The Juice Behind Your Website
Friday, May 14, 2010; 12:00 AM

Margaret Schell wanted a new website for S.PR, the boutique public relations firm she owns in Los Angeles. The firm already had an attractive, simple site that let visitors find her business address, phone number and client list. But Schell wanted something more dynamic, filled with current press clippings and photos, and more importantly, she wanted to blog. So she hired a web developer who created the website of her dreams.

Until she tried to use it.

"It was so impossible," Schell says of the content management system, or CMS, that was created especially for her business, "we just let it sit there."

Many small-business owners can sympathize. Gone are the days when a basic landing page can serve as your business' sole presence on the web. If you want customers to find you, you need them to to do so while surfing and searching. And the best way to bolster your showing in search engine rankings is to add relevant content to your website on a regular basis.

A CMS is supposed to make it easy to add that vital content--blog posts, e-commerce items, videos and more--without your having to edit every page of your site each time you post. But choosing the right system is daunting. A simple blogging platform might be all your tiny, trendy boutique needs to let people know when you get new merchandise. Or, if you're looking for more horses under the hood, you may want a customizable CMS that will allow you to collect an e-mail address mailing list, sell your goods directly to your customers, serve ads on your site and more.

Throw in other considerations--such as how tech-savvy you are and how much money you can spend--and it's easy to see how entrepreneurs such as Schell can go wrong.

So before you dive in and try to do it yourself or spend thousands on a developer who may put together a site beyond your comprehension, here's what you need to sort through.

"It's all about what you want to accomplish," says Prescott Shibles, CEO of Vital Business Media, an online business-to-business publishing company in New York City.

First, consider what kind of content you plan to post. If the answer includes frequently updated blog posts, videos, articles, photo galleries and reviews, you will need a more powerful (and complex) system. You may want to check out Drupal, a free open-source CMS that allows you to designate each type of content you will post.

Say you own a music store. You can set up a specialized content type--"guitar"--that allows you to easily add a new manufacturer, price and description to that section of your website. You can then regularly update the site as you get new guitars, adding reviews and an e-commerce shopping cart, without changing your site's appearance.

Another popular free, open-source service that focuses on blogging is WordPress. The biggest difference between it and Drupal is Drupal's ability to set up specialized, custom content types. However, WordPress has begun to morph into a more advanced platform, and Shibles and other experts say the gap is closing. But where Drupal starts as a blank slate and turns into a website with the addition of various modules, WordPress is simple enough to be set up by a novice. Well, a novice who's comfortable with technology.

"WordPress is better for the average user--someone who wants to be able to go in there and edit content in the way that you would in Microsoft Word," says Alex Becker, president of Highly Relevant, a Los Angeles marketing firm that builds blogs and manages social media strategies for small businesses. Becker likes WordPress for its vast community of user-contributed plug-ins, which most users can install with a little education, as well as the program's clean, nearly self-explanatory interface.

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