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What Is A Web Site And How Should Ours Be Built?
by Jon Leland

Websites have become such a common part of doing business that one might think that we're beyond the need for definitions. After all, we don't need to define channels on a cable TV system or on simple office equipment like a fax machine. When you say "fax machine," everybody knows what you're talking about. But when you say "website," many people have a general idea; but the concept is less clear. In fact, some people say "web page" when they mean a "website," and even if we limit ourselves to business sites, websites have such a variety of purposes and functions that the question "what is a website?" is worthy of some consideration.

In fact, understanding websites can be an elusive undertaking. This is because these new forms of communication are part of a new medium that is changing right before our eyes. Even companies who have already created web sites are changing their minds. For example, many companies are now going through the process of reinventing their web presence after having discovered that just having a "web page" isn't effective. In last month's Web Edge column, I addressed the ingredients that make some business websites more effective than others.

This month, I am taking a somewhat more concrete and technical perspective. Whether your company already has a website or is just getting ready to take its first steps into cyberspace, this month's Web Edge column is designed to give you a clearer understanding of the web's requirements and some of its essential building blocks. As always, your feedback and comments are most welcome.

Fundamentally, a website is your company's online communications connection to the rest of the world. Just as phone systems and fax machines have become essential communication tools that are used by virtually every business, the web and e-mail are becoming increasingly important channels for marketing and customer service. And just as there are a variety of choices to make about what kind of phone and voice mail system your company uses, there is now an increasing assortment of options for online communications.

For better or worse, the web exists in an electronic environment steeped in on-going innovation. As a result, there are more and more choices; and web sites come in a diverse variety of shapes and sizes.

Here are some of the most important criteria to consider as you either begin to make decisions about what kind of website you might want or about how you might want to change the website that you already have.

When you focus on your website as a communications "arm" of your business, you will see that what defines the scope of your online presence is:

  • Your online objectives
  • The needs of your online audience, market or customers
  • The size of your budget or the available resources for web development (which is defined by your company's commitment to be successful online)

If you are serious about this process, I recommend that you take a few minutes to write down your company's objectives, target audience and available resources for your web project. These elements are the "filters" through which you can view your website development decisions. The most important of these are discussed in more detail below.

I also recommend that you plan your web strategy with an eye to the future. You may want to plan to build your web presence over the next several years in incremental steps. The "ingredients" to consider are discussed below. They include internal and external web hosting, upgrading to enhanced features such as commerce and multimedia, and developing internal or out-sourced technical teams.

Since The Web Edge column is part of Compaq's Small and Medium Business web site, it's important to include websites of all sizes. To me, one of the wonderful things about the web is that you don't need to be a Fortune 500 company to have a website. In fact, as I pointed out in the first Web Edge column, "Five Common Mistakes in Internet Marketing", you don't even need to have your own web server computer. On the other hand, many companies are now benefiting from having their own server (such as a Compaq server) not only as the technical foundation of a strong web presence, but also as the server for groupware software applications and for intranets which enhance internal communications.

Websites that are hosted on external servers use the Internet itself and FTP (the Internet's file transfer protocol) to transfer files from internal PC's where pages are authored to the hosting web server.

The first and perhaps the most important "ingredient" in a website design "recipe" is the network configuration itself. Obviously, if your company does a lot of its work via the network either through e-mail or other network activities, it develops a more demanding appetite for Internet bandwidth (a bigger and wider, full time connection to the Internet.) On the other hand, many smaller organizations are still able to get by with or can only afford dial-up Internet connections.

A web server requires dedicated (full time) Internet connectivity such as an ISDN line, T-1 or T-3 connection as well as the necessary router hardware and the technical management of these resources. Even some companies who operate their own internal e-mail and file servers find that they would rather not tax their Internet connection with in-coming web traffic. These companies frequently choose to host their websites on servers operated by I.S.P.'s (Internet Service Providers) and other web development companies who provide Internet bandwidth as part of their services.

The decision to host on-site or off-site also includes the choice between the development of in-house personnel vs. out-sourced contractors. Essentially, your company needs to choose who will manage your server, including CGI (common gateway interface) and other scripted functions. As your website becomes more complex, you will find that the programmers doing the hands-on technical work frequently need direct access to the server. If these are in-house people, it may make more sense to have the server in-house and visa versa.

An alternative to installing your own server and to hosting your website on someone else's server is to install a server at a facility with a high bandwidth connection. This is called "co-locating" and it gives your technical personnel complete access while you share the bandwidth, network hardware and server management expenses.

In this arena, your needs are driven by the kind of site you need to serve your online customers. As usual, sophisticated features mean steeper technical requirements. Optional enhanced features include:

  • User driven interactivity including a search engine or a database connection
  • Commerce transactions
  • Virtual community features such as chat areas
  • Multimedia such as streaming audio, video or dynamic presentations

If you plan to differentiate your site with these kinds of enhanced features, you will most likely need to take technical control by either hosting your own server or by having it hosted by an out-of-house contractor.

I know you don't need another option, but I'd be remiss not to mention that in some cases, these services can be provided over the network on a virtual basis. For example, commerce services are being offered by companies like viaweb who use the Web to deliver these functionalities via HTML. While this type of service can be simpler to implement, your options are limited by the pre-defined nature of their service. Essentially, you need to decide on the level of sophistication you require including your plans for the future.

Most people are aware that the accessibility and relative simplicity of the HTML language is a big part of what has made the web such a run-away success. Now, easy-to-use HTML exporters in word processors such as Microsoft Word as well as HTML editing software like Claris Home Page, Microsoft Front Page, and Adobe Page Mill have made web page authoring even easier. Yet, the graphic design, information architecture and interface design that differentiates better sites goes beyond the capabilities of these programs.

Likewise, there's a big difference between a website and a web page. While straight-forward individual web pages can be authored these days by almost anyone, more and more websites require more than just an assemblage of pages. If you need the more sophisticated features such as those discussed above, then you are likely to need more specialized personnel.

While many companies train and develop in-house personnel, others are finding that web hosting and web design companies are able to offer turn-key solutions that are more effective. The downside of out-sourcing is that there is an element of control that is lost by depending on another company; however, I've found that the development of virtual teams is a significant asset and worthy of the confidence that these relationships require.

In addition, as you might expect there is also a compromise solution that bridges the gap between low-cost in-house participation and outside expertise. For some client projects, I have found that I can offer "the best of both worlds" by using in-house resources while also serving as a contractor. This is by designing templates that can be easily updated by in-house personnel. This approach takes advantage of the contractor's expertise (in this case, that of my own company) while also minimizing my client's dependency on us for work that they can do themselves.

As you can see, the vast assortment of variables continues to multiply. I hope this helps you begin to sort out your options as you move forward strategically onto the new media frontier.

Stay tuned. This new medium is certain to continue to evolve.

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