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Articles - Fishing Through the Internet
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This series of articles was originally written in 2001.

Shopping for a Web Designer

When it comes to ordering business cards, equipment, and furniture, you have a list of your regular suppliers, companies you know and trust. If you're just starting out, you've probably poured through the Yellow Pages and gathered recommendations from friends and colleagues. Doesn't it make sense to do the same when you're looking for someone to build your company's web site?

Right now there isn't any licensing body to help you separate the professionals from the hobbyists. If someone belongs to the International Webmasters Organization or the HTML Writers Guild, what does that mean? It may mean you've found someone who's been building web pages since 1990, someone who keeps up with bleeding-edge technology, someone who is committed to delivering high-quality web sites with plenty of customer satisfaction. Or it may mean you've found someone who's just starting in the business and is still building up their skill set.

So how do you separate the good from those who build bad and ugly sites? What makes a good web designer good? How do you even find a web designer?

First and foremost, do they work under a contract? Are they willing to explain their responsibilities and expectations when they approach a project? Is the contract a solid, reasonable, and most importantly legal document?

Second, take a look at the designer's (or the company's) own web site. Is the site attractive and informative? Is it easy to figure out how to get around, and where you are when you get there? Does the web site include a client portfolio, and what do you think of the web sites they've done in the past? Give them a call or write them some e-mail: Do they respond promptly? Are they willing to take a little time to explain their estimate and proposal process? What services do they offer: design, maintenance, online promotion, hosting? How do they charge? (Most designers charge by the hour.)

Third, talk to your colleagues and business acquaintances. Have they just had a hideous web design experience? Have they found the best web designer in the area? Have they been happy with the web site, but unhappy about the follow-up?

Fourth, don't assume that you can just find a bright young high school student who'll build the site for milk and cookies. Professional quality usually commands professional-level prices. Worse, the bright young student may be better at designing a page that fits his idea of "cool" rather than your business' image.

A web site can be an expensive investment. Look at your short-term costs (initial design and development, start-up fees for hosting, etc.) and your long-term costs (hosting fees, maintenance fees), and balance them against your long-term benefits. Above all, choose a web designer that you are comfortable with, and who is willing to work with you to build your company's online presence.

Domains and Hosting Services

Have you found yourself thinking, "My company needs a web site," and then realize that you don't know where to start? Have you started shopping for a web designer, and feel like they're speaking a foreign language? Why is important for you to get a domain name, and what's all this about InterNIC fees being separate from hosting fees?

A domain name is not anything starting with "http://www." Anything starting with "http://www" is a web address, or a URL (Universal Resource Locator). The "http" stands for Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, and the "www" stands for the World Wide Web; thus "http://www" is used to designate files used on the Web. The AARC's web site has the URL of http://www.austin-arc.org, and the domain name is austin-arc.org.

The advantage of having your own domain name is similar to having a phone number that can be turned into a company name or slogan. It's a lot easier to remember "http://www.austin-arc.org" than "http://www.otherdomain.com/nonprofits/aarc/index.htm." A domain name also proves that your company is serious about building and maintaining an online presence.

Currently, Network Solutions/InterNIC is the official registrar of domain names (except for military and government sites). You (or your web designer) must check with InterNIC to see if your domain name is available. Remember, the first "W" in "WWW" stands for "World," so it's very possible that another company with the same name but in a different state or country has been using your ideal domain name for the past few years. At this writing, InterNIC charges $35 a year for domain names. You must buy 2 years' worth, so your first InterNIC bill will be $70, with subsequent bills following every year at $35.

Web hosting space refers to where your web site will stay. Think of the domain name as a DBA, and web hosting as office/warehouse space--you need both to do business. Hosting prices vary with hosting requirements. How big is your site? How fancy is it going to be? A site such as the AARC site is often called a "brochure site," meaning that it presents information about the association. Period. If you go to the online bookstore Amazon.com, you'll see the perfect example of a site that requires high-end hosting: You can search for books and videos, buy them online with real-time credit card transactions, submit a book or movie review and see it added to the site in a matter of seconds, and keep an address book of your friends and family to make your Christmas shopping easier. Balance what you want against what you can afford.

In addition to the size and complexity of your web site, you need to consider how much traffic you expect to see on your site. If your company's customer base doesn't tend to go outside the county line, then the hosting service can have an Internet connection ("pipeline") as low as a T1. On the other hand, if your customers come from all over the state or country, you probably want a hosting service with multiple pipelines, and a T1 may not be big enough. Talk with the hosting service (or your web designer) about how many visitors your site can have per day.

In addition to the standard monthly fee, look at the hosting service's list of "extras." If your company expands, how hard (expensive) is it going to be to expand your web site? If you start getting more customers than you originally anticipated, can you go to another rate plan or will there be an extra fee added every month?

Above all, don't sign up for hosting before you find a web designer. If your web designer is any good, he or she will be able to recommend the hosting service that is best for your web site. Getting the hosting first is like renting office space before you decide how much furniture you need or how many employees you'll have. As always, don't be afraid to ask questions.

Free Web Stuff - Do You Get What You Pay For?

"Information should be free" is the hacker's rallying cry, still heard in some parts of the Internet even in these days of multimedia web sites and e-commerce. So when you get an offer for a free web site, or free web design, should you jump at it?

Depends on how "free" it really is.

GeoCities is perhaps the Internet's most famous provider of free web sites. "Free" in this case means "free to the person who writes the web page." This "free page" is paid for by advertisers, who pay serious money to have their company's logos and slogans pop up all over GeoCities. People who use GeoCities' free web spaces generally use it for personal reasons: showcasing family album photos, bragging about their latest exploits, organizing family reunions, etc. The general run of sites hosted with GeoCities tend to be created by amateurs who are just starting to learn a little something about web page design. (There are of course exceptions.) The web addresses for GeoCities tend to be rather lengthy and somewhat awkward. All of the above probably won't make GeoCities your first choice for hosting your company's web site.

What about free web design? Maybe you know a really smart 15-year-old down the block who knows all about computers and the Internet. There's no question that there are some talented young web designers out there, but the good ones are charging for their services, and deserve every penny. Or maybe you've seen a fax that's been making the rounds, promising you free web design done by students for their portfolios, as long as you buy a year's worth of web hosting.

That last bit should catch your eye, because it's definitely worth a second, closer look. Most hosting services offer you hosting in monthly, quarterly, or semi-annually blocks. And how much are you paying for that year's worth of hosting? If it's more than $50 a month, and you're only getting 5 megabytes of space, with no extras, then please shop around. Hosting is an extremely competitive segment of the World Wide Web: you can always find something cheaper and better, unless your site has high-end requirements such as an online catalog with shopping cart and real-time secure credit card transactions.

There's no question that a lot of Web services are still free or inexpensive when it comes to the average consumer. But if you're trying to get your company online, you should be prepared to invest some of your time and money to find the best deal for you. Don't settle for the deal that looks too good to be true--that's a real life rule that still applies, even in cyberspace.

Search Engines, Search Directories - But Can I Find What I Need?

What's the difference between a search engine and a search directory? Why are these important? Should I go for this offer to register my company's web site with 200-plus search engines?

The answer to that last question is "no." If only the first two questions could be answered so easily!

"Search engine" and "search directory" are sometimes used interchangeably, but the growing consensus among web developers is that there is a definite difference between the two. A "search directory" is most easily defined because there's a very famous example: Yahoo! The Holy Grail of Searchers started out as a link page: a web page that listed links to other web sites. It didn't take long for this page to grow into its own web site. Since no print directory could ever keep up with the number of web sites added to the Web, it's not hard to see how Yahoo! became such a popular and necessary tool for finding what you need to know.

So what makes Yahoo! a search directory? In a word, people. Every site that is submitted to Yahoo! must be approved by a human being. As of this writing, about 50 people spend their working hours reviewing web sites submitted to Yahoo!, and the demand has grown so that those 50-odd are having trouble keeping up with the submissions. Yahoo! is currently experimenting with ways to improve the submission time of commercial web sites.

Since Yahoo! alone can't fill the need, other search directories have sprung up, most notably The Mining Company. The Mining Company's mission is summed up in their slogan: "We mine the Web so you don't have to." What sets The Mining Company apart from Yahoo! is the list guides. The Mining Company guides serve as editors of the different Mining Company branches. Judy Litt is the current list guide of the Austin, Texas Mining Company site; in addition to considering site submissions, she writes feature articles about Austin and makes a definite effort to collect sites that are of interest to Austinites. This kind of personal touch is making The Mining Company one of Yahoo!'s most serious contenders for the advertising dollar.

A search engine, such as AltaVista, HotBot, or WebCrawler, involves an automated process. Submissions are checked with the assistance of programs known as "web spiders" or "robots" (bots for short). When you fill out a submission request form, the search engine's bot visits your web site and checks your meta tags and text. Meta tags are words and phrases inserted into the web page for the purpose of classification. As you might guess, this technique has been abused over the years, so bots typically also check the text of your web site's index page. If the text doesn't match the meta tags, you're outta luck. But if the tags and text match, and your web site doesn't violate any other rules of search engine etiquette, your site will make it into the search engine's database.

A common complaint about both search engines and search directories is, "I can never find what I need." A lot of aggravation can be cut out by carefully phrasing the request. No matter what search engine/directory you're using, take a minute to read their recommendations (usually called Search Help or something similar). If you�re using a search directory, you may want to click through the menus to the category you think best describes what you're looking for before you enter words and phrases into the search field.

Why should you say "no" to anyone offering to sign you up with 200-plus search engines? Because it's usually a worthless offer. True, there are literally thousands of search engines and directories out there, but the "top 10" such as Yahoo!, Northern Light, and Lycos are popular for very good reasons, including perhaps the most important one: They've all been around the block a few times. Why waste a submission on a search engine that may not be around next year, or one that is poorly maintained? The savvy netizens trust the name brands they've used in the past, and will continue to trust them for quite a while.

When planning your company's web site, talk to your web designer about online promotion (otherwise known as search engine/directory registration). Together, you should be able to figure out the best way to bring your web site to the attention of your current and potential customers.

 

 

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Last updated October 2008