You've decided to build a website for your business. It's a smart move: All companies, big and small, benefit from an Internet presence, but a significant number of small businesses across Canada either lack a website, or they have no strategy for their online properties. In this four-part, weekly series we'll take you through the initial planning and setup phase, to launch and maintenance.
Part Three: Design and construction
Designing your site
Design is the process of choosing the look and the layout. The focus is not just on appearance, it's also on function: you need to make choices on colours and images, and on how the site will work.
The look will likely be influenced by decisions you already made about marketing your small business. If you have a logo or other graphics that customers associate with your company, use them to maintain a consistent brand on your website. It may be necessary to make some variations on existing images - to make a detailed logo simple, for example, so it can be recognized on a cellphone - but your website should look familiar to existing customers.
Design is important. At least some visitors will judge your business by the appearance and functionality of your website. It's better to have no site at all than to have a site that, by its design, gives a bad impression.
Create a checklist
Pick a colour scheme and stick to it. This is easy if you already have a logo or other marketing material. Design for use on any computer, with any browser, or on any platform. Your site should look good whether it's being viewed on a BlackBerry handheld or a Nintendo Wii.
Go with simple, easy-to-use navigation. You should have a menu of page links that appears in the same place on every page of your site. The site menu should be consistent, and it should be very obvious which page you're on, no matter where you go.
Style using cascading style sheets (CSS) to make it easier to make changes later. Rather than custom-coding each page with colour and font choices, CSS uses variables that can be changed once in order to change all the pages together.
Remember the design considerations we discussed in the planning process. If your target audience is likely to view your website on an iPad or a cellphone, make sure your site is designed to work well on these devices. If you're not a designer and you don't have a designer on staff, you should either hire one or use website tools that come with attractive, pre-made layouts.
Freelance designers can be found on the web. Sites you like may even have a designer credits on the page. Follow the links and go to their sites for contact information. If you need to search for a designer, there are public sites for that, too. Try Sortfolio.com or Elance.com. Sortfolio.com can search by city and by budget, to help you find the right professional for the job. You might even find some talented Canadian web designers with a simple Google search (try: web designer, Canada).
If their own sites aren't well designed, run away.
Regardless of what design you choose and what tool you use to build your site, several basic elements should be included.
Header: Usually contains your logo, business name, and motto or tag line.
Navigation: The horizontal or vertical 'menu' of pages that visitors will use to get around your site.
Contact: Provide a way for potential customers to contact you, including a phone number and e-mail address. If your business has one or more physical locations you may wish to include the street address, maps, and driving directions as well.
About: Provides basic information about the business and its products. If desired, you can provide a brief history of the company here as well.
Entire books have been written on the subject of usability, and we won't cover it in depth here. Focus on easy-to-use site navigation and on creating pages that load quickly. Make sure your text is readable (not too small) and test using different browsers on different computers to ensure that everything works and looks okay.
Constructing your site
There are many different tools available to help you construct your website. There are three basic categories of web publishing tools: software you install on your computer, "hosted services" that provide their own web hosting, and content management systems (CMS) you install on a web host.
1. Software installed on your computer. If you're building a small, basic site, you may be able to do it yourself using web publishing software. Adobe Dreamweaver is probably the best-known product in this category, but there are others including Amaya, Bluefish, iWeb and Rapidweaver.