Webbing for Beginners- planning your first web-site
It may be that you want a web-site because - well - everyone else has got one, and it would be fun, and would be something to talk about at the next management meeting. If that's so, be honest about it, at least with yourself.
However, if you think there are many benefits to be gained from this new medium, you may well be right - but what are they in your case?
To put it bluntly, you haven't a hope in hell of achieving your objectives, if you don't know what your objectives are.
Do you expect readers to visit you once, and learn all they need to know in one session? Or do you hope they will come back, again and again?
However, there are methods for monitoring activity - ranging from log analyses to guest books to email links to market surveys.
Not only should these be incorporated into the site plan, but arrangements for reading and reacting to their output should also be planned. There are few experiences more annoying than to send an email to a company (from a website link), and for that email to go unanswered.
It will be difficult to guess what level of activity your site will generate, but set yourself some targets, nonetheless. You will have to revise these targets when faced with reality, but it will help to have a complete record - comparing what you expected with what you got.
For a professional result, you have a stark choice - either farm out the design and coding to a web-design outfit, or set up one of your own. The answer to that choice will depend on the scale of the task.
If you really can't justify that kind of expenditure, think again. If a web-site can't justify an expenditure which is roughly equivalent to a professionally-designed brochure, then you probably shouldn't have one.
You can get started on the cheap, but that will mean that someone (probably you) will have to learn quite a lot, very quickly. How much is your time worth?
If you are still determined to do it yourself, go back and re-assess the What's it For? section. You're just doing it for fun, aren't you?
(Above all watch out for the stray item which undoes all your good work, by conveying the opposite message. You can guarantee that this sentence will be the one that is noticed.)
Don't assume that you can just re-cycle your company brochure on the Web. The message may be the same, but the medium isn't.
If you are offering information, make sure that information is correct.
The essence ought to be "Form follows Function". There are some occasions where sheer flashiness is justified (if you're after a young market, competing with other flashy sites), but lots of bells and whistles will alienate many more people than they attract (and they'll be a nightmare to maintain).
Never forget that you cannot control the way other people will read your work. They may have ancient browsers, which know nothing about frames, or even tables. They may use text-only browsers (or switch off graphics, to reduce download times).
They may be connecting with 9600 baud modems, into 386 computers, on to 640*480 pixel, 256-colour screens.
For more about these issues, see The Browser Wars.
In other words, it's still a job for a professional (who need not be from the same outfit who designed the site).
Don't let anyone sell you an "automatic web-generator". It's a nightmare waiting to happen. Don't buy anything that calls itself a "WYSIWYG" editor. It's lying. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) is impossible on the Web.
In your search for an Internet Provider (and/or a web host service), you should interrogate them about how easy it will be for you to upload new material, and what kind of "server-side" processes they can handle. You should also ask for some sample sites, so you can test their access speeds yourself.
Browse around other sites which are similar to the one you are creating and mail the webmaster, asking them what they think of the service they've had.
Take some time to test it internally, on every kind of browser you can lay your hands on. If you can access it via modem, do so. Persuade someone on the other side of the world to look at it (paying attention to the time it takes to load).
If you are satisfied with these tests, put it on the server. Again, don't be in a hurry to trumpet your success. There are lots of little problems which will only emerge in a real-life setting.
Remember, if someone visits your site (perhaps after you've boasted about it), and it falls apart in front of their eyes, that may be the last impression that person has of you or your company. They are extremely unlikely ever to visit again.
Make sure the information you put on the web is the same as the information in your brochure/price list/sales briefings. If your customers (or, worse still, your own staff) are confused about price/availability/specifications, then you will have created problems for yourself.
There is a very strong case for taking the opportunity of a new web-site (internet or intranet) to re-structure your company's information storage/retrieval mechanism, so that all requests for information are answered from the same source - it's just the medium of delivery which changes.
Put simply, your company creates a database of relevant information. When a price list is being printed, or a salesman wants to know if a certain product is in stock, or a customer wants to buy something off the web - each of them will see the right answer, because there's only one answer in each case.
Pay attention to feedback from actual readers, especially those who have trouble finding what they want.
It is not a good idea to change the look of the site too often. If there are minor annoyances, you can tweak them, but don't re-design the whole thing every few weeks.
You will need to consider a major overhaul of the design (say) once a year. For one thing, the technology will have changed in that time.
Pay attention to feedback from actual readers, but don't jump to change the design on the say-so of one or two of them.
Make sure you (or someone from your company) visits your site at least once a day - if only to make sure it's still there, and that it isn't behaving oddly.
Make sure you are getting log-files of accesses (visits) to your site - from your Internet Provider. Make sure you have adequate software to analyse these logs. Make sure you understand what these analyses are saying.
Make sure that any email messages arising from the site are logged (and responded to).
Back at the beginning of this process, you should have defined how you would assess the success of this project. Are you meeting those targets? Don't be too discouraged if you aren't - this is a notoriously difficult medium to predict. But you should be re-assessing your targets for the next period.
On the other hand, you may be exceeding your targets by a long way. Don't get too cocky - this simply means your original predictions were wildly wrong.
There are quite a few things you can do to enhance the effectiveness of a good site. You can ensure that the various Search engines can find you, you can register with appropriate directories, you can swap links with other like-minded organisations.
Above all, make sure that any other promotional efforts are integrated with your web efforts. Put your web address on brochures, adverts, letterhead and business cards.
The Web is an extremely dynamic medium. New features appear regularly, and you (or someone) will need to keep abreast of the "leading edge". But, don't lose sight of the basic requirements of content and presentation. Only add new features if they enhance your readers' experience (and your objectives).
There may have been elements you wanted to include from the beginning, but didn't know how (or decided, wisely, to get the basics right first). When you are more confident, you can investigate some of the trickier aspects of the Web.
Good luck (remembering that the more carefully you prepare, the luckier you'll get).