By Kristin Huff
Last month we followed R&I professionals Joanne and Roger Bastarache of R&W Engraving along with Al Abramson, Owner of Halls Executive Gifts & Awards, as they committed to building websites. We learned how they decided on the purpose of their site and the quick vs. hiring a professional method of website design. This month we will follow them through learning about search engines, registering and hosting their sites, as well as site maintenance.
Registering Your Site
Many companies exist whose sole purpose is to register your domain name. A quick search for register domain name on any search engine will turn up hundreds, if not thousands, of choices. When choosing a place to register your domain name, be sure to read the fine print and find out, for example, how long your name will be registered. Most places will register the name for a year, but some will register it for longer periods of time. And registering your site should not be expensive. Of course, some places will charge a higher price and offer to host your site or throw in extras, but for basic domain name registering for a year, you should be paying between $5.00 and $20.00 per year.
When you go to register your name, most websites will have a place for you to type in the name youd like to have. They will do a quick search of whats been registered, but they do not limit their search to names that have been registered on their sitethey will search to make sure that the domain name has not been registered anywhere on the world wide web. If the name is available, youre good to go and can make it yours with a few more clicks of the mouse. If the name is not available, you will usually have options to choose from. For example, if SmithEngraving.com has already been taken, you might have the alternatives of SmithEngraving.biz, SmithEngraving.net, Smithengraving.us and so on. So, if you dont have a website and are thinking you will want one sometime in the future, it might be a good idea to register the name of your choice nowbefore its taken by someone else. Its so cheap to do that even if you dont create your site for a couple of years, its worth the small investment to make sure you own the name when you finally do get around to creating a website.
Showing up on search engines is an entirely different ball of wax and its often the deciding factor for those debating about creating a site themselves. You can have the best, most imaginative, easy-to-navigate site on earth, but if no one ever sees it, it wont do you one whit of good. You have to get it registered on the major search engines and thats no easy task.
When the internet really got going and search engines started popping up to help users find websites, the most common way for a search engine to find a site was to evaluate how many times a word appeared on that site. For example, if someone were to type in engraving awards in a search engine back in those days, the site that would come up first was the one that mentioned those two words the most often.
That proved to be a poor way to search, however, as people started coming up with not-so-legitimate ways to get their site seen. People would, for example, type white words on a white background so that a word appeared on the site more often. And often, the words did not necessarily have anything to do with the site being researched, resulting in miss-matches for people trying to find relevant websites. Or, people would use automatic computer programs to enter unrelated keywords into a search engines registry, which also resulted in false matches being seen by unsuspecting internet users.
The task of registering a website has evolved to try and eliminate those problems. Today, most of the 30 or so major search engines require you to enter in, by hand, each key word associated with your site once every three months. Once your site becomes popular and receives enough hits, registering no longer is necessary. (Amazon.com, for example, does not need anyone to register it.) When your site is new, however, someone needs to sit down and do all that work on a regular basis, to make sure that your site gets found.
Registering your site is free, but its boring, boring, boring work, says Fodrey. In addition, search engines constantly change their rules about how and where to enter keywords, because people are always looking for ways to cheat the registering system and will try hard to make sure that when you search for a website, you get a spam instead. To help with the registration task, there are entire companies devoted to registering websites with search engines. If you can find a company to do it for you for a nominal fee, this is one of those things thats probably worth paying for.
If you do-it-yourselfers out there are still interested in taking on this task, Fodrey recommends starting the process by going to Google or another major search engine and typing in registering a search engine or a similar search string to start the process.
If you currently have a website thats not getting any hits, its most likely because no one is registering it on the search engines for you. It might be wise to look for a company that would be willing to register your site, especially if the fee is nominal. And remember, you wont have to go through the registration process forever. Once your site becomes relatively popular, it will show up when certain keywords are entered into any search engine.
Hosting Your Site
Just as you need a place to store all the trophy components, ribbons, sublimation supplies or plaques that you use regularly, you need a place to store your website. This is called hosting the site, and unless you really know what youre doing, its rarely a good idea to host your own site on your own computer in your own building. If you do, anyone who has access to that computer has access to your website and could make changes willy-nilly. Plus, you are probably not prepared to create redundant backups of the site, and youre probably not fire proof. Again, there are companies out there that specialize solely in hosting websites. They have rooms full of servers that you or your web designer can access remotely to work on the site. The fee youd pay is almost surely worth it to have someone else host your site after all, do you really want to add computer technician to the list of the many other hats you wear in a day? If youre hosting your own site and the server goes down, youre the one that has to figure out why it happened and how to fix it. Any quality web designer should be able to point you in the right direction to find someone to host your site.
When you go looking for someone to host your site, remember that its more important to use a local website host than you might realize. Sure, there are tons of companies in Silicon Valley that will offer to do it for very little money. But is it a wise move? Bastarache found out the hard way that it was not.
The first hosting company we used, their server couldnt handle our sites size. So then we went with a low-cost company in California, but we never thought about earthquakes. Then they had one, and our server went down for almost two weeks last year, right at the start of the holiday season. It was the worst possible time for our website to go down and it cost us business. We also didnt realize that the time difference would make communicating with them difficult, since were in Maine and theyre on the west coast. Now were with a local hosting company in Massachusetts, and its working out great. We pay about $14.95 a month for the service.
Maintaining the Site
One final consideration you should make when thinking about websites is website maintenance. Websites, by nature, are a dynamic medium. If youre familiar with the internet, think about some of the sites that you visit most often. The best ones usually have something new to offer fairly regularly. (For example, EJs website, www.engraversjournal.com, posts each new issues cover and a featured article every month.)
Even if you are not going to be posting new content on a regular basis, you will always find little things that need to be changed: mistakes that need to be corrected, spelling errors or something as simple as a new area code. And even if you have the site just the way you want it, no changes needed, there is always the changing environment of the internet to keep up with. When a web designer creates a new site, he or she must test the site in all different environments to ensure that it looks the way it should, no matter who is viewing it. (Does it look okay on a Mac? What about with Windows 95, 98, 2000 and NT? What about WebTV?) So if youre thinking of creating your own site, you have to ask yourself: Am I ready to invest the time and money into all these various components to make sure the site is okay everywhere? In the end, this might be a task better suited to someone who does it full time.
Know Your Limitations
Creating a website is not for the faint of heart, but even if youre computer illiterate, you can (and possibly should) have one to spread the good word about your shop. The key is to know your limitations. Its a good idea to at least be able to answer E-mail before getting a website, so if youre still fuzzy on the basics of cyberspace, you could always take a class. Your local Chamber of Commerce, local community college and the Small Business Administration are all good choices for places to learn. And whats better, they are not trying to sell you anythingthey are simply interested in you succeeding as a business. And if youre thinking that you want to build your own website, they can likely point you in the right direction for getting started.
If you want a website but building it yourself is the last thing on earth you want to try, youll need to find a good, honest, professional and affordable web designer. The task may not be as hard as it sounds!
To start, ask around. Check out the websites of other local businesses. Ask whom they used to build the site. You can also ask for names from your local Chamber of Commerce. When you find some likely candidates, be sure to look at the other sites they have designed. You might even want to ask for references, to see how their clients liked working with them. Its important that the designer be honest with you and that you have good communication and good rapport. (To see a list of other questions to ask your potential web designer, see the sidebar on this page.)
For most people, hiring someone to do the site is usually the best option. In the end, you have to determine whether its worth your time and money to go through the process of learning how to do it all yourself, or to just hire someone to do it, says Fodrey. For a lot of people, its just better to hire it outIll do what I do best, you do what you do best, and well both make money. Its the same reason that I dont put braces on my own kids teeth. I cant spend my time learning how to do it and keeping up on the latest techniques in orthodontia, and my dentist doesnt spend his time keeping up on the latest new techniques in website design and new operating systems. Even if it costs me twice as much to have someone else do it than it would if I did it, in the end we all make more money by concentrating our efforts on doing what we do best.
An Explosion For Your Buck
Despite the cost and time involved in finding someone to create and maintain a website for them, both Bastarache and Abramson agree that their websites have been a boon to business.
We thought a website would be a great way to expand our shop and reach new potential customers, and show our products and services. It has more than fulfilled our expectations. Although it hasnt stopped costing us, its by far the best thing we could have done. The site basically pays for itself. I wish we had done it sooner. says Roger Bastarache.
As of December 2004, the Halls site has had close to 10,000 visitors and over 100,000 hits. They have established several new accounts from as far away as Connecticut and recently did 725 custom medals for an Inauguration event this last January which was a direct result of their website.
Both R & W and Halls have experienced real growth in business since the sites went up. Before he revamped his website, Bastarache didnt have any overseas business at all. Now we get inquires from overseas on a weekly basis, he says. We just finished an order for the Bahamas, and weve done work for clients and companies in Poland, Mexico and Canada, as well places like the city of Berkeley, the New York Health Department and other places like that. Its amazing to me. I think to myself, dont they have engravers in their area?
Abramson agrees that his site has been helpful for expanding his client base. When you have your business in one location, theres only so much of the pie that you can cut up between you and your competition. The only way to really grow is to steal or trade customers, or go outside your immediate area. Weve found the best way to grow is to go outside the area, and unless youre going to hire a sales force, a website is by far the best way to do that. Its a good long-term investment.
Even when his website fails to generate an order from a client, Bastarache found a way to capture the clients information and give them a second chance to order something from R & W. If someone starts to order something but for some reason doesnt finish the order, it shows up for us. I created what I call an Attempt Letter and send it to those people, which says, in effect, that if they encountered a problem placing their order and would appreciate some assistance, please send us an E-mail or give us a call and we will do our best to help you. The letter concludes, If you were just testing the waters we look forward to serving you in the future. Bastarache estimates he closes about 60% of those leads.
You have to do it right, says Abramson, referring to building a site. In the beginning, we spent about $500 for the site and for hosting for a year and it was a waste. You get what you pay for. To be truly effective, your site must be customized to your own shop. And it really pays to have a designer who knows how search engines work. Because if its not on the search engines, it wont do you a bit of good.
Both men have suggestions for those thinking about creating a new site for their shop. Be sure you have an idea or a mission for your site. What do you want to accomplish? Bastarache advises . He explains that a lot of engravers sites he has visited are nice, and theyll explain what the shop offers, but they dont contain a call to action. We have a lot of places where people can E-mail us for information or ask questions. We try to give them reasons to get in touch with us. We even have a page for technical help, for people like me who arent very computer literate. That page doesnt really have anything to do with our shop, but it explains things like how to zip a file, why ordering online with us is safe and how Paypal works. We tried to look at our site from the outside in, thinking, what would we want to see as a new customer looking at this page? We made it as simple as possible.
If youre going to create a site, says Abramson, spend the money to do it right. Its like anything else: if you try to do it cheaply, youre probably wasting your money.
Its the best thing we could have done! exclaims Bastarache. I only wish we had done it sooner. Were not just getting a bang for our buck were getting an explosion!
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