CHRISTOPHER STEINS

All too often, small businesses don't fully grasp the tremendous opportunities the Internet presents to level the playing field with larger companies.

Establishing a Web site presents the potential to reach an almost unlimited audience with none of the constraints of traditional media, such as printing or mailing costs. Once created, your Web site is open for business 24 hours a day.

In fact, selling on the Internet has never been easier. Online commerce is growing in leaps and bounds. Forrester Research reports that Internet commerce represented over $50 billion in 1998, and is expected to grow to 10 percent of all business-to-business sales in four years. Whether you are selling retail or business-to-business, a modest electronic commerce strategy can reap immediate and dramatic rewards.

You can also recruit highly sought-after workers online. Young professionals are attracted to firms they perceive as technically literate. Your Web site is an opportunity to provide positive recruitment materials to get the professional staff you want.

Many entrepreneurs may have put off a Web site because there are so many variables they just can't grasp. Now is the time to act, because any more delays will just cost you lost sales. The following are some essential tips for getting started on your Web site.

? Navigation is key. No matter who designs your Web site, make sure that it has obvious and easy-to-use navigation. On long pages, put a "return to top" link at the bottom of the page so that your visitors don't have to scroll back up to the top. If your navigation toolbar is all graphics, it's important to include plain-old text navigation hyperlinks at the bottom of the page. Many Web surfers with slow connections surf with graphics turned off, and won't be able to navigate your Web site otherwise.

? Make your pages printable. On most Internet browsers background colors don't print, so avoid light-colored text on a black or dark background. Large graphics also take longer to print and that could turn off potential customers. Use graphics wisely, and compress them for the Web, otherwise they will take much longer to view.

Similarly, just as you wouldn't clutter up your company brochure with all sorts of odd images, don't use unrelated images, pictures and sounds on your Web site unless they clearly add to your overall presentation. Remember to put your e-mail address, phone number, and Web site address at the bottom of each page, so when someone prints out your Web page, they can easily find your contact information.

? Register your site. Your Web site should be registered with each of the eight to 10 major search engines (Excite, Yahoo, Lycos, etc.) and specialized search engines that target specific industries. You will also need to select seven to 10 targeted "key words" that you think reflect your business. A good Web development firm can code the keywords as "meta tags" into your Web pages to help make sure that your site is found and listed. Once you have registered you site, be patient registration can take up to 14 days to show up in a search engine.

? Reserve your domain name. You've probably heard this several times, but good Web addresses (such as yourname.com) are going fast. If you haven't yet reserved your address, do it now. You can check on your domain name availability, reserve your domain name and get two e-mail addresses (yourname@your-company.com) for $119 for two years through Network Solutions (www.networksolutions.com), the firm that provides domain name registration for the Internet.

? Get Web site traffic reports. The more you can track who visits your Web site, the more you can tailor the content to reach key targets. Make sure your Web developer can provide you with weekly or monthly traffic reports. These reports tell you how many pages on your site are being seen (page impressions); how many people are visiting your site (user sessions); where your visitors are coming from; how long they're staying; and which pages are most popular. Be cautious about getting reports on "hits" because they don't directly correspond to visits to your Web site, and can be misleading.

? Update your Web site (by yourself). You shouldn't have to pay your Web developer every time you want to update your site. It's easy to update frequently changing sections of your site as often as you like, to add weekly press releases, for example.

? Develop qualified leads with little effort. Visitors to your Web site are self-selected; they wouldn't be there unless they were already interested in your product or service. Provide an incentive (e.g., free research report, chance to win a product) that encourages visitors to fill out a form with detailed contact information. This form can be used to record a visitor's title, company, phone number, mailing address, and e-mail address.

Clearly state that you won't misuse the confidential information that your visitor submits. It's easy to set up an automatic response to these messages so that your visitor gets immediate feedback.

How much should your web site cost? Designing, developing, and maintaining a Web site is quite affordable. A modest, professional, well-designed business site is likely to range from $3,500 to $10,000, and monthly hosting will range between $25 and $100 for a modest (10-25 page) Web site. Although Web sites can be had for less, you generally get what you pay for. A reputable Web development firm is likely to charge between $75 and $125 per hour for basic Web design and development and that does not include the costs of a professional writer to fine tune your marketing materials so the content can easily be understood in as few words as possible.

Sound imposing? Well, the first time you opened for business there was no guarantee that clients would come knocking on your door. But if you've enjoyed success and decided to take the risk of more growth, the Internet is the next door that customers will be coming through.

Christopher Steins is principal of Urban Insight (www.urbaninsight.com), a Los Angeles-based Web development and Internet consulting firm.

Entrepreneur's Notebook is a regular column contributed by EC2, The Annenberg Incubator Project, a center for multimedia and electronic communications at the University of Southern California. Contact James Klein at (213) 743-1759 with feedback and topic suggestions.

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