The first question is do you need a website? If not do you just want a website? Either way how much can you afford, and how much can your customers actually handle? Finally you need to think about things that aren’t a website at all but they are part of your web presence.
If you are a business you should have something online. That doesn’t actually have to mean a full on website but it should mean that if I live five miles from your store and I google for what you sell it should be possible for me to find you. A google places account is always a good idea and Yahoo and Bing offer similar services. You can create a page on facebook (NOT a profile, pages are for businesses and profiles are for people) with info on your hours, location, contact info, pictures, updates and so on. This is still the non-website approach but even if you have a website all of these are good things to do.
If you’re not a business having a website doesn’t hurt but it’s not a must. I have owned jonathanmccarver.com for years now but it’s only had something on it for about 5% of that time and I am a web programmer. If you want you’re own personal site then go for it. At worst you’ll learn something. w3schools.com is a fantastic resource for beginners to learn basic web technology. Without even coding you can have a WordPress site and write all the content you want on it. Making your own means using a hosting company. I use webfaction now but that requires some serious web skills to understand. Many freelancers I know use bluehost which is an easier hosting solution.
Okay yea fine but how much do I need already? Well that depends on what you do. A restaurant is an easy example. People look up a restaurant site to find location(s), hours and MENU you have to have a menu and it has to be easy to read. once all of those things are done you can add some company info, photos, and perhaps a daily update of specials. As a one of a kind local restaurant that’s about it. You can add twitter and facebook accounts to get more interaction with people but don’t bite off more than you can chew. A porly maintained social media account or one that is untouched is worse than none at all. By the same token you should only have a contact us email or form if you are going to be able to check it every single day. Not responding to a customer alienates them and gives you a bad image.
One off small local businesses are all about the same scale as the restaurant example. If you are a larger business then things change. A national chain needs to have an overall website that can help people find individual stores and that reflects a coordinated overall branding plan. At this point you need to be working with an agency (or agency level talent in house). At this scale there is value to embellishing your site. Games for people to play and funny videos work when you are a household name and you have the money to invest in them.
What about an online store? You can’t do this yourself. If you are selling a couple of things then you can put a paypal button on your site and manage it at home but if you want a searchable marketplace of goods then you can go two routes, partnering with a big vendor or having it built. Amazon webstore is a good place to start and you can become an ebay store pretty easily too. The disadvantage to these is that they don’t look as professional as a custom built store but you have the advantage of much lower costs and higher reliability. A custom made web store will cost fat cash.
What else? How about a newsletter, you may think that that’s part of getting a website but it’s not. It is a totally separate effort that takes its own time to make and maintain. Your emails have to be designed just like a website and coded. Sending them is not as easy as bcc-ing a big group either (You know what a BCC is right?). I recommend that people use a managed email campaign solution like constant contact. They help you track signups, analyze results, and make sure emails get delivered. They also keep you legal. A lot of people don’t realize that unsolicited emails can get you in a lot of trouble. Even a user that opted in to receive emails from you can trash your reputation if their unsubscribe isn’t handled quickly and properly. Managed hosts take care of all that for you.
That’s it for now. What else do you want to know? Just ask.