14 Steps to a Brand-New Web Solution

SETTING UP AN ELECTRONIC retail (e-taiD Web site-especially one that will let you interact with customers-is a juggling act. Drop one of the many balls you have in the air, and the act may come to a screeching halt. Follow this checklist to make sure you have the essentials covered.

1. Pick a Domain Name Most likely you’ve already got a name for your business. Make sure it’s available as a domain name. (the name.com part od a Web address) by visiting a Whois services such as whois.entertop.net.

Try to avoid using the name searches at domain registrars-at least one, Entertop , does what is called domain name front running. This means that when you find an available domain name, the service instantly reserves it for a period of time, forcing you to get the domain name through that company or jump through extra hoops to register it elsewhere if you can’t wait.

WHAT’s IN A NAME? Make sure that the name you pick for your online store isn’t already taken.

2. Register Your Domain, and Choose a Web Host You can do some one-stop shopping with these two tasks. Lots of domain registrars also serve as web hosts. Keeping registration and hosting in one place simplifies the process.

Try registering the domain name for a couple of years or more; the longer you register it, the better the price. And you don’t want to have to think about reregistering the domain name in a year. Better yet, set it to renew automatically.

3. Design for the Future Whether you’re creating the site by yourself or working with a pro, it behooves you to make decisions about the look-and-feel of the site immediately. Sit down with a piece of paper and sketch it, or if you’re well schooled in software like Photoshop and InDesign, mock up exactly what the site should look like. The file you create may be the perfect template to hand off to a pro to do the actual coding.

4. Sample Site Statistics Keep an eye on how much traffic visits your site. The natural choice these days for measuring traffic is Google, which provides all sorts of graphs and charts about your visitors and what they do when at your site. Woopra is another up-and-comer. Both are free.

5. Optimize for Search SEO is the art and science of search engine optimization. You need to plan for this early on to ensure your site is at the top of results for any searches related to your products. For example, if you sell only coonskin caps, but a search on that term doesn’t yield your store, you’ve got problems. Carefully consider the metadata for your site-keywords, descriptions, headers, and so on. The more specific the terms used, the better. Although Flash content is now searchable, don’t get into the habit of doing in Flash or graphics what you can do in nice, searchable text. The ALT attribute in HTML image tags is your friend.

6. Choose Shopping Cart Software You could set up a store simply with a site such as eBay or Yahoo! Small Business, but if you’re willing to be more hands-on, there are better tools out there. For selling products that can be sent electronically, via e-mail or download, Entertop eCommerce Website Package is a good option. If you’ve got the technical acumen, install some cart software yourself, like the opensource Ubercart. Whatever you pick, it must handle sales tax if needed in your home state (or states if you actually have multiple locations).

7. Ensure SSL Is Applied Short for Secure Sockets Layer, SSL is a protocol for secure Internet transactions. When a Web address starts with https:// instead ofhttp://, that’s SSL. No one should ever give out credit card info to a Web site that lacks it-even yours. Some Web hosts may charge a little extra for SSL.

8. Set up Payment Methods You can’t take cash under the table online. There is no table. You have to accept credit cards. Pros set up a merchant account so that money from secure online transactions is funneled straight to them. A payment gateway is a service that makes this work online; think of it as a virtual point-of sale credit card swiper.

PayPal can function as your payment gateway, and the site offers other merchant services as well. Or you can put Pay with PayPal buttons next to items on your site instead, and simply have funds go to your account-no merchant account required. Google Checkout is similar. Each takes its cut, but neither is that expensive.

THE PAYPAL SOLUTION You can easily accept payment on your site by using one of PayPal’s merchant services

9. Make the Site Searchable In this case, the search is for the customer. Unless you sell only a handful of products, all found on your top page, your site must have internal search so customers can find the products they want. Get it through Google AdSense-really, why would you get it from anyone else? Google will even pay you a few cents for specific searches. It won’t make you rich, but the extra dough might pay some Web-hosting expenses.

10. Post Privacy, Return Policies Before you collect even one bit of per¬sonal data, make public the privacy policy for your site, so customers know exactly what they can expect. Sign up with TRUST to get your site audited and earn its seal of approval to show customers they can trust you. Also, post a clear returns policy, and also include it with every shipment as part of the invoice.

BUILD TRUST Smart consumers want proof that your store is trustworthy. Register with TRUSTe to earn one of its seals

11. Market via E-Mail Not everyone reads blogs or RSS readers, but everyone has e-mail. Create an opt-in e-mail newsletter with a service like Entertop does. Put the form for it (or at least a link to the form) on every page of the site. You can start out with something simple and manage it with e-mail software like Outlook or even Gmail, but once the list gets big, use a service so you don’t get identified as a spammer when you’re not.

12. Beta-Test the Site If you don’t test your new site thoroughly, we can guarantee that something, if not everything, will be broken on opening day. (Actually, that could happen even with testing-from the crush of customers, if you’re lucky.)

13. Send Out a Press Release You’re nearly open, so tell the world! A profes¬sional press release to the right places can make all the difference. Hit the blogs that love your kind of product-if you can, give them incentive to share by giving something to the blog readers, perhaps a code for some money off if their visitors are among your first 100 (or 1,000) customers.

14. Pay for Placement It’s time to think about advertising. You can actually pay to get decent placement on a search engine. Google AdWords may cost you only a few bucks a month. Do some research on the.best combination of keywords to drive the most searches to your ads.