Your site – why, what, where and how

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.

We all know the facts, and we know the figures. The internet is the single most powerful tool that we have at our disposal. It provides us with an instant and affordable way of reaching the world, and gives the consumer the chance to both obtain and try out our software for free. Pretty simple stuff. It follows from this that our web sites are the equivalent of our store window displays – not only do they need to catch the eye of the passer-by, but they must also look professional, interesting, inviting and clean.

But before we cut the ribbon and break-open the champagne, let’s take a step back, and do a little planning. While improvisation and the plan-as-you-go methods of working certainly have their merits, the structure and basic principles of a website do require a fair amount of forethought and planning. So many websites start off as a “one-product” website, expand with a few more programs, add a bit of personal information, a few resources and so on.

Nothing wrong with this in theory, but in practice the result is usually a site that’s difficult to navigate, with piles of information and resources littered all over the place. Realistically, you have to assume that once you’ve setup your website, you won’t have the time to give it a complete overhaul or a new look for quite some time. So make sure you start on a good foot. Build a good base and you’ll be able to expand your site and product range with very little difficulty. Jump-in head first and you’ll soon find yourself drowning in information overload and a mass of tangled links. There is a reason why spiders are so methodical when building their webs; if you want to catch lunch, follow their example!

Plan Your Website Carefully
Your website is an important part of your business, and may well turn out to be the very base of your whole structure. Plan it accordingly. Start by working out the aim of the site. Is it a publicity tool for one particular program? Is it for your company as a whole? Are you trying to attract new customers, or offer a service to existing clients? Don’t try to do everything at once, and be careful not to lose site of your goals. It’s very easy to get carried away and forget what you were trying to do at the beginning.

Bear in mind that if you’re only using the site as a glorified promotional leaflet, you’re throwing away some serious opportunities. A leaflet can’t interact with your existing or potential clients, a website can. A leaflet can’t make sure that people will keep coming back to read it again, nor can it make it easy for you to contact the reader, offer to put itself somewhere accessible, or keep updating itself on a constant basis. As with all promotional techniques – keep it focused, don’t overdo it, and keep it in good taste.

The next big decision is what to put on your website. It seems fairly simple and obvious, but a large number of companies are making the same mistakes time and time again. The most important thing is to make sure that it’s clear who you are, what you’re offering, and how you can be contacted. Not every visitor will come via the front page, so you have to make sure that every page on your site has this information. A handy hint is to also remember that someone may print a copy of the page for future reference. Make sure that each page has your website URL on it – not all browsers will print the current URL, and some are unrecognisable. Cover all bases, and take nothing for granted.

Making your site easy to navigate is also critical. Don’t assume that you’re always going to have just three or four pages; the content of your site is as sure to expand as you are to be successful. As long as you’ve planned your site reasonably well, setting-up a good navigation system should be fairly simple. Make sure that people can not only find the page they’re looking for, but also that it doesn’t take twenty-plus clicks and guesses. Structure is critical here – you shouldn’t try to link to every page on your site, or there’ll be too many bewildering options. And watch out for the ultimate boo-boo – having a page with no links leading in. Sounds stupid, but it can happen.

Choosing A Web Host
When all of this is under control, the next big decision is going to be where to host your site. There are few subjects guaranteed to be as frustrating as finding this information for yourself; ask on the newsgroups and you’ll get anywhere up to 50 suggestions, none of which will agree with each other. The bad news is that choosing a web host is critical. If it’s your publicity tool, means of contact and sales-point all in one, you want it to be fast, and above all reliable.

An important fact to consider is that the actual amount of disk space that you get is one of the least important criteria. Obviously you have to make sure that there’s enough for your different files (and versions), with room to expand in the future, but this is quite simple. The options that you need will be determined by your own requirements and technical abilities. If you’re comfortable with UNIX and plan to work with Telnet and FTP, then by all means do so. If you’re looking for a bit more hand-holding however, many hosts offer some form of administrative control panel. Look into the choices – there are serious differences between competing companies.

Look out for how many separate POP mail accounts you’re allowed to setup. If you want to set-up mailboxes for individual employees in the future, then you’ll need more than one. A golden rule of setting up your site is to constantly think ahead – what might be, what could develop, and what opportunities may present themselves in the future. Don’t assume that you’re going to stay at the same level now – if your software is good, you’ll expand, and so will your website.

Another golden hint. One of the more useful features of my own host is that I can access my mail from any browser anywhere. In days gone by I often felt umbilically attached to my laptop when venturing more than 500 metres from home. Nowadays it lies at the bottom of a draw, and hasn’t been plugged in for almost a year. Wherever I am in the world, I only need a browser and connection to the internet, and I can check and reply to all my mail, quickly and simply.

But for every example of what you should be looking for in a web host, there are just as many things to watch out for. Beware of “unlimited bandwidth” – it really doesn’t exist, and most host’s small print covers them for this one. Most have surcharges for when you cross over a certain monthly threshold – if you’re not careful, you could end up paying a lot of money when your software starts catching on. And the sites that do offer unlimited bandwidth – chances are that their speeds will be far from great; if someone needs an hour to download a 500 KB file, you’ll lose them for sure. Make sure you don’t.

Another important consideration is the technical support. Unless you really know your way around these murkiest of murky waters, you can safely assume that you are going to run into problems at some point. Remember that your website will probably prove to be critical to your business and the success of your product; if it goes down, you want to know that it won’t take a week to fix. Sounds ridiculous? Not at all. Few things in life are more frustrating than your site not working, and not being able to contact your server. Make sure you know how you can contact them, and whether there will be someone there 24 hours a day. And think things through. If the only way they can be contacted is via a form on their server, what happens when their own site goes down, or the form doesn’t work?

A final word of warning. Many hosts offer “uptime guarantees” that more often are not are meaningless. The majority offer some variation of “if your site is not up and running for at least 95% of any given month, the next month is free”. What this means is that your site can be down for thirty-six hours each month, before they’ll compensate you. And the compensation? A free month (usually around $20-$25 in value) when exactly the same thing can (and probably will) happen again. How many visitors and sales do you think you can lose if your site goes down for 24 hours? And that’s before taking into account people assuming that your site no longer exists, search engine listings and links being removed and so on.

Choosing a web host is likely to be one of the more critical decisions you make. On one hand web-hosting is cheap, and fairly painless to setup. But moving to a new host is a headache – as well as transferring the domain details (which can in itself take 48 hours or more to propagate throughout the internet), there’s a fair amount of admin and technicalities to work through. So choose your host wisely. You might also want to make sure they know what to expect with software authors, as their demands are quite different from most businesses. Steve Lee’s SWREG seems to have a very good name among software authors, and also offers web-hosting. Details may be found at website. As always, the best recommendation is word of mouth. Look into it carefully.

Does It Work In All Browsers?
Moving swiftly onwards to the final topic. Even among golden rules, there are kings of golden rules, and this one is the most important of them all. Don’t exclude anyone from your site. It’s difficult enough getting visitors to come to your site in the first place, but if the first thing they see is that their browser won’t display your pages, you’ve lost them. And there are so many ways you can lose them.

Different people have different browsers; if you’re using some sort of fancy Active-X component that will only work with the latest version of Internet Explorer, then you’re automatically pushing away a fair number of potential buyers. The same applies for anything that needs a plug-in – FLASH may well look great, but if there’s no non-FLASH alternative, another one has just got away. And believe it or not, some people do still browse in a 640 x 480 display, sometimes with only 256 colours. Make sure your pages fit, and that anyone can view them. The same applies to ALT tags on your images. Many partially-sighted or blind surfers rely on these for finding their way around the web – if yours are empty or just say “BLYLOG.JPG” then listen for those footsteps as yet another sale is lost. The colours used are also important. We’ve all left a site in a hurry as a result of revoltingly garish colours, but don’t overlook the fact that the partially sighted will find some colour combinations almost impossible to read. Again – cover all your bases. You won’t find many store entrances five feet up from the ground, as few shoppers will have either the equipment or athletic ability needed to get up there. Make sure your site isn’t doing the same thing.

While we’re on the subject, a quick word on my favourite hatred. The longest barge-pole will not be anywhere near long enough for me to touch JavaScript. In short – it stinks. It’s quick, nasty and dangerous. Not only does it automatically exclude many browsers, generate error code and warnings in others, but it can also cause some browsers to crash – something that the user will probably not appreciate. And that’s before mentioning the security risks. If you still think you want to go ahead with these risks, for the sake of a link that lights up, then by all means go ahead. I for one will avoid looking through your site, and there’ll be others.

A few final tips. Page titles are crucial – not just for the search engines, but because many browsers will list the bookmarks by their titles. Make sure they know what your site is when they come across it, and can find it again if they need to.

And aside from the visitors, don’t forget to be kind on yourself too. Use a logical system for storing your pages and files – name pages in a way that will be easy for you to recognise, and use separate directories and sub directories to keep things tidy. At the very least, keep all your images in a separate directory. If your site expands, the last thing you want is 200+ pages in your directory with mystifying filenames and extensions.

Your website is almost certain to start as a small collection of pages, but is hopefully destined to expand. The Quality-Shareware website started out as four pages, that grew to several hundred within twelve months. Never lose site of the fact that many potential buyers will judge you and your company by what they see on your website. Make sure it’s not only visible and accessible, but has the professional air and confidence that comes from having a good product, and a firm base. Be seen, be sold.

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.