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-- by Lynn Ginsburg
It's still a brave new world out there on the Web. But as its future unfolds, one fact looms large: Whatever else the Web may become, it will definitely be a place of business.
Whether your company sells software or flowers, high tech or high fashion, it's time to establish your corporate presence on the Web. The advantages over traditional marketing techniques include low cost and unparalleled exposure. Get on the Web and your company almost instantly has a national-even international-presence. And you'll be open for business seven days a week, 24 hours a day-a virtual storefront that never closes.
The Web affords a brand-new approach to commerce, offering a sales channel that combines the convenience of direct marketing with a rich, graphical environment that can only be compared-and inadequately so-to television. Another key Web capability is interactivity, a critical element in the transaction of business.
The biggest step to the Web is your first one. The Web brings the promise of future earning bonanzas, but also a new set of technical issues and jargon that can fill an otherwise savvy computer user with anxiety. It is still, after all, in its infancy, and setting up shop on the Web can be a mystifying process. But with much improved Web design and development tools, and a thriving market of Internet vendors responsive to the needs of businesses, creating a Web site has quickly become more manageable.
You can start out with a basic Web site that alerts the world to your existence and shows off your professionalism and business savvy. At the high end, you can add sophisticated capabilities to your site, such as electronic order taking and credit card validation through a secure system. And commerce on the Web offers many other options in between information dissemination and actually closing deals.
Get on the Bus or Be Left in the Dust
If the cost of putting up a company Web site has been a deterrent, you might instead consider the cost of not venturing onto the Web. Big money is changing hands over the Web, and any business would do well to find a way to cash in. According to a white paper written by Melissa Bane, senior analyst at the Yankee Group, in 1996 commerce over the Web for businesses selling to consumers totaled $730 million. But Bane predicts the amount will increase to $10 billion by the year 2000-more than a tenfold increase in just three years.
The most lucrative segment of this Web market, says Bane, will go to companies selling business to business. Bane's white paper points out that in 1996, business-to-business commerce over the Web was a modest $120 million. But by the year 2000, it will amount to a whopping (and staggering) $134 billion. According to Bane, the initial winners in this gold rush will be small businesses. "Right now, small companies have been doing business electronically primarily through private network EDI (electronic data interchange)," Bane explains. "EDI just isn't cost effective for smaller businesses. As they start to migrate from EDI to Internet-based transactions, we predict a 60 to 70 percent cost savings."
Providing the fuel for this extraordinary revenue growth, according to a report by industry analyst firm Forrester Research, is an increasingly wired business and consumer audience. The Forrester report estimates that by the year 2000, 33 million homes in the U.S. will be online, up from 10 million in 1996. And by 2000, nearly one-third-1.1 million-of U.S. businesses will be connected to the Net, up from only 4 percent today. The Yankee Group's projections are even more aggressive, predicting that 43 million U.S. households and nearly 2 million businesses will be online by 2000.
You should note that while the Web can stimulate business, the money may not come from sales directly transacted over the Internet. Right now, only 25 percent of online consumers actually make purchases over the Web, according to the Yankee Group report. With consumer squeamishness about Web security, you may simply want to provide your customers with the information they need to make a purchase decision. "Just because you're not closing the deal over the Web doesn't mean you're not selling over the Web," says Bane. "What we see are customers getting the purchase information they need over the Web-helping them to distinguish between competing products-then phoning the company to close the deal."
Setting Up Virtual Shop
As with any business endeavor, establishing a Web presence requires planning. First, decide what you want your Web site to accomplish. For instance, if you want to attract world travelers to your cozy country inn, an online brochure may do the trick. But if your business appeals more to techies than to trekkers, you may want to use some of the Web's more advanced capabilities, like Shockwave demos that illustrate your firm's design expertise. Or maybe your needs tend more toward a virtual catalog that customers can browse and buy from. For each of these examples, design concerns and technical demands can vary significantly.
Once you know what you want to convey, you can decide on the site's content. If you're the owner of that country inn, you'll probably want your online brochure to include information about rates and amenities, possibly some color photos, and maybe some links to local tourist attractions and climate information.
Next, you'll need to sketch a map of your site to determine its layout. The country inn's site could start with an opening page and logically progress through linked pages. Site visitors might see a photo and general information about the inn on the opening page, move on to see a guest room, drop down a level to see the room's rates and then click to another page to fill out a reservation form. You can use a wide array of Web tools and effects-text, hyperlinks, multimedia, photos, graphics, forms, shopping carts and so forth-to make navigating your site interesting and informative.
With your site's content determined, it's time to roll up your sleeves and select a Web site design program to create and upload HTML pages. Dozens of Web site programs are available, so choosing one can be confusing. But the number of offerings also ensures that there's an HTML design program to suit your needs and your skill level.
In the entry-level category, Microsoft Publisher 97 is one of the best programs we've seen. This new version of Microsoft's desktop publishing program has been retooled to include extensive Web design features. Publisher's design wizards require absolutely no expertise, and help you produce stylish and attractive Web pages. The program's tools are intuitive, so you can simply place objects directly on the page, and drag and drop to reposition them. Many other HTML programs allow object placement only in preset page areas, or require numeric values to move objects on a page.
At the other end of the design spectrum, NetObjects Fusion is an excellent choice, blending sophisticated Web site creation with elegant ease of use. Fusion has thrown over the awkward metaphor of the word processor (still used by other high-end programs like Microsoft FrontPage), opting to put designers in a more familiar environment that resembles a desktop publishing or graphic design program. Fusion's spare interface lets you get right to work without learning any HTML and, like Publisher, Fusion lets you simply place objects directly on a page. Fusion, however, offers high-end design tools like on-screen floating palettes and a site structure editor that lets you lay out your site hierarchically. The program also offers sophisticated tools for handling Java and Shockwave objects, with no need for writing a lick of code. And Fusion bests its HTML design competitors with an excellent set of page templates, many created by leading graphic designers.
To add complex objects like secure forms and shopping carts to your Web site, you usually need to use a CGI (Common Gateway Interface) script to handle the dynamic exchange of information over the Web. CGI scripts can be difficult to write, and require programming expertise. You can, however, add sophisticated features without the hassle of working with CGI, with programs like Peachtree Business Internet Suite or Forman Commerce Creator (formerly Internet Creator). Both offer completely automated Web site creation that includes point-and-click creation of online catalogs and shopping carts. Peachtree's product was designed to be used in conjunction with its own designated Web hosting firm to ensure program compatibility and the security of financial transactions transmitted over the Net.
There's a downside to this "Web site in a box" approach. You're stuck with the designated Web hosting service, rather than shopping for your own best deal. Also, while the complete automation Business Internet Suite and Commerce Creator offer are ideal for a no-hassle, almost-instant site, more experienced users will probably want more design and customization options.
Make the Connection
Assuming you don't create your site with a soup-to-nuts product, you'll need an Internet service provider (ISP) to host it. Comparing the different service packages and pricing plans is an exercise in higher mathematics. ISPs range from small local companies with little more than a server, to large national providers with names like AT&T and MCI. And prices charged by ISPs are all over the board; some charge a set price that includes specified services, number of hits per month and Web site storage size, while other ISPs charge per option and service. You'll have to consider several factors, including price, ease of use, level of service provided and customization options. We spoke to a small local ISP, CSDC of Boulder, Colo., and one of the nation's largest ISPs, Netcom, to compare available services and prices.
CSDC charges $20 per month for a basic account, which includes 10MB of Web site storage and a maximum of 3,000 hits per month. This option is available to companies or individuals (some ISPs won't offer the low-end option for commercial use). For a dedicated Web site domain, CSDC charges $100 per month, which includes up to 15,000 hits; activity above that level is charged at a rate of 15 cents per megabyte downloaded.
Netcom's rate system is more complicated. Prices can range anywhere from $5 per month for nothing but your own domain e-mail account, to thousands of dollars for large corporate sites that can include sophisticated elements such as CGI. Netcom was among the first to offer a flat rate, unlimited access fee, but is shifting focus to create hosting solutions and other business-related offerings.
A Netcom access account allows subscribers to host a 1MB-maximum Web page with up to 500MB of transfers per month (Netcom bases charges on throughput rather than hits). The company says it doesn't really enforce the 1MB limit since few basic-option users exceed the limit. For a commercial site with a dedicated domain name, Netcom's minimum charge for a small-business site-10MB of disk space and 750MB of monthly transfers-and e-mail is $25 per month. From that bottom-rung fee, prices will vary depending on options and services chosen.
Large providers like Netcom can offer greater automation for setting up and maintaining Web sites. For instance, Netcom customers can access a hosting area and, without having to contact technical support, they can add users to their e-mail account, change a URL at their site and create a new password. Netcom's national-soon-to-be international-network lets users access their Web site and e-mail via local access numbers.
A Home of Your Own
Despite their David and Goliath difference in size, CSDC and Netcom have one service factor in common: Both charge differently if you want your own domain name. A dedicated domain name, like www.winmag.com, gives you a unique presence on the Web and makes it a lot easier for your customers to find your site. Even if you switch ISPs, you can retain the domain name.
To obtain a unique domain, you have to go to the Internet registration service, InterNIC. At its Web site (http://internic.net/) you do a search of domains to make sure the name isn't already taken. If the name is available, you can register it for a $100 fee. Registration grants you the right to the domain name for two years; after that, there's a $50 annual registration charge.
If your budget is tight or a dedicated domain isn't important, you can use your ISP's domain with your own directory tacked onto the end of the URL. For instance, with the mythical ISP "WebISP," your URL might look something like www.webisp.com/userpages/yourcompany.
It may be a bit clunkier to handle than your own short and sweet domain, but you'll avoid the additional costs of a commercial account from your ISP and the InterNIC registration fees.
Some ISPs also include domain registration as part of their services. For instance, CSDC waives its own $35 registration fee with its $100-per-month plan for commercial sites. Netcom also doesn't charge extra for registering the domain name, but you have to pay the $100 registration fee. Netcom is a "premier partner" of InterNIC, so a domain search and registration can be processed typically within 24 hours.
Sign In, Please
An excellent way to use a Web site to help grow your business is to capture details about visitors to your site and the information they looked at. Your ISP usually captures and stores this data in an access log for your site. Access logs reveal how many visitors you had on any day at any time, visitors' domain names and the pages they viewed. But not all ISPs provide access logs, so make sure it's available when you choose an ISP. The ISPs we spoke with-CSDC and Netcom-provide direct access to the logs.
Also consider a program that helps you analyze the raw access log data. Programs such as e.g. Software's WebTrends or Marketwave's Hit List organize the ISP's log data so you can easily see statistics such as your site's busiest access times, the countries your visitors are from, which pages generated the most interest, and the average number of hits per day, week and month.
Another efficient-and easy-way to interact with your Web customers is to provide your e-mail address to get their feedback. If you take it a step further and include a simple feedback form that gets sent to your e-mail address, your customers get a chance to ask questions and provide information about themselves. A sign-in guestbook works similarly; your visitors can identify themselves and jot notes, and you can add that information to your sales leads database.
Another standard Web site feature that helps track visitors is a counter that advances each time a page is browsed. The function of a counter is simple, but implementing one can be complex and usually requires a CGI script. Many ISPs provide counters automatically with your Web page. If your ISP doesn't provide a counter, you can avoid writing your own script by picking one up-for free-at a site such as George Burgyan's HTML Access Counter (http://www.webtools.org/counter/). You get a CGI script that runs an access counter on your page with instructions on how to install it.
Alternatively, you can skip CGI altogether with the WebCounter available at the Net Digits Web site (http://www.digits.com/). With WebCounter, you just add to your Web page an HTML tag that calls the counter system on the Net Digits page; a numeric image is returned to your page with the current count. The WebCounter system is currently free for low-volume sites, although Net Digits now charges a nominal fee for high-volume sites and companies that opt for additional statistics and features.
Join the Gold Rush
With new tools that make Web site creation easier, it's now possible for anyone-at any skill level-to create a Web site. Wizards and WYSIWYG are rapidly replacing manual HTML coding. Similarly, ISPs are more sensitive than ever to the needs of business users, offering customized services to suit any company's needs.
If your company doesn't have a Web presence, you may lose prospective customers to others who have set up shop on the Web. It's time to get off the fence and join the frenzy of the Web gold rush. It's an opportunity you can't afford to miss.
Lynn Ginsburg is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo. Contact Lynn care of the editor at the e-mail addresses here.