If you haven't got your own domain name yet (the new status symbol among the digirati), we'll walk you through the steps it takes to contract an Internet service provider (ISP), post your page and reap the rewards. Along the way we'll discuss some potent strategies for providing value, identify the hardware and software you will need, and, perhaps most importantly, provide some back-of-the-envelope figures on what a typical Web site will cost, from soup to nuts, server to CGI script.
First things first: Define a strategy
Strategically, you want the site to fulfill several goals. First, it should show off a portfolio of your firm's recent work. Let's say you will showcase a dozen separate projects. That means, in addition to the home page, there will be 12 separate pages, which will incorporate art and copy, explaining each job's challenges and how your company effectively created a kick-butt solution. Think of this section as your Web reel.
Secondly, you will want to tell the world exactly what and who you are. That generally means a page of overblown prose (please try not to include your mission statement, especially if it says something like "We want to do great work, have fun, and make lots of money"), along with a biographical listing of your firm's respective heavy hitters. Let's say there are 10 movers and shakers that require their own head shots and bios.
Perhaps most importantly, you want your page to provide a means for prospective clients to contact you directly, automatically, and, as the marketers say, "at their maximum moment of need." And that means e-mail. A form that enables interested parties to send a message to your marketing or new-business people is an incredibly effective tool. Web sites that include e-mail functionality provide a powerful mechanism for closing the loop, shortening the sales cycle, and, in less mercenary situations, enabling a sense of community among all who respond.
Finally, you want your site to fulfill a hidden, subliminal mission. It should serve as a shining example of your company's ability to create excellent sites. Your prospective clients should look at your site and sit in slack-jawed awe as you put HTML through its paces, make Shock Wave jump through hoops and dazzle them with a really cool server push. At least that's the idea. The subtext of the entire site should be: "If they can do this for themselves, imagine what they can do for me!"
From strategy to tactics: Assembling the project team
Putting together a Web site demands a complex set of skills, usually impossible to find in one person. You will need a programmer who knows HTML, UNIX, and CGI scripting. In Web land, CGI stands for Common Gateway Interface, and it is the software protocol that enables your servers, script and external programs to communicate. If you want your site to do anything, like server push, send e-mail, perform a calculation or profile the user, chances are good you will have to hire a programmer to write a CGI script. HTML programmers will charge roughly $50 to $75 per page.
Since you will want your graphics to look their best, it is important to hire a designer intimately familiar with the constraints of HTML, the conflicts between different types of browsers, and the mysteries of the .gif89 format. It is important that your designer understand that for work on the Web to look good, it has to perform well. That means creating art that compresses to a bare minimum, takes up a small file size and downloads fast. Graphic artists who can do all this expect to be paid between $40 to $65 per hour.
Your copywriter should be Web savvy and thick-skinned enough to realize that people hate to read copy on the Web, no matter how well-written it is. The best copy for the Web tends to be written in short, punchy sentences that tease the reader with a promise. A promise that if only they click that button or choose that link, all will be revealed. As far as style, there is a certain hip cynicism that pervades much of the Web. Perhaps to capture this style it might help to hire a jaded slacker just out of Carnegie-Mellon. Depending on their experience, copywriters charge between $25 to $65 per hour.
One of the recent job titles created by the explosion of Net activity is the Webmaster. These UNIX weenies are dedicated to stress testing your site: keeping it up and running, managing updates, downloading reports that indicate the number of hits your home page is getting each day, and riding herd on e-mail activity. In addition to having a strong complement of the basic Information System nerd skills, look for someone with a background in writing UNIX, HTML, Perl and CGI scripts. You want someone familiar with hardware and network interoperability, who can add functionality on an ongoing basis and configure a database. A sense of humor is a plus, especially when the server crashes at three in the morning the day before your site goes live.
For getting your server up and running, maintaining your site, and churning its content, you can expect to pay a Webmaster 35 to 50 grand a year. Often they inherit the project after it has been created, but it is a good idea to involve them in the creative process as early as possible. They can steer you in technically promising directions, or prevent you from going down time-consuming and expensive wormholes.
The last member of the project team is you, the project manager. You will spend the bulk of your time for the next few days in meetings, making certain that all members of the team understand the structure and goals of the site. The result of these meetings should be a flow chart that maps out all the pages in the site, along with users' pathways through them. Once everyone is reading from the same page in the same hymn book, you will be reviewing the work, making sure it is on target and on schedule. Finally, you will help the programmer integrate the separate pieces and places, syncing up art and copy, checking and double checking functionality and on-screen behavior. Plan on many late nights, especially as you near the deadline. Remember, sleep is for amateurs.
Putting the pieces together
While you are assembling your team, you can begin shopping for the hardware and software required to go online. First, you'll need an Internet service provider (ISP), an organization that can connect you with the Internet and register your domain name with a specific address that identifies your computer to all the other computers on the Web.
There are two ways to do this, one simple, the other complex. The simple route allows you to rent space on an ISP's server for your home page. Companies such as Bestcom, UUNet, PSInet, Geonet, Slipnet and Cerfnet all provide Internet hosting for third-party sites. There are a variety of payment methods for this, the most common of which charges by the megabyte of storage your home page requires, and the amount of traffic your home page generates. These ISPs are already physically linked via fast T1 or T3 phone lines to the fiber optic backbone of the Internet. What you gain with this method is simplicity. Hand off your HTML files to your ISP and, aside from writing a check each month, you are done. Costs for simple, bare bones third-party service range from $30 to $100 per month.
There is a trade-off here. What you gain in simplicity, you lose in control. Should you wish to change files, update your home page or otherwise actively manage your site, you may find "behind-the-firewall" access to the ISP's server limited. Unfortunately, according to Drue Miller, Webmaster at Vivid Studios in San Francisco, ISPs that host business sites are not as responsive as one might like. "Pages go down, or aren't posted in time, and no one answers the phone when you need them. This is really an industry in its infancy."
The second method, and one that Miller recommends, is to set up your own server and lease a direct connection to the Internet from one of the major long distance companies. If you take this route, Miller suggests that you be prepared to work closely with your Webmaster every step of the way, since the process demands some fairly technical skills.*Z
T1 lines, which operate roughly one hundred times as fast as a garden-variety 14.4 modem, can be leased from your major long distance telephone companies. As of this writing, you can expect to pay about $3,000 for a one-time set up fee, about $1,000 a month to lease the line, and, for high-volume servers, about $1,000 per month for the traffic traveling over the line. This is one area where competition is expected to increase, so these prices should fall as more carriers enter the business.
Before you can complete the connection, you need an IP address. This numeric code identifies your server to all the other computers on the Web, and translates into a domain name for your site. Register your name with InterNIC, the agency that handles the assignment of domain names (you can reach them online at www.internic.net), or have your ISP do it for you. Expect to pay $100 for this one-time fee, along with a $50 per year service charge.
With a T1 in place, your next step is to connect it to a server, a powerful computer that will host your home page and connect it to other computers on the Internet. There are a variety of servers at work today, ranging from (on the low end) Mac 7100s running Webstar server software from Star 9 (about $600) and Pentiums using Windows NT. For a high traffic situation, look to SGI Webforce Indy boxes, DEC Alphas, HP Workstations and Sun SparcStations to carry the load. Sun has done a great job carving out a dominant niche in the server market. Expect to pay between $10,000 and $15,000 for a garden variety SparcServer, up to $20,000 to $25,000 for a really robust machine. Also, remember these figures do not include set-up fees, which can be considerable.
Like most computers, your server is worthless without software to run it on. Here you are in luck. You can cheap out and download excellent freeware that will deliver many of the same functions as commercial software. CERN server software developed at the particle physics lab in Switzerland, NCSA server software created by the same folks who left to start Netscape, and Apache are all available free for the downloading. Apache, the third most commonly used server software, is available from www.apache.org.
Commercial software to manage your site on your own server can be purchased from Netscape. NetSite server software comes in several flavors. The bare bones version costs about $1,500, while CommerceServer, which enables secure transactions, is about $5,000.
If you are hosting a number of sites on your server, the next piece of equipment you need will be a router. This piece of high tech hardware sits on your side of the phone line, handles packet switching, routes all the incoming and outgoing requests and can link the server to your pre-existing internal network, as well. Cisco, 3Com, and Livingston all make routers, with Cisco capturing the bulk of the market share. If your server will stand alone as the only node in your network, a plain vanilla router will cost about $2,000. If your server will be only one component on the network, you can step up to more robust routers at price points of about $8,000 and $25,000.
OK, that's the complex route. You've got your infrastructure wired. You've downloaded a copy of Adobe Fetch, the file transfer protocol software that will upload your pages to your server, and your site is up and running.
Suppose we put up a Web site and nobody came?
Those who live by the Web, live by the Web. Start by posting your URL (that's Universal Resource Locator) to all the search engines available on the Web. Then build links, literally, with sites that share the same interests or sites where you can offer additional resources. E-mail is also a tried and true way to get out the news about your site.And don't forget printed matter. Every document and business card should have the URL for your new site printed on it. Since so much of the way the Web works is by the e-mail equivalent of word of mouth, with people bookmarking and posting the URLs to their friends, it's important to create an initial groundswell of interest.
One final note: The site is up, and thousands of cybersurfers are hitting your home page. Are you done? Most emphatically not! Web pages are living, organic things, not inert billboards. How can you create and sustain a community of interest around your site? You and your Webmaster must begin planning now: how to add new graphics, churn the content and respond to e-mail queries. If you've done everything right, you've attracted someone to your home page. Now, keep them coming back for more.u
San Francisco-based Sam McMillan is a triple threat: he teaches at a number of multimedia studies departments around the country; he's an interactive scriptwriter and multimedia producer for production agencies in the Bay Area;