If you’re hiring a web development team to create a new website for you it’s most likely that they’ll ask you some questions about what you want. BUT most people don’t know enough about what the options are to be able to answer the questions. This article is about the options….the choices you’ll be faced with when you create a new website (or when you upgrade or update an existing one). This article is meant to go beyond the basics, but to get there I’ll have to do a quick summary of the basics.
There are two basic types of websites, a brochure site and an e-commerce site:
A brochure site is an informational site without a lot of interaction on the part of the customer. At the most, a brochure site might have a “form” that your customers can fill out to send information to you, the website owner. If that’s the case, the form information (name, address, phone number, for example) can be either emailed to you or put into a database. Emailed form data (as it’s called) is a lot easier and cheaper to set up than a database so you won’t want to hire someone to create a database for you unless you really need one. (more on databases below). In general Brochure Sites are thought of by industry experts as boring.
An E-commerce site has the information of a brochure site but also provides a way for the customer to purchase products, services and/or memberships or subscriptions online. An e-commerce site can and almost always does include forms & databases…but in addition to that, it has the systems that work together to process customer purchases such as merchant accounts (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, etc.), payment gateways and shopping carts.
Other options: Beyond the Basics
Starting with one of these two basic types of websites, you can add any number options that are available to you from your web development team. Every time you interact with a website you are benefiting from programming that was created or integrated into the site by a web programmer. Some options may be very simple and others may be quite complex and require extensive planning. You can ask your team to integrate these functions into your website when you first create the site and also many of these features can be added into the site at a later date (or in a secondary phase of your website development project). SOME FEATURES however must be “purchased” or at least planned for from the beginning as they may influence other programming options and choices that are made along the way.
The difficult thing is that beyond the basics, the list of optional functionality is nearly endless. Also you might not even know that you’re looking at an “optional functionality” when you look at a website. Try to keep in mind that no matter what you do on any website – i.e., if you click on a button, move from page to page, see a menu drop down, have a window “pop-up” appear, etc……each one of those seemingly simple functions is added by some kind of programming and the more complex the function, the more complex and costly the programming. Additional functionality beyond the basics requires specialized programming and thus takes time to develop and costs money.
These functions are either custom created or sometimes available “ready-made”, however even a ready-made functionality module has to be integrated into the programming of a site (costing time and money). With a ready-made module, keep in mind that you’ll be getting generic functionality as opposed to custom functionality so you’ll have to investigate the options they come with to make sure they’ll work for your needs.
In any case, website add-ons & options can do just about anything you can imagine – if you can dream it up, someone can probably find a way to make it happen. Some of the types of functions that are added to websites include things such as:
- Chat rooms
- Sign-up/registration functions (letting a customer register to be a member of your site)
- Secure or restricted portions of the sites (for members only requiring a log in and u/n & p/w management system)
- Integrated Twitter, Facebook or Blog feeds
- RSS Feeds (or whole sections
- Advertisements (add ads to your site and make money each time someone clicks on an ad)
- Ad rotation functions
- Social marketing integration
- Press pages (automatically post press releases on your site about your company)
- Site authoring (let writers post articles to your site without you having to do it manually)
- Customer comments – let customers make comments about your products or services.
- Google Analytics (keeping track of your web statistics)
- Live chat robot
- Help menu with search function
- Customer account access
- Customer file access
- Customer content interaction (i.e., allow the client to edit text in certain files or documents)
- Web content editing
- Website/QuickBooks integration
- Calendar or appointment function (show your customers your calendar of events or allow them to make appointments in real-time, online)
- Print webpages
- Convert content on pages to PDF & print or increase font size
- Photo gallery/portfolios
- Video or audio content with player interface (i.e., music or YouTube)
- Translation functions (translate into any language)
- Computer site reader (for blind or poor vision visitors)
- Product availability maps (with vendor listings and related contact information)
- Site visitor action tracking (tracks movements of site visitors)
- Employee work tracker
- Amazon or Ebay store integration (view products from either site on your website)
- Customer marketing module (sends pre-designed direct mail ads to clients at periodic dates) and many more.
A database is a place where information is organized & stored…it may be helpful to think of it as being similar to an “Excel chart” with columns and rows as well as the information about how the database is supposed to be used. A database is a good way to store information for later retrieval and if you intend to use your customers’ contact information to do mailings, for example, a database is a great way to manage & store that information. However a database has many uses way beyond managing contact information; a database can be used to organize and present (show) the products or services you’re trying to sell, for example, and is useful when there are large quantities of products.
Many websites are actually controlled by a database and the pages are created when a user does a “query” or makes a request to see certain types of information. For example if your business sells toys, a customer may ask to see all the stuffed animals at one time or all the Giraffes (stuffed, plastic, metal, musical, books and otherwise) and a database can make that happen. Another way to organize information in this case might be by manufacturer – perhaps the site visitor wants to see all the toys from Mattel or Disney. The way a web programmer makes this happen is by using a database…otherwise they would have to create a static page with every conceivable method & combination of organization, which would represent a HUGE number of pages and way too much money and work.
Databases are also used in membership websites to capture and hold members’ usernames, passwords and other contact information. They can also be used in conjunction with an e-commerce system to automate the management of new, expired or cancelled memberships. As you can imagine, trying to manage these types of memberships manually can be quite a handful with 50-100 members and almost impossible if the number of members gets into the thousands. If you need a username/password feature for your website, a database is an absolute must (otherwise you would have 1 username and password for everyone which defeats the whole purpose of buying a membership when everyone figures out what that is).
Hopefully this article has at least given you the basics about additional functionality for your website. I know it’s hard to determine what YOU need so a good way to do that is to visit all your competitors’ sites and see what functionality they have. That can often give you some ideas about what you might need for your website.
For more information about added functionality, please feel free to contact me, Emily Andros, at firstname.lastname@example.org .