So you finally decided to get a website. Now what? What kind of website do you get?
If you thought all websites were the same, think again. Not having certain website features or capabilities can make the difference between getting or not getting a job done.
First, probably the most important feature you need to maintain a website is something called FTP (File Transfer Protocol) access. You need FTP to upload and download (publish) your files to and from the web. Without FTP access, you're likely to be stuck in either one of two situations:
1 - You're dependant on the consulting services of your hosting company. The monthly fee for such a combined service will generally be higher than if you hosted your site with one company and had your design work done elsewhere.
2 - You may not have HTML capabilities (explained next paragraph), and are restricted to using some sort of online menu-driven system to publish your website. This will usually give you very limited flexibility on the design and look of your website. Is this a problem? Not necessarily. If you need something very simple, it may serve the purpose.
HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) is the language of the web. This is what paints your screen; background color, font size, font color, tables, forms, etc. Without HTML, a web designer is like a painter without a brush; if Picasso found himself in this dilemma, he'd probably have become a cabbie.
For more complex websites, ones needing interactivity -- online order forms, surveys, your own shopping cart, and the like -- even HTML may not be good enough. You'll need something called CGI (Common Gateway Interface) capabilities. Without CGI, you're limited to painting your screen, but you cannot process data in any meaningful manner; a visitor cannot send you things like name, address, etc., which you may need for an order. (Incidentally, 'forms' are created with HTML. But without CGI, the input data can only be used in a very limited way, a detailed explanation of which is beyond the technical scope of this article.)
Fortunately, there's a way to circumvent the CGI requirements of a shopping cart by outsourcing your transaction processing and/or order fulfillment.
There are companies like ibill.com and ifulfill.com that will do everything from process your credit card transactions to ship out your merchandise for a flat fee of the transaction; no monthly and, sometimes, no setup fees. They also supply the necessary links to take your customers from your site to theirs, so all sales transactions are done on their system, saving you the hassle of setting up your own shopping cart and credit card merchant account. Many such setups require no CGI-capabilities on your website.
Some outsourcing services may also include the option of allowing your customers to pay by online checks and telephone bills, in addition to credit cards. Such a wide assortment of payment options can go along way in facilitating sales.
So, what kind of website should you get? Well, we can sum it up this way. If all you need is a simple description of what your business is about, the very basic design offered by some online, menu-driven, web publishing outfits, should be good enough. Some, like webinajiffy.com (pronounced web in a jiffy dot com) even allow you to put up some pictures and even sound files.
If you don't need anything terribly complicated, but you do want a more personal design, you'll need an HTML and FTP capable website, which, fortunately, is the case with the majority of hosting plans. And to avoid the need to learn HTML, you might want to use one of the many packages around, like FRONTPAGE, which allow you to concentrate on your design, as the packages write the HTML for you.
If you don't even want to learn something like FRONTPAGE, you'll be happy to know that HTML is a commonly taught language in colleges and computer schools, making it quite possible that you already know someone who is familiar with HTML, who can help you out. If you have a son, for example, in his second year of Computer Science, he should have no problem setting up a few web pages for you.
If it turns out your son doesn't know his HTML from his BMW, at least you'll find out early that his college education is money down the drain. In this case, I'd suggest taking him out of college and sending him to work in a zipper factory. If he can't put together a good zipper after six months on the job, don't panic -- he can still get a job as a stock market analyst; you don't have to know anything for that.
Finally, if you need a complex and dynamic site with a shopping cart and lots of interactivity, a CGI-capable site is the way to go. And, chances are, you'll need a consultant to set it up for you. If your son can do this, for crying out loud, get him out of that zipper factory.
Read Josh Greenberger's latest book Fossil Discoveries Disprove Evolution Beyond A Doubt
-- the most compelling evidence yet that evolution never happened!