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ISSUE 545: The high tech office- April 4 2000

ALAN ZISMAN

It pays to plan ahead before creating a company Web site

Even now, five or so years since the Internet exploded onto public consciousness, the majority of Canadian businesses don't have their own Web sites. Most of the ones that don't have a vague feeling that they're missing out on something important. Despite the massive number of newspaper and magazine articles, it's still worth pointing out three big myths and three key words of advice.

The myths:

* The Internet is the future. You have to do something about it right now! The reality is that while half of Canadian homes have computers, half don't. While online sales are growing, particularly direct sales between businesses, e-commerce remains a small part of the economy and will remain so for quite a while. Even well-known Internet businesses such as Amazon.com have yet to show a profit and many businesses have found themselves disappointed with the results of their online strategies.

* Online access is fast and convenient. It looks that way on the TV ads, so it must be true, right? Despite the growth in high-speed cable and ADSL phone line connections, most home users access the Net using conventional modems. Again, this is going to remain the reality for the foreseeable future. For these users, the Information Superhighway is more like an unpaved logging road. If you want these users to access your Web site, design it with them in mind. Otherwise, potential customers will click on their browser's Back button and try the next link in the search engine's list, your competitor. And speaking of search engines, the third big myth is:

* Build it and they will come. There are, by some estimates, well over 350 million Web sites up and running. And search engines have catalogued only a fraction of these. One survey last summer suggested that the best of the bunch knew about 17 per cent of the total.

Based on the reality of these myths, here are some words of advice:

* Plan. As with any other business venture, the more you've thought out what you want, what you need, how you expect to accomplish it and how you'll measure success, the more likely you are to get reasonable results. In the first wave of business jumping at the Internet, many of the biggest businesses created Web sites that lacked focus. They were on the Web because, well, they thought they had to be on the Web. You can do better. Think about what you hope to accomplish, who your target users are. A site that is simply informational can be successful, but will be different than a site aimed at directly generating sales. A site aimed at consumers, mostly modem-users, should be different from one aimed at businesspeople who will mostly access the site using a faster corporate network. Will success be measured directly in increased sales or indirectly by your mailing out less-expensive printed material?

* Test. Remember your users. Make sure your site loads quickly and is easy to navigate. Can real users easily find their way to the information or the actions you want them to find? Too many businesses waste their users' time with a colourful home page that displays a big (and slow-loading) graphic of the corporate logo, with words saying, in effect, click here to go someplace useful.

When you first see your proposed Web site, you'll typically see it loaded right off the hard drive, on a powerful computer with a monitor showing millions of colours at a high resolution. Try it on the sort of computer you imagine your typical user might have. If you want to reach home users, set it to 256 colours at 640x480 pixel resolution. Do your graphics look unacceptably grainy? Do you have to scroll from side to side to read a line of text? Design for your potential users' hardware, not your designer's.

Virtually every Web page I've been involved with has ended up being extensively redesigned. Plan on it taking a couple of versions before you get it right.

* Publicize. Without active publicity, a Web site is as useful to your business as a boxful of brochures sitting in your car. Put your address on your business cards and letterhead and on all the print material and ads you generate. Trade links with business partners. Advertise their sites in exchange for having them do the same for you.

Don't wait for the search engines to discover your Web site. Each allows you to submit information about your site: name, Web address and keywords to help categorize your site. Put effort into generating that list of keywords. A number of services, such as Submit-it! (www.submit-it.com), can simplify the process of letting multiple search engines know about your Web site. *

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan