What is the first thing people do when they hear of your business or find you in Google?
We all know the answer: They go to your site. If you are a service business, they will probably also go to LinkedIn to see more about you. And, further along in their buying process they might check out your social feeds to see what you care about and how helpful and sane you are. But the first place they go is almost always your site.
Which makes your site pretty darn important. We all know that, too.
Your site will either encourage them to continue pursuing you, or will help them decide to abandon that pursuit. This decision to abandon can happen in a matter of seconds, and is pushed along by the desire to quickly abandon the “no way” candidates. “Uh. These people are amateurs.” Click. Or, “It’s too difficult to get my questions answered or find/buy what I want.” Click. “This is confusing.” Click.
You know this is true, because as a buyer, you do it yourself. We all do.
It’s a big job to create sites that have the opposite, positive reaction (“Ah. Perfect. This looks really promising.”). Succeeding in getting this kind of reaction involves a number of specialists—writers, designers, developers, project managers, SEO experts, online advertising experts, email marketing experts, campaign specialists, and more—all working to get more potential customers to your site and give them what they need when they get there.
In order to create a successful site, you need to manage all these specialists successfully. That means you, the CEO or business owner, need to understand how all this digital marketing works well enough to manage it. It’s all part of your company’s digital transformation strategy.
So what do you need to know in order to manage website development?
Frank Zinghini (CEO of Applied Visions) and I have been doing a series of webinars on this and other helpful-for-CEOs topics about digitally transforming your company. We do have an episode on the very subject of “How the Web Works.” Once you sign in, you will have access to all current and upcoming episodes. And I have also written a previous blog on How Websites Are Constructed, which will help you.
Those are good resources. But what I want to do, in this article, is focus specifically on what you need to do to be an effective manager of your site development. Here is my advice:
Don’t think it’s too technical. This is Mistake #1 that I see CEOs and entrepreneurs making, over and over. Yes, it’s complicated and changes faster than ever. I’ve been in tech since the digital world started to emerge—before the web—and I still learn something new every day.
But that’s the point. It’s all learnable. No one was born knowing how to code. Just because the younger folks have had more exposure and take a lot of our digital existence for granted, doesn’t mean you can’t navigate your way through it successfully. Yes, you still need to leave the details to the specialists, but you need to make sure you understand what they’re doing, so it makes sense to you and so you can manage them.
Understand the cloud. The cloud is just a bunch of very powerful computers sitting in racks in data centers around the world, all connected to the internet. They contain (“host”) sites, applications, and databases. You rent space and time on them.
Understand your website hosting. Just about every client we take on is not fully aware of where their site is currently hosted. They have just left that up to whichever developer they work with. But what if that developer suddenly disappears? Or if you decide to fire the developer and it’s messy?
And it’s not just your site—that’s your identity we’re talking about, the very foundation of your business. You can’t leave this up to anyone else. By the way, there are three “hosts” involved in your site: the site itself, your domain, and your email, all of which can be hosted by the same host, or in three separate places. Let’s look at each one:
- Site hosting. You should make a point of knowing exactly where your site is hosted—in other words, which commercial hosting company has your site on their servers. You should also know the URL, username, and password needed to sign into your account where your site is hosted. Personally, I’d check it once a month to make sure you can still get in there. Sites can be hosted by a large, popular company such as GoDaddy (the largest, with about 20 percent of the site hosting market), Amazon Web Services, 1&1, Hostgator, BlueHost, and more.
Just because they’re big doesn’t mean their customer service is good; GoDaddy reviews give them a 3.5 out of 10 range. Developers tend to find their own preferred hosting companies and stick with them, if the service and uptime are solid.
Moving your site to another host is a bit complicated and has to be done correctly.
Larger companies often host their sites on their own servers, but that’s not true of smaller or mid-sized companies. Chances are your site is hosted with an outside company. Make sure the subscription is in your company’s name and is paid for using your credit card. You absolutely do not want to “lose” your site because it’s all tied to a single developer, you have no idea where it is hosted, and it’s being paid for by that developer’s credit card. If the developer disappears, this can be a nightmare.
You should make sure that your site is backed up at least once a week, and that you have access to those backups.
If you are not sure where your site is hosted, and your developer is not available, you can enter yourcompany.com into WhoIs.com and get enough information to start tracking it down.
- Domain Hosting. People find your company’s website through its “IP address,” which is just a number such as 168.54.324.17. But that’s not something you want people to use when they are looking for you, so that IP address has to be translated into something people can understand and remember, which is usually built around your company or product name: the “www.YourCompany.com” that we’re all so familiar with. That string is what’s known as a “URL” (universal resource locator), and the main part (“YourCompany”) is your “domain name.” The address book that translates this into an IP address is known as the Domain Name Service. You don’t really need to know much about how this works, except when you want to go and register a new domain name. That is done by someone called a “registrar,” and is usually the same vendor that you choose to host your website—again, GoDaddy is a common domain name registration/host company. And, once again, you absolutely, positively need to have your domain registered and hosted under your company’s name and credit card, not your website developer’s, and you should be able to sign in yourself and verify that is the case.
- Email Hosting. It is pretty common for your site host or domain host to also host your email, but again, you need to know for sure. A lot of people use Google’s GSuite to host their email. Microsoft Office365 is another popular platform, as are Bluehost, Rackspace, Fasthosts, and Zoho.
All email systems have two principal components: There is the email server that connects to the Internet, and receives and processes any emails you send or receive. And then there is the email app, often referred to as the client, that resides on your computer, such as Microsoft Outlook, Gmail, and Apple Mail (or you might just use a web browser to access your mail). Mail comes in to the email server and then sends those emails to your client application. Just because you can get into your own email doesn’t mean that you know where your email is hosted. Research this; find it out and document where it is hosted and how to access it via the web.
Do not rest until you have found all of these resources, have recorded how to get into them, and have gone in there yourself.
Stick with the popular website platforms. Popular applications for building a site (usually referred to as a Content Management System) include Wix, Squarespace, and WordPress. Your site should be built with one of these more popular platforms. Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of hiring a nerdy developer who likes a more esoteric, technically complicated program, such as Drupal, or who insists that “the only way to build a truly responsive and high-performance website is to build it from scratch!” The problem there is that if your developer disappears or becomes unreliable, you will have to find another nerdy developer who likes working with Drupal or who can make sense of the code that was written. Sure, they are out there, but there are many, many more developers working in WordPress. Your chances of finding a suitable replacement are much better.
Websites are comprised of code, mostly HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). As the web has matured, more and more website platforms use a more templatized approach. The HTML is still there, in the background, but the way the developers build and organize each site is much more human-friendly when created with popular website builder platforms (such as Wix and WordPress) and applications that work within the more popular environments (such as Elementor within WordPress).
If you want to sell on your site, you will need to use a platform specifically for e-commerce, such as Shopify, WooCommerce (for WordPress), or Squarespace.
Understand what kind of site you need. There are several “stages” or “levels” of sites, depending on the complexity. The complexity is driven by how much interaction you expect to have with your customers while they are on your site. How much they will be able to “do,” in other words. We’ve broken this down into four levels:
- Static. This is your basic brochureware site. They come to read and learn about your company and your products. Yes, there is a contact page, and maybe you invite them to subscribe to your blog, and allow them to click on your social icons, but that’s about it.
If you do take subscriptions, the site will need to be tied to a Customer Relationship Manager (CRM) application. Choose your CRM wisely; stick with the more popular, more simplistic ones. It’s easy to overspend on a too-complicated CRM.
Even though this is brochureware, you will definitely be a step ahead of your competitors if you allow people to chat with you via your site. This is becoming more of the norm than the exception.
- Commerce. You are going to sell products on your site. In addition to the usual “brochureware” pages and elements (About, Contact, Blog, Subscription to the Blog, Social Icons, Policies, etc.), you will need to have a catalog of products that you can add or delete easily; there needs to be an underlying database that holds those products; the site needs to be tied to a CRM to keep track of customer data and interactions; you need to be able to accept credit card payments via an application tied to a payment gateway; you will need to give customers a way to check on the status of their account and track or return purchases; they should be able to read and write reviews; use email to alert them to new products, services, and sales; and you need to be able to see how well you’re selling, where your traffic is coming from, and what people are doing on your site. Note that the payment gateway part—to handle credit card processing—is a huge deal and fraught with risk and responsibility. But there are dozens of third-party service providers who do all that for you, from PayPal to QuickBooks or Square. Don’t try to do this yourself.
- Self-Service. Now we’re talking about an online application that goes beyond just shopping. They can check their balance or order status; carry out transactions; learn via video or chat; create graphics or proposals; the list goes on and on. Chances are you know about these because you’re already using them.
- Community. Visitors interact not only with your product or application, but with each other. Discussion forums fall into this category, but even commerce sites—the super advanced ones such as Amazon—allow customers to ask each other questions and show buyers what other buyers have bought when searching for similar items.
Understand the difference between a website and an application.
- Websites cost thousands of dollars. A good brochureware site should cost from $2,500 to $10,000. A good commerce site will cost from $5,000 to $50,000 or more, depending on the number of products you’re selling, the variations in the product choices (colors, sizes, materials, etc.), and the amount of calculations/promos/interactions you include in the site. Add community functionality and you’re talking more like $25,000 to $100,000 and beyond.
- Applications cost more than websites. Applications are much more complicated than websites (although the more complex commerce and community sites can be pretty darn complicated). Applications rely on backend programming to present the proper navigation and workflow. They must be secure, tested, and built with user input from the beginning in order to succeed in the market. All of this requires research, technical, security, and quality control specialists. Not to mention project and workflow management.
Applications will fall more in the $50,000 to $100,000+ range. Don’t forget that sites are browser-based, whereas applications can be device-dependent. If you develop a mobile app, you will have to decide which market you’re going to go after—Apple or Android. Or both. Your app will need to work with the older models as well as the newer ones. This is part of what drives up the cost of developing an application.
So far, we have focused only on websites and applications. But there is a whole digital world beyond these aspects, including social, search engine optimization, and online advertising. In other words, the parts of the web that you can use to bring traffic to your site once you’ve built it. We talk more about that in our “How to Be Successful Marketing Online” podcast and in a future article.