The following words appear on the very top of today’s Wall Street Journal in bold, red letters: “The Journal Report: Creating a Website for Almost Nothing.” Instead, the title should have been, “Creating a Website that Does Almost Nothing.”
The Wall Street Journal is offering bad advice to millions of small business readers by recommending an “on the cheap,” “don’t bother to think it through” approach to the 64% of small businesses (businesses under 100 employees) that don’t yet have a website. I find it ironic that while the WSJ continues to tout the fact that the web is changing the world, the author, Vauhini Vara, would have you think that your company can capitalize on this by launching a cheap website that is nothing more than a hope and a prayer. After reading the article it is clear to me that “objective” experts informed very little of the information provided. In fact, the first thing I did when I finished the article was to see if it was labeled as an advertising supplement.
Below I have analyzed the sections of the article and have added my own commentary.
1 – Buy a Web Address
The suggestion is to buy a domain from low-cost providers such as Go Daddy, Tucows, or Register.com.
My take: It is in this section that my suspicions about the article being a glorified advertising supplement were raised. Sure, the idea of registering a domain on the cheap makes a lot of sense, and GoDaddy surely lets you do that for less than $10 per year. The article does list two other sources of domain registrations beyond GoDaddy.com (Register.com and Tucows); however it is a bit disingenuous. First, Register.com sells domain names for $35 per year, and anyone that compared Register.com to GoDaddy.com would see very clearly that GoDaddy is the cheaper of the two. If the article was well-researched, another provider like Yahoo! Small Business would have been listed instead because they, along with many other providers, sell very inexpensive domain names. How about their recommendation of Tucows? Just try going to Tucows.com. Domains are not even sold through that website! Rather than list true competitors to GoDaddy, the article instead lists shills: one source that doesn’t compete on price (the objective of the article), and another source that doesn’t sell domains directly through its main website.
2 – Find a Home
Vauhini’s suggestion for finding a web hosting company: Find a provider that will host you for free in exchange for placing ads on your website.
My take: I think any business owner with some sense recognizes that it is not a best-practice to advertise the services of other companies, especially your competitors (which is the likely scenario), on your own website. There are inexpensive web hosting companies that offer decent service; if your business can’t afford $10 per month in web hosting fees then your priorities are in the wrong place.
3 – Build Your Site
The feedback here is that you can use templates and “wizards” to construct your website, although Vauhini acknowledges that this might make the website generic. Additionally, Vauhini advises that in addition to an “about us” and a “contact page,” a restaurant may want to have a “menu” tab, and an online retailer might want to have a “store” tab.
My take: So much of the most important information is missing!
First, yes it is very true that these wizards produce websites that appear to have been constructed by templates. As the number of scam websites increase online, and as competitors proliferate, the credibility and panache that comes from a well-designed website becomes more and more important.
Second, putting aesthetics aside for a second, the organization of a website and the thought that goes into the content is of critical importance as well. Don’t let your web design software dictate your marketing strategy! Sure, you can throw up a quick website, but if the marketing messages and the organization don’t quickly answer the questions “what can you do for me,” “why should I care,” and “how do I contact you,” you’re at an extreme disadvantage. This requires human thought, and this human thought should come before the site begins construction.
Third, I wonder if Vauhini is aware that small businesses, the apparent focus of her article, do billions of dollars each year in online sales. Exclusive Concepts works with hundreds of successful e-commerce companies and I can share that simply listing products under a “store” tab, as is suggested, is not a good approach. If the focus of the website is to sell many products, the site should be organized into categories, and there should be one tab for each main category. If the site only sells one or several products a different approach may be utilized, but I can’t think of any scenario in which a “store” tab would be optimal.
4 – Get Paid
This section talks about adding functions to your site that allow visitors to check out and make a purchase. The recommendation is to use a service like PayPal. Vauhini says, “this basic service isn’t fancy – if you want a full-blown retail site, you’ll probably want to buy special e-commerce software.”
My Take: PayPal itself is a wonderful tool and many shoppers trust it, however as Vauhini’ seems to indicate, PayPal itself as the only means of accepting payment through a website is not very scalable. The alternative to PayPal, however, it not simply “buying special e-commerce software,” which sounds both complicated and expensive. We work with a lot of stores that utilize Yahoo! Merchant Solutions, which is a hosted platform (no software to buy, only a monthly fee) that allows you to manage your website easily, that is search engine friendly, and that integrates a lot of tools like order management, shipping management, etc. There are other solutions as well. Yes, PayPal fills an initial need, but it really is not a long-term solution in and of itself, and the characterization that “buying software” is the alternative isn’t accurate.
5 – Get Sponsors
The advice here is that you can integrate your site with programs like Google AdSense to display ads on your website and generate revenue when people click those ads.
My Take: I assume the advice here is meant more for writers, consultants, and people that plan on offering lots of free articles and content to build websites and blogs that generate enough traffic to actually bring serious clicks, and thus serious revenue. Only a very small percentage of professionals actually make more than $100/month from such sponsorships, and this is an utter distraction for most small business owners. I don’t see why this advice is included in this article. Ignore it completely.
6 – Get Known
The implicit feedback was to use search engine optimization, and to follow a multi-step process of selecting keywords that are relevant to your business, incorporating those keywords into your site, and taking advantage of localized websites like CitySearch.com.
My Take: The author interviewed Bruce Clay who certainly knows his stuff, and who is a resource even for other advanced SEOs. The feedback included in the article is “high level” although it does get into some specifics. Largely speaking the feedback is good although it leaves out an exploration of the critical concept of link building, without which most small businesses will have trouble getting ranked in search engines. I assume the reason that so much was left out was that there simply was not enough space to cover all of the relevant topics.
As a small business owner you have a choice. You can “throw up a website,” or you can try to harness the power of the Internet to grow your company. The first approach has a very low chance of success and relies on “luck.” Personally, I don’t like to rely on chance, and my advice to small business owners is that you don’t have to. Look at the Internet strategically and turn it into a competitive advantage for your business. Research your competitors and the market for your goods and services online, and create a web presence that distinguishes your business from the swath of other players that are online. To do this you will want to find partners in the design and online marketing arena who are eager to coach you so that you can make decisions that will serve as the foundation of your Internet strategy. Using the Internet I’ve seen very small businesses turn into profitable, million-dollar companies, but if the online channel is not approached as a serious matter that is worthy of great thought and deliberation, the odds of success will be diminished.