It’s tough starting a business. Everything costs money. A good web designer can set you back a good few hundred quid. But being online is important to businesses, and although it can be a trend these days for people to put their Facebook page on their business cards, but somehow having a proper website with your own web address just looks more professional.
Although my partner, Kirsty, is an excellent web designer, since I’ve joined Tangled Frog full time, I’m taking a stab at the consultancy side of things. To give myself a good grounding in the options available to small businesses setting out on the web, I decided I wouldn’t pay a penny on my harmonica lessons marketing.
The first steps online for a company, small business or freelancer is usually with one of the social sites. If you’re a photographer, it’ll be Flickr. If you’re a musician or in a band, there’s MySpace, Soundclick, Jango etc. If you would like to be a journalist or have a lot of news, you can use a WordPress or Blogger site, or have a Facebook page. It’s a simple matter then of buying a domain name separately and pointing it at your Flickr or Facebook.
If and when you get your own real website, don’t stop using your social sites – anywhere on the web that you exist is good for business. In fact, keeping your Twitter fresh and your Facebook page updated is all incredibly vital marketing. Plus, with YouTube and Soundclick around, you can keep all your videos, tunes and graphics on somebody elses site and link to them all from your “real” site.
Domain names aren’t free. Most of the time when you get offered a free domain name it comes with something else, like a hosting account. There are a few exceptions – It is possible to have a truly free-of-charge genuine domain name without paying for them. They all have limitations, though.
Some are scams. Some aren’t scams as such, but are scammy anyway – such as pyramid referrals etc. Some are based round obscure foreign countries who allow registration from other countries. If you don’t mind a Yourname.co.zz or something, this can be fine. It’s unclear who actually OWNS the license to these names, or if you end up not being able to transfer and paying through the nose for the use of the address for subsequent years. I’d have to sign up for that, and I don’t like signing up to things online – there’s too much spam in the world. But I diverge…
The best I’ve seen so far is a strange conglomerate organisation called Get British Business Online. There may be other similar schemes in your country, but I don’t live there. GBBO is a partnering up of Google, Yola, and other sponsors. You get a Google Sites style website – not very customisable but plenty of not-bad templates out there. They even give you emails so you can be firstname.lastname@example.org which you can access through Gmail.
There aren’t many downsides to GBBO. You are completely restricted to one of their templates. The templates aren’t bad but it does mean you can’t always have things your way. Also, some of the templates are actually terrible and completely unsuited to your business. It will probably take a bit of effort getting it sorted. Usually Google’s people are great at sorting things for you if you ask.
You also have the GBBO logo on your site. Not very prominently, but it still looks a bit naff. The great thing about this is that you actually own the license for your address. If you find a better scheme with nicer templates you can go with them and you only need to repoint your free domain name at your new site (after a couple of months, anyway!)
Ok, there’s actually tons of free hosts out there. There’s also tons of free host comparison sites. What the web needs, perhaps, is a free hosting comparison site comparison site. You will be limited by pageload speeds, or random downtimes, forced ads and low bandwidth and diskspace. You probably won’t be able to have any databases online or run any server scripts like mailouts.
For small, first sites there are a few good ones. Read forums and find out what people say about their free hosting packages. I personally like 000webhost.com They’re great for first websites, and we recommend them to some clients on extremely small budgets. They actually do have database and server scripting capabilities, too! Maybe a bit slow sometimes, and not much disk space, but like I said earlier, if you keep all your stuff on external sites such as Soundclick or YouTube, you can just host the links and not worry about the extra load of videos and music on your site. Setting up a template can be a bit buggy, but I found a free template and tweaked it. Obviously, I’m a web designer and know my way around HTML a bit, so it was cheating, but I tried opening it up in Kompozer, a free WYSIWYG web editor and found I could edit paragraphs and headings without needing to access the code at all.
Which brings me to …
Design is probably the most expensive thing to get. Hosting is handled by huge datacentres who resell all their space as “cloud” – shared servers, virtual servers, dedicated servers etc. Heavily automated and efficiently run. Domain names aren’t very expensive at all, for a .co.uk it can be as little as £5 for two years. Again it’s all handled by huge servers with efficient automation and backup infrastructure.
Design, on the other hand is more difficult to automate. Unless you have a problem, your hosting company or domain registrar won’t even know you exist, but it’s not the same. Every original design needs a real human designer.
Good thing, then that the internet has thousands upon thousands of free templates created as a labour of love by real designers. The chances are you’ll probably find one that fits you mostly and some of the designs are just jaw-dropping. If you’ve paid for a hosting package, there’s probably a web builder somewhere in their client area, so that would be the first place to look. If you’ve got free hosting, look for free templates to download and tweak to your fit. Amazing! Where’s the catch?
A website is just for is publishing your data – what your services are, how much, your favourite biscuit, contact details etc. – and therefore could just be put up in plain text. Design makes no difference to search engines. Some technical documents online are just plain text with no styles at all, so you just need to zoom or resize your browser to get it just right for your reading comfort.
So what are the reasons we have design on the web (or anywhere)? Well it makes you look unique. That’s it. Is that important? Oh yes. We’re psychologically hard-wired to use vision in our judgement of one thing from another, and marketing people know that. What makes you unique, or your company “stand out” is expressed through your design. When you want to come across as friendly, you’ll use warm, bright colours. When you want to look like you mean business, you can use cool blues or stark black (if you’re dead posh and sell diamonds or something).
So even if the design is amazing, even if the template itself is an artistic wonder of universal love and fits your company perfectly, it’s just not unique. Anyone could use the same template and look just like you. Even your competition. Which isn’t unlikely – if you’re a gardener, say, you’ll want a gardeny kind of template. If you’re a musician, you might want something glossy and musical looking, so the chances of somebody looking just like you is increased.
If you’re REALLY lucky, you might just find some kicking designer nearly finished college and on a portfolio building mission. Maybe, just maybe, he would be willing to offer you a design for free. If that happens, go for it.
There are also proprietory web builders like Weebly – again, you’re restricted to their hosting, but their package is actually amazing. Very difficult to tweak to your own liking if you need extra functionality, but a beginner can have a site online with no trouble at all. Just be warned – you’re not unique, and if you need to move host, you’ll have to start again completely from scratch.
Really, it’s not too difficult to get online for free. It’s a bit like the Fast/Good/Cheap food triangle – you’ll rarely get everything you want.
My advice is just common sense. Get what you need, but make sure it’s expandable. Go with a simple text only site, or a simple template and build on it when business picks up rather than tying yourself to a web building package. As soon as you have the money, source a good designer to brand your company well.
In fact the free-est option would be to learn graphic design, web building and handle it all yourself. If you’re just starting it would be a good thing to get stuck into it all yourself, but as you get busier you will find it being a hassle. You might want to employ or outsource to free up some time.
Well, what do you want for nothing? Rubber biscuit?