Small business guide to web design and hosting

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Small business guide to web design and hosting

Need a new or revamped website? We look at the many options so you can make the best choice for your business.

What's the first thing to consider when starting a digital transformation? A decent website is a good place to begin. After all, the web is the first place most of us turn when looking for information about products, services and businesses, yet a surprisingly large number of small companies still do not have web sites.

According to the 2018 Telstra Small Business Intelligence Report, 62 percent of customers will stop considering a business if they can't find information about it online, but only 50 percent of small businesses have web sites.

A survey by YouGov Galaxy for GoDaddy puts that latter figure at 60 percent, but either way it’s a lot of small businesses that don’t have web sites.

“If we're serious about being recognised globally as the ‘innovation nation’, we need to get more of the 60 percent of small businesses that currently do not have a digital presence, online too,” said GoDaddy ANZ vice president and managing director Tara Commerford.

The YouGov Galaxy survey found 59 percent of small businesses ascribe the lack of a site to inadequate technical skills, and 42 percent to not having enough time.

Fortunately, it doesn't have to be difficult or expensive to create a web site. The days of having to learn HTML unless you were prepared to make do with the often clunky code produced by WYSIWYG page editors are long gone. Instead, hosted site builders, modern content management systems (CMSes) and high-quality page templates make it relatively easy to get professional-looking results.

And if you do need expert assistance, increased competition means it is available at far more reasonable prices than those charged in the early days of the commercial web.

In this, the first instalment in our series on building and improving your business’s online presence, we explain the basics of what you need know about web design and hosting. 

What you need

Starting with the basics, you’ll need three things for a website:

  1. A domain name – e.g. mybusinessname.com.au – from a domain registrar
  2. Web hosting – and while it’s possible to run your own physical web server for hosting your site’s files, few businesses do that anymore because using a web hosting provider is far easier and more cost effective
  3. Software for creating the website – or outsourcing to a web designer.

Many providers offer all three services, although there’s a good case for using different providers for greater flexibility, allowing you to more easily shift your website to another hosting provider for better service or pricing, for example.

Easy, all-in-one providers

However, there’s no denying it’s much easier, and possibly cheaper, to use one provider for everything – and, in particular, all-in-one packages that include web hosting and an online application for creating a site, along with a domain name (or an option to buy one).

Wix offers a good selection of useful apps

These packages not only make it relatively quick and easy to build a site, but they also take care of all the technical matters such as updating and patching the software needed to run the site.

Services such as Shopify and Wix can be good for small sites, or for crystallising your ideas before bringing in expert help, according to Web frontend designer and developer Hope Stewart. Another example of this type of platform is the highly capable Adobe Business Catalyst, although Stewart warned that it is relatively expensive.

Web hosting providers also often offer this type of package as an option – and with GoDaddy’s Website Builder, for example, “anyone can build a professional website in under an hour,” the company claims.

Just watch out for those services that put ads on your site (they could be for your competitors, or for products or services that are incompatible with your brand or values), or that do not allow you to use your own domain name.

Using a domain name that includes your brand or business name is vital to make it easy for customers and potential customers to find your site – and it allows you to move to another provider in the future without having to change the web address. The latter is an important consideration, because moving your site to a different address basically erases the credibility you’ve built up with Google and other search engines.

Next: domain names, email, CMSes and other options

Domain and email hosting

Email is another factor to consider when looking at providers, according to design agency Artful owner Nick Sibbing. Web hosting providers also offer email hosting, which can make things easier, especially for beginners or very small businesses.

The downside with using one provider for everything is that it can lead to difficulties if you ever you want to change to another provider.

It’s certainly not unheard of for businesses to have problems with web hosting providers, ranging from outages to billing disputes. And if you’re using a separate email provider such as Google G Suite or Microsoft Office 365, for example, that’s one less headache you have to worry about if you decide to move to another web hosting provider. The last thing any business wants is disruption to email.

Similarly, by using a separate domain registrar you (or your web designer) can maintain full control over the all-important DNS (domain name server) settings, such as the MX records that ensure your email addresses (e.g. me@mybusiness.com.au) are pointed to your chosen email service. Just beware of providers which don’t allow you to change these domain settings (so you can’t use another web or email provider) or which make you pay an additional fee for this capability.

Also be aware of the variability of domain name pricing – if you’re paying more than $10-$15 a year for a .com.au domain, you’re probably paying too much.

Do you need a CMS?

Stewart suggests a business expecting to frequently update the content on its site should use a CMS such as WordPress or Joomla, so you or a staff member can easily add or change content without needing outside help.

The WordPress dashboard allows anyone to edit web content

However, if updates are infrequent – perhaps once or twice a year – they will likely forget how to carry out the tasks, which makes the job time-consuming and frustrating. In that situation, it is probably better to pay a skilled freelancer or consultant to do the work. It does cost money, but it leaves the people in the business free to “earn more money by doing what they are good at,” she said.

WMC Public Relations’ site is built on WordPress. “Because it is so easy to add posts and tweak changes to page content, we do this in house,” said managing director Wendy McWilliams.

“We are regularly uploading content such as my PR blogs and client press releases into the press office [section of the site]. This not only reduces costs but means the information can be uploaded in minutes rather than waiting on it being done by an external contractor.”

Open or proprietary?

The downside with many all-in-one services such as Wix is that they’re built on proprietary software, making it difficult if not impossible to easily migrate your website to another provider.

That’s fine if the benefits of the proprietary system outweigh this downside, particularly for small, simple sites that can be redesigned and rebuilt relatively easily.

Even so, if you’re getting a professional web designer to create your site, check that they’re they using open, commonly used technologies. That will allow you to more easily find someone to update the content for you or shift to another web designer if you need to.

For basic websites, for example, simple HTML pages and a popular script such as Javascript are all that’s needed if you’re outsourcing the content updates. While this approach seems to have fallen out of favour due to the rise of the all-in-one website builders, it has much to commend it. It gives you to the flexibility to choose your own web hosting provider – and a cheap shared hosting plan is all that you’ll need because of the lean processing and software requirements.

For larger sites, or if you want to keep the updates in-house, a popular open source CMS such as WordPress and Joomla is a good choice.

“I’m a huge fan of open source CMSes,” said Sibbing, largely because they prevent lock-in to a particular provider. As long as you have backups – your hosting service should show you how to do that – you can easily move your site to another host.

Popular CMSes also generally offer a large library of plug-ins, which can make it easier (and therefore cheaper) for your web designer to add features, ranging from a contact form to a shopping cart.

By using popular open technology you’ll also have a greater choice of web designers to select from. “You need to have confidence in [your designer’s] abilities and know you aren’t paying over the odds to have minor updates done,” McWilliams added.

Managed or self-managed?

Whichever CMS you pick, it is important to keep it and the other software up to date to reduce the risk of your site being hacked. Which leads us to one downside with using a CMS: the work required to install, configure and manage the CMS and supporting software – including the vital task of keeping it up-to-date and secure.

There is a middle way, however – providers that offer managed CMS hosting, generally for one or more of the popular options such as WordPress. Note this type of service offers much more than the simple scripts offered by many providers that only set up the CMS and leave you to do the rest. With managed CMS hosting, the provider takes care of installing, managing, updating and securing the CMS, allowing your web designer to concentrate on creating the site and you to concentrate on the content.

McWilliams pointed out that WMC PR’s web hosting company takes care of the WordPress updates, “so that’s one less thing we need to worry about. They also provide a seven-day report from daily scans of the site and advise of any errors. Fortunately we haven't had any yet!”

It’s vital, however, that you consult with your web designer when choosing a managed service to ensure it gives them flexibility they need – for example, these services usually block certain plug-ins for what they say are performance or security reasons.

It’s also important to understand that CMS updates may be incompatible with the plug-ins your site relies on, warned Stewart. New versions of those plug-ins may appear sooner or later, but there is a risk that their developers may have gone out of business or simply lost interest.

For highly customised, complex or high-traffic sites, your web designer may prefer the DIY approach of VPS (virtual private server) hosting. This type of service typically provides a virtual server with operating system installed, but rest is up to you or your web designer – including setting up and managing the full software stack needed to run the website and even updating the OS. Unlike shared hosting, however, you’re guaranteed a certain amount of RAM and processing cores for optimum performance.

Another option is a managed VPS, where the provider installs, manages and supports the OS and core web-server software, and even provides a web control panel such as cPanel. It is, however, significantly more expensive than regular self-managed VPS hosting.

Next: what to look for in a provider and web design tips

What to look for in a provider

There are a number of other factors to consider when choosing a hosting provider. Backups are vital, for example. Web hosting providers generally provide regular backups either by default or as an option. If your site is regularly updated, you’ll need to ensure the backups occur at least daily. But check that everything your site needs is backed up. Most CMSes keep content in a database, so you’ll need to ensure that database is regularly backed up, as well as images, the design template and other files that are uploaded.

Another factor to consider is where the hosting company locates its servers and support staff. Overseas servers are normally cheaper than those in Australia, but visitors may experience slightly slower access. Speed issues can become very apparent in the event of disruption to the submarine cable that would normally carry the traffic in and out of Australia – page load times can increase significantly as the data flows are rerouted.

Stewart recommends onshore hosting, but is reluctant to endorse specific providers due to  extensive and recent changes in the Australian market. “Go with someone who gives good support” and responds promptly to requests, she said.

Sibbing agreed that the availability of technical support via phone or email is essential. But “everyone oversells” their capabilities, including the quality of support, he warned.

As a general rule, “you get what you pay for in terms of contact with humans,” but “you don't really know about [the quality of] hosting until you've had a problem,” and that doesn't happen until after you've signed up. In Sibbing's experience, good pre-sales support generally indicates a company that can provide good ongoing support.

While many providers offer 24x7 support, you are likely to find that only first-tier staff are available around the clock – if there is a serious problem with your site, you may have to wait until normal business hours (in whatever time zone the staff are located) before someone with sufficient technical skills is available to put things right.

However, he suggests businesses think about how mission-critical their website is going to be. A busy ecommerce site is losing revenue whenever it is down, so it is probably worth paying a premium for reliable hosting and quick turnaround when problems do arise. On the other hand, it is hard to justify spending extra for a lightly-trafficked site that is little more than a brochure for the business.

A responsive design looks good on any device

The choices you make will probably involve compromise. “There is no perfect hosting company, and no perfect CMS,” warned Stewart, so don’t simply go with the first you look at, talk to several other businesses and web designers and find out what works for them.

Web design tips

Here are some closing tips, for ensuring you get the right design:

  • When designing the site, make it consistent with other branded items such as your business cards and brochures, according to Stewart.
  • If you engage a web designer, “communication is the most important thing... you need to be on the same page” so they know what you want, says Sibbing. Keep in mind is that web design is at “the intersection of design and technology,” and most practitioners tend to lean towards one side or the other.
  • A content-rich website is essential for a robust social media strategy that inspires trust and confidence in your business, according to GoDaddy. Promoting your content through social media channels can encourage interested people to visit your website.
  • Use a professional photographer if you can afford one. “Everyone thinks they are a photographer,” but professional quality shots make the job easier for your designer, Sibbing says.
  • Most importantly, make sure your site works well with mobile devices as well as computers. Most web designers and providers offer this by default now, but it’s still worth checking that your web design will be what’s called “responsive” (flexible, so it looks good on all screen sizes). This is not only important for the convenience of site visitors but also because not having a mobile-friendly site harms your Google ranking.

In the second instalment of our series on building and improving your business’s online presence, we look at how to get started with search engine optimisation.

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