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Judging Template Based Website and Web Store Builder Packages

A simple checklist guide to determining whether a template website or e-commerce store builder package is a good or bad product.

If you are just beginning to investigate the possibility of opening up an e-commerce website on the Internet, chances are, you may be a feeling a little confused by all of the options there are out there. For a quick review, you’ve got 4 options open to you for getting your business on-line. These are as follows.

1) You learn basic graphic design and HTML to build your own from-scratch website. Additionally, you study Search Engine Optimization (SEO) so that you will learn how to compete in the Internet Marketplace.

2) You hire a small firm like ours who will custom-build your small web business site for you and enable you to rely on our SEO expertise to get you the search engine rankings and traffic you need to see a profit. In this case, you either have us update and maintain your site, or you use a go-between software like Microsoft Frontpage to do your own updates.

3) You hire a PHP programmer to create a database driven website for you with a backend Content Management System (CMS) which will enable you to do your own updates via a template with no programming knowledge. In this case, if the programmer is also a Search Engine Optimizer, they need to train you about SEO so that you can continue to build pages which are search engine friendly when you are doing your own updates.

4) You purchase one of the many web store builder packages available today from on-line companies. These stores are based on ready-made templates which you are purchasing from the company. Most come with a built-in shopping cart or choice of ways to take payments. You build the store yourself, using their templates, without programming knowledge, and you pay out a monthly fee for having your store parked on their server. Additionally, you do your best to educate yourself about SEO, as help with this will not be provided by the template company. *It is this last option that this basic guide is devoted to.

Why do template-based web store builder packages appeal to people?
Primarily, template websites appeal to small business owners. Larger companies will almost always opt for a professionally designed website, but because budget is often a concern for the small business owner, I think one of the main things that sells these packages is that the up-front, basic store cost tends to be minimal. It’s a little bit like buying furniture with some type of financing deal. Pay $50 a month so that you can have the furniture right now, rather than possibly having to save up for a few months to pay the cost up-front. So, this method makes it possible for you to get something going on-line for a small, but long-term fee.

Additionally, template website providers make a major selling point of the fact that you don’t need to know a programming language like HTML to use their products. You just fill in the blanks in a form and, presto, the page appears. Or…it should appear. Be warned that most of these companies retain a pool of designers for their customers to hire when they find that the forms are not as easy to use as they claimed to be. So, this major selling point is somewhat dubious as few templates are going to be bug-free. However, hopefully the web business owner will eventually figure out how to work with the template so that they can build their own pages without paid help. So, low, but long-term cost and programming-free control of the template site are the two main things that make them popular with small web business owners.

Other benefits may include the fact that many template providers maintain forums and message boards where their customers congregate (often shouting ‘Help!’ at each other, albeit) but where a community forms similar to the Ebay store owners community. Many business owners enjoy this sense of ‘togetherness’ and like the chance to chat with others about their struggles and triumphs. Also, many template-based web stores come with their own in-built shopping cart, relieving users of the need to choose an outside cart and implement it into their website. And, some template companies offer their store owners the chance to appear within a directory or shopping mall of some type. Obviously, this is only a benefit if the directory gets a lot of traffic, but it is the little incentives like these which appear to be selling points for many small business owners.

What are the potential drawbacks of going with a template website provider?
We’ll make no secret here of the fact that we create built-from-scratch websites for our clients because we think they are the best solution for most small businesses. Because of this, our view of the drawbacks of template sites may seem biased, but understand, it is based on our experience in the e-commerce world. Most of our website re-design work has come from clients who first tried running an on-line business via a template store package, and found it did not meet their needs. So, over the years, we’ve heard repeatedly what the problems and issues were that caused people to eventually switch over to a custom-built professional website. However, my point with this guide is not to convince you that our solution is the only correct one. My hope is to place the facts before you so that you can decide for yourself what is going to suit your budget and your business goals. Different things work for different businesses. What counts is what will work for yours! By educating yourself about the positive and negative aspects of all your options, you are doing the smart thing.

In general, large companies or corporations are pretty faceless. Most template providers are pretty big companies, and you may end up feeling like a number with them. The total responsibility for the success or failure of your on-line business will depend upon you, rather than having the comfort of a pro’s advice in your back pocket. Additionally, what may seem like a good deal up-front may turn out to be costly if the template company nickel and dimes their customers for the features which are going to be essential to running their web store. Basic quoted costs may simply not offer the features you will need, so do read carefully. And, do take into consideration that the company can raise their fees at any time.

If you were burned by eBay’s recent fee hike, remember that signing on with a template provider may result in the same chagrin for you a year or two down the road. Similarly, web companies fold all the time. Should your provider go out of business, so will you because your store will exist on their server. And, it’s important for you to understand that if you ever wanted to move your business elsewhere, you can’t take your template store with you. It belongs to the template provider – not you. This has caused countless people huge headaches after years of time and money were put into developing their template-based store. If you buy a template store, you’re stuck with it, even if it ceases to meet the needs of your business.

All of the above are potential pitfalls to signing up with a store template provider. But for us, coming from our e-commerce/SEO background, there are 2 even bigger drawbacks. The first of these is that the majority of template sites are not designed to be search engine friendly, and in most cases, you cannot overwrite their unfriendly code with friendly code. This is a huge problem. If Google, Yahoo!, and MSN can’t index (find) your site, neither will the public. So, this is a major concern when judging template packages. The second concern revolves around lack of training. Understand, if you are running a web business in the Internet marketplace, you will be competing against my clients, all of whom are benefiting from my years of experience as a designer and SEO professional. If you are not a pro, how will you get your site to outrank your competition, especially when your competition retains professionals to help them win the top search engine rankings and abundant traffic?

A business owner who is determined to go-it-alone has simply got to devote the time it will take to learning SEO and Internet Marketing skills, and few business owners seem to have the time to do this. I say this because I see what they are doing to their web stores, and it’s not up to snuff. I can tell in about 1 minute whether a site is designed and maintained by someone with a good grasp of SEO or not. So can the folks at Google, Yahoo! and MSN. If you can’t please the search engines, because you don’t know how to, your business will almost certainly fail. What stands between you and this unwanted outcome is education. Yes, you can learn what you need to do. Lots of people do. I did! But countless others come into e-commerce with the unrealistic expectation that all they’ll have to do is post some products on-line and collect payments. If it were only that simple…

The fact of the matter is, if you are really going to do it all yourself, you’ve got to be realistic about the time it will take for you to develop better-than-average SEO and marketing skills, as well as the time it will take to be constantly improving the value of your site for the life of your business. In the Internet marketplace, it’s all about getting the traffic to your door, and converting that traffic to sales. This is based on skill, not luck, and you can learn the skills, but only if you will realistically have the time to do so.

Now you’re ready for Part 2: Checklist for judging and comparing template web store builder packages