I've been lucky enough to pick up two new contracts recently for web design services for small companies in a totally non web-related industry.
And, in both cases, the current providers have been giving a poor service.
Understandably, their customers (my new customers) are totally unfamiliar with the web and the basics of promoting a business online.
But sadly, instead of providing support and guidance, and being open and transparent with what they're doing, the service providers in question have been doing the opposite.
So for small businesses who are thinking of marketing online, here are some basics which it's well worth getting your head around.
Take the time to understand these things, at least at an elementary level, so you can ask the right questions of your service providers.
You need to know enough to know when you're being taken for a ride.
Basic Elements for Small Businesses Operating a Website
A website designer/builder
You'll need a website - your online shop window. Find someone who offers W3C compliant sites (the World Wide Web Consortium - the body that sets the standards for the web) to design and build it.
They should be able to show you a W3C badge on their site as proof.
Avoid people who use Flash heavily. Flash, while capable of producing beautiful looking sites, is not good for the search engines because they can't read it.
And if the search engines can't read your site you won't do well in the natural search results.
For a small business, with a new site, you need to be able to do as well as you can in the search results, as early as you can.
Make sure you get some sort of service level commitment out of them.
As a starter, I offer simple SLA's to my new customers. These relate to the time I'll take to get new updates published, but you can ask for any SLA you like depending on your needs.
A domain name
This is your address on the web, like www.google.com. It will probably cost you somewhere between US$7 and US$15 a year, depending on whether it ends in .com, or something else.
Ideally it should be your company name or it should be based on a keyword relating to your business.
This refers to the server that contains (hosts) your website code and makes it available to people searching the web.
It will cost you anywhere from nothing (free) to around US$20 a month. You can get some really good deals (quality hosting at a good price) at around US$10 a month.
Free hosting should definitely be avoided if you're promoting a business.
Does the person who's going to build your website understand Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)?
Make sure they not only understand it, but they can describe it to you in a way that you can understand.
(SEO is a bunch of best practices for getting your website to feature well in the search results).
They don't need to be SEO wizards, but they do need to understand it well enough that they can describe it to you in clear, simple language and set up your site properly.
Don't be afraid to ask questions to clarify anything. The bullshit-baffles-brains approach is used frequently - don't be intimidated by it!
Build from scratch or on a platform
Find out whether they plan on building your site from scratch or on a platform (like WordPress, Joomla or Drupal).
Building it on a platform is good because that means you generally only need to worry about the styling, but make sure it's not proprietary.
If it's a proprietary platform you risk being locked in because other potential service providers won't know how to, or won't be able to access it.
Make sure you're happy with the styling before handing over the final payment.
PPC: Pay Per Click advertising
If you look to the right or top of the results page next time you type a search into Google or Yahoo you'll see some entries under the heading 'Sponsored Results'.
These are Pay Per Click ads.
As an advertiser, you pay each time a searcher clicks on your ad and gets directed through to your website.
PPC can bring you quick returns but it can be expensive. Extremely expensive, if it's not set up right.
So be sure to get someone who understands about relevance, targetting and quality scores in Pay Per Click advertising to set it up for you.
And make sure that, if they talk about Search Engine Optimisation, they're not trying to persuade you that being top of the Sponsored Results indicates good SEO.
This is about promoting your site through places like Facebook and Twitter. It can also involve you setting up a blog on (or linked to) your website.
When it's working well, Social Media is a highly cost effective alternative to PPC but it takes time before you see results. It also takes time (every day) to keep your blog, Twitter, Facebook and other accounts regularly updated.
A social media campaign is a lot of work if you want to make it successful.
A good, balanced promotion campaign for a new website should contain both PPC (or other paid channels) and Social Media elements - make sure the company you're talking to understands this and offers it.
This is when someone accesses your site illegally and adds spam code to it. If this happens the search engines will find out very quickly and your site will be removed from their indices. This will, literally, trash your visitor traffic.
Make sure you have backup copies of your entire site stored locally (on your PC) because the best (and often the quickest) solution when you've been hacked is to delete your entire site from the server and re-upload it.
Make sure you keep your PC clean and free of viruses. A keylogger inserted onto your PC can capture your FTP login details and transmit them to the person who inserted it.
That will enable them to get access to your site code and do bad things.
As with any data, you should always have a recent back up copy - an exact copy of the data on your site.
Make sure you understand (and are happy with) the backup routines in place through your hosting company or the person setting up your site.
Create your own back ups if you're not sure.
If you're a small business considering advertising online for the first time, those are some of the primary things you'll need to think about.
You should also ask your service provider (website designer/builder, Marketing guru, etc) to explain anything you're not clear on.
Make sure you cover them all with whoever you hire to set up your site so that you understand what you're paying for, and you pay for what you're getting.
Like I said at the start: you need to know enough to know when you're being ripped off.
If you don't want to take that level of interest in your online marketing you probably shouldn't start in the first place.