Rome wasn’t built in a day and unfortunately your website won’t be either. When you’re eager to get your new business off the ground, the first thing you think to do is set up a website, right?
Jumping feet-first into launching a business website without laying the groundwork ahead of time is a waste of time, money and effort. There are essential plans that must be laid in advance. Just like a construction company doesn’t start building a house without a blueprint, you shouldn’t build a business website without planning it thoroughly.
Planning your website will happen in two important phases, the pre-site setup phase and the website production phase. Read on to explore these two phases through six crucial steps you must take BEFORE you begin your website.
The first four steps you’ll take occur in what we’re calling the Pre-Site Setup Phase, where you’ll assemble the first components of a new website. Some of these steps can take time so give yourself enough leeway to get the jobs done ahead of your planned business or website launch.
Your business name and logo are the core identity of your business and certainly your website. Before building your site, make sure you have chosen, developed and protected them. Trademark your business name and logo together, but also trademark both your business name and your logo separately. This way, you can use the business name alone, the logo alone, or use both together, and still be protected.
Before finalizing your business name, search the registered trademark database to see if the name you have in mind is already trademarked. Once you’ve chosen a name, you can either design your business logo in-house or have someone design it for you. Be sure to search the database again for any similar logos before finalizing any designs.
It takes quite a while to obtain a trademark—typically six to 18 months. In the meantime, though, you don’t have to hold off on creating your website. You can start using your business name and logo before they are trademarked; just be sure to include ™ (for a product-based business) or SM (for a service business) after it to signal that your trademark application is in process. Once your application is approved and your trademark is registered, you can use the ® symbol.
Learn more about trademarks on the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office website.
Make sure the domain name you want is not already in use or trademarked by someone else. You can do a quick search to find out.
While you’re at it, make sure it’s not in use on social media, either. Some companies don’t bother to create websites but just rely on social media for their online presence.
Whatever you choose, make sure you take the time to get it right because you’re going to be using it a lot and hopefully stuck with it for a long time to come. And even though you’ve selected a domain name that is available for you, just hold on actually buying it until you get to step 6 below… you’ll see why.
An SSL certificate (short for Secure Sockets Layer) is a digital certificate installed on the server where your website is hosted. SSL certificates serve two purposes:
Of course, you can’t get SSL certification until your website is built, but you should decide what level of SSL certificate you need. There are different versions of SSL certificates depending on how complex your website is and what functions it serves. For instance, you’ll want a different type of SSL certificate if you sell products online than if you don’t; and if you sell products online, you may need to upgrade to a different SSL certificate as your number of monthly transactions grows. Don’t forget to allocate a budget for this or talk to your hosting company about the types of SSL certification that are included with your hosting package (again more on this in step 6!).
An XML website map (one that has links to every page of your site) can’t be built until your site exists. However, sketching out a visual sitemap ahead of time helps you plan out your entire site in one place.
Creating a site map can be as easy as grabbing a pencil and paper. You can structure it as an outline, a flow chart or a “mind map” depending on what works best for the way you think.
Creating your site map digitally makes it easier to share with others and there are plenty of tools to help. For instance, Creately lets you create flow charts; MindMup builds mind maps; and WriteMaps and Slickplan are tools specifically for site mapping. Whatever method you use, the goal is to think through what information you want to include in your website and how all of it will be connected. Start with the homepage and include other common sections, such as Products or Shop, About Us, Contact Us, Testimonials, FAQs and more. Looking at your competitors’ websites can help you get an idea of what sections to include.
Creating a site map can also help you identify the most important parts of your website so you can build them out first, as well as less important information that can be added later. With a site map in place, you’ll be working from a plan and have a structure so no matter how big your website gets, new sections, pages and content you add will all have a logical flow.
The more people involved in your business, the more helpful site maps can be. For example, sitemaps help you and your partners visualize elements of the site to make decisions and come to agreements about site structure. Sitemaps also help you work with website designers so there’s no confusion about what you want. You can also show your sitemap to other people outside your company, like mentors, advisors or financing sources, to get their input.
Once you’ve completed the steps in Phase 1, you’ll need to gather the right website support services to actually produce a website. You’ll need to get a website designer and maybe even a writer. You’ll also need to buy hosting service that meets your website storage requirements. First evaluate the needs you have and then hire a team to work on them.
What do you need your website to accomplish? If you own a dry cleaning company and want to create a simple, one to two page website, your needs are a lot different than if you plan to launch an ecommerce business with thousands of product SKUs.
You might also have different needs depending on your industry. For example, if you sell industrial parts, your website may not look as pretty as if you are an interior decorator - and it may not need to.
What are the most important aspects of your site? Words, visuals, or products? Do you need online chat functionality so you can talk to customers in real time? Do you want customers to be able to schedule their own appointments on your website? Do you need lots of videos to demonstrate how your product or service works? Write down your answers to all these questions and start a list of website components that meet your small business needs.
Here’s an example of a website promoting a solo entrepreneur’s services. As you can see, it’s focused primarily on words:
In contrast, this website for a landscaping business is more colorful and includes landscape images to show off the company’s work:
Your business is unique and your website will be too. So evaluate what style of website makes the most sense for you and include a list of functionality necessary to have the most successful operations. Now it’s time to pull it all together.
By evaluating the needs of your website you can confidently hire appropriate production and support services. From website design to hosting, your needs will guide your hiring process.
The sitemap you built earlier will help you identify your website needs and so can your domain research. With this research you can hand it over to different website service professionals or have it on hand for reference during discussions and while you get quotes from different companies or individuals.
Find a website host and/or website designer with experience working with other clients in your industry. For instance, you might know a website designer who creates amazing websites for musicians, featuring tons of videos, sound files and flashy design. But if you’re an insurance agent, your website doesn’t need the same elements. Instead, your site will be focused on providing information, blog posts, testimonials and ways for visitors to contact you. The insurance agent may focus on hiring a talented writer and getting a basic web design for example. Here are some other factors to consider before choosing a web design company.
As your website starts getting built you can start speaking to hosting companies. You don’t want to do this too early in the process because you don’t want to pay a monthly fee for hosting your domain too far ahead of when your website actually launches.
When it comes to hosting, your needs will help you determine the hosting specs and other components necessary for your business website to operate smoothly. For example, if you need to sell things online or host tons of product images you can gauge which hosting package will be big enough for your website requirements. Similarly you can determine which SSL certificate (see step 3) will work for your business. There’s a variety of hosting packages available to support your business so do your research first!
Website hosting is not a big-budget item for most small businesses, because it’s typically very affordable (in some cases less than $10 a month). However, it's important to understand additional costs and fees that can be part of a web hosting agreement. Start by clarifying your needs to ensure you’re paying only for what you want. Similarly check for additional perks you may not realize are included like email storage, SSL Certificates and even domain names! If you didn’t already buy your domain name your hosting company may have package deals that can help.
The quality of your website host is extremely important as well. For example, do you want a shared server (where your site is hosted on the same server as other businesses’ websites) or a private server (where your site is on its own server)? If you expect to have lots of website visitors or surges in traffic, such as an ecommerce site might expect at the holidays, using a private server reduces the chance of your site going down because the server gets overloaded.
There’s lots to think about ahead of time when you’re building a website and there’s a logical flow in which to do so. But remember your business is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a website. So write down what you need and hire the right team to get the job done.
It’s tempting to jump right in to designing your business website. However, by taking the time to complete these six steps before you begin, you’ll be setting your website up for success. Secure your business names and online certifications well in advance as the process can take months. Then find partners for your website design and hosting. In some cases domain registration and other parts of the process are included in service provider packages, so investigate which one fits your budget and business requirements. Don’t worry your website will be live in no time and with the right foundation it will also be thriving! Bonus tip: Be sure to test these 12 things before your website goes live, too.
Feature Image: Unsplash/ Samuel Zeller
All screenshots by author. Taken November 2018.
Image 1-2: Screenshots via Web.com.
Image 3: Via Creately
Image 4: Via Writemaps
Image 5: Via Web.com
Image 6-7: Via Web.com
Image 8: Via Network Solutions