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The one constant: change

Biz sites less costly, more complex and evolving daily

Want to know the latest trends in Web site designs for businesses in Mississippi? The one constant is change. Business Web sites are evolving on a daily basis, with Web sites becoming increasingly attractive, interactive and user friendly.

In the earlier years of the Internet, it was often debated if the cost of business Web sites could really be justified by the returns. But that debate is largely over.

“If you are in business and you don’t have a Web site, you are making a great big mistake because they are basically replacing the Yellow Pages,” says Don Abrams, www.dwabrams.com, a Web design and technical consultant in Ocean Springs. “And they provide a lot more punch than the Yellow Pages. Also, Web sites have gotten substantially cheaper, so cost is no longer an impediment. The most common mistake businesses make with Web sites is not having one.”

No boundaries

Abrams said without a Web presence, a business is hidden from a huge, affluent market that is growing by leaps and bounds. Web sites have already largely replaced print phone directories for a lot of folks and, unlike local business print directories, Web sites have no geographic boundaries.

“A Web site enables customers to quickly and easily connect with businesses in nearby towns outside the reach of their local phone books,” Abrams said. “This is particularly important in smaller cities and towns.”

Abrams said the biggest mistake when planning or developing a Web site is making the task too complex. Most business owners and managers see the process of developing a Web site as being far more complicated than it need be. A simple “business card Web site” can be completed and placed on line in a matter of a couple of hours at a cost of $250 or so, including registering a domain name and a full year of hosting.

“One page with a basic description of the business and contact information is all it takes to establish a Web presence and allow Web users to find your business through a search engine,” Abrams said. “The immediate first step in any Web site project should be setting up a simple site, no matter how extensive and complex the site will ultimately be. Start simple and then add content and features appropriate to the needs of your business.”

Tailored to the business

Beyond the basic function of helping customers get in touch, Abrams said a Web site should be creatively tailored to the specific business. The business owner should concentrate on function: What do customers and potential customers need? As an example, a sail maker client of Abrams now receives nearly all the color designs for multi-paneled spinnaker sails from an interactive Web feature that lets the customer do the design online. Previously, a sales person had to create the drawing during an extended phone conversation or in-person meeting or mail the customer a drawing to mark up with crayons.

One trend is for businesses to get “content management” Web site systems that allow the business to update the Web site themselves, adding information about upcoming events or new projects.

“Content management systems are a really hot item right now,” said Adrian Jones, CEO of Red Laser Technologies, www.redlaser.net, Jackson. “Everyone wants it. There are a lot of different versions out there that allow you to update your own Web site. Do your homework. Ask the person you get to design your Web site if it will have that capability.”

Another trend is making Web sites more interactive. Today’s business Web sites are more lifelike with pictures, video and audio.

“There are more multimedia Web sites,” Jones said. “Also, they are integrating databases into the Web site so it can generate reports. Then e commerce is getting more popular. There are a lot of different things going on with Web sites. It is becoming more common for people to use Web servers to replace existing technology such as Virtual Private Networks (VPN) because the Web servers are less expensive. Web servers are not as secure at a VPN, but the amount of security you need depends on the sensitivity of the data used.”

Jeremy Bounds, network administrator for Fox-Everett Inc., www.foxeverett.com, Jackson, said his company is in the process of redoing its Web site.

“We have hired a Web consultant to design a new Web site that will incorporate flash animation,” Bounds said. “Animation takes time to load, but it looks very sharp on the Web site and everyone is on broadband now. Mostly with our Website we’re looking for a way to get who we are out there. The Web site is more information than anything. We want something that looks good, is appealing to the eye, and tells people what we want to do with this company.”

Fox Everett wants to move beyond just using the Web site as a marketing tool, and is moving into doing business on the Internet. In the future customers will be able to request information and conduct business online.

“We’re adding a FTP (file transfer protocol) function where clients can come in an upload files,” Bounds said. “It reduces personnel costs by automating functions like that. Our customers really like to talk to a person and expect that service. But as the Internet gets older and people accept it more every day, it is becoming used more. That is why we are going toward a more service-based rather than just an informational Web site.”

Certain types of business lend themselves more to high traffic from a Web site. Take www.gulfcoast.org, the Web site of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. Executive director Stephen Richer said during the month of June alone 158,000 people visited their Web site. They expect to reach a million visitors by the end of the year.

Not just business meeting and convention planners, but the average tourist is surfing the Net before making travel decisions. Travelers are checking out destinations, making hotel reservations and — the second most popular page on the site — printing out discount coupons for Coast restaurants and attractions. Other features include downloadable photos for the media, e-postcards that can be sent to friends and interactive press releases.

“Plus we have something called Gulf Coast Link where we have linked to the airport, the port, the coliseum, WLOX, other media, chambers of commerce, hotels and tourism attractions. You can probably find out almost anything you want to know about the Coast. We have imagines and links to hotels where you can make online hotel reservations. A visitor can put the things they want to do in a shopping cart, and plan their whole itinerary. We don’t have to mail anything. It is current to the minute. It is never out of date. That is really cool.”

Today’s travelers want to make decisions quickly; they don’t want to wait for someone to mail them something in three weeks. And features like the coupon page mean that tourist don’t even have to stop at a visitor’s center. They can download and print coupons off the Internet.

The Web site is updated on a daily basis, and Search Engine Optimization Marketing is used to drive traffic to the site. When you go to major search engines and type in Mississippi Gulf Coast, the www.gulfcoast.org site is number one.

In the evolving field of Web design, you have to balance providing attractive features with concerns about speed and functionality. Steve Davis, president of Canizaro Cawthon Davis, an architectural firm in Jackson, Architecture, www.CCDarchitect.com, said that like most companies, they have to constantly evaluate the changing technologies.

“When we actually produced our site we were a little ahead of the curve and had some things you almost had to have a broadband to access,” Davis said. “But we have found almost everyone we do business with has that broadband capability. Someone doing residential or smaller projects would have different clients.”

Their Web site has pop-up windows, though. And while that wasn’t a concern when the site was built, anti-virus software and some Web browsers now block pop-up windows.

“Like most people, we evaluate our Web site all the time,” Davis said. “As the browsers evolve, we may do away with the pop-up windows. When we produced it, it wasn’t a problem. We haven’t decided to change it yet. We really use the Web site as a teaser. We want to provide enough information that someone would be interested in calling for further information.”

The architectural company also has an FTP site to exchange documents with clients and consultants. Davis said while that is particularly useful for out-of-state clients, most of their work is done within 20 miles of Jackson.

“So there are a lot of face-to-face meetings,” he said. “That is the most important part of our PR, face-to-face. The Internet can’t replace that.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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