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Column: I knew my company had to get online - here's how I did it

It can be tough for small businesses to figure out how to set up a web presence, writes Peter Faulkner – especially if you’re not convinced by just Facebook and Twitter.

Peter Faulkner

It can be tough for small companies to figure out how to get onto the web. Peter Faulkner, who first got his company online in the late 1990s, explains his trial and error approach – and why he’s still not convinced by Facebook or Twitter.

THE WHOLE NOTION of the Internet has appealed to me since the late 1990s and in my own business we responded by having our first website built at the time.

It cost a bomb and to be honest, did not do much for our business other than add some cred to our image, and give us a domain name on which to hang our email addresses. I could see the potential, especially for smaller companies to play and get exposures on this global platform. The purveyors of the black art made fortunes, as is always the case when the buyer knows little and the vendor has all the knowledge.

Since the downturn, our business has had to turn to multitasking. We can no longer afford to have an in-house IT specialist so we outsource and our marketing function has been combined into Sales. Our web presence was looked after over the years by a combination of these two functions but once they moved on amicably to progress their careers elsewhere, our sites became moribund. Websites must be dynamic, not static, to stay relevant.

“I decided to take on the role myself… “

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I decided to take on the role myself of looking after our corporate good intentions; the things that my hard working colleagues would get around to once they had looked after their real work. They were delighted: it gave me something to occupy myself and would keep me too busy to interfere with their good running of the day-to-day business. One of the tasks that I decided to take on was to sort our web presence. At the time I figured it would take a couple of weeks and I would have it knocked into shape. God bless my innocence!

Remember those overpriced merchants of doom, the Y2K guru consultants? Well, they may be long gone but the purveyors of other black arts still abound. The web is their hunting ground and those innocents who need to have their businesses online are their fodder. There is still plenty of low hanging fruit, ripe for the picking.

I was soon lost in a jungle of assorted hat colours, SEO, Joomla. WordPress, ftp, MX records, CMS, IP addresses, SMTP, hosties, toasties and whatever other acronym you are having yourself. I knew that if I did not get myself some education on the topic, I was going to get torched. I am an engineer by education, so when all else fails, RTFM, (read the effing manual).

I bought some simple books, read up online by topic, and even went to a great seminar run by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown CEB and presented by experts from the Irish Internet Association.

Trying to find someone who could do it…

By now I reckoned that I had enough knowledge to be able to draw up a specific list of the work I wanted done and I had decided on a budget. Clearly I would never have the skills or the time to do it myself so I decided to advertise for a well qualified freelancer to take on the execution of my master plan. In the ad, I sought a CV and links to examples of their work together with an outline of their fee ideas.

I got a ton of replies from the most amazingly well qualified, diploma-d, degree-d and mastered young people, introducing me to a new host of double Dutch acronyms and names. I could not have failed but to be impressed having mined such a wealth of talent. When I clicked the links to the examples of their work, it appeared to me that the more they were qualified, the less I liked their output. A lot of the sites were not what I would accept and some of the payment expectations seemed rather fanciful to me.

I kept thinking that I was missing something in all of this, and thought it was best to leave it alone until I could see a way forward. At the time I was looking for a contact number for a painter chap on Google when his name popped up on a web designer’s list of clients. I went to the designer’s site to get a link, and boom: there was a page of really nice looking examples of websites he had done. I actually knew him quite well, but I had thought he was a graphic designer – and as it turns out, he is.

It’s not just about technical ability – you need design too

That was when the penny dropped. First you need design and then you need the technical ability.  One is a gift and the other a learned skill. The other people I had been looking at only had the technical part, and it showed in their work. My new man has both. Within three weeks we have six new micro sites and one completely new  site up and running.

There is a third element that is equally important and rather obvious really. There is no point in having great design and functionality if the content is weak. It is unrealistic to expect any outsider to know your business, products or markets. Content is king and you just have to do the work yourself. I spent a huge amount of time writing the content, preparing PDF specification sheets, arranging photographs and captioning them properly.

I then gave all my output to a colleague to proof read, edit and enhance. We worked up a new list of key words and phrases to suit each area of our business to ensure we had the most effective SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). There is no point in having sites that do not get found by the search engines and achieve decent search result page rankings.

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Looking after the sites

We had set up over a dozen websites when I discovered to my horror that we were paying multiple hosting fees to a variety of our past website designers and hosting companies. The total was well over €1000 per annum. Instead, we set up new multiple domain hosting facility capable of hosting 50 individual sites for less than a tenth of the annual cost and consolidated all our hosting on one account.

Not all the transfers went smoothly but we were lucky that we received good cooperation from people we had worked with in the past. We also had some issues with certain bespoke email facilities related to individual sites. Transferring hosting needs to be planned to ensure that all data and settings are re-established correctly, and particular care is needed in relation to moving large eCommerce databases.

We have drawn up a plan of monthly work to be done on the sites through to the end of the year covering improvements, increased functionality and content upgrades. My web task scribble pad has new items added to it every day.

Our next step is to make the leap into Facebook and possibly Twitter participation. I have to be honest, I am not sure that I really get these in relation to our business, although I have joined Twitter myself. Looks like more Dummies manuals and perhaps a seminar or two are again needed…

Peter Faulkner is chairman and owner of Faulkner Packaging, which was founded on Friday 14th September 1860. He lives in Dalkey and has three adult children. He is a former chairman of the SFA and was one of the founders of ISME. He was a member of the government Taskforce on Small Business. His sites include www.discountpackaging.ie,   www.snazzybags.com,   www.snazzybags.co.uk,  www.faulkner.ie,   www.alububble.ie,  www.95kpabags.com,  plus a bunch of micro sites.

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