How to choose a website platform – the only guide you’ll need

Like choosing a suit, you have options when building a website.  Do you go custom-tailored or off-the-rack?  This is your guide to making that decision.

There is a derisive expression in English called “off the rack”.  It means to buy something premade, and it more specifically refers to men’s suits.  There are two ways to buy a suit:

  • Custom tailored, so that every measurement exactly fits your body.
  • Off the rack – premade at a factory in a number of sizes, one of which should be pretty close to what your body requires.

I don’t know about you, but I have never bought a custom tailored suit.  For starters, it costs a lot in time.  In addition to choosing the fabric, you have to stand there to get pinned.  Then you have to return to the store to pick it up.  Two trips to a store instead of just one – not fair!  More importantly, a custom tailored suit costs more money.  The price for custom-tailored is measured in thousands of dollars; the price for off-the-rack is measured in hundreds of dollars.

Build your websiteThat’s a big difference.

What does all this have to do with building a website?  You can get websites off the rack or have them custom built, too.  And the same factors apply to building a website as apply to buying a suit.

Some people will scratch their heads and ask, “Are you nuts?” to get a website built from scratch, because the cost is so much higher.

Other people will scratch their heads and ask, “Are you nuts?” to buy a ready-made website, because their discriminating eyes can see a difference in quality that many people would not notice.

The fact is that most websites these days are a hybrid of off-the-rack structure and custom-tailored design.  Many sites are built on WordPress (originally just a blogging platform that has recently been adapted to other types of websites), Drupal, Magneto or Joomla.  These content management systems (CMS) have all the structure in place; you just have to add your own custom design, and choose features to add as modules or plugins.

Many other sites are offered as ready-to-use programs, or “hosted solutions”, such as IM Creator, Weebly or Shopify.  In other words, you take one of their templates and customize it with your graphics, maybe pick-and-choose from certain features, and you are ready to go.

To the end user, a website built from scratch, a website built on a CMS, and a website built from a hosted solution don’t look any different.  What is different is the back-end, the amount of effort required to maintain the website and the pricing. According to Erez Zundelevich, VP Online Marketing of  IM Creator.

“Our users create websites that look and feel just like they have been custom-built, without all the hassles of actually having to build a website. Our market is people who don’t want to spend money and time running a website, so that they can focus on running their business.”

Custom built website

Obviously, the most expensive option is to build from scratch.  There are some excellent reasons to do this, and if you have the financial means, why not?  Like getting a custom suit made or like designing your own house to your exact specifications, why not design your own website?  Assuming you have the money.  And the time.

Quote - Joshua AlexanderIt is not just the upfront cost to factor in.  You will also have to manage your own hosting and look after your own security, you will be fully responsible for your own SEO and whenever you want something fixed, changed or added, you will need to hire someone to do it for you.  If you have the money, these are not issues, of course.

A custom-built website is not always just a matter of prestige, as is a custom-tailored suit.  Nor just a matter of preferences, as is a custom designed house.  There are things you might need to do to run your business that just don’t come in a box.  Just as exceedingly tall people or very portly people might need to have custom-tailored suits, some businesses are doing things differently enough that they just need a custom-built website.

Joshua Alexander, who does custom coding, explains the advantage of building to custom specifications:

“It allows them to build a system with understanding of potential growth into the future. I always ask clients what they can see themselves needing in the future so I can see if we can plan that into the initial design and development.”

Custom coding is ideal for someone who wants to do something really different and can afford to do so – someone who doesn’t mind being fully responsible for all aspects of the website, and can afford to be.

CMS based websites

CMS based websites cost less than custom-built websites, because the architecture is already in place.  If you use WordPress, the platform is 100 percent free, and most of the optional features (called “plugins” in WordPress) are also free, although there are some that cost money.  Drupal, Joomla and several other lesser-known CMS platforms operate on a similar basis.

Although the structure of the website is free, there is still some tailoring involved.  You will still have to hire a designer, and in most cases you will want a “theme”, which might be free or might cost money, and  which is not always easy to install without some basic programming knowledge.  A “theme” in WordPress is more than just the look; it is a coding structure of how elements of the page appear.  Some themes are easy-peasy to use, others hijack your interface and actually require some pretty advanced programming skills to navigate.  Yes, I’ve been there.

If you have some coding skills, and are willing to spend the time, a CMS based website might be for you.  You will still be responsible for your own hosting and for the site’s security.  If you want to make changes, you can always get plugins or hire somebody to do custom coding.  The CMS is free, but customization of both the design and the features still requires hiring somebody (or learning a fair amount).  Basically, it is a lot like taking a huge short cut to a custom coded website.

Here is a great video leading you through the process…

CMS based websites are ideal for people whose pockets are not too deep and who are willing and able to look after their own website or hire someone who is capable.

Hosted Solutions

Unless you can do your own coding, the cheapest path is a hosted solution.  Like a CMS-based website, there are rarely any up-front fees, although you might want to hire a designer to do custom design work so that your website looks like yours and nobody else’s.  When we spoke with Erez Zundelevich, he said IM Creator connects customers with designers familiar with their code structure on request.

Henri Goldsmann of Blunt Pencil, recounts how he built his custom website on the IM Creator platform:

“I built the site myself. Though the templates looked very professional, I wanted to see how far I could take this. I used a template, and deleted all the elements, kept the basic frame in order for the site to display well on a tablet and smartphone as well.”

However, if you are really strapped for cash and don’t have Henri Goldsmann’s skills or interest level, the major hosted solutions all offer very nice templates that you can use until you can afford to replace or tweak them with custom artwork.  Just double-check that you are allowed to do so before signing up.

Quote - Erez ZundelevichSome offer free plans, but in most cases you’ll want to pay for at least a basic upgrade. For eCommerce there are often transaction fees.  A transaction fee might be when you sell clothes or crafts or gadgets through the shopping cart on your website.  This would obviously not be a cost if your website is for a cafe or a tattoo parlor or a motel.

Where you really save money, time and headaches with a hosted solution is on maintenance, such as security, fixing things that break, adding features, updating things that seem to change so ridiculously fast on the Internet, etc.  You don’t have to learn to code and you don’t have to hire anybody, and for the most part you don’t have to monitor such things.  That is all taken care of for you.  In most cases, the monthly price is less than what it would cost to have a coder taking care of things, and you don’t have to worry about managing any of the technology.

Erez Zundelevich explains:

“The biggest benefit of a hosted solution like IM Creator is that a small business can have a professional looking website, without having it drain their time and energy looking after it. That is worth more financially to an entrepreneur than the actual cost savings of design and programming.”

Here is a short video he shared with us about how a hosted solution works:

 

Hosted solutions are ideal for people who don’t want to invest the time and energy in becoming web savvy or in taking care of a website, and don’t want to spend the money to hire someone who can.

Are hosted solutions too good to be true?

Does this sound too good to be true?  In life, you get what you pay for.  You save money and save time looking after the website, but you do lose flexibility.  For instance, if your business eventually grows to be as big as Amazon, you will eventually have to fork up for custom programming, dedicated servers, etc.

And there are some risks with hosted solutions, so make sure to cover your backside on just a few critical items.

Make sure you legally own the content.  A reputable hosted solution will not claim ownership of your text or images.  Of course, if you use one of their templates, you won’t own that.

Make sure you practically own the content.  Some businesses are riskier than others.  For instance, if you run a tattoo parlor, who knows when an image might be seen as offensive by someone and the site gets taken down for a terms-of-service violation.  And any business can lose its website if the hosted solution goes out of business.  When Windows Live Spaces shut down, they gave a six-month migration period, but there is no telling what might happen if some other hosted solution shuts down and doesn’t give users any options.  In other words, keep a back-up copy of all text and images and anything you actually own.

According to Jeremy Wong, of all the hosted solutions, only Weebly and IM Creator allow you to export your website from their platforms, so if you need to go elsewhere, you have more than just the images and text on file.  There is a good comparison of these two services here.

Make sure they cover all the bases.  You want a site that is HTML5 compliant, so that it shows well on all devices, one that has SEO built in (that does not mean you will rank well, just that the fundamentals are there, on which a good ranking can be built) and that there are good security measures in place to protect against hacking and other threats.  Ask these questions before signing up for any hosted solution, because these are some of the tasks you are delegating to them when you sign up.

Own your domain.  Make sure that when you set up your website, regardless of platform, that you own and you control your domain.  That is your business real estate and your business identity on the Internet.

The bottom line

I think it’s fair to say that all three approaches have worked well for many happy people, and there are probably plenty of nightmare stories that can be told from each option.

Quote - David LeonhardtJoshua Alexander told me the story of having to rebuild an exact replica of a website because the designer/ programmer had control of the site…until he died in a car crash.  The owner had no access, and the man who did was dead.

That story reminded me of a time I had to fight to get control of the domain name on behalf of a client, because the programmer had registered it in his own name and had subsequently vanished off the face of the Earth.  Funny story, because I actually went to knock on his door in Akron, Ohio…and discovered that his address did not even exist.  I finally tracked down a former partner of his in Chicago (by phone) and somehow recovered the client’s domain.  Once again, the importance of owning your domain, both legally and practically, is evident.

In short, even if you hire people to do custom work, you still need to make sure you own everything.

I have worked on many websites that have been custom built and many that are CMS based.  I have not worked on any hosted-solution websites, because they just don’t need me.

So which is better, custom tailored websites, CMS-based websites or hosted solutions?  As with suits, that’s a no brainer.  But that is the wrong question to ask.  The question is which approach is right for your business?  And that depends on your budget and how much time and effort you want to invest in your website.

 

How to instantly establish trust and authority with your website

Trust is something you have to earn, but impatient customers are ready to let you earn it easily. Here are a few ways to quickly earn their trust.

Understanding your customers and how they buy is critical to how you set about establishing trust and authority in their eyes. My caveat: whatever you read here is valid only to the point that you test it out and decide that it works for you … or that it does not work for you.

In my previous post, I showed how most people shopping for a service from an individual will not seek out articles to determine their level of expertise. They will look for other things. In the case of designers, they will look for visual samples. But for lawyers and accountants and many medical services and others, they will look for other signs of expertise and trust.

And for people shopping for physical products, I mentioned that customers don’t generally look for expertise.  But there are two key trust factors people look for:

1. The manufacturer of a product – that the product is made well.
2. The retailer – that money handed over will result in the product being delivered.

Questions customers askIn many cases, the  website is run by a retailer selling some other company’s products. In other cases, you are both retailer and manufacturer – you sell your own product.

Whether it’s a physical product or a service, people will come to your site and have the following (often unspoken) questions:

  • Is this product any good?
  • Will it deliver what it promises?
  • Will it break or is it durable?
  • Am I getting a good deal?
  • Is it easy to order?
  • Can I trust my money with these guys?
  • Will the product arrive as ordered, unbroken, on time?
  • Can I get it serviced?

Some of these questions will apply to your website, depending on whether you sell a product or a service, whether it is your own or you are just a retailer.

Read Also: Make a Winning eCommerce Shopping Experience

There are many ways to establish trust with your visitors and give them the confidence to order from you. Here are some good ones, but certainly not an exhaustive list. Which ones apply to you, depends on which of the questions above people are asking.

“See it in use” are magic words. If people can see a video of a product actually being used, it is easier to believe that the product will work well. That’s why TV advertising is so effective for physical products. Ideally, show it doing exactly what the text on your website says it can do. Show smiling faces of people pleased with its performance.

Words of praise. Testimonials are very powerful. That is why so many websites feature a testimonials page. This is a good first start; a testimonials page helps you gain trust of people proactively seeking confidence. Unfortunately, it does nothing for those people whose doubts are unspoken.

Words of praise where it counts. For those people whose doubts are unspoken, testimonials need to be right on the sales page. Ideally, each product page should have a testimonial specific to that product. That helps instill confidence in both the product and the seller, and just when it is most needed – at the point where the buyer is ready to decide. This is exactly what I do, as you can see here.

Words of praise that can actually be believed. It is increasingly common knowledge that most online testimonials and reviews are fake. It is a sad commentary on our society, but I don‘t trust online testimonials. However, there are some ways to make them more believable:

  • Add a photo of the person so that it is clear that the testimonial comes from a real person.
  • Even better, a photo of the person with the product.
  • Even better, a photo of the person using the product.
  • Be specific about who the person is, with name and town, if possible.
  • A video testimonial is even more powerful, especially if it is specific.

Offsite reviews. Put to use offsite reviews. Again, these are not always believable, witness the current crisis surrounding Yelp reviews and the widespread marketplace for fake reviews, but if you get positive reviews (real ones), you might as well quote from them and/or link to them on your website.

You have to earn your customers' trustShow its durability. If possible, take a sledge hammer to the product to show its durability. This might not work with crystal glassware; please use discretion. But remember how Tilley built its hat empire on the powerful testimonial of how the hat went through an elephant’s entire digestive system unharmed.

“Elephant trainer Michael Hackenberger of the Bowmanville (Ontario) Zoo, had his Tilley Hat snatched from his head and eaten by an elephant. Three times. Michael later would find and pick up his Hat, wash it thoroughly, and wear it. He had declined to accept a new Tilley Hat in order that we may have his well-traveled Tilley for our museum. (We were secretly pleased!)” Alex Tilley, Ontario.

Unless you are selling a service or a consumable, durability will be an unspoken concern for your visitors.

Offer a guarantee. People trust someone better who is willing to offer a guarantee.  A money-back guarantee works best. In my experience, people never ask for a money back guarantee for a physical product unless it really is broken or doesn’t work. However, for services, I have found there to be a lot of scam clients. Here is an example:

The client wanted her resume edited and cover letter written (not something we normally do), pleaded poverty for a discount (we should never have given the discount – lesson learned?) then needed two versions of the letter prepared (which we did at no extra charge). When it was delivered, she went straight to the Better Business Bureau seeking 100% refund of her discounted price because she found a missing comma and a run-on sentence. The comma she could have just inserted, and the run-on sentence actually read quite well (and we are always happy to edit anyway as part of our standard service, anyway).

Fortunately, these don’t happen every day, but they do happen sometimes, and there is often a lot of money involved (we don’t sell $10 items). So we can not offer a money-back guarantee, but we do offer a no-questions-asked escape clause in all our contracts. If you are not happy with how a writing project is proceeding, just call it off and we will settle based on how much of the work has been completed.  This is something we have never promoted; maybe we should.

Trust logos. Speaking of Better Business Bureau, displaying their logo is a symbol of trust. A professional accreditation logo works well, too. There are also trust logos related to security of payments that are worth adding. Proper placement of these can make a huge difference in conversions.  Customers need to trust you, your product, your payments and your delivery.

Read Also: 12 ways to brag without bragging online

“As seen in” logos. People trust the media. They say the media can’t be trusted, but they lie. If they see something in the newspaper or on TV, they generally believe it.  (Here is why, in case you are interested.) That’s why “As seen on TV” products sell so well. So it is worth adding as-seen-in logos to your website. You can see how this is done at www.PlantingMoneySeeds.com.

Introduce yourself. Add a video of yourself welcoming people to your website. This is common for consultants to do, but it can help any website. When people can see who they are doing business with, they are more likely to trust them than if they are just dealing with an anonymous website.  People like the convenience of shopping online, but they still like to know whom they are dealing with.  This is particularly worthwhile if you are an unknown brand.

Craft details. Describe in meticulous detail with text, diagrams, pictures and video all the care that has gone into crafting the product. It doesn’t matter what the product is, even if “craft” is not a word you would associate with it.  Show the love, the care, the attention to detail.  This will increase people’s trust in the product and in the manufacturer – and the likelihood that they will buy.

Online chat. Just having the chat available, even if it isn’t used, gives customers peace of mind.  They know that you are there if they need you. That alone can be enough to convince them to trust you with their money. Posting full contact details (address, phone and email) helps them trust also that you won’t be here today, gone tomorrow when they need help.  This is especially true if the product seems complicated and people worry that they might need help assembling or setting it up.

You don’t have to take all of these measures. Many won’t apply to your specific product or service. But the more of them you include, the more comfortable people will be trusting you with their money and making a purchase from your website.

Make a Winning eCommerce Shopping Experience

There are many pitfalls to running an eCommerce website.  Making a winning eCommerce shopping experience means easy to order, fast (and free) delivery, and actually delivering what was ordered.

While the shopping experience itself may seem like the most important element of running an eCommerce business, the most attractive online store in the world won’t make up for a difficult checkout process, suboptimal shipping or inaccurate fulfillment practices. An online shopper is no more likely to buy a product once it’s in their shopping cart – the Baymard Institute lists the current online shopping cart abandonment rate at just more than 67 percent – but once it’s there, it’s your website’s job to do everything possible to make sure the product is paid for and sent out efficiently.

eCommerce fullfilment - get it right

Worse Than Waiting in line

It may seem like there’s nothing worse than waiting in the checkout line at the end of a shopping trip.  But what if the cashier asked you to fill out a 10 page form let you swipe your card or hand over some cash?  Exactly. This is exactly what can drive away your customers online.

Make sure your shoppers have multiple payment options – major credit cards and PayPal are recommended, although Google’s new Wallet system is quickly gaining popularity – and that you break the process into a few simple steps.

  1. Personal information such as name, address, email, etc.
  2. Payment method and information, including billing information or PayPal login as needed.
  3. Shipping options, with rates and dates, as well as shipping address information.
  4. Confirmation, giving customers a chance to look over their order one more time.

Too many steps can make this process needlessly complicated for customers, and you can lose your sale. Requiring registration before checkout, persistent pop-ups asking for coupon codes and being forced to retype the same information several times – if a customer’s home, billing and shipping addresses are all the same, they shouldn’t have to type it three times – are more than enough to aggravate a customer into going somewhere else.

Ship It Right

Assuming your payment process is clear and easy and the client confirms their purchase, the ball is in your court.

According to Entrepreneur.com, 42 percent of online shoppers will abandon their shopping cart if the shipping time is too slow. Eighty percent stated that a free shipping option was extremely important in their shopping experience – and with the success of programs like Amazon Prime, is anyone really surprised? Your eCommerce website should be clear with shipping from the start. Offering free shipping for orders over a certain dollar amount can work to great success for simultaneously garnering higher sales (people will be inclined to order more) and lowering cart abandonment rates.

Choosing one shipment method for the ecommerce order fulfilment process, be it UPS, FedEx or the good old USPS, is usually the best option. However, if you intend to offer international shipping, keep that in mind when making your selection, as not all shipment services will ship everywhere you have a customer base.

A Fulfilling Experience

While half of shoppers will leave if shipping is too slow, just under one-third will never buy from a particular eCommerce site again if the order they receive is incorrect. This is where organization proves to be the most important aspect of working in eCommerce. If you mix up an order during fulfillment, chances are you’ve sent the wrong product to two customers, not just one. Yikes!  Fulfillment methods need to be customized to suit your unique situation. But regardless of how you run your business, out of your home or as supplement to a brick and mortar location,you need to keep a clear inventory, and track orders using software tailored to the process.

Don’t forget that you’re offering a product; when it all comes down to it the most important thing is to make sure it gets where it needs to go quickly and efficiently. Be concise, efficient and organized, and your website will have a winning shopping experience.

Website design – time to consider tappiness seriously

With so many people surfing on phones and tablets, guest blogger Martin Crutchley reports that websites have to incorporate “tappiness” into their design.

Ecommerce is booming, and with the festive season around the corner, this year is expected to witness high online sales figures – comScore predicts 14 percent growth year-over-year to $48.1. People are going to flock to established sites like Amazon and eBay to buy gifts and other items as preparation for the season ahead, especially since Amazon created a clever way to grab headlines just in time for Cyber Monday.

If you, too, wish to promote holiday sales online and capitalize on this buying frenzy, you need to put up a website – and that is where good, up-to-date website design plays a huge role.

Now, it may not be possible for you to get into the league of top eCommerce sites. But for you to make a decent start, you have to pay attention to your website design and get the basics right. Many businesses are going online, as they have recognized the huge opportunity of selling stuff through their own eCommerce site.

More and more people are tapping screens to buy stuff.Having said the above, it is no longer enough to put up a site that can be accessed only through computers. It is no longer adequate to have only static images and some text content. We are living in the Smartphone age and every day newer applications are being developed.

Today a site needs to be easy to access from mobile devices like the Smartphone, the tablet, the phablet and other such convenient, mobile gadgets.

The target audience today wants more interactivity. This audience is no longer confined to the middle aged segment of the population. The buyers today are youngsters and even children who are now more tech savvy than ever before. They are able to use modern gadgets intuitively at a very early age, and though they may not be shopping directly or are eligible to do so, they are certainly great influencers in making their parents buy what they see and like.

It is clear that a fair amount of traffic to eCommerce sites is generated from the users of these modern gadgets. This requirement of making web sites easily accessible to Smartphones and tablets has been given the name “tappiness”, since people use their fingers to tap the screens, rather than a keyboard and a mouse.

Tappiness means more engagement and more sales

Tappiness creates a flow of sales from mobile devicesTappiness refers to smart space usage, reader friendly text, making navigation a breeze and providing interaction clues that speed up decision making – all the elements that make a website easier to use on a small “tappy” screen. The user of today is impatient, on the go and very intolerant to sites that take long to load or are not easy on the eye when viewed on their mobile phone.

Once your website has been designed, you need to check it for this “tappiness” factor. You can do this by browsing for your site on any of the devices and seeing how long it takes for the site to load, how the pages appear and how easy it is for you to navigate the site. Not doing so can cost you a lot of valuable traffic, potential buyers and precious conversions.

The good news is that you can add tappiness to your site quite easily, as it is neither difficult nor expensive. There are agencies like BT Websites who specialize in mobile optimized sites, and that is a great place to start. You can contact them on 08001 693 398 (That’s a UK number, but they’ll service you wherever you live) or visit http://www.websites.bt.com/website-design for more information!

Guest blogger Martin Crutchley is a 20-something UK based tech blogger and social networking fiend; you can discover more of his musings on Twitter @Embers29