Putting Up a Business Web Site: A Step by Step Guide
by Tom Bunzel (email@example.com)
Any business that has not yet developed an online presence has probably failed to do so for one main reason: a confusing array of decisions and apparent obstacles.
Let's examine what is essentially a three-step process for most small- to medium-sized businesses.
Step 1 – Name registration and host selection.
Step 2 – Site development, authoring and implementation. Step 3 – Site maintenance, security and backup.
Step 3 – Site maintenance, security and backup.
Name Registration and Host Selection
This initial series of steps is often the major obstacle to a business going online. First, why do you need to register a name?
And what exactly is involved in hosting?
Many people already have an Internet access account with an ISP (service provider) such as America Online or Earthlink, and in many cases these accounts feature a ``free Web site." In fact, chances are you have seen small business sites in AOL's member area while surfing the Web.
The key is that these sites' addresses are basically ``sublet" from the ISP–for example to reach one of my Web sites on Earthlink, a user needs to type ``http://home.earthlink.net/~tbunzel".
This isn't very user-friendly or particularly professional looking. So how does one get a unique and easy address–or ``domain"–like www.microsoft.com?
This merely involves the simple act or registering your ``URL" (Universal Record Locator or address) with the InterNic–the international body that records and assigns IP (Internet Protocol) addresses.
The cost for this service is $70 for two years and it can usually be handled by a host–or a service provider with whom you contract to make your site available online. In order for a host to provide this service, you or the host must obtain the URL and registration information, and many hosts will in fact do a search for free and then sign your company up as part of their service. A bill for the one-time registration will then come directly to you.
While some hosts or services may claim to register you for free, it is their registration service that is ``free," the cost of the actual fee payable to InterNic probably cannot be avoided.
The search is merely a way to determine that no one else has yet selected your unique domain name. If you want something like www.plumbing.com, you are probably out of luck. But if you can live with www.BrentwoodPlumbing.com, your chances are a lot better.
So why do you need a host? What if you register yourself directly–you have a modem and maybe you have installed even Microsoft FrontPage, which comes with its own ``Web server"?
Well, just as most homes don't have their own freeway onramp, your business almost certainly doesn't have a direct connection to the massive network infrastructure that comprises the Internet backbone.
And even if it did–perhaps you have rented a suite in one of the new Internet broadband-connected buildings–do you really want to maintain a staff of technical experts and the equipment that will allow hundreds or hopefully thousands of users to access (and perhaps hack) your site each day?
Chances are the answer is no–so you will look for a hosting service. You will want to choose a basic plan that is ``scalable." That means if your site needs grow–for example if you want to sell a product using a credit card or
expand in some other fashion–you can move up to a higher service option. Basic plans with reputable hosting services typically cost between $25 and $45 per month. This means that once you (or the host) have registered your
domain name, a piece of electronic turf is made available on the host's server where you can post your Web site.
You will want to choose a basic plan that is ``scalable." That means if your site needs grow–for example if you want to sell a product using a credit card or expand in some other fashion–you can move up to a higher service option.
Basic plans with reputable hosting services typically cost between $25 and $45 per month. This means that once you (or the host) have registered your domain name, a piece of electronic turf is made available on the host's server where you can post your Web site.
Typically this will be password protected with your own private user ID, and it will come with a maximum number of megabytes of storage and data transfer per month. If you exceed this amount (generally you won't with your first site) you will be asked to move to a higher priced plan.
Other features for such hosting accounts include:
· Set up with your own domain name (again, registration is generally separate) · FrontPage Extensions–essential to take advantage of Microsoft's Web authoring package and
extremely useful for businesses that already use the Office 97 or Office 2000 set of products. · A set of email addresses and mailboxes for servicing information requests from users. · Autoresponders–special email
addresses from which you can send specified email with product or service information. · Tech support · CGI Scripts–ways to gather information in ``forms" for databases.
· FrontPage Extensions–essential to take advantage of Microsoft's Web authoring package and extremely useful for businesses that already use the Office 97 or Office 2000 set of products.
· A set of email addresses and mailboxes for servicing information requests from users.
· Autoresponders–special email addresses from which you can send specified email with product or service information.
· Tech support
· CGI Scripts–ways to gather information in ``forms" for databases.
Hosting services like access services have become ``commoditized"–the main differentiation generally being pricing. To find a good service ask for referrals, and then investigate the site for the depth of online resources–such as easy explanations for using authoring programs such as FrontPage.
Shopping only for price may be a mistake. If you are on hold a long time with the sales department, for example, just imagine how difficult it may be to reach tech support.
But once you are registered with a domain (``yourcompany.com") and have established an online account with a host, you are ready to create your site.
Note: print edition is continued here
Site Development, Authoring and Implementation
A few years ago, to put up a Web site one really needed to be a programmer and a designer or hire such a specialist. Now, the programs for creating a Web site are essentially just like any other computer tools–they are typically embellished word processing or desktop publishing programs.
This is because a Web page is basically a blob of text authored in HTML, hypertext markup language. This means that when such a specially created file is opened by a Web browser, such as Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator, the text within the file is specially coded to tell the browser how to display it–which text is centered and bold, where pictures should be placed, etc.
Note that supporting files such as images are not part of the Web page itself–rather they are ``referenced" by ``tags" in the HTML.
Such tags are inside of brackets ``<" and look like this:
Such tags are inside of brackets ``<" and look like this:
<img src=/image.gif >
A line of code like this will tell the browser to display the image called Image.Gif. Other code will determine where it is to be displayed and in what size, and how text may wrap around it. (This code is similar to the ``reveal codes" familiar to old Word Perfect users.)
But the best thing about this code is you can forget about it.
That is because the premier Web authoring programs, like Microsoft FrontPage, Macromedia Dreamweaver and Adobe GoLive generate the code for you from a graphical interface. And they facilitate the process of uploading and maintaining a complex site with its interconnected hyperlinks.
No matter which tool you choose, you do need to concentrate on the formatting and storage of the supporting files, especially images. These need to be properly created and located, and optimized to be the smallest possible size to minimize downloading. Research has shown that visitors to a Web site will move on within seven seconds of boredom or inactivity.
So which tool do you use?
If your site is relatively simple, you can use the Composer module of Netscape Navigator to create a series of Web pages with links, images and text. Sophisticated word processors like Corel Word Perfect and every program in Microsoft Office 2000 can ``save as HTML"–which means they can create one or more Web pages.
But if you are a Microsoft Office user, take a good look at FrontPage, which is included in Office 2000 and interfaces very well with other Office products. As long as your hosting service features the ``FrontPage Extensions," using this tool to maintain your site becomes a breeze.
If FrontPage extensions are loaded on the host's server; your local copy of FrontPage will be able to connect directly with the server, and with one simple mouse click you can ``publish" one page or an entire Web site. In addition, the proprietary Microsoft ``goodies" included with FrontPage (themes for common backgrounds and navigation; templates to create user forms for database entry) will be available to you.
Using FrontPage without the extensions loaded on the server is fine, but it is like choosing to buy a Jeep without four-wheel drive. You get many of the features but never achieve its full potential.
FrontPage is terrific for putting a functional Web site up fairly quickly, and managing the site individually, or with a team of contributors. The program comes with the usual Microsoft ``wizards" to streamline site creation, and a task manager to delegate and stay on top of responsibilities among a staff.
FrontPage's major competitor is Macromedia Dreamweaver. If you love creative Web sites and rich graphics, this program will be your obvious choice. It interfaces particularly well with Fireworks and Flash, Macromedia's very popular image editing and optimization and multimedia tools.
Macromedia does a great job of page layout and also has a site management module that allows you to transfer your revised pages to a Web site quickly and easily. Proponents of the program will tell you that it also lets you create forms and interactivity (higher levels with an add-on called ``Attain") fairly easily, but Dreamweaver's main strength is in its ability to handle complex graphics.
It also has a very easy interface for creating ``rollovers"–those neat buttons and navigation areas that change in their look or depth as a mouse shows that they are ``hot spots." The key to mastering Dreamweaver is understanding the use of ``Layers"–placeholders on a Web page into which text and graphics can be loaded and for which script is automatically generated to determine their placement, visibility and interactivity.
The third authoring tool worth mentioning is certainly GoLive from Adobe, which already has one legendary graphics tool in Photoshop. GoLive has many of the features of FrontPage and Dreamweaver, and probably leans more to graphical intensity than site management as its main strength.
GoLive also generates script that lets you add simple animation to Web pages, and control interactive elements, in ways similar to Dreamweaver and FrontPage.
If you happen to be a user of the Corel suite of programs, along with the popular Corel Draw imaging program, you can also create fine looking and behaving Web pages with Word Perfect.
Any of these authoring programs will serve you well; if you are an Office user and your host provides FrontPage extensions, and you are reading this article as a newcomer, that may be the obvious choice.
Authoring your Web site is but one task. Any set of tools also should help you maintain it–meaning that you can easily update pages or graphics on the remote site with a minimum of trouble, and keep track of the latest changes.
Another aspect of Web site creation and maintenance, however, is image creation and optimization. Unless your site will be text-only or intensive, a rarity today, you will want to post images of some kind. To import these images, depending upon their source, you will need either a scanner or a digital camera. In some cases, if you have a video capture or firewire board, a digital camcorder is also an option.
In general digital images are very large in size and frequently they are not exactly what you want on your site. You may need to crop, resize or sharpen an image. Also, when manipulated or scanned, an image may not yet be in the precise format to exist within a browser. These two required formats are ``GIF" and ``JPG." Gifs are lower resolution images–typically drawings or diagrams while JPG images are higher quality photographs compressed in size to download quickly.
A special type of GIF is a compressed series of images that play in sequence to be shown as an animation–or Animated Gif. Be careful with Animated GIFs; they can get very large very quickly. And in terms of screen size, unless you want visitors to have to scroll around your images, keep it to a maximum resolution of around 640X480. This is still a common screen resolution for full screen for many users, and within the parameters of the most common configuration in use today–800X600.
To create these image formats and store them locally in just the way you want you need an image editor. The king of them all is Adobe Photoshop; and it has a cheaper very efficient cousin called PhotoDeluxe, which comes bundled with many digital cameras.
The aforementioned Fireworks is the Macromedia product and it has many sophisticated features that make it a winner in this department–including the ability to ``slice" portions of images and place them directly into Web pages.
Fireworks features an automated save with the ability to preview different levels of compression as either a GIF or JPG image. One common mistake made by first time Web authors is simply scanning large images and placing them into Web pages without optimization. Again, this may increase the time it takes for a page to display, driving site visitors away.
A very inexpensive program with many of the same features as Fireworks and Photoshop, but less well known, is Ulead's PhotoImpact, which also comes with a very useful Album module to keep track of images easily. An added benefit to PhotoImpact is that it takes up very little room on your hard drive.
Finally, Microsoft Office 2000 users will get another freebie included with the office suite–Microsoft Photo Editor has most of the imaging features you will need and lets you scan or import digital photographs in the same way as the tools above. It is included in Microsoft Office Professional.
How Do These Tools Work?
Generally your image editor and authoring program will work hand in hand.
The home page will often need to be saved as ``INDEX.HTM" (Windows) or ``INDEX.HTML" (for a Unix server). (More on this later) The reason for this is that let's say your site is www.mysite.com–a user can find the home page just by typing the URL. Any other naming convention–let's say you called the home page ``mysite.htm" – would require the browser to look for http://www.mysite.com/mysite.htm.
The Windows vs. Unix thing is sort of tricky. FrontPage, GoLive and Dreamweaver will generally take care of this issue for you when they ``publish" your site, but it's worth knowing about. Basically Unix servers require the four-character ``HTML" extension on the home page or index page. Unfortunately a Windows/Dos/NT machine can't create this extension locally–so it needs to be done on the Unix server itself –remotely– as the site is published.
In most cases, when you are doing site management, these tools and FTP clients (other tools that let you do file transfer from your local machine to a server) let you view both the local and remote directories or folders side by side.
In these cases, a user can generally highlight or select a remote file and rename it as a four character extended HTML file on the server.
(If this file is later moved back down to the Windows machine, however, it will generally cut off the last portion of its extension to ``htm" and rejoin its Windows and DOS cousins with this lingering limitation).
In summary, once you have organized your content, created a navigation structure and authored your pages with their hyperlinks and images in the form and file structure you desire, and have previewed them through your local browser, you are ready to post them to the server on your host.
In all of the Big Three programs this involves connecting to the server from your local machine, entering a proper user name and password (remember the issue of security) and then invoking either a ``Publish" or ``Put" command.
If you have configured your program correctly, your local machine will connect with the server, and your piece of real estate on the remote machine will appear as just another ``network drive" or folder. As transfer is implemented, your files with all of their unique characteristics will soon reside on the server.
If you are connected to the Internet as you author your site, you can sometimes even ``Save" new files directly to your server, just as you would locally. This makes publishing much quicker, bypassing the step of first creating the site locally. However, it is more risky, since the source site no longer resides on your local machine–if it is ``hacked" on the server or you decide to co-locate or move it elsewhere, you may have a problem recreating it exactly as it existed on the remote machine or server.
Site Maintenance, Security and Back-up
Therefore, it is strongly recommended that a full version of your site always be created, maintained and backed up locally. This is usually not a big issue, since Web files are tiny and often an entire site can be saved to a single floppy or Zip disk.
What is trickier is maintaining the hierarchy of navigation and relative location of files. When creating hyperlinks be sure to use ``relative" links to files within your site so that they can be moved to other location and retain their connection.
For example, by keeping all your images in a folder called ``Images" in the local Web directory and in relatively the same location on the server, these files can be updated and maintained more easily.
Since many sites maintain their ``stickiness" or allure by being frequently updated, maintenance issues are paramount in importance. Doing a sloppy job of site maintenance can lead to hyperlinks that don't work and frustrate visitors, leading to complaints and fewer repeat visits.
Larger sites use database structure or new authoring tools with ``XML" capability so that updated content can simply be ``poured" into a ``mold" of a preformatted navigational structure daily, hourly or even updated in real time.
Small- and medium-sized businesses with inexpensively hosted sites will generally not avail themselves of this level of functionality–but if you are contemplating a catalog type e-commerce site you will need to consider how you will keep the latest product images online, and update pricing and availability information quickly and easily.
If this is the sort of functionality you have in mind, you may want to hire a database consultant or outsource the hosting functions to a provider that specializes in ``back office" applications and functionality.
But for most small- to medium-sized businesses the concept of a Web site entails putting a compelling presence on a server where prospective customers can get information and where their brand and corporate presence is embellished.
This end can be achieved in a relatively short time by following three basic steps: choosing and registering a name and hosting service, putting your site up with an off-the-shelf authoring and image editing tool and maintaining your site through frequent updates the same way you would maintain your local area network or desktop computer.
Only the file types and names have been changed, to protect the innocent.
Tom Bunzel is a freelance writer and tech consultant based in Los Angeles. His book ``Digital Video on the PC" was published by Micro Publishing Press, and he currently concentrates on Web development and training in Microsoft Office and business applications. You can reach him through his Web site (http://www.painlesspc.com ) or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For related articles, see these WWWiz back issues
Hosting (Among Many Others)
Adobe (GoLive, Photoshop, Photo Deluxe)
Macromedia (Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Flash)
Microsoft (FrontPage, Photo Editor)
Corel (Word Perfect and Corel Draw)