Before Building A Website

One of the most common questions I am asked as a computer consultant and web developer is “how much would it cost to build a website for me?” While this is a perfectly legitimate and understandable question, it is very much like asking “how much does a car cost?” Again, it sounds reasonable, until you start to think about it. Are we talking about a commuter car or luxury car. Are you wanting to win a Formula 1 race or maybe you really just wanted to drive cross country or haul some passengers and luggage for a living.

Designing WebsiteAs you can see, that simple question of car cost is really not so simple after all and the answer could be anywhere from a few hundred dollars for an old fishing car to hundreds of thousands for serious racing equipment. So the conversation around websites should begin not with cost, but with purpose – what are you trying to do with your website?

To make this a bit easier, lets start by breaking business websites down into three different categories. And again, we really are talking just business sites here, large or small, but not about personal or social sites.

The first type of site you might consider is a business card site. A business card site is how we refer to a static site of just one or two pages that includes the basic information about your business. These sites will tell what you do, how to contact you, your hours of operation and other standard information. As the name would imply, this type of site is basically a business card on the Internet. Or you might think of it as an overgrown Yellow Pages ad. The lure of this first type of site is that it is simple and cheap to setup. You can get one up quickly either by yourself or with minimal help. The bad thing is that it doesn’t do you a lot of good other than putting a stake in the ground for your domain name. That is about it. There is nothing in a site like this that will get you noticed by search engines, get you new customers, or really connect you with the market.

The second type of site is about real communication with clients and customers. We will call these interactive websites. There is a lot of leeway as to what can be in these site, but generally here you are talking about a site with content management so that regular updates like news and events can be posted easily. Also these site are tweaked for search engine optimization (SEO) to ensure they are indexed by search providers like Google and Yahoo. Finally, these sites are dynamic and menu driven. That means it is fairly easy to change things around, add features, and grow the site as needs arise. There may be blogs on interactive sites or customer feedback forums or scheduling and multi-media. Because there are so many options with an interactive website, most implementations will start with a smaller feature set and only implement, and pay for, additional features as they fit the business model. Again, when you think of these interactive sites, think of extensive search features, improved navigation, social networking tie-ins to services like Facebook or Twitter, automated RSS feeds, and streaming video.

The third and final category of websites is the ecommerce site. When you think about ecommerce sites, think about Amazon and eBay. These are the sites that concentrate on selling things, processing payments, inventory presentation, stock management, and customer accounting. Ecommerce sites are the most complicated and expensive to develop. While there are many systems that can make the process less painful, a full ecommerce site should only be considered when there is a strong business case for it. Typically you are not trying to pull in new customers with a site like this but to service existing customers. Pulling in new customers and winning them over is the job of an interactive website, which is why you will often see ecommerce sites paired with an interactive site to deliver the full continuity of customer service.

You will see from this over simplified breakdown that what you want to do, like when you buy a car, is to determine first what you are trying to achieve. If all you want is to hold your domain name and prove that you exist, then the cheap and simple business card type site will do you. But if you want to attract new business, provide value to your customers, and establish a communications tool that will engage your customers, then you need to move on to interactive content driven site. And finally, only when you have significant online sales to warrant the time and expense should you move into the ecommerce sites.