Ten tips for building a small business Website.

This guide is for small business owners who are thinking of building or improving their website.

The tips are written with the expectation that someone else will be doing the work for you. Thus, I do not go into any detail on “how” implement the tips, rather I focus on what to ask for.

1. Understand the jargon

2. Understand bundled or standalone hosting

3. Choose a mature Content Management System (CMS)

4. Start with a ready made theme

5. Select a mobile and tablet friendly website theme

6. Integrate with Google Analytics

7. Monitor your website performance

8. Optimise content to be Search Engine friendly

9. Enable your site for secure browsing

10. Have a backup and disaster recovery plan, and test it

1. Understand the jargon

As a small business owner you need to be able to communicate with the technical folk who put together websites.

I’ll refer to those “technical folk” as website developers and website designers.

Developer focus on functionality and have technical skills, while designers focus on graphics and have graphic design skills.

Themes, plugins, apps, content management systems, hosts and domain names, are just some of the terms used by website developers.

If you need a meaningful conversation with a website developer to improve your existing site, or build a new site, then a general understanding of these terms will help.

The above below provides a simple overview of the layers of delivering a website.

To assist in understanding the concepts, i’ve compared to a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation running on a computer.

 

logical layers of a website

 

Host

This describes the computing resources that a website platform runs on. This will be a computer called a server that has the muscle to manage multiple users (your visitors) concurrently accessing content (your website).

A host can be shared by multiple websites, or dedicated to a single website.

Dedicated hosting costs significantly more, and is usually only required for unique website requirements.

Just like your computer at the office, the server will be running an operating system. Microsoft Windows and Linux are the most common operating systems, and each website platform will recommend which operating system to choose.

The performance of the host will have a significant impact on your website availability and speed to load. As an analogy, the performance of Microsoft PowerPoint is influenced by the computer it is run on. A computer with insufficient resources, that occasionally restarts without warning, will result in a terrible experience.

Content Management System (CMS)

This describes the software that manages the underlying features and capabilities of a website including the interface used to build the site. Continuing the earlier analogy above, there are various presentation software packages, Microsoft has PowerPoint, and Apple has KeyNote and each has different capabilities.

The below image shows the interface or the WordPress platform used to make this post!

Wordpress edit post interface

 

Some website CMS solutions, are only offered bundled with a pre-defined host and pre-defined themes (themes are discussed below).

Other website platforms can be used with any website host that you choose.

Website platforms often come with Apps or Plugins that you can install onto your website to provide additional functionality.

In general, CMS solutions that are bundled with a website host have less flexibility on configuration but can be simpler to setup if you have simple requirements.

In general, a standalone CMS, where you can choose a host, provides more flexibility on configuration, but the additional options can be time consuming to understand.

Theme

This describes the look and feel of your website. It’s equivalent to the various templates available in Microsoft PowerPoint presentations. You can choose the look and feel of the presentation, but it is still Microsoft PowerPoint.

The below images shows a fraction of the themes available in WordPress.org. Themes can also be customised by website designers.

wordpress.org themes example

Content

This describes the information you add to your site; pictures, videos, text, documents, etc. In the presentation analogy, this is the content of the presentation; pictures and text.

Website

Your website is the resultant output of your host + platform + theme + content.

Domain name

Clearly your website needs a name, or domain name. To register a domain name you need to use a domain name registrar. You domain registrar provides tools to point your domain name to your website hosted location, wherever that may be. In just seconds you can change where your domain points to. This provides great flexibility for disaster recovery. It also means control of your domain name is perhaps the single most important security consideration for your website.

deBaffle recommendation – Often website hosting companies will also provide domain registration services, but I recommend keeping your domain registration with a company separate to your hosting. This allows you to update your domain records to a new website host completely independently of your the website host you are leaving.  This provide great flexibility. With this in mind, I recommend GoDaddy for domain registration as they have excellent security measures in place to protect your domain name. GoDaddy is by far the biggest registrar in the world.

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2. Understand bundled or standalone hosting

A CMS can be split into two categories; where hosting is bundled with the CMS and cant be changed, and where you can choose your own hosting.

CMS bundled with a host

By definition, a key drawback of these solutions is that you cannot move your website to a new host. So, for example, if your website has performance issues, you cannot simply move to a new website host, rather you will have to build a new website. This fact alone effectively makes disaster recovery impossible, as you cannot have your content mirrored to a different website host in the event your primary site has as a disaster.

Standalone CMS

Standalone website platforms require you to choose a website host.

By definition, with a standalone platform, you can move your website, to any other host. This means if you are unhappy with the performance of your host, or if you simply want to have an independent backup of your website in case your host has a disaster, then you can.

There are three types of hosts; shared, virtual private server (VPS), dedicated. Pricing for each varies significantly. Unless you are expecting significant volumes, you will probably be safe starting with a shared host, and then upgrading as required to VPS or dedicated.

deBaffle recommendation – Choose a CMS where you can choose the hosting. It is the only option that lets you move your website elsewhere if your hosting provider has an issue.

In terms of a hosting company, the market is very fragmented, and size does not equate to quality. Fortunately, the host you pick today, does not need to remain your host tomorrow. This is the key advantage of using a standalone CMS.

deBaffle recommendation – Use hosting from InMotion hosting. InMotion ranks number 2 at whoishostingthis.com based on user review, InMotion has great performance results, and does not use another company for hosting (a number of leading companies have the actual website hosting provided by third parties). InMotion also hosts over 320,000 websites. Lastly, they provide a 100% satisfaction guarantee. That said, their servers are located in the US – if that is an issue for you, then look at alternatives.

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3. Choose a mature Content Management System (CMS)

Mature Content Management Systems have larger user communities, and in turn, larger support forums. While you may not be interested in getting support yourself, knowing that your website developer has readily available support options will translate into better support for you.

A mature CMS has more development and more of the coding performance issues resolved.

A mature CMS has more website developers. This means it will be easier for you to find, or change, your website developer.

It can be difficult to assess the maturity of a CMS, however one measure that is correlated to maturity is market share.

The below chart captures the CMS platforms that capture 90% of the CMS in use globally.

The chart shows the number of sites using the CMS on the horizontal axis, and the amount of traffic the sites get on the vertical axis.

Market_Position_Report_of_Top_30_Content_Management_Systems

To help make sense of the above chart, the following tables split the data by companies that bundle hosting with their CMS, and companies that provide a CMS where you can choose your hosting. See the previous tip on the differences to consider on each approach.

Hosting is bundled with the CMS

deBaffle recommendation – per my second tip, I would avoid any of the below options as all lock you into their own hosting. This means that if you are unhappy with the performance of their hosting, or if they have a sustained outage period, you cant quickly move your website to a different host.

Provider CMS market share Focus Price
WordPress 8.8%* Multipurpose website Free
Blogger 2.7% Blogging Free
Bitrix 1.3% Business collaboration tools Free and paid plans
PrestaShop 1.3% Online shop Free
Shopify 1% Online shop From $29/month
Squarespace 0.8% Website and online shop From $8/month for website only, or $26/ month for website and online shop.
vBulletin 0.8% Bulletin board/ forum $19.95/ month
Bigcommerce 0.4% Online shop $29.95/ month
Weebly 0.4% Website and online shop From $25/ month for online shop with free and paid plans for website only
Wix 0.4% Website and online shop From $15/ month for online shop and $12/ month for a website only
GitHub Pages 0.3% Website and blog platform for developers Free
uCoz 0.3% Website and online shop From $15.99/ month for online shop with free and paid website only options
Tumblr 0.1% Blogging Free

* W3techs does not split between WordPress hosted bundled, and standalone market share. I’ve used these additional statistics to allow the split.

Standalone CMS platforms – where you can choose your own website host.

You will note that three of the below standalone CMS platforms were also in the previous table bundled with web hosting – WordPress, PrestaShop and vBulletin.

deBaffle recommendation – Market share is a useful proxy for CMS maturity. As such, to choose your CMS, evaluate up to four providers with the most market share in the focus area you need. If an IT professional is making a decision for you, understand the rationale if they use a different methodology . As stated earlier, lower market share will translate into higher costs for support and experienced resources.

Provider CMS market share Focus Price
WordPress 50%* Multipurpose website (including online shop) Free
Joomla 6.4% Multipurpose website  (including online shop) Free
Drupal 4.9% Multipurpose website  (including online shop) Free
Magento 2.9% Online shop Free and paid options
TYPO3 1.5% Multipurpose website Free
Adobe Dreamweaver 1.4% Website development software From $25/ month
PrestaShop 1.0% Online shop Free
OpenCart 0.4% Online shop Free
vBulletin 0.4% Bulletin board/ forum From $249 to buy the software
DataLife Engine 0.7% Website platform, primarily used in Russia Free and paid options
DotNetNuke 0.6% Website and blog platform for developers Free
ExpressionEngine 0.5% Website platform $299 to buy the software
phpBB 0.5% Bulletin board/ forum Free
Discuz! 0.4% Bulletin board/ forum, primarily used in China $300 to buy the software
osCommerce 0.4% Online shop Free
SharePoint 0.4% Highly customisable web platform Not available – bespoke project cost
XenForo 0.3% Bulletin board/ forum From $140 to buy the software
Zen Cart 0.3% Online shop Free
Telerik Sitefinity 0.2% Website Not available – price on application only

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4. Start with a ready made theme

The premier market place for website themes is themeforest.net. A great looking theme will cost you no more than $100. While you can get the “look and feel” for your website designed from scratch, you will save significant amounts of money and time by using a theme that is already available, and if need be, get some customisation tweaks.

deBaffle recommendation – use themeforest.net to get your website theme. The live demo feature will let you compare between your CMS shortlist (see tip 3). Take into account the number of sales that a theme has made as this will influence the support you receive (the more a theme sells, the more profitable for the developer, the more their motivation to provide great support).

The below screenshot shows highlights the themes available for standalone CMS (Jekyll can be used with GitHub pages).

ThemeForest templates by CMS

 

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5. Select a mobile and tablet friendly website theme

The screen resolution and aspect ratios of mobiles, tablets, laptops and external monitors all differ. To make your website content display effectively on different screens, the content needs to respond to the type of device accessing your site, and rearrange as necessary. This is called having a “responsive” website.

The below video illustrates this capability by resizing a web browser – notice how the content re-arranges as the viewing area decreases. This results in content that looks good on a large view, and on a small view. Most importantly, this capability does not need to cost you anything, you just need to choose a website theme that supports the feature.

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6. Integrate with Google Analytics

Google Analytics provides the insight to tell you about your visitors; where they come from, what pages they are visiting, how long they stay, and if the move between content on your site. While many website platforms provide basic visitor statistics, they fall short on telling you where the traffic is from; for example, it may just be automatically generate spam traffic – your stats may look good, but the traffic is worthless. Google Analytics will let you see the difference.

Google Analytics is a free tool and can be easily integrated into your website by an experienced web developer. There is some time investment in understanding the various reports and how to optimise the output, but without this information, it will be hard to measure the value of your website.

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7. Monitor your website performance

A website that is unavailable, or that is slow to load, results in a poor customer experience. These issues are easy to catch if they happen regularly, but intermittent problems may only be apparent to your customers.

Monitoring provides a continuos view of website performance. Pingdom is the best service I have found to do this, and costs just over $9/month. The below chart shows performance over a 1 week period, monitored at 1 minute intervals. As you can see, there have been 2 outages of 7 minutes, and this corresponded to load time increasing to nearly 5 minutes. Not good.

Personally  have found a direct correlation between low cost web host and the volume of downtime and slow performance. Perhaps time for me to change my host – see more on tip 9 and 10.
website monitoring with pingdom

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8. Optimise content to be Search Engine friendly

The best way to get visitors to your website is to have search engines such as Google list your website in their search results. There is an industry dedicate to making this happen called Search Engine Optimisation, or SEO. Beware that there are many quick win schemes associated with SEO that will just waste your money. That said, ignoring SEO will reduce the visitors your site recieves. To understand what is reasonable to expect, and how it works, please see the following excellent free guide: https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo

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9. Enable your site for secure browsing

Secure browsing means the traffic to your website is secure.

When secure browsing is in place, all web browsers display a padlock symbol, as shown for Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer, and Apple Safari, below:

Chrome toolbar showing httpsIE toolbar with httpsSafari browser on OSX showing https

Secure browsing has the following advantages:

  • It will help protect your website administration login for being compromised.
  • If will help protect the credentials of your users who login to your site, if applicable (i.e. for subscription content or courses).
  • Google will give you credit in its search ranking.
  • Some users will consider your site more trustworthy if they can see secure browsing being used.

Enabling secure browsing is easier if done when a site is initially built, and can be done for less than $100 per year (it requires a recurring cost).

To see more of what is involved have a look at some step by step instructions.

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10. Have a backup and disaster recovery plan, and test it

This last point really depends on how valuable your website is to your business. If it is a key asset, and if website downtime would impact your business, then having a backup and disaster recovery plan is important.

Fortunately, this advise can be relatively easy to implement. For an overview of implementing, and testing, back and disaster recovery for WordPress, see my review of VaultPress.

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