Small business owners are sometimes confused about all the various website hosting and creation services being marketed to them. It can be especially perplexing if you are new to the Internet and/or your company does not yet have a website at all. In your rush to bring the business online, it is all too easy to overspend or buy services you cannot truthfully benefit from. How do you decide what to make of “content management systems” or “payment gateways”, for instance, if you never heard of these services before seeing a sales pitch?
Below, Webs offers quick explanations and comparisons of common small business web services (and which ones you might want.)
If your company does not yet have a website (or if you dislike the one it does have), the first service you ought to consider is web design. As the name suggests, web design involves the creation of a website for any purpose of your choosing. In this case, you are seeking a website that describes your business and what it has to offer. Perhaps you are also seeking to sell your products and services from the website (more on that later.)
No matter what you want your business website to accomplish, firms specializing in business web design can get you up and running with a company website in as little as a few days. Like other services, various pricing tiers are available. A basic template website with four or five web pages, some simple text, a contact form and stock photos can be had for as little as $500, while a more unique and comprehensive website with audio or Flash animations can easily run into the thousands of dollars.
Web hosting, on the other hand, is the next step once your company website has been created. In layman’s terms, “hosting” a website means putting it online for the world to see. Until it is hosted, no one can type in “www.yourcompanywebsite.com” and see the website you created. The way to get your website hosted is by paying a web hosting company (also known as a “web host.”) Upon choosing a web host, your website will be stored on one of its servers (shown above), which is the physical equipment that displays websites to visitors.
Web hosts offer pricing models that are similar to those of a public utility. That is, you pay for roughly what you use. A small business that does not expect thousands of visitors a day can easily get by with a $10/mo “starter” package (and it’s easy to upgrade if ever the need arises.) Conversely, a company that expects to do most or all of its business on the web might consider paying $50-$100/mo. or more for a dedicated server, which means that your website will not be sharing a server’s bandwidth or processing power with anyone else.
Content Management Systems
Content management systems (abbreviated as CMS) are valuable to some, but not all, small businesses. Whether you need a CMS largely comes down to what you want out of your company website. Some small businesses, like local pizza shops or liquor stores, simply want their website to serve as a web-based menu or brochure. These simple websites typically list the name of the business, its hours of operation, a summary of its products and perhaps some ancillary information like driving directions or a phone number.
Websites like these have no need for a CMS.
Let’s say, however, that you have a rapidly changing inventory and want to update your website whenever a new product comes in or an old one is discontinued. A project like this requires a database (which will contain each product in the inventory) and a content manager that lets you quickly and easily swap products in or out without editing strange-looking computer code. Like web design, a CMS can be had for as little as a few hundred dollars (if your needs are simple) or as much as several thousand, if you need complex capabilities.
If you want to process orders on your website, you will need a payment processor (or “gateway”) of some kind. Small businesses have several options in this regard. To accept all major credit cards, you can use a service such as Authorize.net. In addition to letting your small business process the orders it receives, you can also set up recurring billing (such as for subscription services), manage customer information, check for fraud and more.
If you do not need all of these extra services and just want to accept online orders as quickly as possible, other solutions might be preferable. PayPal, for instance, lets businesses of any size immediately accept credit card orders for as little as $30 per month. Authorize offers a side-by-side comparison of itself versus PayPal and Google Checkout which can help you decide between them.
A small company which does most of its business online might also benefit from using an auto-responder service. Auto-responders allow a business to schedule automatic delivery of e-mail to its prospects or customers. Whether you want to distribute sales messages, payment reminders or general announcements, auto-responders can be programmed to e-mail whatever you want, whenever you want, to whomever you want.