A Home On The Web

What steps should you take before launching a firm Web site?
BY ANITA DENNIS

Is your firm on the Web? Many CPA firms have carved out a presence online, using their Web sites to deliver news and information about their practices and general business issues as well as to enhance marketing efforts.

A wide variety of Web site creation software is available to those who have the skills needed to design their own sites. Before you craft a site, however, the first important step is planning its design and determining how to develop a professional, interesting destination.


DOS AND DONTS

Experienced Web site developers suggest a few important steps to follow when creating a presence online:

1. Determine your purpose. Will firm members use the site mainly to communicate with clients? To attract new clients in a specific industry or service area? To demonstrate the firms technology skills? A sites conception and maintenance should be based on the firms reason for creating it. As a rule, the more ambitious the purpose, the more time and expertise are needed to create and maintain the site.

2. Identify your audience. Do your clients use the Web? Do they have their own sites? Is the firm planning to attract new clients who are regulars on the Internet? What kinds of sites do clients regularly visit? What do they value in a Web site? The answers to these questions help make a firms site more appealing and better suited to its ultimate purpose.

3. Check out other sites for inspiration. Decide what you like about their appearance and what they present, advises Robert Pielech of Pielech & Pielech, a CPA firm with offices in Cumberland, Rhode Island, and New Bedford, Massachusetts (www.pielech.com) . Spend time combing the Web to see the wide variety of approaches taken. Then take some time to find out what other CPA firms are doing to get a sense of how to distinguish your site.

4. Develop quantifiable, concrete objectives. CPA R. A. Burrell of Cyberline, which designs and programs sites, cautions against vague goals, such as increase sales. Choose, instead, measurable aims, such as gaining a certain percentage of new clients in a particular service area that is well suited to online marketing. While many Web site hosts focus on the number of hits or visits their sites receive, you may want to track more specific items, such as how many clients or other users have accessed the site to contact firm members. Without specific goals and measurable results, you cant tell whether the site is effective or break down the results to see if youve hit one objective and not another, Burrell says.

5. Choose the best bells and whistles. Web designers have a lot of exciting graphics at their fingertips. A bland home page is not attractive, Pielech says. The first screen should have a lot of eye appeal.

Overloading the site is a bad idea, however. We wanted to keep our site looking professional, so we didnt load up with a lot of animation, says Pielech. However, our new developments block flashes to call attention to it when people arrive. Remember, too, that graphics take longer to download, which often is annoying to visitors. Pielech also recommends employing links to other sites of interest to potential visitors, not only to business-related sites but also to ones that reflect firm members professional and personal interests or specializations. Search engines, such as www.Yahoo.com , are a good place to find potential sites worth linking to your own. Through the LinkExchange site, its possible to trade banner ad space and links with companies in noncompetitive businesses as well as gain access to a host of other Web site-related services ( www.linkexchange.com ).

6. Offer a realistic image of your firm. Some small practitioners spend a lot of time and money to use their Web sites to make their firms look bigger, Burrell observes. When a site creates an overblown perception or seems to promise services or experience the firm cant deliver, clients feel deceived, he says.

7. Anticipate maintenance needs. Once the firm has trumpeted the features of its exciting new site, its necessary to maintain an up-to-date online presence. For example, if the firm announces it will post its newsletter every month, clients will expect to find it when they visit. You cant just drop it because you have a tax deadline, Burrell says. As a result, its important to consider the amount of time firm members realistically can commit when planning the site. Constant updates arent always necessary. If the site features staff bios, for example, new material isnt needed until staff members change. If the firm commits to posting new tax laws or other timely material, someone on staff must dedicate time to keeping the news fresh. Although a site that never changes wont get a lot of repeat traffic, try to keep a balance between a static site and one that demands too much of firm members attention.


SOFTWARE OPTIONS

Firms that dont have the staff time or knowledge to design and maintain their own sites can bring in consultants to perform these tasks. For staff members who want to try their hands at designing a firm Web site, on the preceding page is a rundown of some of the leading products in the market. This is not an exhaustive list because many different kinds of options are open to Web site creators, but this is a good introduction to the kinds of software a CPA firm might use. In addition, some Internet service providers offer home page space to subscribers, and free or low-cost Web authoring software is available online (AOLpress 2.0 www.aolpress.com is one such offering).

Some of the tools in this list are geared for novice authors while others suit veteran Web masters. Some are graphical, WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editors while others are code-based authoring tools. The best way to learn more about each ones features is to visit the Web sites, many of which include downloadable trial software. Remember, too, that developers often offer deals and rebates that can significantly lower the printed list prices.

Web Page Creation Tools

Adobe PageMill 3.0
List price: $99.
Company: Adobe Systems Inc.,
San Jose, California.
For information: 800-833-6687;
www.adobe.com .

Atrax The Web Publisher 4.0
List price: $99.95.
Company: WinWare Inc.,
Corona Del Mar, California.
For information: 949-675-7140;
www.winwareinc.com .

Composer
(part of the Communicator Deluxe Suite)
List price: $69.95.
Company: Netscape Communications Corp.,
Mountain View, California.
For information: 650-937-2555;
www.netscape.com/comprod/products/
communicator/product_family/comm_retailde.html
.

Drumbeat 2.0
List price: $699.
Company: Elemental Software,
Carlsbad, California.
For information: 800-967-7476;
www.elementalsoftware.com.

HomePage 3.0
List price: $99.
Company: FileMaker, Inc.,
Santa Clara, California.
For information: 800-325-2747;
www.claris.com .

HomeSite 3.0
List price: $89 (as download, $79).
Company: Allaire Corp.,
Cambridge, Massachusetts.
For information: 888-939-2545;
www.allaire.com.

HotDog Professional 5
List price: $149.95.
Company: Sausage Software,
Melbourne, Australia.
For information: www.sausage.com.

HoTMetaL PRO 4.0
List Price: $129.
Company: SoftQuad Inc.,
Toronto, Ontario.
For information: 800-387-2777;
www.softquad.com.

HTML Assistant Pro 97
List price: $99.95
(as download, $89.95).
Company: Brooklyn North
Software Works Inc.,
Halifax, Nova Scotia.
For information: 800-349-1422;
www.brooknorth.com.

 

Macromedia
Dreamweaver 1.2
List price: $299.
Company: Macromedia Inc.,
San Francisco.
For information: 800-457-1774;
www.macromedia.com.

Microsoft FrontPage 98
List price: $149.
Company: Microsoft Corp.,
Redmond, Washington.
For information: 800-426-9400;
www.microsoft.com/frontpage.

NetObjects Fusion 3.0 for Windows
List price: $295.
Company: NetObjects Inc.,
Redwood City, California.
For information: 888-449-6400;
www.netobjects.com.

Pictorius iNet
Developer 4.0
List Price: Call for pricing.
Company: Pictorius Inc.,
Halifax, Nova Scotia.
For information: 800-927-4847;
www.pictorius.com.

QuickSite 3.0
List price: $49.95.
Company: Site Technologies,
Scotts Valley, California.
For information: 800-446-6955;
www.sitetech.com .

Visual Page 2.0
List price: $99.95.
Company: Symantec Corp.,
Cupertino, California.
For information: 800-441-7234;
www.symantec.com.

WebberActive 4.0
List price: $149.
Company: ExperTelligence,
Santa Barbara, California.
For information: 800-888-8670;
www.expertelligence.com.

WebEdit PRO 3.0
List price: $89.95.
Company: Luckman Interactive,
Los Angeles.
For information: 800-711-2676;
www.luckman.com.

Web Designer 1.1
(part of WebMaster Suite)
List price: $299 for
WebMaster Suite.
Company: Corel Corp.,
Ottawa, Ontario
For information: 800-772-6735;
www.corel.com .


Anita Dennis is a Journal contributing editor.

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