Should your business be on the Net?

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Computer Player, June 1998

While the Internet has been in existence since the early 1970s, it?s somewhat surprising to realize that as a mass phenomenon, the Net is only in its fourth year. In the time, we?ve gotten (to paraphrase Carl Sagan), millions and millions of Web pages, ranging from government sites, to large corporations, to personal pages (hear my dog Koko bark at:

I recently gave a talk about the Internet at the annual conference of BC?s Council of Tourism Industries?I started off by asking the audience to put up their hands to indicate their familiarity with the Internet. As I?d expected, nearly everyone in the room had used e-mail and browsed the Web. I was surprised, however, at the response to my next query. How many of their tourism-related companies had Web sites?

I?d expected that perhaps a quarter or one third of the group would put up their hands?instead, over half indicated that they already had sites for their businesses.

Should your business be on the Internet? If so, how should they go about getting onto the Web? If it?s already on the Net, how can you make your site more effective?

Business use on the Web tends to fall into three categories. Most sites simply present information?the online equivalent of traditional brochures and catalogues. Other sites allow users to gain information that would otherwise be done by phone or fax. Computer companies, for instance, offer answers to technical support questions. Fedex allows customers to track their packages.

Electronic commerce has gotten the most publicity, however; particularly direct sales to consumers (even though business-to-business commerce accounts for the bulk of Net transactions). Dell Computers, with $3 million (US) in daily sales, and Amazon Books are frequently cited as online success stories.

Setting up a secure online sales site is possible?paranoia about Net security is overblown. However, up until now, it?s been too complicated and costly for many small businesses to attempt. This is slowly changing?check out for example,  to view Strategic Profits? ?Turnkey E-Commerce Business Solutions? and make a token $0.01 transaction. For now, however, most small businesses are most likely to offer information about themselves and their products online.

Despite appearances, putting your business onto the Internet isn?t about technology?it?s a business decision. And like other business decisions, you?ll be most satisfied if you figure out to expect beforehand.

Surprisingly, you may find that your business is online without your even knowing it, particularly if you?re a member of a business association.  For example, I went looking for tourism information for the lovely small town of Sechelt, BC. I found listings of Bed and Breakfasts, for example, on a page posted by the Sechelt Chamber of Commerce. B&Bs were also listed as part of a more general Canadian B&B site. Both sites featured brief descriptions and contact information, and included links to email and Web pages set up by individual B&Bs where available.

For the most control over the information provided, of course, your business should have a Web page of its own. This raises the question of how to design such a page and where to host it. In both cases, there are two ways to go?do it yourself, or hire a professional.

Like designing your own brochures, it?s become easier and easier to design your own Web site. A number of software packages, such as Microsoft FrontPage, Claris HomePage, Symantec VisualPage, and Adobe PageMill are aimed at making it possible to work with Web page design without dirtying your hands with actual HTML code. Microsoft Publisher 98 allows users to repurpose their brochures? content and design into their Web pages.

But many of us don?t have the time, energy, or skills to design our own. There are many Web designers for hire?some advertising in this very issue! When looking for a designer, look for someone you feel you can work with?you?re going to be collaborating on this. Look at work they?ve done for others, and try to talk to some customers. Be clear that you want ownership of the finished product?none of the code should belong to the designer.

Similarly, you could set up your own Web server and host your own pages, but you probably don?t want to.  There are national (and international) Web hosting services, or you may want to work with a local Internet Service Provider. Some services may offer a complete package, including design and hosting, as well as registering your domain name.

Most businesses will want to register a unique domain name- it?s certainly easier for potential customers to find you if your page is at then if it?s located at You can choose between being registered with the US-based COM domain, or as part of the less-populated CA (for Canada, not California) domain. It?s easier, quicker, and cheaper to get a CA domain name, but for many, the COM domain has become synonymous with the Internet, making such names easier to remember.

Be sure to spend some time online, looking especially at what your competition is doing. And even if  higher speed Internet access is available to you, spend time browsing using a modem and a phone line, just like most of your potential customers will. And keep that experience in mind?when you?re going over your pages, your designer will show them running directly from a computer?s drive, where everything will load quickly. Try instead, to get a sense of what the experience will like for a typical user.

Fancy graphics, animations, and video clips look great in your office, but take forever to appear on a home users? screen. And if a page takes too long to appear, your potential customer is likely to click on the back button, and go to one of your competitors. Aim for a Web site that?s simple, appears quickly on screen, is clear to navigate, and offers the potential customer the ability to do something. (For example, check out, the Vineyard at Bowen Island, BC for a site that?s simple and clear, but effective).

Once your site is posted, don?t neglect ways to bring potential customers to it. Add its address to your business cards, letterhead, and brochures. Submit its address to the major search engines, using keywords that will make sure it appears when potential customers search. (Check out to simplify that process). Repeat every six months or so, as your site sinks lower and lower in the search engine returns.

Most of us will find that posting a site on the Net won?t magically make your business explode. But it is a growing way to gain exposure to customers?and if you?re not on the Net, rest assured that your competitors are!

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