With nearly 1 billion users, the Internet is part of our everyday life, having grown faster than any communications mechanism in history. For instance, it took 38 years for radio and 13 years for television to get 50 million users. Once it was open to the general public, the Internet reached the 50-million-user mark in just four years.

This article will discuss how you can maximize the value of your company's Internet presence.

Picking a Type of Website

The Internet has many uses. The first order of business for any company contemplating Website improvements is to decide what type of site it needs. The three general types of Websites are:

  • Online brochure (marketing).

  • Interactive (customer relationship).

  • Integrated operations (enterprise).

Each type of site is described in Table 1.

Establishing a Professional Image

Think of your Website as a window through which many people see your company. Unlike visitors at the front door of your facility, however, visitors to the first page of your Website cannot be screened. For that reason, your home page is the most important page on your site. It should project your brand with a professional image. Your customers and prospective customers are looking at you.

First impression

A simple way to measure the first impression created by your Website is to find someone who does not know your company. Show him or her your home page, and after 10 seconds, ask him or her what industry your company is in and what you do. You can do this for other pages as well.

According to a BBC article,1 “The addictive nature of Web browsing can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds — the same as a goldfish.” With that in mind, keep it simple. Most businesspeople use the Internet to find information or conduct a transaction quickly. The easier you make that for them, the better.

We are not all creative

An engineer by trade, my best graphics involve straight lines and simple pictures. For that reason, I am not the team member who creates graphics. Similarly, I am not allowed to decorate at home. A professional graphic artist is well worth the money.

Be concise

When preparing text for your Website, be as concise as possible. Remember: The Internet user's attention span is short, so get to your point quickly. Use hyperlinks to direct visitors to more-detailed information.

Don't get too cute

There are many ways to animate Websites. While animation can be an effective attention getter, too much animation is at best annoying. Look at all of the content on your Website and ask yourself if you would feel comfortable presenting it to the CEO of your best customer.

Consider multimedia

Our children use MySpace, Facebook, and similar applications to share information with their friends. It is second nature for them to post pictures and videos to entertain each other. This capability is readily available for business. A video message is an excellent way to share your company's story.

Managing Content

In the early days of the World Wide Web, content management was the sole domain of programmers, as Web pages and Websites were created by writing code in HTML, the language Web browsers understand.

During the 1990s, tools that enabled non-programmers to build Web pages and Websites were introduced. These tools provided much power, but often lacked necessary configuration-management and control capabilities. Thus, the need for outside resources to maintain Websites remained.

Today, there are content-management systems offering a variety of capabilities, including the ability to modify any area of one's own Website. Some systems are available as open-source products, which are free.

The content-management system used to create the sample home page in Photo A employs a target-like symbol to identify areas a user is authorized to modify. Clicking on a target takes the user to a Microsoft Word-like editor, shown in Photo B. The editor allows users not only to make changes easily, but to see changes before they are made public.

A content-management system allows companies to:

  • Modify text easily.

  • Add press releases quickly.

  • Add or replace pictures.

  • Modify and add hyperlinks.

  • Manage picture galleries.

  • Manage tables, such as spec sheets.

  • Control background colors and fonts.

Increasing Your Chances of Being Found

Understanding how to be found on the Internet requires knowledge of how search engines work. Although each search engine is a bit different, all work with a search-engine algorithm. For instance, PageRank estimates the likelihood that a given page will be reached by a Web user who randomly surfs the Web and follows links from one page to another.

The most important and straightforward step in increasing your chances of being found on the Internet is to have your page clearly state what your company does. This allows the right people to find you and understand what you do when they arrive at your site.

A search can turn up terms not visible on Web pages, but included in the keyword section of the HTML source code of a Website. Take a minute, and go to your Website. Click on “Page,” then “View Source,” and see what your keywords are. If you do not like them or none exists, change them or add some immediately.

Another means of improving search-engine results is linking. The more heavily trafficked sites that link to your site, the higher your site's ranking by many search engines.

Similar to linking, online advertising may be a cost-effective way to get your message out to a relevant audience.

Lastly, for better search-engine results, provide interesting and up-to-date content. The more interesting and up-to-date your content, the more people will visit your site and share it with others. The more people who visit your site, the greater the exposure and the higher the search-engine ranking.

Useful Web Applications

Here is a look at a few useful Web applications and the impact they can have on your business.

Simple access to information

We all know how frustrating waiting on the telephone for a customer-service representative to answer a simple question can be. The beauty of extending customer service to the Internet is that it satisfies customers by providing simple access to information and reduces support costs.

Directed viewing of your Website

A targeted e-mail campaign can be an effective way to capture attention and make information available for review at a time convenient to a customer or prospect. Consider the following approach:

Dear (prospect):

We want you to know that the latest version of our (product) was released this week with new features that you will be interested in learning about. To visit our online showroom, click here: Visit Online Showroom.

Sincerely,

“Visit Online Showroom” is a hyperlink on which a person can click and be taken directly to a page on your Website. You can direct a person to your home page or to a page designed specifically for recipients of the e-mail message.

Online product catalog

Providing access to product information online can be an effective tool. Decisions as to the level of information that is provided and whether the information is available in an open or a secure area should be made on a case-by-case basis.

Who Do You Need for a Web Project?

Whether you intend to keep a Website-development or upgrade project in house or outsource part of it, five primary roles are involved:

  • Content development — writing copy and creating graphics.

  • Layout/design — determining the site's structure, look, and feel.

  • Applications — determining and sometimes building the site's applications. Applications are the programs run on the Internet host's (Web-hosting company's) services. Figure 1 illustrates the relationship among a company network, the Internet, and Internet hosts.

  • Hosting — hosting the site and dictating the type of applications that can run on it. This is an ongoing role that can be performed by a variety of service providers. The key to selecting an appropriate hosting solution is to ensure it provides the tools and support your company needs.

  • Technical advice — having answers to the simple questions that can determine if you are on the right path with your Internet project.

How Safe Is Your Information?

We continually are amazed by the type of information that can be viewed by people outside of companies.

The best perspective concerning company information to have is that you are not “on” the Internet; you are “in” the Internet — 24 hr a day, seven days a week. With that in mind, is your information safe? The Internet connects the world's information. That means you need to consider that people anywhere from down the street to halfway around the world may try to get into your systems. If firewall, VPN, certificate, and encryption are not familiar terms, a security audit may be a good idea.

Conclusion

The Internet is a powerful business tool that can extend your reach, increase your sales, and improve your service. Although each business must decide which type of Website best suits its needs, today it is clear: Every company needs a Website. The question, then, becomes what will your Website do to help your business, and what investment is worth the return — considerations that warrant at least a short discussion by every company on an annual basis.

Reference

  1. Turning into digital goldfish. (2002, February 22). BBC. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1834682.stm

About the Author

Mark Madigan (mark.madigan@itcadre.com) is the founder and president of IT Cadre, an engineering and development organization focusing on the practical implementation of technology and the host of the ABMA Website. He has a bachelor's degree in engineering with a computer-science concentration from the United States Military Academy at West Point.