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How to get your business online quickly and affordably.

Recent studies indicate that a surprising number of small businesses–upwards of 40 percent–still don’t have Web sites because they don’t think they have the budget, technical capabilities or the time. And in all fairness, you can’t blame them. It’s easy to understand how SMB and SOHO owners might be intimidated by their larger competitors’ sleek and sophisticated Web sites and assume they can’t have something similar.

Well, these folks can wipe the sweat from their brows, because the truth is that the Internet is more accessible now than ever. The costs associated with having a Web site have never been lower. The technology required to create and maintain a solid and productive site has become so easy to use that even those whose previous computer experience consists of operating the on/off switch can simply point-and-click their way toward having a Web site up and running in less than an hour. As for the time investment, there are now numerous cost-effective and extremely low-maintenance solutions available for looking after a Web site.

You Make the Call

Simply put, small businesses can have their own piece of the Web. And those that don’t are creating a barrier to success as competitors–large, small, local, national, whatever–increasingly use the Internet to prosper.

The best on-ramp to the information superhighway for SMB/SOHO users lies with a Web hosting company. These are third-party companies that will sell you the space on the Internet where your site will be located. Your site is hosted on their equipment in their facilities with their tech people looking after it to ensure that it’s up and running 24/7. Unlike your massive corporate competition, you don’t have to buy your own equipment and hire your own staff. Your Web host is your IT department.

Choosing the right Web host is perhaps the most crucial decision on the path to Internet success, as it will determine a number of other important factors. The key to finding the right host is best summarized in an old cliche: look for the host with the most–literally.

Many Web hosts are Web hosts and nothing else. They’ll happily sell you the space for your site, but then you also have to find another vendor to register your domain name (your company’s www address), another to create your actual site and still others to help optimize your Web presence with the latest technologies and marketing techniques. Frankly, it’s no wonder so many SMBs and SOHOs have resisted the Internet this long.

The best Web hosts serve are basically one-stop Internet shops that give you with everything you need to get online at an affordable price. Certain companies offer comprehensive hosting packages that include a generous amount of Web space, a domain name, and an abundance of streamlined, easy-to-use software that allows you to not only create your own site with a few mouse clicks, but to enhance it with the latest bells and whistles until it can stand side-by-side with any of your competitors. Imagine having e-commerce tools like the ability to process your customers’ credit card information or CRM resources to better communicate with customers through easy-to-create newsletters or a real-time chat while visitors are on your site.

Thanks to recent unprecedented competition in the Web hosting industry, it’s now possible to get all of these tools, and actually a lot more, for as little as $9.99 per month.

Find out More

In addition to features and price, there are some other key things to look in a Web host. First, do a little research to determine whether a company you’re considering is reputable, experienced and profitable. Check out their Web site to see if they display financial figures and statistics. If things are unclear or confusing, move on.

If you’re not too well versed in the technical aspects of computers and Internet technology, it’s likely you know someone who is. Find someone who can look at your potential Web host’s site and interpret certain important information about capabilities like available storage space, data transfer rates and security features. Keep in mind that the very reason you’re not hosting your own site is that you don’t have the resources to do it yourself. Obviously your Web host should, and they should be trumpeting their technical prowess all over their own Web site. If they’re not, it may be another sign that it’s time to look elsewhere.

Just as important as ensuring that your Web host itself is secure is determining whether they’re offering maximum security for your site. A good host will provide as a standard part of their packages the latest security technologies to guard against Internet viruses, worms, Spam, phishing and whatever new threats the “e-linquents” of the world cook up.

These days the most important thing to look for in a Web host is value. Thanks to recent pricing wars in the industry, today you can get more bang for your buck than ever from some of the most established and reliable Web hosting companies around.

Meet Your Host

For most SMBs/SOHOs, selecting a Web host is probably the easiest part of getting online, because it’s a lot like purchasing telephone service or an accountant. You do a little research, compare plans/service levels and pricing, and choose one that best accommodates your needs. Where most people begin to get gun-shy is when it comes to actually constructing their site. For the creatively and technically challenged among us, it can definitely be a daunting proposition. Thanks again to new software programs, you don’t need to be the offspring of a renaissance artist and an astrophysicist to have a fully functional and sophisticated Web site up and running rather quickly. It’s like most other computer applications that five years ago seemed incomprehensible to the average person: Pop in the CD and follow the prompts.

However, there are a couple of very important things to keep in mind when building your site. A good rule of thumb is to follow your instincts. Think about the sites you visit and what you like and dislike about them.

Keep your audience in mind both in terms of how you’re going to present yourself and in how maneuverable your site is. This may seem obvious, but if your business involves, say, financial consulting, it’s probably not a good idea to greet guests with flashing lights, animation and loud music. On the other hand, if you’re promoting your D.J. service, keeping things upbeat may better capture the image you’re shooting for.

Ease-of-use of use is one of the most important components of any Web site. Remember, if after only 30 seconds a visitor can’t find what they’re looking for on your site and they become frustrated trying to find it, they’ll leave and not come back. Make sure your visitors know at all times where they are on your site and how to get back to where they came from. Also, keep things simple. Try not to overwhelm your visitors with too much text and a lot of visuals. And don’t add seemingly cool effects just because you can. Keep your company’s image in mind and remember that your Web site is the world’s window to your business. How you’re perceived is likely to have a direct correlation to whether or not your casual visitor turns into a profitable customer.

The absolute most important element of any SMB/SOHO Web site is the most obvious but, inexplicably, also the most neglected: contact methods. It’s shocking how often people make this information really hard to find or just don’t include it at all. Give your visitors varied and simple ways to get in touch with you–phone, email, snail mail, fax, etc.–and make sure it’s right there in front of them. You can also add a customized feedback or contact form. This makes it easy for people to get in touch, and you can use it as a way to get potential customers to offer up more information than they otherwise would–and you have a greater degree of control over what kind of information they give you.

What Are You Waiting For?

With these few fundamentals addressed, your site is ready to go wherever you want to take it. If you find yourself needing help, remember, it’s not 1999 anymore. There are countless resources available to help you need to maximize your online presence, either for free or at minimal prices. A good place to start is with your Web host. And while you should approach your site like as you would any other important business tool, it’s OK to be creative and have a little fun with it, too.

Small businesses today have an unprecedented opportunity to harness the power of the Internet. Like so many other recent technologies, what only a few years ago was a high-tech, costly and time consuming venture is now within reach for every business regardless of size, budget or technical know-how. With a little planning, a few dollars, some simple research, and basic computer skills, even the smallest of small businesses can start reaping the Web’s vast rewards. In fact, not doing so may soon prove to be the costlier decision.

Sebastian Moser is U.S. Director of Technical Development for 1&1 Internet, Inc., the world’s largest Web hosting and domain registration company.

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