If you've noticed a similarity between the home-like image of your Web site and the term home page (the screen visitors see when they first access your site), it's deliberate. This page should, quite literally, welcome people to your cyberspace home. The following guidelines should help you decide how to design and construct your cyber-home.
Think interior design. Just as you viewed a number of homes and interior designs before you began decorating on your own, visit other Web sites before you build yours. View layouts critically and identify the elements that appear to welcome you. And just as a favorite home's layout or design might prompt you to call a particular contractor or designer, don't hesitate to call on the designer of a favored Web site for help with yours.
You also can use simple (and inexpensive) site design software, or the source code of a favorite site (accessible behind most Web pages) as a starting point. If you choose to hire a Web designer, the cost for a start-up project can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Allow your site to reflect your character. A home reflects the character of its occupants. Your Web site should reflect your character. Arrange its contents in an order particularly appropriate for your business and enticing to your visitors. (See "How to Organize Your Web Site").
Define your Web site's purpose. Just as the room designs you create reflect your customer's lifestyle and interests, your Web site should reflect your organizational style and purpose. Will your site become a cyber-living room allowing prospective customers to participate in informal conversation? A place of refreshment? An upbeat party place? A stopping off point for casual visitors? You decide.
Involve others. Just as you'd involve a number of people in designing a home interior -- designers, workroom, suppliers, installers and the like -- involve other people in designing your Web site. This probably means creating an informal advisory committee or, at the very least, soliciting suggestions from employees, family members or customers.
Unless you have a sophisticated computer system, you'll need an Internet service provider (ISP) to physically host the server software necessary to run your site. Your ISP may be able to offer you design suggestions.
Assign upkeep tasks. You've got to keep your store or showroom clean and orderly, and you may ask your employees to pitch in. The same is true with your Web site. A key source of help is the person responsible for the overall maintenance of the site: your Webmaster.
The Webmaster need not be a computer expert, but he or she should be intimately familiar with the purposes and operation of the site and the World Wide Web in general. The Webmaster should have the support necessary to create your site's content and graphics and keep it up to date.
Keep it clean. A home needs constant maintenance. So does your Web site. One "housecleaning" tip would be to avoid clutter like extraneous content, isolated graphics or irrelevant text. Just as you wouldn't overload a client's living room with excessive furniture and accessories, don't overload your Web site with excessive graphics; they'll slow the transfer of information to visitors' computers.
If you must include complex graphics or charts, set them off in a page that visitors can access at their option. And just as your home designs are uniform in style and color, maintain consistency in your Web site's writing and graphics style.
Strive for comfort. Today more than ever, a home is a place of comfort and relaxation and your Web site should be the same. Allow your home page to direct visitors to other parts of the site. And, as a good host, give visitors plenty of prompts in the form of hypertext links to other information found at your site.
Also, allow visitors to chat with you in a relaxed setting, through a form or interactive page or e-mail, where visitors can leave messages for you.
Keep things organized. Just as you would decorate certain rooms of a home geared to certain functions, each section of your Web site should be focused on a distinct function. For instance, you might design a family room or a separate area of a home for your customers to relax in and listen to music. Ditto for a Web site. You might offer music, complex graphics or animation in a side section of your site.
Always isolate and label these distinct cyber-rooms on your home page directory so that visitors don't have to ramble through your site before arriving at their destination.
Lay it out carefully. Your interior fashion designs provide maximum use and beauty for your customers. Your Web site layout should do the same. Offer an easy-to-use welcome mat. Give visitors clear directions through directories. Allow visitors to jump back and forth among various pages through the creative use of hypertext (think of them as equivalent in many ways to hallways).
Be sure your icons (commonly used to highlight topics and hypertext links) are prominent, but not distracting. In the more casual sections of the site, offer lighter content, games and humor. And just as you'd keep parts of a home private, keep employees or member portions of your site out of reach of casual visitors.
Be prepared to inform and entertain your guests. Keep your content fresh and provide material your visitors can't obtain anywhere else. And just as you're probably in your customer's living room when you close a sale, there's nothing wrong with using your Web site's "living room" to direct visitors to product and service information, order forms or advertisements contained elsewhere.
The bottom line is: keep your welcome mat out, your reading table stocked and your cyber-fridge full, and the conversation around your electronic table stimulating.
Open a showhouse. Launch a public relations campaign when you open your site. Announce it to the media and customers. Alert trade and business associations and electronic announcement services. Don't hesitate to mention the site in your newsletters and on business cards. (See "Your Web Site: Getting the Word Out.")
Invite visitors. Just as guests often bring gifts to a housewarming, ask your cyber-guests for their candid responses to your site, as well as suggestions on how the site can serve them in the future.
Don't bother the neighbors. Put simply, respect the rights of other site owners, publishers and visitors. Don't use material from other sites without permission. Avoid links to sites your visitors might find objectionable. And always offer fair, courteous comment when presenting information about other organizations or competitors at your site.
Make your Web site easy to find. When you plan your Web site, try to secure as simple a Universal Resource Locator (URL) as possible. Mention the URL on your stationary and in your publications. Include it in your advertisements and post it in your offices or retail locations. Any time you issue a news release, develop a feature story or distribute printed material be sure your URL is listed.
Ask non-competing peers to provide hypertext links to your site (and, of course, offer to do the same for them). And by all means, list your Web site with as many search engines as possible.
You're a host to your Web site visitors. Help your guests feel appreciated, welcome and delighted and they'll return many times to your site basking in your hospitality and eager to obtain the information or products you extend to them.
What Will Visitors Find at Your Cyber-Home? Your Web site allows you to present an enormous variety of information and entertainment to visitors. What you choose to present there will, of course, depend on your organizational needs, philosophy and budget.
To get yourself thinking about Web site content, here's a summary of items frequently included on Web sites:
Directories Introductions to people (often complete with biographies, personal statements and photographs) Buying suggestions and product reviews Business or organization history Product specification Product catalog (including sketches or photographs) Special sales or offers CEO greeting General consumer information Interesting anecdotes Entertainment, such as games, humor or quizzes Upcoming events and product introductions News releases Visitor comment section Frequently asked business and product questions (FAQs)
How to Organize Your Web Site While hypertext links allow visitors to navigate easily around your site, you still must assemble information in a logical order for visitors who want to progress systematically through your site and for ease of site administration.
Many Web sites group information by one of these classification systems:
Product and service line Department, work units or attractions Chronologically (especially useful for sites that promote upcoming events and activities) Popular topics Physical location (here cyber-locations parallel physical places in an organization's facilities) Current news People Goals Plant or store location
Your Web Site: Getting The Word Out
Your World Wide Web site can provide visitors with far more hospitality and information than most other media. But first, visitors have to find your site. So:
Announce your new site (or additions to your site) through news releases to the popular and trade media. Mention your site (and URL) in ongoing news releases, brochures, newsletters and other printed and visual material. Ask non-competing organizations to establish links to your site. Send notices of your new site to Internet newsgroups covering your industry. Place your URL in print and broadcast advertising. List your site, by name or topic, with as many popular search sites as possible. Some examples:
Open Text (http://www.opentext.com:8080)
Web Crawler (http://www.webcrawler.com)
Alta Vista (http://www.altavista.digital.com)
If you're willing to spend promotional money, advertise your site in Internet cybermalls or on other commercial Web sites.
Richard G. Ensman Jr. is a syndicated freelance writer based in Rochester, NY.