When I worked in the newspaper industry, my company sold third-party website-building services. That was more than five years ago, and even then, paying for something you could easily do yourself was a bad idea.
Now, when technology has gotten even easier to use, paying real money for a website is almost always a bad idea. You can easily create a professional-looking website for your small business with limited effort at a very low cost.
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Doing this might seem scary partly because there are so many services marketed to make the process easier. Yes, you can get a website built professionally that costs a few thousand dollars or one that comes with hundreds a month in maintenance/server/hosting fees, but you don't have to, and you shouldn't.
Know what you need
There are exceptions to the do-it-on-the-cheap rule. If you run a retail business and plan to integrate online and in-store inventory, then you may want to consider getting professional help. The same is true if your business is based on visual aesthetics. In that case, you may want something that truly stands out, and it may make sense to hire someone.
For most companies, however, you can build an elegant, effective website for less than $10 (maybe under $5) a month with limited (if any) investment beyond that.
Pick a host
Ideally, you start by picking a hosting company and purchasing a package that includes a domain name. You can go with one of the bigger names like GoDaddy or opt for other significant players like 1&1, DreamHost, or HostGator. There are lots of credible review sites out there that break down the differences between the various companies, but generally, they are minor.
You will want a package that includes a do-it-yourself site-builder tool. You might also want one that includes free WordPress installation. Basically, a site-builder tool allows complete novices to build a website through drag and drop. WordPress is a content management system (CMS) that works much the same way, but it allows more customization and the ability to add more functionality.
If you want a brochure site -- one that just shares what your business is and when you're open along with contact info -- then a site builder will work fine. If you want to sell stuff on your site or add customer message boards, event calendars, and maybe more, then WordPress makes sense.
When you pick your domain name, select something that is easy to remember. If JoesHouseOfPancakes.com is taken, look at reasonable alternatives (most hosting companies will offer suggestions). In general, you want a .com address because that is what most consumers are familiar with.
As for your hosting package, look at your options. In most cases, prices will be lower if you pay up front for a longer term. You can generally convert to that down the line, so you may be better off going month to month at first.
Look at the packages and consider your needs. Do you want the option of support via phone? That may cost more, but it might be worth it for the peace of mind. The same goes for installing WordPress. It's generally a one-button install if you do it yourself, but if you find that daunting, pay the extra for someone to do it for you.
Build your site
You generally have to wait 24 to 48 hours for your domain to go live, but you can start building your site right away. Whether you use a site builder or WordPress, the first step is picking a template. Once you do that, you will see all the areas you need to fill in.
These will generally contain dummy text and basic images. Go through and begin making substitutions and figure out what you need. For example, you might need to have a version of your logo made that's vertical or horizontal, and you might need to take pictures or find free stock images that reflect your business. You will also need to fill in text spots and add hours, contact info, and other information.
You can build a good-looking brochure site in a couple of hours (maybe less) if you have the materials you need (logo, images, text). From there, you can add more pages, create navigation, and even add functionality. In site builders or WordPress, it's all pretty intuitive, and if you get stuck, it's easy enough to find a tech-savvy high school or college kid who can help you out.
Websites used to cost a lot of money to build. They still can, but they really don't have to. If you can click a button, write in a word processor, and get around on the web, you should be able to build your small-business site without too much trouble and with very little cost.
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