Planning Your Website
Before you ever pick up a book or buy software to build a website, there are several things that you need to think about. Planning a website is 60% of the work, the actual building of it 40%. So where does one start in planning a website?
Make sure you know the answers to the following questions before you begin.
1. Will this be a personal website, or a business website?
There is a big difference in the type of website you might build as well as the hosting that you might need. This all depends upon whether the site will be a personal webpage or blog, or a business website. It is best to always build with future expansion in mind, just as one does with a brick and mortar business. As you go through the list below, ask yourself these questions not only for the present, but for the future of your site as well, as this can save you much time and trouble down the road. For example, let's say that you are simply building a personal blog for the time being and let's say that your passion is dogs.
Presently, you will only need a simple set up, maybe some blogging software installed. However, will you in the future have a need for e-commerce? Maybe you'll sell little doggy t-shirts on your site at some point, or homemade peanut butter flavored dog treats. This would require a more comprehensive hosting package from your hosting provider as now you are getting into security issues, (SSL stands for Secure Socket Layer which is necessary when private or financial information is being transferred across the internet.).
Suppose you are a photographer, and you are building a site to showcase and sell your photographs. Not only will you need ecommerce capabilities, you may also have the need for an image gallery as well as a blog. The possibilities are endless which is why it will save you many headaches in the future if you plan your web site well before you build.
With the quickly advancing mobile technology, will you need a site that is mobile ready? Smart phones and tablets abound and I don't see them going away anytime soon. Make sure you plan this into your site from the beginning.
There are many types of hosting providers and some of those providers offer free open-source software along with their hosting packages. Some providers offer shopping cart software, message board software, photo gallery software, guest book software, CMS (content management software), help center software, live chat software, and blogging software. It is to your benefit, to do your research thoroughly on what your needs are for your web site.
2. Do you have a personal or company logo/colors?
A. If you already have a logo, do you have the digital file in your possession or can you get it? What format is it in?
B. If you already have colors, do you have the Pantone numbers for those colors? If you have a personal or company logo, it is imperative that you have possession of the digital files and know what format they are in.
One thing I have come across in the past with clients is that they think they have control of their digital logo files when in fact, they only have a jpg copy of it. It is important to have your logo in a vector format along with the color information and if there is a font used, it is good to know which font. If you do not have the logo in vector format and cannot obtain it, it may be necessary to have the logo recreated which will cause an extra expense. If you are capable of doing it yourself, that is a plus but many people are not or they do not have the software required to recreate it.
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3. Will you need a business card, letterhead, catalog or brochure?
When planning your website, if you already have an existing business card, letterhead or brochure, it is a good idea to build your site with continuity in mind. It is not a good idea to build a site with totally different colors, different logo, etc., unless you are planning on a complete makeover of your existing business identity. Business cards are very important for a site, especially if the site is tailored to a local market or locally targeted audience. If you are building a site for your handyman business, you obviously will want to have business cards, letter head, maybe some printed estimates and invoices that match your website.
If you are building a site for a blog about recipes that will target the entire world-wide web, a business card is not as important. Naturally the same applies to letter heads and brochures.
4. Do you already have a domain name?
Domain names are very important. If you already have a domain name, how long have you had it? Is it a good quality domain name? Domain names not only represent your business/personal site, they play an important part in optimizing your site to be found in the search engines. If you are new to all of this, you may be wondering what is so important about search engines. You can build the most beautiful website, and if it is not found in the search engines for the topic of whatever your website is about, that website will be completely worthless. (It would be like building the Taj Mahal deep in the Amazon Rain Forest and no one has directions on how to get to it.)
The longer a domain name has been around, the more weight it has in the search engines. A good domain name should use the extension .com. There are many other extensions out there and I'm not saying they are bad, but I am saying that a domain name with the extension .com is best. The extension .com has been around the longest and it is simply habit for people to type that in when trying to find a website.
Let's say someone sees an advertisement you put up somewhere and they go home and are trying to type your site name in by memory. If your site ends in .biz or .us or .info, and there is another site with the same domain name but the extension .com, guess where you just lost your customer? That's right, more than likely they went home and typed in your domain name with the extension .com. You just sent them to a competitor.
A good domain name will have some of your keywords in the name itself. For example, let's say you are building a site to sell organic dog treats. You may come up with a name such as "organicdogtreats.com" . Maybe your site is going to be the local photographer site, so you might try "(your town name here)photography.com or maybe your company name, janesmithphotography.com. (note here that even though I used a personal name, I still used one of what would be the keywords for a photography site, "photography".).
You also want to keep the domain name as short as possible and as easy to remember as possible. This comes in handy when people try to remember it because they saw it somewhere, and for word of mouth.
Let's say you are out in public, you own the photography studio, and you are fresh out of business cards. You run into a potential client. You are out of cards but your site has an easy to remember domain name. You tell your potential client that they can find you at janesmithphotography.com, where they can view your work, client testimonials as well as a current price list and contact information. :)
What happens if your domain name is too long? Back to the organic dog treat scenario. You run into a potential customer on the street, you're out of cards. You tell them they can find your site by going to "thebestorganicpeanutbutterandjellydogtreats.com".. ......forgedaboutit!!!
Your potential customer just went home, sat down at their computer and typed into google: peanutbutterdogtreats.com, peanutbutter&jellytreats.com, organicdogtreats.com, etc., and went to everyone else's site but YOURS. So, if possible, keep it simple, use the .com extension if it's available, keep your domain name easy to say (try saying it out loud and see how it sounds), easy to spell, and easy to REMEMBER. Very important!
5. Do you have a hosting account?
Hosting accounts can be purchased for as little as a couple of dollars per month, but you need to make sure of what is included in that price. Some hosting providers will advertise low, low prices per month for hosting but will then charge you for each little add-on down the road. Other providers will maybe charge a few dollars more per month up front, but there will be no hidden charges down the road. I personally recommend BlueHost. I have used them for over 9 years and have had no issues with them, they have great customer service, they are located in the United States, they offer quite a few free open source scripts and their up-time is excellent.
6. What exactly do you need your website to do for you/your business?
Websites can be used for many things. They may be used for a simple static page that advertises what your brick and mortar company has to offer, the physical address, the hours of operation, contact information, or they might be interactive, collecting information for you. Do you need a site that has download capabilities? Video capabilities? Audio capabilities? Will you need a CMS where you can assign user privileges to other people who will be authors on your site? Do you need a membership site? All of the above plays a part in what you need and where you will host your website.
7. Will you need social media tools built-in, like Digg, Facebook, Twitter, Stumble Upon?
Marketing is a huge part of making a website go from being lost in the Amazon Rain Forest to being in the top 10 of Google. Social media tools such as the ones listed above can be of great value in helping you achieve top rankings with your website. If you plan on using them (recommended) then you need to decide how you will incorporate them into your site. Most of the social media sites offer widgets and/or html code you can simply paste into your site.
8. Do you need a contact form?
Some websites simply post their contact information right on their website, others prefer to build a contact form that will be automatically sent to their email address when filled out on their website. Naturally the best solution to contacting you will depend on the type of site you are building. If you are in need of a contact form, you will need to use software that creates that for you or hire someone to build a form and install it, or you will need to learn how to do this yourself.
9. Do you need e-commerce?
Earlier we mentioned e-commerce. If you are planning on selling any product from your website, you will need an e-commerce enabled website. You will need a merchant account or PayPal account and you will need a payment gateway. Some websites make use of PayPal integration while others prefer to have their own merchant account with their bank or another company where payments will be deposited directly into their account. Both of the above will cost you the website owner, a small percentage of each transaction. Be very careful and read all the fine print when it comes to a merchant account through a bank or financial institution. Some of them will charge you quite a few different fees, so while they make it appear to be a cheaper fee or percentage of the actual transactions themselves, they make up for it in other fees.
It is a very wise decision to accept credit cards for your products/services online as most people in today's world no longer write and mail paper checks or money orders. Most transactions online are completed with the use of credit cards, PayPal or automatic bank transfers. Your site will need a shopping cart. PayPal has a shopping cart that can be integrated into a website or if you choose to host your own, there are several open source shopping carts available. Zen Cart and OsCommerce are two of my favorites. If you are using Joomla! for your site software, VirtueMart is available. If your site is built with WordPress, there are several shopping carts available for that as well.
10. Will you put out a weekly or monthly newsletter from your site?
Newsletters are a great way to interact with your website visitors/customers and to keep you/your company foremost in their minds. Newsletters do not have to be anything huge but do need to be relevant to your site/company's focus and they should give something of value to your readers. It could be a tip, advice, a short how to article, and it should always be linked back to your site in some way.
There are some really good email services available, my favorite being Vertical Response. These email service providers take all the hassle out of watching out so you don't do something that is considered spamming, they keep track of all your emails and who opens them, what they click on inside of them, etc. Emails can be created in advance and set to go out on a preset schedule or they can be set to go out automatically when some one signs up.
Keep in mind that customers on these lists have signed up on your site and are ASKING for information from you. They WANT your newsletters, they are asking to give you their business...it doesn't get any better than that.
11. Will there be other people be editing the site?
This is something to take into consideration as well. With the above example for a site, more than likely you would not have anyone else updating your site. Let's say you had a site that hosted how-to articles. You may want to have the capability to have "members" and assign user permissions as far as who can write or post what. If this is the case, I would strongly recommend you look into a CMS such as Joomla! or WordPress as these capabilities are already built-in.
12. Who is your target audience?
You must know who your target audience is to optimize your site for the search engines and any marketing you might do. Who do you want to attract to your site? Are you targeting visitors who are local to you or are you targeting visitors world-wide? Male, female, young, old, singles, families, businesses, retail, wholesale?
13. How will people find your website?
Will you rely strictly on search engines or do you plan on using some sort of marketing program? There are many different ways to market your business/website.
14. How will you be building your site?
Do you already have some html/css knowledge or are you completely new to all of this? Will you be hand coding from scratch or will you be using some sort of web design software? There are many html editors on the market today. Some are quite pricey if you are simply going to build one site for yourself while it may be worth the investment if you are planning on going into the web design business. There are also some free html editors available and a google search will bring those up for you.
15. What will you need for your website layout?
Now that you have all the information in your head for your site and what you want it to do for you, you will need to get an idea of what will be best for the layout. Some of the basics are the navigation and contact information. You always want to make it easy for your visitors/potential customers to find the information they are looking for. If your visitors/potential customers have to hunt around your site for the information for too long, they are likely to click off of your site and onto someone else's. Once you get them there, you want to keep them there.
Navigation and contact information (or at least a link to it) should be at the top of the page right in front of your visitor. It doesn't hurt to put it down the left or right side of the page as well. Now you need to decide how many pages and how you will place them. It is easiest for me to simply get out a piece of paper and pencil and draw it out. Let's say you are building a site for a home remodeling business. We'll start with an index page (or a main page), a contact form page, an About Us page, maybe a Services Offered page, a references or Testimonials page, a Portfolio page of past work (with before and after photos) and maybe a blog about DIY home remodeling. So far, you have 7 pages. Your chart might look something like this:
Let's put the actual design layout on paper, or you can do it in Photoshop or a similar graphics program, whichever you are more comfortable with. I did the layout below in Photoshop.
I realize this isn't very appealing but keep in mind, this is simply the layout of where things will go. At the very least, you need to have an idea of what you want your site to look like. Colors, graphics, navigation bars, buttons and the like can be changed at any time. This should give you a few things to think about before beginning your site and hopefully, it will save you some mistakes and headaches along the way!