Congratulations on deciding to become an entrepreneur and start your own business! Like many others, you may be wondering how you'll take your business to the web. This article will list a number of free tools you can use to create your online presence.
Things You Will Need* Internet Connection
* Credit Card (to purchase your domain name).
GET A DOMAIN NAME:When you decide to take your business online, a large part of your "brand" or "image" is your domain name. Think long and hard on this, as it is probably the most critical piece of your Internet brand you will decide. Yes, you can always change it later, but you risk losing customers that can't find you via your old name. You may also risk a drop in search-engine rankings if you have to change the domain name of your website/blog/etc later down the line.
As far as obtaining a domain name, you can easily purchase the domain name of your choice via a registrar such as GoDaddy (http://www.godaddy.com). There are numerous articles on the Internet describing how to purchase a domain name. This is one of the few places where you actually need to spend money, however, if you purchase your domain name as part of a package (say with Google Apps Standard as mentioned in Step 2), it will sometimes be as cheap as $10 for the year.
Step 2SETUP EMAIL FOR YOUR DOMAIN:
As you begin to setup your Internet presence, you'll also need to create an email address for yourself. While there are a plethora of places to do this, I generally recommend two:
1) Google Apps Standard (http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/group/index.html) - It is free for up to 50 users (i.e. 50 email addresses) within your business, and can be upgraded to the premier version at any time. You can configure Google Apps to work with your domain name, and can also later have it accept mail for multiple domain names. Google Apps Standard also includes tools for creating docs and spreadsheets in the cloud, as well as instant messaging, websites, and shared contacts. There is a document at eHow which detailsl step-by-step how to setup Google Apps Standard with a New Domain Name: http://www.ehow.com/how_5360214_setup-edition-new-domain-name.html
2) Microsoft Office Live for Small Business (https://signup.officelive.com/Signup/Default.aspx?sku=SBBase&signupsrc=SBHomeOOTab) - It is free to sign up for, but it only allows you up to 5 users. You will then need to pay for additional users (email addresses). This provides some integration with the Microsoft Office suite if you're interested. It is currently not as feature-rich as Google Apps, but it is catching up quickly.
Be sure to explore both options and determine which is the best fit for your business.
BUILD A WEBSITE AND BLOG:There are numerous sites that will let you build and host a website or blog for free. This is the second most important part of your Online Presence, as it is your "face" to the countless number of folks that find you via the Internet. You have a number of options with regards to building a website:
1) Create a Static Website: You can use the free tools built in to Google Apps (namely "Sites") or MS Office Live to create a free static website. You can run an Internet search and find numerous articles describing how to use these tools to create websites.
2) Create a FREE Blog Website: There are a number of free blogging platforms which you can use to create your website. The two most popular options are Blogger (http://www.blogger.com) and Wordpress (http://www.wordpress.com). Both of these can be customized to use your personal domain name, and there are numerous articles online which tell you how to setup and create content on these websites. A blog is useful if you wish to engage and build a community of folks on the Internet, and want to make regular updates available to your customers about the goings-on of your business.
3) Host Your Own Blog: If you sign up for a basic hosting plan (typically under $100/year) with companies such as BlueHost (http://www.bluehost.com) or FatCow (http://www.fatcow.com), you will be able to have more control over your website and/or blog. Both of these web hosts provide "one-click" installations for Wordpress, which you can then customize to your hearts content. One of the benefits of this is the ability to create "sticky" posts, which are basically a post (such as a welcome message) that is displayed on the home page of your blog regardless of when it was created.
At the very least, you will want to create the following pages for your website (or use these as the first few posts you create in your new blog):
1) A home page (or a "welcome" page) which is your main landing page and your attempt to grab a prospective customer's attention.
2) An "About Us" page listing details about your business and/or location (as appropriate).
3) A "Contact Us" page providing details on how potential customers can engage you for business.
4) A "Products" and/or "Services" page detailing the products/services your business provides
NOTE: You may want to look into "free templates" or "free themes" for your chosen website/blog platform. This will allow you to make your website slightly more pleasing to eye, without having to lay out a large amount of cash for custom development. Many of the free platforms include a number of "themes" or "templates" built-in that you can select and implement rather quickly.
Step 4SUBMIT YOUR SITE/BLOG TO SEARCH ENGINES:
Submitting your site/blog to search engines will allow your site to be indexed and is completely free. When your site/blog is indexed, it will allow potentials customers to find you when they search for particular words/phrases. Many times you will be asked to submit your "sitemap." This can easily be created using free tools on the Internet. It will also be created automatically if you're using Wordpress, Blogger, or Google Sites.
To submit your sites to search engines, check out this good reference at the "MakeUseOf" blog: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/how-to-submit-your-website-to-bing-google-for-more-traffic
NOTE: One other thing to look at is getting your business on the "local business listing" on a number of the search engines. My favorite is the Google Local Business Center (http://www.google.com/local/add) which allows you to put your business listing in Google Maps for free. You can even offer coupons/discounts online!
OPTIONAL - INTEGRATE SOCIAL MEDIAIf you wish to provide additional ways for your clients to engage with you, consider using any number of social media websites. Some of the common ways to engage via social media include the following:
1) LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com) - Social Networking for professionals
2) Facebook (http://www.facebook.com) - Create a "Page" for your business and allow your customers to "Friend" or "Follow" you.
3) Twitter (http://www.twitter.com) - Send short messages or updates about your business that your customers (or potential customers) can follow.
4) YouTube (http://www.youtube.com) - YouTube allows you to upload videos and share them with the Internet public. This is a fast-growing alternative or supplement to the traditional written blog.
As you can see, you can develop an online presence for your business without a large cash investment. While it may seem like a huge task that requires a lot of computer know-how, you can readily find tutorials and help articles on the Internet that can walk you step-by-step through completing the tasks listed above.