Certainly, the benefits of promoting your firm via the Internet — the relatively low cost, access to a global audience and the ability to update the content — are tempting.
But how do you go about designing your own web page? Business users who lack programming or design skills can create their own home page relatively painlessly, using one of the numerous software packages designed for this purpose. It is even possible to design a web site using the software given away by some Internet service providers when you subscribe.
But if you are nervous about the do-it-yourself approach, or have wider-ranging corporate needs, it may be wiser to commission a specialist web-design agency. Listings for these can be found in the more business-orientated Internet magazines, such as Internet Works. You should expect to pay £2000 upwards for this service; some of the larger corporate sites can cost as much as £2.5m and take many months to complete.
Chris Smosarski of London-based web designer Virtual Vision says that for about £5600, his company can create "a pretty smart site" within two weeks. He says: "It is vital to regard your web site as a business tool and be aware of what you are trying to achieve. Thinking you need a web presence without having thought things through can be a waste of money, especially if you just sit back and expect business to roll in once the web site is published." Before briefing designers, you should have a clear idea of how your products and services differ from those of your competitors. You should also ensure that your web site complements your existing marketing rather than merely reproducing it. Web specialists agree that a web site that reiterates the company brochure is a waste of effort.
Although many sites are located with ISPs such as Demon, Pipex and Cable & Wireless, who charge a premium for the privilege, it is possible to host your own web site by connecting your server directly to the Internet. Such an arrangement means that you have greater control over the site and can modify it more easily.
Once your site has been linked to the Internet, it can be accessed by the many search engines, such as Lycos, Yahoo! or Hotbot, that are used to trawl the web for information.
However, this can only happen after you have registered your web site with the search engines – usually by filling in a form online – to make them aware of your existence. Then, when a web surfer enters a key search word, the engine gauges how closely your site matches it. The closer the fit, the higher your ranking in the search engine's list, and the more prominent your site will be: getting into the top 10 sites of a search a key aim of web design.
Fortunately, getting a good match and therefore getting noticed is straightforward. When it comes to naming your site, experts advise that you choose the focus of your business as a title. For example, if you are an architect, make sure it says so in the title. If you are a multidisciplinary practice, it might be difficult to mention all your skills in the title. But do not worry, the engines also search the main text – so if you provide traffic management services, make sure mention it at some point in your site.
Another point to consider is tagging. Consultants will help you use "metatags" to label your site. These are invisible bits of web programming that allow a web designer to tell a search engine what subjects to classify your site under.
According to the Internet marketing consultant Ken McGaffin of Connect Marketing, and Virtual Vision's Smosarski, the construction industry has yet to measure up to its Internet potential. After trawling the net for construction sites, Smosarski was not impressed with any that he visited; McGaffin gave the thumbs up to just one – a US site called www.askthe builder.com. The site is aimed at the DIY market and discusses products and techniques. "It's a commercially successful site," says McGaffin, "which is very attractive and is also a great pleasure to use".
Tarmac's web site (www.tarmac.co.uk) was published in April 1997 after the company realised that customers, researchers and students wanted easily downloadable information, primarily company accounts, reports and project information.
The web site was created by Designtec and passed back to Tarmac's own information technology department to publish. The site is hosted on the company's own servers.
Thinking you need a web presence without having thought things through properly can be a waste of money, especially if you just sit back and expect business to roll in
Chris Smosarski of London-based web designer Virtual Vision
The web design took five months from inception to completion and cost about £50 000, although this does not include management time or domain name purchases. Like many corporate bodies, Tarmac tries to protect its domain name (tarmac.co.uk) by buying-up similar sounding names that might cause confusion.
Tarmac's John Davies admits that the whole process has been a steep learning curve for the company, but says it now has a clearer idea of its audience, which ranges from members of the public and customers to students, schools and those searching for company accounts. Furthermore, the initial attempt to publish an online brochure is now regarded as the wrong approach, and the firm has also abandoned the moving pictures that increased download time.
Although Tarmac does not expect major contracts to materialise purely as a result of its web presence, the site has proved its worth as a sales lead generator. And, as companies within Tarmac Group are being encouraged to develop their own sites, it is envisaged that those selling products, such as Topmix, may eventually cater for online ordering.
Two years ago, when Newcastle-based architect FaulknerBrowns wanted to create a web site, it found little in the way of dedicated software. So it made its own using freeware and shareware (available on the Internet or on CD-ROMs given away with IT magazines), and handed it over to an external agency, run by a former employee, to smooth over any rough edges. The result (www.faulknerbrowns.co.uk) is hosted on Demon ISPon a 10 MB site, and registered with six or so search engines, including Yahoo!, AltaVista, and InfoSeek.
The site was completed in "fits and starts" over a number of weeks. A recent estimate suggests that building an equivalent site today would cost about £1500. The 30-odd pages include a home page, practice profile and completed projects, with small images to facilitate faster downloads.
But a new site is in the pipeline. This will be more interactive, with links to outside web sites, including those of various standards authorities. Responsibility is arranged so that everyone has an input.
Bedford-based architect The Charter Partnership has had a web page for about a year. It created its own web site in-house using Microsoft's Publisher 98 and FrontPage Express software (ds.dial.com/tcp.lond). Because of a heavy workload, much of the work was done outside office hours, making it difficult to cost the exercise.
The site is maintained at least once a month and has attracted the interest of architecture students around the world. A revised site with links to other construction sites is planned. The practice is also considering earmarking an area of the site for storing standard CAD details for its own use – a useful facility for a 75-strong partnership spread over five offices. One of the lessons the practice has learned is that, whereas it is relatively easy to sell goods over the Net, selling a service is a tougher proposition.
When British Gypsum realised that a significant proportion of its key audience of architects and specifiers had Internet access, it decided to establish a web site.
As part of a new corporate identity scheme initiated by parent company BPB, British Gypsum commissioned London-based Virtual Vision to design the new web site (www.british-gypsum.bpb.co.uk). The site provides company and product information, showcases solutions, and can be used to connect to the online version of the company's White Book specification guide. Visitors also have links to other sites and can even access press releases.
British Gypsum's Paul Smith says: "Our objective was to create a site that was simple and allowed quick access and easy navigation. We supplied Virtual Vision with a list of the information it wanted to present." Smith says the web site cost about £25 000, but this does not account for the "enormous and inestimable" amounts of management time expended for liaison, research and checking during the six months it took from start to finish. Some of the lessons learned by the company during this period include the importance of thorough early planning.