Free tools for managing your store's web site

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My favorite store is having a sale this week, but you wouldn't know it by looking at its web site.  

That's because the site just sits there. It's little more than a business card with some pretty pictures. The site isn't updated because it's a hassle to do it. If the job requires a web designer, complex software and an arcane process called FTP to send information to a server, it's too complicated to do regularly. 

But it doesn't have to be that way. A new kind of web site - a content management system, or CMS - makes it easy to administer from a secure dashboard. And when it's easy, you'll update it when you're having a sale. A CMS can be expensive, as a custom-designed and programmed site might be. Or it can be free, if you use an off-the-shelf or open source tool. Many companies use blogging platforms such as WordPress or Movable Type as their CMS. If you need more power or control, there are open-source tools like Joomla or Drupal. When you choose one of these, you gain support from communities of experts who provide free programming modules or visual themes.
The benefits of a CMS go far beyond ease of controlling the content. You also get built in RSS, which can alert your customers when you update your content. You have built-in site search, so your customers can find information quickly. And there are lots of ways to tag and organize information, all of which makes your site more customer-friendly. 

There are many other attributes of your online performance, but two that most merit your attention are search visibility and analytics. 

Many of your visitors will come from Google or other search engines. You can be more visible to these search engines by using lots of text on your site, by taking advantage of off-the-page attributes like "alt" tags and "meta" information, and by writing the site using the same words that people are searching for. 

For example, "makeup" and "cosmetics" may seem similar, but one term will be more relevant to the search traffic. Which one? You can find out by spending some time with a keyword relevancy tool, such as Google's search-based keyword tool

You can hire a consultant to "search-optimize" your site, but by following these basic principles you're 80 percent there. The other big piece of the search-relevancy equation is having lots of sites link to yours. Developing compelling content and allowing people enough time to find your site will help you gain more links. 

Your web server keeps track of all the activity on your site. You should think of this information as free research that can improve your business. You'd be foolish to not look at it. And yet, that's what all too many businesses do. Analytics software intercepts the server data and formats it so you can understand traffic patterns. It tells you about how much site traffic you're getting, where the visitors come from and how long they stay. It's essential to evaluating your site's return on investment. 

There are many analytics packages you can use, but the most popular for small business is Google Analytics, which is free with your Google account. (To get one, just sign up for Gmail.) It's also integrated into Google's AdWords, should you decide to start an online advertising campaign. 

As with almost any online tool, there are other options and the sky's the limit on how much you can spend; just know that you can monitor your web traffic without spending any money. 

Your customers won't know if you're measuring their traffic with analytics and they don't care if you use a content management system. Those benefits are for you. 

But if you're having a sale and don't tell them online, you're missing out. 

A version of this article was published in The Wichita Eagle business section on March 12, 2009.

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This page contains a single entry by David Kamerer published on March 12, 2009 6:25 AM.

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