By Doug Swanson

Editor’s Note: The following is the second installment of a three-part series exploring how small firms can take advantage of the strengths of the Internet to advance their business goals. Part I, which appeared in January, offered a basic understanding of the Internet and World Wide Web, and how to plan construction or updating of your business website. This part focuses on the issue of whether to outsource professional web development. Part III will discuss the most effective strategies for hosting, maintaining and promoting websites for maximum impact in the computer-mediated environment of the 21st century.


For many retail and wholesale businesses, a presence on the World Wide Web has become as important as a presence in the telephone directory. Today’s computer savvy consumers surf the Web looking for information about products and services that impact their lives. When these consumers look for water treatment information, will they find your products or services? If not, you probably need a website.

One of the key advantages to the web as an information-delivery medium is that it’s constantly changing. Consumers see it as a source for the latest information. So, if your company already has a website, it needs to be constantly updated and improved to reflect the “newness” expected by online users.

This second installment will help you get started on designing a website, if your company doesn’t yet have one. If your firm is already online, this article will provide some valuable ideas for improving your Internet presence and improving the professional business image that results from this public display.

Planning your site
Designing and posting a website is both an art and a craft. It’s an art because it’s very visually and creatively oriented—the designer must have a good sense of visual style and graphic design. The designer must bring different visual elements together with text to create a site that’s pleasing to view, yet performs its functions in a creative way. People of minimal artistic ability will have great difficulty designing an effective website.

Web design is also a craft, because the technical aspects involved are critical to success. A web designer must have intimate knowledge of the computer hardware and software being used to design the electronic page. The designer must also be able to bring the technical elements together in a way that supports, and doesn’t detract from, the creative elements used. It only takes one error, one single typed character out of place, to render a website functionally useless. Therefore, the best web designers are people who have a great appreciation for, and attention to, detail.

The designer who can bridge both the artistic and creative—the person who’s both an artisan and a detail-minded technician—is a rare find, indeed. This person can design a good website for you, because he or she understands the artistic, visual, symbolic, social, cultural, linguistic, legal, ethical and technical issues which are all involved in the design. Perhaps you have an employee who fits this description, and can take on the time-consuming task of creating an effective website. If that’s the case, give them the job!

Of course, many small businesses don’t have employees with this broad range of expertise. Others can’t afford to take staff away from their regular duties to focus on website work. If that’s the case in your company, consider hiring a professional designer to create your website.

Hiring a pro
If you’re going to hire a professional, look locally first. There are web design firms all over the country that could design a site for you. But unless the designer can visit your place of business, see your operation, talk with your workers and see your products and services firsthand, chances are the designer won’t get an accurate feel for what your business is all about.

You also want a designer who knows your marketing plan, since the website itself is a critical element in that plan. A local designer who knows the community, knows your potential customer market, and knows your strengths vs. the competition is going to do the best work possible for you.

Don’t look for a “friend of a friend” or some other individual who’s doing web design as a moonlighting-type occupation. You’re a professional business, so you’ll need a professionally designed, custom website—meaning it’s unique in itself. There are many “discount” web designers who create pages using standard templates. But a site designed from a standard template won’t allow your firm the unique image it needs in an environment where there are literally millions of other sites, all competing for viewer attention—and viewer business.

When you talk with a designer, agree up front on the terms and conditions, as you would in any business relationship. Issues to agree on would be such things as:

  • How big can the site be, i.e., by electronic file size or some other measure?
  • How many “pages” or levels will be used and what will each contain?
  • How will the design fee be established, i.e., by the hour or size of the site?
  • What interactive elements will be included on the site? (Often there are additional charges for setting up photos, hyperlinks, e-mail forwarding and/or credit card security.)
  • Who owns the completed site design? (Sometimes designers retain the right of ownership to everything they create.)
  • Will the design be legally and ethically appropriate? (This is especially important when your site makes claims made about products and services, or would use copyright-protected information or trademarked symbols.)
  • When will the work be started, and when will the site be finished? (And for that matter, how will you resolve any “creative” disputes that might arise when your ideas for the site can’t be supported by the software or aren’t reflected in the designer’s end product?)

Entering into an agreement for a website design is like any other business contractual arrangement. You’ll probably want to have your firm’s attorney review the agreement, just to be sure that everything your business is signing for is appropriate, legal and makes good business sense.

General guidelines
Regardless of whether you have someone within your organization design your website or hire a professional, there are some general creative issues that need to be kept in mind.

First, remember that the web is a socially regulated medium. Users use the web to interact with other people. Your website needs to be both friendly in appearance and “people-oriented.” It should have visual, operational and informational characteristics; it needs to be created and periodically reviewed with each of these attributes in mind.

What do you want your website to say about your products and services? Do you want a simple site that allows users just to gather information about your business—or do you want a technically advanced site that allows customers to make online purchases with credit cards? There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. What’s right for you depends on your business goals and marketing strategy.

Finally, you need to determine how your website will be named, hosted and maintained. There are significant potential problems involved in identifying your domain name (the actual “web address” of your site). Selection of the “wrong” name could result in legal problems or customer embarrassment. Where will you store the site, and how will you assure that its contents are continually updated to reflect changes in your product and service line, as well as your customer’s changing needs? How will you promote the site a source for valuable water treatment information? All of these are serious concerns of which will be dealt with in Part III.

Conclusion
As with any business decision, launching a website is, in itself, something that should only be done after much research and careful planning. If not managed properly, a World Wide Web site can be an expensive and frustrating failure; if done well, it can be directly beneficial to your company by bringing you new customers, additional sales and an enhanced public image.

References

  1. Andrew, P.G., and L.R. Musser, “Collaborative design of World Wide Web pages: A case study,” Information Technology and Libraries, 16(1), 34-38, 1997.
  2. Client survey—Website questionnaire and fact sheet, InetDzine Website Architecture Online, 1998, http://www.nwbuildnet.com/inet/textfiles/clientsurvey.txt
  3. Cozic, C.P., The Information Highway, Greenhaven Press, San Diego, 1997.
  4. Harnack, A., and E. Kleppinger, Online! A reference guide to using Internet sources, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
  5. Ho, J., “Evaluating the World Wide Web: A global study of commercial sites,” Journal of Computer Mediated-Communication Online, 3(1), 1997, http://jcmc.huji.ac.il/vol3/issue1/ho.html
  6. Negroponte, N., Being digital, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
  7. O’Mahoney, B., The copyright Website, 1998, http://www.benedict.com/home.html

About the author
Doug Swanson, Ed.D., has more than 18 years experience in media, marketing and public relations work. A former journalist and broadcaster, Swanson holds the endowed professorship in journalism at Oklahoma Baptist University and does extensive public relations and Internet consultation. He formerly worked as a general manager for Rayne Corp. water conditioning dealerships in North Hollywood and Glendale, Calif.


Business Image: Tastes just like homemade
Check out these randomly chosen water industry websites for an array of technical webwork. Are they designed in-house or professionally done?

Dealer
www.gordonbros.com
Yeah, Ned Jones, president of Gordon Bros. Water, has been a last-minute contributor to this magazine in the past, so we like him already. But his company’s website is also fast at delivering information in addition to being clear, easy-to-use and concise. The “About the Company” page touts its involvement in the industry and posts family photographs as well; and the Online Contact Form isn’t redundant and doesn’t required half a day to fill out. Gordon Bros. is a Ohio-based Kinetico dealership. Ned also is the 1999-2000 Water Quality Association president.

Manufacturer
www.water-tec.com
Prominent within a Yahoo search of “drinking water treatment” is Leigh DeGraves’ Water Tec International website—not the most technically complex Internet presence available but a good example of cut-to-the-chase marketing. The Tucson, Ariz., company’s home page is light on graphics and renders easily. Instead of taking up precious home page real estate with explanations of how we all cannot live without water, it offers contact names, individual email addresses and company locations, and phone and fax numbers. There’s no mystery as to which person you need to talk to here. As Flip Wilson would say, “What you see… is what you get.”

Dealer/distributor
www.continet.com/watermasters/
An example of a website that’s strictly there for the presence—that being for WaterMasters Inc. of Veneta, Ore. It contains three pages of info that could have been said in one. This site contains no personal names or water information, just an 800 number for customers. It renders fast, however, and cuts to the chase even quicker than the above website.

Other manufacturers
www.clackcorp.com
Aesthetically professional website that nutshells its contents right on the homepage: company information, products and customer response page. Its goals for the site are clear and the text is large and readable. Lacking, however, on any contact names, phone numbers, locations of distributors or expanded product information. Company information page features an image of a customer service person on the telephone, but contains no phone number—which suggests a “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” support approach. Strictly a web presence only site.

www.flotecpump.com
A nice example of a framed website that clearly organizes the products and services of this Delavan, Wis.-based manufacturer of pumps, jets, filtration products and other assorted point of use apparatuses. Guide your cursor over the “Water is Our Business” motto on the left part of the home page screen for a unique water effect.

www.atlanticuv.com
Atlantic Ultraviolet Corp.’s internet presence takes full advantage of the virtual venue to post information about its products without a bunch of glitter; a light background with easy-to-read text, clear logos and effective organizing frames keeps each product division from irritating, cluttered presentation. Company history, phone and fax included on the company page, a bonus with some companies online.

http://www.vapor-tech.net/
Houston company manufactures aeration and carbon filtration equipment for VOCs and other contaminants.

Other dealers
The following websites vary in their levels of technical design and site complexity, but most render quickly and were the first listed for the category searched:
www.primenet.com/~rayne/
Searching under “Rayne,” you’ll find the first such dealership, Boyett’s Rayne Water Conditioning in Mesa, Ariz., nestled between a website for Ms. Rayne—dominatrix/wrestler—and Rayne State Bank in Rayne, La.—the frog capital of the world.
www.rainsoftwater.com/
This Cleveland dealership, Great Lakes Water Treatment Inc.—established 1983, is the first one to show up when searching for “RainSoft.” Other dealerships hit on this search included one in Germany and another in Spain.
www.haguequalitywater.com/
This dealership in Los Gatos, Calif., and another in Las Vegas were first to pop up under “Hague.” It’s a nice website with rendering on a progressive scan of images rather than delayed page loading. Big plug page for NSF certification.
http://www.greatwaterco.com/softeners/softeners.htm
The Great Water Co., of Ruidoso, N.M., was the first dealership to render when “Alamo Water Refiners” was sought by the search engine. It includes a number of webpages on various water treatment technologies, including “Salt Free Water Softeners and Conditioners.”
www.exemplar.net/water/index.html
This website for City Water International was the first listed when searching for “water filtration,” but it never mentions the company location anywhere. Ametek filters are among products mentioned.
www.carolinakoolers.com/
Although not the first to pop up under “water distillation” (that honor was reserved for www.durastill.com), this North Carolina company markets Innowave’s distiller and UV equipment for what else—coolers.
—Steven Delgado and Carlos David Mogollón

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