Website Design, Strategy, Social Networking, SEO, Susan Pomeroy, Ph.D.

How to Build a Web Site that Can Change and Grow with Your Business

by Susan Pomeroy

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Now more than ever, business IS change. Your focus, your processes, your technology, your products, your services, your interests, your employees—which of these isn’t continuously evolving, shifting, changing and growing?

To cite an extreme, one of my clients was called crazy for moving his retail location four times, to three different cities, in his first ten years in business. But during that time he built a thriving business and a loyal clientele. Recently, he’s had such great success with his latest move—putting his business online—that he doesn’t have to maintain any brick-and-mortar retail location at all.

Those who risk nothing, gain nothing. How can you create a web presence that changes and grows with your business… and continues to enhance your image, effectiveness, and profitability?

Old, Inflexible Web Technologies

Some web technologies create web sites that are much more difficult to alter later. In earlier web days, there wasn’t much choice among site technologies. You’ll often find these in legacy sites, and in poorly designed sites as well.

1. Nested tables. Altering the structure of a site with tables can be time-consuming (read: costly) beyond belief. Until recently, most sites used nested tables, so don’t be alarmed if your site does too. Just make sure any new site uses Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for layout, rather than tables.

2. Graphic sites. Even recently, I’ve worked on sites that were nothing but Photoshop files exported as jpgs. To change the tiniest comma on one of these pages means opening a Photoshop file, making the change, re-exporting the file as a jpg, piecing the page back together, and loading it in the browser to verify. And doing that whole process over if for some reason the page didn’t look as it should. If you’re trying to update the site and don’t have the original Photoshop files, you’re out of luck… you’ll need to re-create the entire page from scratch. If you have one of these sites, replace it!

3. Flash. Flash is a way of creating animations that look very slick and gorgeous on the right site. But can be difficult to find a developer who knows how to work well with Flash, and a site that is built entirely from Flash is not search-engine friendly and is tough to update. Unlessyou’re an architect, videographer, filmmaker or game designer who really needs cool animations on a site, use Flash sparingly if at all.

Building a Web Site That Can Change and Grow withYour Business

On the other hand, there are technologies that lend themselves to allowing easier alterations down the line. I’m talking about common, ubiquitous site-building tools; nothing that requires custom programming or is beyond the budget of most small businesses and creative entrepreneurs.

Some of these tools, like CSS and include files, can often be grafted on to an older site to extend its lifespan. Others, like Dreamweaver templates and WordPress or other blogging/CMS platforms, are best implemented as part of initial site construction.

Here’s a quick list of common technologies that can bring more flexibility to your web presence:

1. Dreamweaver templates & libraries. Dreamweaver has been the web site workhorse for the past ten years. Even with a table-based site, Dreamweaver templates can make site-wide alterations much easier. Using Dreamweaver templates to set up your site, you can:

  • Instantly make site-wide changes in things like background color, headline styles, or minor layout adjustments.
  • Add or subtract menu items, sidebar, header, or footer include files.

CONS: Dreamweaver templates tend to be error-prone and temperamental to create and maintain for large sites. Implementation and updating requires Dreamweaver. And they’re very difficult to apply to a preexisting site, so they’re best included from the beginning of the design process.

2. Include files. This is a way of including a smaller file within an html or php page, such as a menu that appears on every page of the site, a header, a footer, etc. The main benefits of include files are that:

  • Updating these site-wide “include” files requires only one file change, and one upload. In some ways they’re easier to manage than Dreamweaver templates because, for a large site, you only need to upload one file per change, rather than reloading every single page in the site.

CONS: sometimes require special URLs & host setup, so best to be added as part of the initial site (.shtml vs. .html) Because include files can become unwieldy if there are a lot of them in a site, they’re best used for clearly demarcated functions, like a navigation block, or an ad block, rather than for general layout.

3. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). CSS has tremendous versatility. With a site that’s been set up in CSS, you can:

  • Alter the entire layout, color scheme, type size and spacing by changing one CSS files alone. Check out Zen Garden for examples of how changing CSS code (and artwork) can create completely different “looks” for the same material.
  • Create visually rich and varied designs that would have been impossible using old-style web pages.

CONS: CSS can get very complex. Trouble-shooting can be quite tricky.

4. WordPress or other content management system (CMS). With most of these, you can:

  • Easily migrate your site to other blogging or CMS platforms
  • Change the theme (look) of your site in minutes
  • Quickly add and configure plugins and new technologies
  • Automate your site with auto-archive and auto-RSS capabilities
  • Add content with no html knowledge
  • Post to your site via email

CONS: WordPress or another database-driven site can be costly and labor-intensive to customize. If something goes wrong, you may need a programmer to troubleshoot. Luckily, real mishaps tend to be few and far between with this kind of site.

If you’re planning a revamp, or creating a new site, it’s important to think about the issue of flexibility up front, and talk about it with your designer. You’ll save time and money down the road with a site that’s easier to update… and, your bottom line will benefit from a site that stays current with what you’re actually doing in your business.

Whilewe can’t predict all the changes and adaptations we’ll be called to make in the coming years—who knows, the next generation of web sites might be 3-D spaces accessed with virtual reality goggles instead of monitors!—at least for the foreseeable future, your business will be more likely to prosper in changing times with a site that has the ability to grow and change built into it from the start.

P.S. If you already run a WordPress site and want to keep it updated and backed up without hassle…  plus full restoration if there is every any disaster… check out my new service, CompleteWP Update & Restore.

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