Choosing the right hosting service for your e-business plans we are amidst an e-boom of sorts, thanks to the relative ease of setting up a business on the Internet or expanding an existing company to include a Web component. It's no longer an arduous procedure that takes months and thousands of dollars to complete. Software and services have simplified the process, and have made it almost easy to expand to the World Wide Web. In fact, a Web presence is so attractive to small businesses that, well, the numbers really say it all.
Nearly a million small businesses added home pages in 1999, according to a recent International Data Corporation (IDC) study. And small business e-commerce sites nearly matched that number, more than doubling every year for the past three years.
Whether your company sells products or provides services, a Web site can both complement a business' existing operations and enhance its image. Done properly, it informs customers, showcases products and services, facilitates purchases, and promotes communication and feedback with customers.
If you don't have a Web presence and are just starting to test the waters, start with a billboard or brochure site. If a site is already up and running, or if you feel ready to join the e-commerce race whole hog, services are available to facilitate the purchase of goods and services via your site. Either the company providing the service can process orders, or you can handle them directly through your site.
There are two choices for getting started. Assuming you have the free time or an IT staff, a Web site can be created in-house using software (see this month's supplemental Buyers Guide). Or, you can go to an ISP or other provider (like the four we cover in this guide) and use one of their services. They all bundle software for building a site. Some even offer creation services where someone else will do all the work. They also bundle hosting, e-commerce, and other services as well.
After a site is born it still must be hosted and maintained. A Web server or all-in-one product will make it possible to host a site in-house with ease. Or, for a fee, someone else can do the hosting. Many of the software packages also offer hosting options as well. With a hosting service, you're free to concentrate on managing the site and it's promotion, while someone else carries the burden of secure certificates, gateways, SSL secure ordering, and database and scripting support.
Many local ISPs have site creation and hosting services worth looking into. Larger regional and national services are also available, and many have start-up plans to fit whatever you have in mind. Because of heavy competition, there are deals with reputable hosts that offer generous data transfer allotments, reasonable numbers of e-mail accounts, traffic reports, and decent support services without breaking the bank. Credit card processing, however, drives up the price because several players must be involved in processing every sale, and each one charges a fee. Examine each provider carefully to determine which is best for your needs.
HOW WE TESTED
In this Buyer's Guide we took a look at the service side of Web site creation. We chose four of the top 20 hosting services, which were identified according to figures from IDC, and tested each of their basic hosting plans and their beginner creation software.
All have bundles for creating a "custom" site with no programming, HTML, or design experience necessary. They're hardly custom-made, but they do use simple, fill-in-the-blank templates that can have a site up and running in just a few hours or a few days for a complex site. We created a fictitious small business ready to build a site to promote its ten products for now, but with an interest in selling from the site in the future. Using a Quantex desktop with a 450MHz processor, 64MB of RAM, a 17GB hard drive, and a 56k modem, we created a site at each of the test hosting services. All offer free Web creation or authoring software with their hosting plans. Three of the four required a credit card to start the process, and all required us to be online during the entire creation process. We tested everything from ease of use and suitability of the "custom site" software, to the availability and accessibility of adding options like merchant accounts, offline and live credit card processing, inventory control, and auto-responders. Level and execution of support was also a key factor in our tests.
AT&T provides free creation software (called MyPage), but they really want customers to use other Web authoring software to build a site and then upload it to them when it's ready to go.
The proof lies in their weak offering of software. MyPage consists of only one template with one layout and very limited choices for customization. MyPage is easily the simplest program to use and it requires only that users follow a menu, fill in boxes, and give it 30 minutes to create a site. Since all the work is done on their servers, what you do for those 30 minutes is up to you, but reading their excellent e-commerce tutorial is an option we recommend. There's no need for a control panel because you have none. With MyPage, you only have the option to create one page, and when it's finished, be sure to check it carefully.
Once published, your experience with MyPage is over editing or adding pages requires Microsoft FrontPage with extensions. If you don't already own it, there is no other choice but to purchase it.
The plan we chose, Level 2 AT&T Small Business Hosting Service, is $50 per month (with a one-time $50 setup fee) and comes with 50MB of data storage, 6 e-mail accounts, and 3,000MB per month of data transfer. The Level 1 package at $25 per month is essentially the same, but offers only 25MB of storage and 1,000MB of data transfer. Credit card processing isn't an option on the Level 1 or Level 2 plans, although encrypted forms are supported for an additional $20 a month. Encrypted forms allow customers to securely order items from your site via e-mail.
A Level 3 plan, at $125 per month, comes with 100MB of storage, 5,000MB of data transfer, and real-time credit card processing. Custom domain registration at www.mysite.com is part of all bundles, but requires a separate fee ($70 for two years) paid directly to the Network Solutions registration service.
MyPage is most appropriate for creating a billboard site, and a pretty crude one at that. However, importing custom creations is pretty straightforward. On the plus side, AT&T's e-commerce plans do offer good services at reasonable prices, and the wizard for adding those services does most of the work for you.
IBM Home Page Creator
While Home Page Creator also uses templates and has limited choices, the end product was far better than our expectations. The Home Page Creator site makes it easy to learn the e-commerce basics, shop for an appropriate plan, and sign up to start building a site.
Called Site Builder, the actual tools for building a site consist of a floating control panel and a preview window. After choosing a template, colors, and fonts, our control panel appeared, with tools at the top and an easy to understand scrolling site tree in the bottom two-thirds. Adding elements or pages was as easy as clicking + on the control panel, but there is no drag and drop of elements, so moving them was awkward. On the whole, though, we were able to create an attractive, efficient site with as much e-commerce capability as we wanted.
The Basic service, $29.95 a month plus a $50 setup fee, includes up to 5 pages, 12 catalog items, 30MB of storage, and 2GB of data transfer. It does not support real-time selling, however, and is best used to display products and offer an e-mail address or phone number for placing orders. The Bronze level, which is $39.95 a month, includes 6 pages, 15 catalog items, 40MB of storage, 3GB of data transfer, and they will process online orders and e-mail the information. For $69.95 per month 15 pages, 50 catalog items, 50MB storage, and 4GB of data transfer are included. The Silver level provides real-time online card processing.
The Champagne Lady, www.champagnelady.com, Rosemary Zraly, used HomePage Creator to build her site. Based in New York, Zraly was looking for a way to promote her book, "Champagne Uncorked!" and sell products without the need for heavy financing or additional staff. "It's a god-send," she says, "because I'm not a techie and I don't have to be. I can even edit it myself." Zraly doesn't want to worry about security issues, either. "My merchant bank e-mails me after a card is processed and I just ship the product."
Site Builder is not the only option for creating a site. IBM also supports the use of IBM NetObjects TopPage, along with most popular site authoring software.
IBM has combined ease of use with powerful service options at reasonable prices. We did not, however, appreciate their method of adding e-commerce tools. While a wizard takes users through the various steps, they must visit each provider's site and re-supply the same information again and again. This limits their liability should you have a problem with your domain name or merchant account, but makes setup that much longer and tedious.
Mindspring Web Creator
Since Mindspring is a pioneer with five years of experience in hosting services, we expected a mature offering of services and tools, and we weren't disappointed. Mindspring Biz is similar to IBM's and AT&T's service bundles, with support for just about every e-commerce add-on. And like AT&T, the site creation software is limited in function and has few choices. Sign up was pleasantly quick, even though there were no fewer boxes and forms to complete or numbers to supply.
After choosing from 10 pre-defined color combos for the one template in Web Creator, we began the process of filling in the blanks. There are no pictures or clip art to chose from, so be sure to have artwork or logos ready. We tried several times to import our product pictures but weren't successful. Most disturbing was the lack of a preview function. Only when we were done creating did we get a preview, and editing was limited to the information we had supplied. As crude as the template is, the Control Panel is the complete opposite. In addition to providing the creation tools, it has five loaded drop-down menus across the top, offering everything for e-commerce and managing a serious business site.
Andy Flink of Players World of Golf, www.playersworld.com, is happy with his Mindspring Biz site. "We have three stores already, two on Hilton Head Island and one in Atlanta, and customers e-mail us orders from our site," he explains, "and then we process them through our in-store credit card setup. We had already made the investment in this system and it made no sense to pay someone else to do it." Flink, who sells golf clubs, equipment, and accessories, pays about $300 a month for Mindspring Biz.
Prices are a little higher for Mindspring services. The starter bundle with a Web Creator built site and no live credit card function is $79.90 a month. Ten mailboxes and 30MB of storage are included more than enough for a small but sophisticated site with reasonable traffic. Sites with credit card capabilities start at $109.90. Mindspring provides good bundles for smaller businesses, but their prices are a little high considering their level of support. Before dialing their help line, they advise users to visit their FAQ, tutorial, or any of a number of sites on the Internet that can answer most questions.
Verio joins the list of authoring tools with limited style and color choices, but offers templates that are a step above the others. Admittedly, they look like all the others created using the same templates, but they are classy (even if uneditable and static), easy to navigate, and offer a full array of bells and whistles.
For example, the control panel includes a separate menu for each page, and adding a visitor counter or link is as easy as clicking the appropriate icon. Like Mindspring, Verio's signup was relatively quick. The EspressStart plan, $24.95 per month with a $50 setup fee, allows up to seven pages and includes up to 14 different templates such as About Us, Products, Specials, FAQs, or Guestbook, for each page. The image gallery isn't extensive, but there's enough choice to add a little punch to the pages. Fill in the boxes or forms and ExpressStart builds a site automatically creating all of the links. ExpressStart can accommodate up to 10 products but orders have to come by phone or non-secure e-mail. Verio's other budget plans, $34.95 to $74.95 per month, support a Store Manager that saves encrypted e-mail orders and then forwards them to you to process off line. It can also e-mail a drop-ship order to the manufacturer or supplier. Real-time card processing starts at $129.95 per month.
Randy Sylvia has been using his ExpressStart site for about a year, selling his handmade cards at www.aloha-cards.com. "I wanted to start small and slow," says Sylvia. "But because I have over 200 different cards to choose from, some of the smaller hosts couldn't handle my site." Sylvia has been taking orders by phone and e-mail, but is ready now to move up to a true e-commerce site with credit card processing. "I plan to stay with Verio," adds Sylvia, "because upgrading will be easy with them and I like their style of doing business."
Verio, like IBM, seems to be in tune with small business users' needs. While the ExpressStart plan is difficult to find, it is clearly the best of the templates, offering the most functionality for each of the pages on a site. The Verio users we talked to gave them high marks for offering unhurried, extensive phone support, rather than just communication by e-mail or fax. A big plus in our book.
WHAT WE THINK
All four of these companies are adept at providing e-commerce tools and services to get businesses up and selling online, either directly or through partnerships. How they accomplish the end goal, however, is unique to each company and defines their target market to some extent.
Of our four test services, IBM and Verio seem to have the greatest depth of support for the widest range of small business users.
Also, their beginner software didn't force new users to choose between ease of use and a professional image.
IBM has printable lists of questions users should ask themselves for each stage of the planning process, and we strongly urge you to take advantage of them. Regardless of which service you ultimately choose, they're the perfect tools to help prospective Web builders thoroughly think through the process before beginning.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
DO YOU WANT HOSTING WITH A PACKAGE'S ISP, OR DO YOU WANT TO USE YOUR OWN ISP?
Some of the packages include hosting as part of the deal. Hosting can include such options as built-in shopping carts and automatic credit card processing. Impulse Software, Primecom (QuickSite), and Dateline America (VersaCheck) all offer hosting services with their e-commerce design packages. It's simply a matter of deciding what services you would like with your Web site and paying for them.
DO YOU WANT COMPLETE FLEXIBILITY OVER THE DESIGN OF YOUR E-COMMERCE SITE?
If so, entry-level e-commerce programs, which emphasize ease of use, may not provide an appropriate level of control. Look into higher end packages.
DO YOU WANT YOUR SITE TO AUTOMATICALLY PROCESS CREDIT CARDS WITH TRANSACTIONS?
All of the entry-level e-commerce programs here can process credit card transactions. Be prepared, however, to pay extra for this service in the form of higher monthly charges from your ISP and processing fees for each transaction.