If You Build It, Will They Come?

How to create a great site when time and money are at a premium.

  • IF YOU WANT TO CREATE a Web site for your firm, you have to offer something to attract visitors.
  • ARTICLES, TAX TIPS AND checklists—changed frequently—give potential clients a reason to keep coming back.
  • USE PHOTOS AND ILLUSTRATIONS. There are easy, inexpensive ways to find and upload these to create a visually appealing site.
  • ADD LINKS THAT ARE PERTINENT to your practice and place them right in posted articles.
  • MARKET YOUR SITE using free Web search engines and conventional means.
  • EVEN A SOLE PRACTITIONER can find the time and money to create a handsome Web site.
RICHARD J. KORETO is a Journal news editor. Mr. Koreto is an employee of the American Institute of CPAs and his views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.

Y ouve decided its time your firm had a Web site. You want to describe your services on your site, but you know no one is going to visit just to read an online brochure. You have to provide material that is both useful and entertaining. The Journal spoke with a number of CPAs and Web consultants about what you can do to design a site that people will want to visit again and again. They provide advice on how to develop content and create a pleasing design as well as how to market your site using both conventional and Internet venues. This article will help any CPA create a handsome, practical site that will draw potential customers repeatedly.

With some thought, any CPA can create a Web site that is both helpful and fun. Look at Jelane Johnsons site, for example. Professionally, she is a trainer on Internet issues at NCR, a technology company. However, she also has a personal Web site, which she maintains purely as a hobby. Although not trained as a designer, she has created graphics on her personal site that she allows any other Web designer to use free of charge. Without spending a cent promoting her site she is getting 850 hits a day (see "Marketing," below). Johnsons site shows the power of a good site: Even if a site is noncommercial and put together basically to entertain its creator, its message can reach a lot of people. At little cost she provides something lots of people want—good free graphics. Would you like hundreds of people a day reading about your firm? "If you want to bring new people in, you have to think about what content might attract them," she says.

"For example, Im helping some employees at an employment agency set up a site. I advised them to write articles on rsums—their field of expertise. Most of the time you can develop Web content from what you know about running your business." A tax CPA can offer a tax tip a day. An auditor can post a checklist for companies on how to prepare for their audit.

Wayne E. Harding, CPA, is a vice-president at Great Plains Software and a member of the American Institute of CPAs information technology (IT) research subcommittee. "Content should deliver some value. Post your firms newsletter," he advises. His site, Waynes Web, is crammed full of useful items, including a guest speakers column with words of wisdom on technology and accounting.

Mary Brown, CPA, is a Web design consultant and a former webmaster at SCS/Compute. "I think having content not related to your business is a good idea. One business site I visited posts a series of cartoons—its fun, and people keep coming back to see the new cartoons." Her site includes information on her favorite movie stars and a section on the bizarre television serial Twin Peaks .

As important as having interesting content is changing that content often. Ed Zollars, CPA, sysop on the AICPA Accountants Forum, says, "I return to Web sites because they have useful information that is updated regularly." Johnson agrees, saying that if you have attention-grabbing content, someone will visit you again in a week or two. If theres nothing new, the chance of a third visit is slim. "The change doesnt have to be major, and you dont have to take anything old off, unless its dated." CPAs could, for example, describe a shortcut discovered on Excel or add some data pulled from the Department of Labor ( http://www.dol.gov ) site that apply to potential clients.

The philosophy of Web site content was summed up neatly by Janet G. Caswell, CPA, a member of the AICPA IT practices subcommittee. "Many companies try to transfer their existing business models to the Web, which simply doesnt work. Requiring people to pay for every bit of advice provided through the site is the complete opposite of the expectations of Web surfers. To be successful, companies need to modify their Web-site business models to satisfy the demands of their audience. Web surfers require some free information to feel theyve had a satisfying experience with a site."

The Web allows easy posting of artwork. Each illustration or photo is self-contained in its own computer file. Illustrations usually come in "gif" format, such as "my-logo.gif" and photos usually come in "jpg" ("jay-peg") format, such as "photo-me.jpg." Large photos and complicated illustrations may take a long time for viewers to load, so most designers advise keeping them small.

Harding thinks photos jazz up a site: "Visitors expect a photo of you; shots of a firms staff really personalize a site. Ask your clients if you can post their pictures with testimonials; people love seeing their faces on the Web." Brown says, "Photos can lend a personal dimension and help visitors identify people with the company."

As your site grows, navigation will become an important issue. Your home page should link to the other main pages. For example, you may decide to have a page each for auditing, tax and consulting. Choose an icon for each of these links and display it prominently on the home page. Each page also should have a Return to Home Page button. "Navigation is key," says Brown. "Every page should link to most or all of the other pages. If visitors have to bounce around to find what they want, theyll quickly lose patience and leave." Look at the AICPA home page ( http://www.aicpa.org ) for its extensive and clear table of contents right up front. Johnson points out that the rule of thumb in print design is to have a lot of white space, but this does not necessarily hold true for Web sites. "People dont want to scroll down for their information. They want to find it right in front of them."

Your ability to create increasingly more sophisticated designs will grow as you become more adept at using your design program and more familiar with HTML (see the "Technical Resources" sidebar). Spend time looking at other business sites. Although you dont want to copy someone elses design, you can get ideas from other pages. Most browsers have a View Codes function that lets you view the underlying code of any site. Its like stripping away the brick from a house to see the wiring and plumbing underneath.

Technical Resources

You have several options for photographs. A digital camera that produces filmless photos directly for computer use costs $500 and up. Harding notes that for about $10, Kinkos and other large photocopy businesses will use a high-definition scanner to convert your photo into a jpg file. Larger photo developers may be able to take your conventional negatives and give you a disk or CD-ROM.

There are many sources of free or low-cost gif graphics on the Web; a few are listed in the "Technical Resources" sidebar. Check software catalogs and retail outlets for CD-ROMs of clip art, images that can be used without any further payment or permissions. If you are feeling creative and ambitious, you can design your own graphics. Johnson recommends a shareware program called Paint Shop Pro, from Jasc, which can be downloaded from the companys Web site for about $60.

There are a few things to keep in mind about using other peoples art. First, its easy to copy an image off a Web site. With most browsers, you just hold the cursor over an image and click the righthand mouse button. It saves the image to a directory on your hard disk. However, follow each companys rules about use of its images on commercial sites; copyright laws still apply on the Web. Also, its good manners to credit the designers whose work youve used with links back to their sites.

Links can be of enormous use to visitors and give them a reason to return. Harding recommends making them very pertinent. "If youre a local Colorado CPA, give your potential clients everything you can find on Colorado: the states department of revenue, department of tourism, chamber of commerce." One CPA who specializes in pension consulting has collected links having to do with ramifications of the Small Business Job Protection Act—very specialized but probably unique.

Johnson advises designers to keep in mind the ability to add links directly into copy. If you have written an article about key developments in financial accounting, make your first reference to the Financial Accounting Standards Board an actual link to the FASBs home page. Links generally show up in a different color from the main text, so they stand out.

Not Just for Public Practice
CPAs who work in business and industry can help their companies develop Web sites, as Harding and Brown have both shown. First, suggests Brown, make sure your company is aware of your technological skills. "Upper management may not be technologically savvy and may need a push to get started on the Internet. At SCS, I took the initiative." Companies are also putting more financial information on their Web sites: this is an avenue corporate CPAs should explore. "Tell whoever manages your companys Web site that any financial information about the company should be reviewed by a CPA before posting." "Dont be shy," says Harding. "Even in a large company, if you have a message from your department to get across, get it on the Web site. Its especially helpful if you yourself have knowledge about the Web." Harding says CPAs actually may be able to help their companies more with intranets—essentially, Web sites that only personnel at a given company can look at. Theyre useful for posting private information. "CPAs could share sales and other financial data with all the managers. They could discuss how they gathered the information and what they did to assure its accuracy." Not only would this be useful throughout the company but it also would raise the CPAs profile.

Put your Web site address on your letterhead and business cards. Send a press release to all your clients. The Web also has its versions of press releases, and theyre largely free: Most major search engines will register any Web site for free in their indexes. Go to the Submit-It site and fill out one form for about 20 different search engines, saving yourself hours of time. Johnson used Submit-It to advertise her site. When Web-site developers used search engines to find free graphics, her site popped up. The first few visitors, pleased with what they found, told other people in a geometric progression.

Make yourself aware of awards. Harcourt Brace Professional Publishing gives awards to the best accounting sites, for example. If you win, you are listed on its site. Yahoo e-mails "picks of the week" to anyone who signs up to receive them; if your site is a Yahoo pick, youll get lots of free publicity. Such advertising always leads to an increase in visitors.

Harding says links are a key to popularity. Link to all your clients and ask them to link to you. One CPA exchanged mutual links with a local TV station. Many search engines have a backward search function: Plug in an address and see how many have linked to it. Use this to keep track of links to you.

Popularity has its own problems, however. People e-mail very casually, so be prepared for an influx through your site. Brown advises CPAs to set up a system for sorting through the e-mail and making sure someone is responsible for responding. "Its about communication," she says. "If youre going to ignore the responses, whats the point?"

Web Visitors Speak

Yankelovich Partners Cybercitizen surveys have posed questions on a variety of Internet issues to Internet users. For more details, go to the Yankelovich home page, http://www.yankelovich.com.

Percentage of "cybercitizens" rating the following Web site characteristics as extremely or very desirable.

Frequent updates
Relevant links
Easy to find what youre looking for
Responds quickly to any inquiries
Downloads very quickly
Has excellent graphics

The initial set-up will be your biggest investment in time and money. Rental of space on a server is often free or less than $20 a month with your Internet service providers (ISPs). If you want to use basic shareware, software will run under $100, a little more for more elaborate programs. Owning your own domain name costs $50 a year. Your ISP may give you an extension of its name, saving you a little time and trouble (see "Technical Resources,). Graphics, photographs and scanning fees will vary based on your decisions. If you want to use a photo of yourself, free graphics and clip art, youll spend under $100 for visual appeal.

The initial time investment will depend on how facile you are with design. Many CPAs admit this process is a lot more fun than they thought and spend hours of their free time happily experimenting with layout and graphics. Once your site is up, your only cost is the time you spend online and the rental of your space from the server. You use a simple file transfer program to upload new copy to your Web site. (These are inexpensive shareware programs that are easy to use. Your host is often happy to help you because its in his interest to make it easy for you.) Your time investment now is up to you. You can spend each morning posting a new tax tip—a 15-minute task—or every Friday afternoon writing a brief new article. Periodically, you can upload some new pictures to refresh your site.

Some companies offer a package deal and will assemble for you a small, basic site with minimal graphics for as little as $245 a year. And of course, you can hire consultants and designers. Brown estimates that a site with original professional graphics and design can cost $10,000 to $20,000 to set up. (This does not include high-tech extras, such as a "chat area" that allows visitors to post comments to you and to each other.) You can hire companies to do it all for you; theyll take your materials and design and post them. This can easily start to run to $30,000 and more. But realize that the most expensive sites are not always the most visited. As Caswell notes, "The best sites are those that are directed toward the needs of potential customers." The ability to do that is, in the end, a reflection of your communication rather than technological skills.


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