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The pros and cons of all-in-one Web solutions

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One of the most annoying aspects of managing your small business' IT needs is the mind-boggling array of various services and tools that need to be maintained. From websites to mobile apps to social networks, running an on-line presence can sometimes be more time-consuming than running the actual business.

Of course, there are many companies, Web tools and pieces of software that make these tasks a lot easier. Google will give you access to free or very cheap business software; Amazon will sell you digital storage space; Microsoft makes various Web publishing tools.

But what if that's still too much work? What solutions exist for the business owner who wants to do as little work as possible?

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In this four-part series, we look at all-in-one and turnkey solutions for small businesses looking to establish a Web presence. In the upcoming three instalments, we'll profile individual companies and tools that take care of as much of the heavy lifting as possible. But first, it's important to look at the pros and cons of letting someone else do all the digital work for you.

In the traditional website publishing world, start-to-finish solutions have been around for a long time. The first such tools surfaced almost two decades ago, when the first "what you see is what you get" publishing software began hitting markets. Tools such as Microsoft's Frontpage made it easier for non-technical users to build Web pages by making the process much more similar to building a Word document, rather than typing out a whole bunch of confusing HTML code. Couple some Frontpage-generated code with free hosting from somewhere such as Geocities, and you have a ready-made (albeit, in hindsight, awful-looking) Web site.

Today, turnkey Web solutions are a lot more complex. For one thing, most businesses want a little more than a couple of animated gif files and an auto-playing MIDI track on their sites. So the work of building bigger and better small business websites has often gone to professional Web developers. The upside of custom Web design is, well, customization – the developer builds the site exactly to the business' specifications. The downside is cost. Hiring a developer usually costs a lot more than buying the software necessary to build a site yourself, and that cost can vary greatly depending on how much the actual time it takes to build the site differs from the initial estimate. Add to that the complexity of features such as on-line stores and checkout systems, and the cost grows even higher. Fortunately, there are some other solutions that sacrifice uniqueness for cost savings, such as one-size-fits-all website templates and on-line payment systems.

In the world of mobile apps, turnkey solutions are a little more straightforward. A number of companies now offer services that take a traditional Web site and translate it to a mobile-friendly version, saving the cost of building a new one from scratch. Other companies also sell one-size-fits-all apps – simply select a template, select the content you'd like to include, and the company quickly churns out an app. However that solution tends to work best for companies that regularly publish consistent content, such as small magazines, or businesses that don't expect their sites to change very much. For businesses looking at a more dynamic mobile presence, the best solution may still be more expensive custom app development.

Perhaps the trickiest area for all-in-one solutions is social networking. There are plenty of services out there that will build a small business' social networking presence, including Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. In fact, sites such as Facebook often offer the ability to easily integrate other social services, including location-based tools, to an existing social networking presence. Once such a presence is up and running, there are plenty of companies that will monitor a small business' social networking standing to find out what your existing and potential customers are saying about you. The less straightforward part is management. Small businesses that don't want to constantly update their Facebook and Twitter accounts can try to find a third-party to do it for them, or try to automate the process by tying the accounts to something like an RSS feed from their existing websites. But the latter approach tends to work best for companies that specialize in pumping out content, rather than retail shops or other types of small businesses. For the business owner who wants to do as little IT work as possible, there are ways to get around this problem, but if there's one tech-related thing worth investing on doing in-house, it may well be social network management.

The series continues next Thursday. Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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