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Establishing a website can be an efficient, relatively inexpensive way to reach customers, clients, and fans. Your website can provide access to your business that is constantly and globally available to customers. If you want to invest a little more time and effort, your site can be used for direct sales -- a great way to increase your profits.

If you have a computer and you're willing to learn, you can probably have your website up and running in a few weeks. Creating and hosting a website can now be accomplished by even the most tech-challenged. If you've got other priorities, you can hire a website developer to custom design the site for you. Here are some quick solutions and pointers that will eliminate some of the mystery surrounding the creation of websites.

Information-Only Website

If you plan to use your site primarily to provide information about your business, you can design and launch a site pretty easily. Here are a couple of routes you can take.

Quick and easy: Create a blog. Blogs, short for web logs, were initially used as journals. Nowadays, blog has come to mean any easily updated Web page that you regularly add information to. To create a blog, all you do is start an account (check out www.blogger.com or www.typepad.com), pick a template and the background colors for your blog, and then upload text. The advantage of a blog is that you can establish one in less than an hour. The disadvantage is that in order to maintain interest, you'll need to regularly refresh with new information.

More time-consuming: Build a site from scratch. Millions of people have done it and you can, too. Once you master the website software, you can create a basic website of five to ten separate Web pages in a few hours. To create these basic sites, you'll need three elements:

  • A domain name. You can get your domain name (your address on the Web -- for example, www.nolo.com) at a domain name registrar or through a hosting company. Expect to pay between $10 and $35 a year.
  • Website development software. You create your website on your own computer using development software and then transfer it to your hosting company. There is a learning curve for website software, and of the three leading products -- Adobe Dreamweaver, Adobe Go Live and Microsoft FrontPage -- FrontPage is considered the easiest to learn.
  • A hosting company. A hosting company, sometimes referred to as an Internet Service Provider or ISP, rents out space on its equipment. You give the host your domain name information (or they'll get the domain name for you) and your website design, and they broadcast your website for the world to see. Expect to pay $5 to $50 a month for Web hosting, depending on the bells and whistles.

When you're adding the final touches, don't forgot to add legal notices and a privacy policy. For information, see Website Terms and Conditions.

Selling Products Online

If you're interested in selling products online, you'll need to do more than if you're setting up an information-only site. There are two ways to do this: set up a community business on someone else's site, or create your your store from scratch.

Quick and easy: Set up a community store. A community store on a site such as an eBay or Yahoo offers a complete turnkey solution. eBay or Yahoo will help you quickly set up your site and make it possible for you to accept credit card payments. All you'll need to do is pay the fees and provide photos and copy for your products.

More time-consuming: Build a store from scratch. Building a store from scratch is not as simple as creating an information site from scratch, as described above. You have to go through the same basic steps -- get a domain name, design your site, and locate an ISP -- with one added twist: You need to incorporate a shopping cart and credit card payment system. And when you do business online, the mechanics of accepting credit cards is different than in person or over the phone -- and avoiding fraud is more difficult. You have two options for collecting payments:

  • Shopping cart and gateway. To collect money from a customer, you deal with an intermediary known as a transaction processor, or transaction clearinghouse, that handles credit card transactions for your merchant bank. The transaction clearinghouse checks the validity of the customer's card and okays (or rejects) the purchase. For online purchases, the gateway is the method of connecting your online business to the transaction clearinghouse. You can have a company (a gateway service) provide this connection service, or you can purchase gateway software on disk or in hardware that acts as the digital equivalent of the card-swipe machine used in a store.
  • PayPal. PayPal ( www.paypal.com), an online payment system owned by eBay, is an intermediary for credit card payments as well as for bank transfers. If you're selling only a few items, you may be able to avoid the shopping cart system with a simple order form and a link to PayPal. You can start accepting credit card payments instantly by signing up for a free PayPal account. (With PayPal, you don't need a gateway or merchant account.)

Few business owners can handle setting up a shopping cart and gateway themselves, and the great majority outsource these tasks to companies that provide shopping cart solutions. These companies will handle all of your back end details and deposit payments into your account.

Hiring a Website Developer

If you can't or don't want to deal with website creation, get a developer to do it for you. Expect to pay between $500 to $2,000 for a basic site (five to ten pages). You can find developers online or in your local Yellow Pages.

Keep in mind that websites are not static; they need to change as your business changes. So unless you set up a system to update the site yourself, you'll have to keep returning to a developer for every fix. The best solution: Have the developer set up the site and then teach you how to update it.

For More Information

To learn more about online commerce and other important considerations for any business venture, such as trademarks, domain names and sales tax on online transactions, get The Small Business Start-Up Kit: A Step-by-Step Legal Guide, by Peri Pakroo (Nolo).

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