Web and Ecommerce 7.1. Web Design and Development

Most likely, your Web site is the centerpiece of your shoestring venture. It either serves as your primary marketing piece, lead generation device, or your online store. No matter what its purpose, you’re probably highly motivated to get it right―all of it. Getting things wrong means losing real money―people may not find your site, people who do find it may not be able to navigate or, worse, may not be persuaded. You would never build a store where no-one could find it. You would also never build a store in such a way that people would walk out as soon as they walked in. You’d be amazed at how many people build Web sites that are impossible to find and drive people away once they find them!

So let’s take a look under the hood and see what you need to make your site successful.

It’s useful to start by distinguishing between your Web site and your Web presence. Your Web site is, in fact, more than just your Web site. There are no limits to all the places you can “be” on the Web. Your Web presence is the sum total of all the Web sites, pages, resources, and links where you, your company, your brand, and your product show up. Your Web presence certainly includes your Web site, but it also includes search engine listings, directory listings, blogs, news items, stores, banner advertisements, distributor Web sites, affiliate marketers, social networks, and anything else you can imagine. Much of your Web presence is at least partly out of your control, but your Web presence, not your Web site, is the primary way people find out about you and your products or services.

Your Web site is typically the bull’s-eye of your Web presence, the place you want people to go when they find out about you, your company, or your products somewhere else on the Web. This type of Web strategy is called a hub-and-spoke structure and is the most common strategy people use: the Web presence drives people to the Web site where the real action takes place.

Your Web strategy is the key to your success, so you want it pretty much in place before you start anything else. Your Web strategy should answer the most important questions.

  • What will your Web site do?
  • What do you want people to do when they show up?
  • Where else on the Web―search engines, blogs, news sites, etc.―are you and your company going to be?
  • How will you get mentioned in those other places?
  • How will users get from those other places back to your site? What will motivate them?

Since developing a Web presence is a marketing concern, we discuss the issues in Chapter 8, Marketing.

In this chapter, however, we get down and dirty with your Web site, which has several key components that you need to master to get everything right.

  • Server―the Internet is really just a bunch of computers connected to each other. Your Web site is a bunch of files and software stored on an Internet-connected computer, a server. The server also hosts software that makes the site dynamic, that allows you to manage the site, and that allows you to analyze how well the site is performing.
  • Network―the network is the physical and abstract means that connect computers to one another. Should you care? Yes. Network issues can determine the quality of your server. More importantly, when you select a domain name, you’re directly engaging with how your site fits into the network. Finally, the amount of data going into and out of your server affects the quality of your site’s performance and, more importantly, how much you have to pay each month.
  • Software―at its heart, your Web site is content, but all that content requires software to work. If your site is simple, most of that software is on your client’s computer and your server only spits out files. However, a pretty good chunk of the software that makes your site works often resides on the server. That means you have to get the software on the server somehow―you should know what software you need before you start shopping around for hosting services.
  • Database―your site may have one or more databases serving a variety of functions: a product catalog, an order database, and content database, user logs, surveys, email database, and so on.
  • Commercial transactions―commercial transactions through a Web site are relatively complicated affairs that involve a merchant bank account, a payment gateway, and encryption using SSL certificates.
  • Content―your Web site contains pictures, animations, movies, and, above all, written text. Each type of content requires special skills. Flash content requires Flash animators who not only know the technology, but are also good animators and artists. Copy requires not only good copywriters, but writers who understand how copy affects search engine placement. Some multimedia content, such as streaming video, requires special software on the server.
  • User experience―a Web site is an experience far different from a book or a movie. Unless you have a one page site, users must make choices in order to use the site. They have many decisions to make: which parts of the site to visit, which pages to read, and which actions to take. Optimizing a site to make those choices easy for users and to guide them to make the choices you want them to make is called user experience. The foundation of user experience is called information architecture, which describes the structure of your site and the decisions users can make You make real money just by getting user experience right―it often means the difference between success and outright failure.
  • Design―people often use the words Web designer and Web developer interchangeably. Don’t make the same mistake. A Web developer is the techie guy who does all the markup language, database building, and programming to make a Web site. A Web designer is a professionally trained graphics arts specialist who creates the visual layout of the pages and sometimes the user experience. Good visual design tells the world that you’re serious and competent. Poor visual design tells the world you don’t know what you’re doing or, worse, you don’t care. If you want to show the world you don’t know what you’re doing, hire a techie person to design your Web site.
  • Communication―communication is distinct enough from content to qualify as a separate aspect of your site. At some level, your site allows users to communicate with you or some representative of your company. That communication can be as simple as an email form or as complicated as video chat. Getting the communication strategy right is just as important as everything else.

Those are the main “parts” of a Web site, but they’re deeply interrelated. For instance, you may set up a blog on your site to keep content fresh. That’s a content issue, but it also involves specialized blogging software and could involve a database. Any software issue, of course, is also a server issue. You cannot put Windows software on a Linux server, for instance. That goes for databases, too. You cannot put a database management system designed for Linux on a Windows server. Finally, if you want users to post comments to your blog, you’re now integrating your online blog with the communications aspect of your site.

If you want to do it right, you―not just the people you hire―need to know how these parts work. “Wait a darn minute,” you say, “the hosting service handles the server. My developer does all the programming. Some guy in Jersey handles my database.” Yes, but your job is to make informed decisions. If you’re deciding on a content management system and are told by a developer that you absolutely need RSS feeds, you should know what that means before you nod your head.

For people really committed to getting their Web site done right, the project can be like getting a college education through a fire hose. But if you’re starting from ground zero, don’t worry. We’ve got some resources to help you get savvy fast.

7.1.1. Website Magazine


Website Magazine is a trade magazine for Web professionals and managers. The print version publishes a broad range of articles on Web business and development practices as well as trends in the industry and technology. Subscriptions to the print version of the magazine are free to qualified business owners, managers, and development professionals, but the content is also made available for free on their Web site. Like Information Week (see 6.1.2), Website Magazine is a must-have for professionals in the industry, our number one choice for staying on top of Web technology and business . . . and the possibilities open to you.

Articles fall into the following categories:

  • Web business management
  • Internet advertising
  • Website development
  • Online content publishing
  • Affiliate programs
  • Search engine optimization
  • Site design and usability
  • Website hosting

Must-read articles for entrepreneurs building a Web presence include

  • Mastering Trends in Design and Development
  • 10 Ways to Keep Website Costs Low
  • Understanding Traffic
  • The Road to Better Conversions
  • Do It Yourself: Start an Affiliate Program
  • Seven Sizzling Site Tools for Every Webmaster
  • Selecting an SEO/SEM Firm
  • SEO for Ecommerce
  • Search Term Research for the Rest of Us
  • Enjoy the Ride: The Weblog Bandwagon
  • The Art and Science of Podcasting
  • When Content Management Systems Meet Data Analytics

7.1.2. Digital Web Magazine


In Web development, the biggest obstacle you’re going to face is you. Unless you’re a Web design and development guru, you probably don’t have the resources to make informed decisions that will give you the most effective Web site at the best price.

To overcome this obstacle, Digital Web Magazine provides “tutorials” or articles on the technologies, design principles, and developments in building Web sites. This is a relatively unknown site, but is perfect for folks like you who need to browse articles on relevant Web design and development topics.

There are four main topics: “Discover” (basic Web site principles); “Design” (graphic and multimedia principles); “Build” (the technology, programming, coding, and applications): “Evaluate” (usability, Web analytics, etc.). There are over a hundred topics covering every area of Web development, each containing ten to fifteen articles:

  • Basics
  • Content Management Systems
  • E-Commerce
  • E-Marketing
  • Databases
  • Graphic Design
  • Information Architecture
  • Information Design
  • Interaction Design
  • Liquid Web Design
  • User Experience
  • User-Centered Design
  • Web Design
  • Browsers
  • CSS
  • Email
  • Flash
  • HTML
  • Navigation
  • XML
  • Accessibility
  • ROI
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Web Analytics

And on and on.

Although most of the articles are written to a Web developer audience, must-read articles include

  • Creating a Site Design Plan
  • Brand Value and User Experience
  • How To Choose an eCommerce Package
  • Competitive Analysis
  • Principles and Elements of Design
  • Designing for the Web
  • What Happens When the People Come?
  • Dollars & Sense of Web Analytics
  • Building a Website for Analytics (see section 7.14)
  • 11 Ways to Improve Landing Pages
  • Does Your Copy Hold Up to a Quick Glance?
  • SEO and Your Web Site (explains the nitty-gritty of optimizing pages for search engine placement)
  • Introduction to Databases
  • Preparing for Widescreen
  • Designing for Scalability

7.1.3. Practical ECommerce


Practical Ecommerce is a print magazine targeted at ecommerce business owners, managers, or developers―free subscriptions are offered to customers of certain businesses, like Authorize.net (see 7.10.1) or GoDaddy (see 7.5.4). Online articles are very short―in fact, they’re more like blogs―but reading around these short articles will give you a quick education in many of the issues that you confront in e-commerce. Articles fall into the following categories:

  • Accounting, Management, and Legal
  • Conversion and Usability
  • Development and Programming
  • Hosting, Infrastructure, and Software
  • Interviews and Profiles
  • Inventory and Shipping
  • Marketing and Revenue Growth
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Shopping Carts and Online Payments
  • Training and Education
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