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Website hosts and builders

Wes Knepp needed a website to showcase his Shorthorn show cattle. The 20-year-old farms with parents, David and Lisa, near Plymouth, Indiana.

“We set it up with a friend's help,” he says. “Our photos had to be re-sized because many clients don't have broadband. We're learning through trial and error. It's still a work in progress.”

His site (plainviewgrainfarms.com) is in good company. Today, millions of websites have sprouted up on the Internet. Few were created by computer whizzes who love technology. Most grew out of a desire to connect to people.

The growth in direct marketing is one key factor driving the decision to create farm websites. Jane Eckert, CEO of Eckert AgriMarketing, St. Louis, Missouri, has worked with many farmers to design, host, and maintain sites.

“A website is similar to a value-added enterprise,” she says. “You can start with a small investment, establish a presence, and if you keep your information updated, it will grow. Your site should have a personality to match your farm, and it should motivate people to visit or buy your products.”

An increasing number of farmers – like the Knepps – want to promote a separate enterprise such as custom baling or seedstock. Others simply aim to put a face on their business through their website.

Building a site is easier than ever, but it still requires asking strategic questions:

● Who is your key audience?

● What do your customers expect and want to know?

● What action do you want your customers to take?

● Do you expect them to visit regularly?

● What is your website budget?

Once you've answered these questions, the first step is to register a unique website domain name also known as a Universal Resource Locator (URL).

One of the easiest and cheapest domain name services is www.GoDaddy.com. The cost is $9.99 per year. Many web design companies wrap this cost into their design package.

The second step is selecting a web host (a computer server to store your site, share your files, and capture data on site visitors). It's also possible to host your own site. (For details, see table on the next page.)

A web host charges a development fee as well as monthly or annual ongoing costs for services such as storing backup copies of your site and protecting it from viruses and hackers. Most offer 24-hour phone support. Be sure to ask about:

● Cost.

● Technical knowledge/time required.

● Maintenance needed.

● Available storage space (and backup).

● Accessibility (remote access; security).

● Bandwidth needs (formula is average number of page views × average page size × 30 days in a month).

● Domain name services.

Before selecting a host, go online and read reviews of websites at free-webhosts.com, freewebspace.net, findmyhost.com, and webhostinggeeks.com.

The third step is choosing your design. This is more than a logo, masthead, or graphics; it includes the site structure and navigation elements. “The design component is critical,” Eckert says. “It must be geared to your audience.”

What you need to know

During the past five years, open-source and free software have proliferated on the Web. It's easy to find a free website template and customize it.

You'll find two broad categories of free templates: generic and application-specific (tied to a specific program used in creating your page).

Website Host Options

Home Hosting

Self-hosting offers control of your site and greater bandwidth. You need a dedicated web server machine, dedicated high-speed connection, server software, and technical know-how. You need to install, configure, and maintain your server, and secure it with antivirus software. You need to back up files and renew domain name annually.

Free Online Host

Best suited for small sites with low traffic. Many companies package free templates and hosting. Limited content, storage, number of pages, disk space, and bandwidth. Most run banner and pop-up ads on the site. Little customer support or protection. Slower uptime and page-load time. Your URL has an extension, making it hard to get inbound links. Find a few exceptions at www.50webs.com.

Paid Host Service

Choose from economy, deluxe, or unlimited plans. Cost is $4.99/month to $40+/month. Look for unlimited bandwidth and unlimited disk space. Various levels of customer support and services such as email, ecommerce, RSS feeds or link exchanges, and free forums. Make sure you can update the site yourself and can access data from the site if you want this option. Ask about SEO tools and support services.

Social Website

Existing social networking websites could work if you simply want a web presence or profile to promote your products or events. Free options include MySpace.com, Facebook.com, and Flickr.com. You can meet other people, share photos, and obtain information without HTML, navigation, or web servers. Some provide the capacity for blogs, email, and instant messaging.

Web Page Service

Best suited to low-traffic sites. Has prebuilt templates and site themes. Won't have your own domain (URL) name; your site is under the company's umbrella. Has limited pages – possibly a home page and a site map. 10 GB of storage. Free hosting on Google sites, Wetpaint, Netvibes, and many others.

Recently Google teamed up with Intuit to offer free website design workshops for small businesses in Wisconsin, Texas, Missouri, Minnesota, Vermont, Virginia, Ohio, and Iowa. Google also has a web page service called Google Sites that doesn't require a web server or host.

Web design may not be a do-it-yourself job, depending upon the purpose of your site and whether you're setting up an e-commerce site, photo galleries, podcasts, calendars, and e-mail newsletters.

If your budget allows, consider hiring a web design company to create your site and to maintain it.

“Your website has roughly three seconds to get and keep a person's attention,” says Don Stanley, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and owner of 3Rhino Media in Baraboo (http://www.3rhinomedia).

In addition to design, writing content for a site also requires specific skills. “The more questions you answer on the site, the better,” Eckert says. (For examples, see farmwebdesign.com/examples.htm.)

If writing isn't your forte, this task can be farmed out. “Find out if the web design company has a separate writing staff,” Eckert says. “You may want one company to deliver the whole package.”

Plan to pay $1,000 to $1,500 for a basic seven- to 10-page site with four to eight buttons. Add $200 to $300 for an annual host fee; ongoing maintenance may be included. A simple hosting-only annual contract may be $100.

Once your site is up and running, it requires updates. Some web hosts build your site with a content management system (CMS), which can be edited through a browser.

“This allows clients to update and change wording, and reduces maintenance costs” Eckert says. “It doesn't work as well for photos. Photos require optimum sizing for quick downloads and a minimum pixels per square inch for resolution. If not, it distorts your page.”

Making your site visible

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the buzzword today. “If you're trying to reach prospective customers, your business needs to appear on the first page of a Google search,” Eckert says. “Key words, headlines, and sequencing are critical in a website search.”

“SEO helps, but it's not a magic bullet,” Stanley says. “Run the other way if a company guarantees they can get you on the front page of Google search.”

Links to other sites may boost your search engine ranking. “It's similar to an endorsement, so make sure you link to reputable businesses,” Stanley says.

Capturing data from the traffic to your site is another fringe benefit. Ask prospective web hosts if you'll have access to this data. Google analytics-free data can be useful, and free local business listings are available on Google Places.

Use multi platforms

Don't forget to test your site before it's launched and monitor it afterwards. Social networking sites can be used for promotion and updates. Web blogs allow quick product updates, too. A Facebook profile is a low-cost option.

“Don't forget to use traditional promotion methods that don't cost anything extra to promote your site, such as business cards and brochures,” Stanley says. 

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