From a small presence just a few years ago, the World Wide Web has grown dramatically, and has also been a significant driving force of the Internet as a whole. Just about everyone wants a home page, and it's virtually impossible to find an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that doesn't throw Web space in for free.
But is free Web space all it's cracked up to be, or should you be looking for something more sophisticated and expensive? With so many offerings, it's often hard to know what the best solution is; even some of the experts aren't entirely sure.
One thing is certain though, if you're looking for somewhere to publish information on the Web, you're spoilt for choice, with almost every major ISP offering at least some free Web space with their standard dialup accounts. In many cases, you don't even need to worry about creating the pages - several providers offer wizards and other design tools that can help you establish a presence on the Web, albeit using a set of fairly standard templates.
So, what's on offer? What should you be looking for? Is it worth changing your provider just to get a better deal on Web space? And if you're just taking your first steps into the online world, is it worth considering the Web space on offer before you make your decision?
Things to consider
Regardless of what sort of site you're planning to build, there are things you'll need to consider - even the content you intend to offer may be an important factor in where to host the site.
Some providers, including Easynet with its offer of unlimited space, only allow you to use the free space for personal use, which may be a drawback for businesses. Others impose limits on the amount of information that can be transferred from your pages, in extreme cases cutting you off if there are too many hits on the pages - hardly ideal if you want to provide information to customers, and a nuisance for someone running a popular home page.
What's in it for me?
Another drawback is the lack of scripting facilities, used by providers to differentiate their free offerings from the more commercial ones. So if you're looking to provide custom sites driven by forms or other user input, you're likely to be disappointed. The best you can expect from most ISPs is a Web counter, a way to send forms by email and the ability to process clickable image maps.
With those restrictions, can you still create a usable site with free space? The answer is almost certainly yes. Even without server scripts, new technologies such as Java and the other capabilities of modern browsers make it easier to create a good looking site without relying on the server for some advanced features.
Another important thing to check is the speed of access to the Web site, both in terms of the speed of the Web server itself and the ISP's connectivity to the outside world. Here, however, you're not likely to find any guarantees about the quality of service, and that may put many people off free Web space altogether.
According to Rachel Reynard, a freelance Web consultant, this is where many of the free Web pages come unstuck. "Those sites can be a disappointment if you're trying to appeal to lots of people. You're not going to give away a vast amount of bandwidth; they're cheap and cheerful and I don't recommend them for business use."
Bandwidth is, to the providers of free space, a more important consideration than disk space. Demon Internet's home pages for users initially placed no restrictions at all on what could be done, and subsequently found that a small percentage of the sites were using up most of the available bandwidth.
Bandwidth, according to Direct Connection's MD Ben Knox, is an important issue for the providers of free space. "In the future, there will probably be more restrictions on how space is used. Demon, and us too to some extent, already restrict usage in terms of bandwidth. It's likely to happen more as ISPs get a feel for the cost of bandwidth. There are potentially no limits, and user home pages can rapidly use up all the bandwidth we've got free."
While both Demon and Direct Connection take action against people who use large amounts of bandwidth, their approach is slightly different. Direct Connection's solution is to send users an automatic email telling them they're receiving too many hits and using up bandwidth. Demon customers will find a "banduse.txt" file in their Web directory once their site is transferring more than 1Mb per day. Once the figure hits 25Mb, the site is suspended for 24 hours.
While it certainly keeps the traffic down, it means the Demon sites may not be the best bet for people who anticipate a lot of traffic or those who want to make large files available from their pages.
Other providers are less bothered. America Online (AOL) doesn't impose any restrictions, other than those in its standard terms of service, allowing you to use your pages for anything you like, and relying on the speed of its servers to effectively regulate the amount of bandwidth.
Stuck in traffic
In the long term, Knox sees more providers basing their services on the amount of traffic, especially on commercial Web sites, with bands of pricing related to the amount of data delivered to viewers of a site.
How can you be sure you'll receive good performance if you opt for free space for your pages? Unfortunately, you won't receive much information from the providers, though they're usually happy to make guarantees for their commercial Web offerings. One area where providers are keen to be seen to offer extra value is in the add-ons to Web space. Demon, for instance, gives a virtual server to every customer, so you'll have a unique name for your site based on your Demon node name. For example, a customer with (sample.demon.co.uk) would have a Web page at (www.sample.demon.co.uk).
Jason Finch, Director of Web design company Port80, believes this is a good selling point. "There's a lot of Web snobbery in terms of what your URL is. Demon's has a slight advantage in that you can get your company name in it, which is important in terms of that snobbery." The size of the space, he adds, doesn't really matter. "Not many people use 5Mb, and ISPs know that."
Demon's added extras include real-audio streams, allowing delivery of sound files that can be played without having to download the whole clip first. It's a great idea for multimedia, but Reynard is sceptical, wondering how many people will know enough to encode their sound clips as real audio - or future technologies like RealVideo that ISPs will offer as bundled extras to attract more customers.
Do extras matter?
While Demon's strategy is to offer extras like virtual Web servers and real audio to differentiate their offering from others, Knox doesn't believe it's terribly important. "With the way things are moving in the market, and fewer technical users, you can make all sorts of offers, but many people probably don't understand the difference between the offerings. In future, I don't see it as a strong differentiator (between ISPs) for people from a non-technical background."
That view is echoed by AOL, and it's with those newcomers in mind that some providers have opted for providing software to make constructing home pages on their services as easy as possible. CompuServe's home page wizard and AOL's AOLPress software are designed to help users create Web pages without learning any HTML. While the results may not be state of the art, they do make it possible for anyone to put basic information on the Web.
An offer you can't refuse
There are undoubtedly some good offers to be had with free Web space, most notably the 10Mb available with AOL's standard #4.95 monthly account, but the designers we spoke to didn't believe they were suitable for much more than personal use - though there are exceptions, as Finch explains. "I think free space will become a personal thing, and to some extent non-profit organisations may follow that route. In the long term, people will realise they need the added speed and benefit of a commercial solution. We did a site for YOMT (www.yomt 1997.demon.co.uk), a huge art event that's going on round the country. They wanted functionality, but didn't want to pay (for hosting). They already had a Demon account so we put all the static stuff on Demon and the scripted side was handled on Port80."
But solutions involving professional Web designers don't come cheap. According to Finch, some users don't realise the cost involved, believing that since Web space is free, the cost of designing it will be fairly low. Reynard believes that's unrealistic, especially for a company. "It needs to be taken seriously, it needs to be done professionally, and you're going to have to pay for it."
But how much is the issue. While a basic facility on an ISP's server could cost between #50 and #75 a month, you'll pay considerably more if you want a guaranteed service that can handle lots of hits. Reynard says fees can reach thousands a month for such a service. Though for many people, the costs will be much lower. "Hosting on a really decent commercial server would be under #1,000 for a year. And the design could be a few grand - lots of people spend between #5,000 and #10,000. Between 10 and 20 per cent of your budget on hosting is sensible."
If you're looking for a company site, the cost of Web space is incidental when compared to the cost of designing a site. But for many other people, or for the small business that can't afford to spend money on Web design, there are some good offers around.
What's the difference?
Demon's virtual servers are attractive, though bandwidth restrictions may cause problems for some. If the 5Mb available from many providers is insufficient, AOL's 10Mb is a good deal at the basic price, while Easynet's unlimited space should suffice for those who want to create large, media-rich sites. Bear in mind that even a complicated site with plenty of graphics will fit comfortably in only a few megabytes.
But those exceptions aside, there really isn't anything special that differentiates one free Web offering from the next. Unless you need extra space or more features, the hassle involved in changing from one provider to another isn't really worth it.
Put Some Thought into Launching a Site
So you're thinking about launching a Web site? Before you dive in, step back and look at the big picture.
If you ask most companies why they have a Web site, they'll tell you "because the competition does". Here's a radical thought, forget the Web for just a minute. Think about what communications needs you and your customers have today, and what you might have in the future. Are you able to fulfil them using more traditional technology, be it phone, fax or email? If so, you've just saved yourself a lot of time and expense because you don't need a Web site. If, however, you can identify some room for improvement, then perhaps establishing a presence on the Web is the right move. Begin by determining what your Web site objectives are.
Do you want to generate business leads?
A Web site makes it easy for potential customers to find you and find out about you, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Do you want to reduce distribution costs of promotional material?
For example, consider a typical corporate brochure. How much does it cost to print the brochure, stuff it in an envelope, address it and put a stamp on it? Your site shouldn't be simply an online brochure - but what if you could deliver similar information, immediately and internationally, via the Web?
Do you want to provide the latest new product information to customers or build a database for communicating directly with them?
Changing the information on a Web site makes more fiscal sense than phoning, faxing, or sending snail-mail to your customers every time you want to let them know about new products or services. If you give your site's visitors an incentive to giving you their email address, you can send them company updates via email.
Do you want to survey customers and create new business opportunities?
Your corporate Web site could be a cost-effective way to qualify potential customers and get valuable feedback from existing ones. You can use your site to experiment with ideas by showcasing a product prototype online and sampling surfers' opinions.
Do you want to increase distribution and market penetration?
Rather than set up an office in another country, consider breaking into that market using the international reach of the Internet. A Web site is no substitute for the real thing, but it could be a cost-effective way to establish a presence in a new territory.
Do you want to conduct electronic commerce?
Now that secure online payment is a reality, you can complete sales transactions without having to go through (and lose a percentage to) a distributor. Is your current method of fulfilment expensive or inefficient? A Web site could help you cut costs.
Do you want to reduce your customer service costs?
Toll-free 800 phone lines are expensive. You could save a fortune by moving customer service to the Web.
Do you want to support your existing advertising and marketing efforts?
TV commercials are great, but what if the viewer wants more information about your products or services? The Web could be the perfect way to satisfy this potential customer's thirst for info.
Do you want to provide product directions to your customers?
Put your instruction manuals online and update them based on customer feedback.
Now that you've determined what your Web site objectives are, you'll also want to ensure you don't make some of the more common Web site mistakes.
It's easy to build a Web site, but it's not easy to build a successful Web site - one that meets your business objectives and encourages people to return.
So how do you avoid making these kinds of mistakes?
Begin by knowing your goal. It's amazing how many companies launch Web sites without first asking themselves what their motives are. Remember that content is king. Sure, it's a hackneyed expression, but if your Web site isn't going to contribute anything of value and substance to online viewers, then why bother?
Keep your site's contents fresh.
You can't allow your site to remain static. Plan to update the site at least once a week, or don't launch it at all.
For many companies, it's better to focus on customer service, rather than sales push.
Heavy-handed online sales pitches don't work, but helping your customers find what they need does - even if it means linking to the competition.
Don't ignore the power of email.
The fact is, email is a powerful tool. Use it to correspond with customers, create a customer-support mailing list, set up auto responders that will send information to anyone who writes in, or create a monthly e-newsletter that goes out to preferred customers.
Make it easy for people to get to your content.
Web surfers aren't going to wait more than 10 seconds for a home page to load. If they have to wade through endless screens to get to what they want, they'll quickly give up. Remember, a Web site can never be too straightforward.
Take advantage of the medium's unique characteristics.
The Web is an interactive, real-time, two-way medium. Lose sight of this and you'll soon have a ghost site on your hands.
Nigel Whitfield is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at ([email protected])
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