A Web site can be a great asset or a tremendous liability. The difference lies in a few basic rules.

The Internet has created much excitement, and rightfully so. For the first time in history, anyone with a computer, anywhere on earth, can connect and communicate electronically with anyone else with a computer. This joining together of people for humanistic and commercial reasons is truly remarkable.

On the commercial side, people can find out about and even buy online products and services in a way never before achieved - and barely imaginable only a few years ago. The number of Internet visitors has climbed to more than 100 million worldwide in just four years. From negligible numbers in 1995, Internet commerce is expected to reach 9% of retail sales or $1.3 trillion by 2003. So with knee-jerk reactions, many businesses - from the very small to the huge - conclude they "gotta get" a Web site.

There are two broad types of Web sites. An informational Web site provides basic information about a company including what it does, where it is located and how it can be reached. Informational Web sites typically allow visitors to send e-mail to the company or at least provide a phone number to call for more information. The second type, e-commerce sites, allow visitors to place orders for products directly through the site, whether business-to-business or business-to-consumer. The latter category is the subject of this article.

If you build it, will they come?

Despite their owners' sincere interest in keeping up with the e-commerce wave and the boom in Internet sales, very few Web sites are making money. The problems appear to be that many of the would-be e-commerce Web sites fail to consider five crucial aspects of successful sites:

1) Goals must be clearly defined, or you won't be able to figure out what features to include in your site, let alone properly assess its success. Ask yourself why you want the site in the first place. Should it only provide information that will inspire visitors to contact your sales team? Should it answer frequently asked questions (FAQs)? Do you want customers to be able to place orders over the Internet? Or would you like your site to include all three functions?

2) Technical planning is also essential. The site needs to be bug-free, fast and responsive. There is no surer prescription for losing the interest of a potential customer than to have them wait endlessly for information because of poor "inner workings." The most elaborate, sophisticated site in the world is useless if it takes so long to load that the user gives up and moves on to a competitor's site.

3) Marketing your Web site is key. Now that you've got the Web site, how are you going to get people to visit it? Many companies are losing money on the Internet due to very high costs of attracting visitors. Marketing a Web site is no different from marketing the opening of a bricks-and-mortar facility.

When a physical store opens, the owner plans significant promotion, including print and broadcast advertising, flyers, newspaper inserts and direct mailings. Look at your site as a new store, and take the same approach.

The Web site should be easy to find with a domain name (i. e., the site's name or URL) that is easy to remember and even easy to guess. Many potential visitors to the fictional Acme Pipe & Supply's Web site are likely to start their search by typing in www.acmepipe.com and perhaps a couple of variations, such as www.acmepipeandsupply.com or www.acme.com.

It also helps if your site is connected (linked) to related sites on the Internet. For example, Acme Pipe's site would benefit from being linked to the Web sites of its vendors, regional and national association listings and even customers.

Internet marketing, which also includes e-mail campaigns and online advertising, needs to be coordinated with other, more traditional means of marketing. The message needs to give customers compelling reasons for going to the Web site. There are only two such reasons: Your site saves customers money or time, or it offers a unique product or service.

4) Content and design must be graphically pleasing and easy to read. The layout of each page of the Web site should be free of clutter and small print. Sometimes less really is more. The site's opening page should not overwhelm the visitor with lots of details. When people come to the Web site, they should get a sense of what they can gain from it. Tell them upfront what they can do on your site. Information should be logically organized, but the Web site should also be fun and easy to figure out.

Animation, bold headlines or bullets and sound might enhance the design. Creatively, this is one of the most important elements of successful Web sites and a major factor in encouraging repeat visitors. But don't get carried away; as mentioned earlier, the hardware and software need to be designed so that the response time is very fast.

If your site is extensive with many screens, provide site maps and key-word search capabilities. Site maps should have descriptions that are user-friendly to the layman, not just those who have dealt with the company for years.

5) Operations must be efficient. Once your customers start placing orders through your Web site, your company's operations come into play. Orders and inquiries must be dealt with quickly. Customers who buy through the Internet often do so to save time, so they don't want to wait weeks to receive their orders. Fulfillment performance needs to be regularly monitored to maintain a high level.

The “It Ain't Over” Period

Once the Web site is live and available for use, new challenges arise. The market is very dynamic and constantly changing, so it is important to update your Web site from time to time. If you complete the Web site and then walk away from it, you will be missing out on opportunities, competitive responses and market changes.

One of the best qualities of well-designed Web sites is that they capture lots of valuable information about who visits them. For example, you can learn how visitors found your Web site in the first place, where they came from, what they looked at, how long they stayed, how much they spent and how often they visit your site. This information can be stored and used for future, customized marketing campaigns. You also should be aware of what your competition is featuring on its Web site. And consider what types of specials you want to highlight on your own.

So how do you know if your Web site is successful? Well, that depends. The real answer lies in whether the Web site has achieved its goals. From a bottom-line perspective, it could mean that the Web site generates or is on the path toward generating more profits from electronic commerce than the cost of setting up and maintaining the Web site. The Web site may reduce the cost of marketing new products, expanding geographic market area or acquiring new customers. No matter what the original goal, a well-thought-out Web site can be lucrative - if its owners know where they want to be and how to get there.