Caught in the web14 November 2000
Can websites really work wonders for your business? What can you expect to get out of them? And are they financially worth it? Gemma Newman seeks the answers, tips and tricks which could untangle your business
Everyone wants a patch in cyber space these days — virtual allotments where you can sit back and watch your business grow. But producing and managing a website is not as easy as it looks, and like any other allotment, it requires a particular set of conditions for your business to bloom.
The fear for many smaller companies in particular is that after investing so much time and money into a website, your business does not grow but withers.
To prevent this happening it is important that the reasons for setting up a website have been carefully considered. According to a survey in InternetWeek, the threat of competition is the main excuse corporate and IT managers use to justify an internet investment. Francois Schlieber of alstom also believes that in the power industry having a website is important to remain competitive. Ideally, however, the site should aim to be a business tool rather than an accessory. Only then is it likely to pay for itself and promote your business.
Schlieber recommends that before you set up a website you should identify its objective and ensure there is management support and resources available for the site. ‘Allocate 60% of your time to advice, 10% for referencing and 30% for design. Dedicate resources for up-dating the information,’ he says. ‘The aim of Alstom’s site is to become a real interface between the customers and the company. So far we have achieved better corporate communications and better business sites.’
Schlieber says that content organisation on different web pages within the company’s site has caused some problems but it has set up workgroups with participants from relevant departments to tackle this problem.
‘The main advantage of a website is easier communications, but company departments have to reorganise to be more reactive,’ says Schlieber. ‘We decided what to put on the website through workgroups and different approaches for the various pages such as corporate, sector and business pages.’
A lot of information is available on the internet itself. At www.webtools.com you can get advice about setting up an inexpensive website. One aspect which will increase the cost of a website is maintenance. Webtools suggests a number of ways which can reduce maintenance and save money:
•Give all web pages (html files) understandable names, so when you come back to them it is quicker to locate the files which need changing. Naming additional files will also be easier.
•Minimise the number of pages that need constant updating.
•Include a ‘what’s new’ page which is linked to the site’s main page or home page. Add to this page every time you make a significant change to the site. If a new page is added to the site or an old one is significantly updated, include a link to that page.
Webtools suggests that it is useful to have a list of changes to the site with the date of the change in reverse chronological order. This allows users to see how the site is evolving and you get a record of what you have achieved.
When you are creating your website it is important that you keep your audience in mind. According to Schlieber, Alstom set up its site for communications and customer relations. So it is important that the site has the following features:
•A way users can get in contact with the appropriate person. Webtools recom-mends that at the very least your email address should be on the main page of the site. A web form which allows people to communicate with your company is also preferable. Providing a mailing address and telephone number is a good idea.
•Easy access to the most important information. Not everyone has the fastest internet connections and may not wait for information to download.
•Large graphics or a number of small pictures should not be placed on the main page as this could encourage people to leave the site immediately, rather than wait for it to download.
•Include a description of all the graphics as some people use the internet with ‘images off’.
•Use links in the text to help users get relevant information and encourage them to look at other pages on the site.
•Submit the site’s URL to popular search engines, and let your customer’s know the website address through emails, newsletters or similar publications. Encourage relevant sites to add links to your website.
With these considerations in mind, it should be possible to create a website which will complement your business and ideally improve its prospects. But while the most developed countries continue to push internet development, concern is growing about regions in the world which cannot afford new internet technologies or do not have the infrastructure to support them. The evolution of the internet could ruin businesses in these poorer regions and affect their future economic development. Schlieber disagrees.
‘The internet should be seen as pushing progress,’ he says. ‘The technology is not expensive if the national telecom structure is strong enough. Prioritisation of investment in concerned countries could bring solutions needed in most of them.’
While the rest of us do not want to be left behind, it is important to get websites right. Schlieber says that even if it is difficult to measure the financial impact of a website, having a website is an advantage.