete job done.
If you order just the neck for $1.99, you won’t have a full meal. You’re buying your meal a la carte, and there will be a separate price for each dish, which you will ultimately need to satisfy your hunger.
End of disgusting cat example.
The bottom line is simple…
Whether you design your website entirely on your own, or whether you pay a professional consultant to assist you, there are other components to the recurring charges beyond the advertised hosting fee, which you will discover must be added into the equation. This sort of veiled trickery has, unfortunately, become common practice in many highly-competitive industries, not just in web services. To be sure, some companies are better than others in clarifying the fine print.
My recommendation is to find an independent website consultant who will not only assist you, as needed, with design services, and so on, but also setup and maintain the essential hosting platform and additional components necessary to keep your website alive and healthy on the internet. A realistic recurring fee would also include time to manage the appropriate web services, as well as to integrate the appropriate other components. Such are the most confusing and technical aspects of getting and keeping a website up and running.
Unless your aim is to become a website professional, or unless you enjoy throbbing headaches, I would advise against trying to manage hosting servers, email servers, domain name servers, and so on.
4. What is a domain name?
A domain name is a website address. For example, “Macys.com” is a domain name. While many people would simply call that string of characters a website, it is, in fact, only the address used to navigate to a website. I recommend my clients share and promote their domain name by every possible means, both on- and offline, including plastering it wherever they might plaster their phone number.
In my opinion, your domain name is the most important asset you “own” in the online world. It is your online business address, and you have total control over what you put there. In reality you are “renting” this domain name by paying a small fee, most often annually. I strongly advise you to never miss a rent payment.
From whom, you might ask, am I renting?
Here is the answer from the Wikipedia page on domain names:
Today, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) manages the top-level development and architecture of the Internet domain name space. It authorizes domain name registrars, through which domain names may be registered and reassigned.
When you fail to pay the registration fee (the rent), the domain name “expires” and then becomes available for someone else to register.
If you care about your business presence online, such a failure to maintain your domain name’s registration can be an absolute catastrophe. I’ve witnessed the unfortunate results. Imagine, after spending piles of time and money on developing a business website and sharing its address with the world, you wake up one morning and discover that your domain name is suddenly, and inexplicably, pointing to your competitor’s website, or worse.
For the record, most domain name registrars email several notices of pending expiration, and quite typically the failure results from one’s no longer checking the email account originally used to register the domain name.
With my own clients, I provide domain name management services, which often include annual renewals. This way, my clients lose no sleep over the issue (to say nothing about the sleep that I may lose).
5. What domain name should I choose?
Your domain name doesn’t need to match your business name exactly. For example, Landon Skyward Enterprises, Inc. is the corporate name of my business. I chose LandonSkyward.com for the domain name. This is shorter, and thus easier to announce to the world, which is vital.
(Be aware, if your domain name includes potentially confusing words or awkward constructions, you will find yourself spelling it out letter-by-letter for people, especially over the phone.)
The availability of short domain names is sketchy. If your business name is Smith’s Catering, for example, I would almost be certain the “.com” extension has already been taken. If so, the “.net” or “.biz” versions would be my preferred next choice.
The only real advantage of the “.com” domain name extension over the other extensions is that many people will innocently assume your domain name ends with “.com,” which might lead them to accidentally visit the wrong website or send an email to the wrong address. While this could be a major problem for Macy’s, it would likely rank only as minor for Smith’s Catering.
A mistake that many make is to use the full (extra-long) name of their business in order to get the “.com” extension. An example might be:
Rest assured, I’ve had plenty of clients who thought such a concoction would be fine. In this particular example, I would strenuously encourage Smith to choose instead the shorter and simpler SmithsCatering.net (or .biz). If neither of those were available, I would then recommend SmithsCateringandCuisine.com, or, perhaps better, SmithsCateringOnline.com, which will fit better on a delivery van, etc., and certainly rolls easier off the tongue and mind.
(Recall when I parenthetically advised you to be aware. The word Mediterranean can be read easily enough, but try asking your customers to type it without checking a dictionary first.)
In many ways, choosing a domain name is an art unto itself. Marketing strategies must be considered. From a fundamental standpoint, both on- and offline, excessive length is a demonstrable handicap. Essentially, the smaller the vehicle, the more places it can be parked.
To elaborate on something I’ve mentioned already briefly, I always recommend my clients plaster their small business domain name on anything that moves, or doesn’t move, in the physical world, especially vehicles, letterhead, business cards, thank you cards, billboard ads, promotional gifts, and so on. (There is also no shortage of opportunities for domain name promotion online.) But to print anything over so-many letters onto a business card, etc., becomes problematic. The font-size may have to be printed very small in order to fit. If too small, it would be unreadable without a magnifying glass. Further, if you use domain-branded email (another topic), such as T.Smith@SmithsCateringandCuisine.com, the printing gets smaller yet, or wraps down to a new line, which is utterly dreadful.
As a general rule, I shoot for domain names under 20 characters. It’s an arbitrary number. I’m thrilled with lengths of 15 or under, which is currently the allowable length of a Twitter handle (yet another topic). For the record, numbers are also allowed in domain names, so Smith could also choose SmithsCatering247.com, if available.