A beginner's guide to your own website

Where do you start?

Seems like everyone has a website these days. Even 10-year-old kids have their own sites. And in business, it feels like you need an internet presence to be considered real. What does that mean for you?

Whether you already have a small website for your business or organisation or are considering it for the first time, most people have little practical idea of what's required to establish a website. This will give you that information so you understand the process that's involved in creating and launching your own commercial website.

Three stages

There are three main stages to creating a website. The first is setting up the names, licences, and services your website will need to have. The second stage is designing what you want by making decisions you can discuss with a web developer. The third is promoting the actual website once it is live on the internet.

Two costs

There are two kinds of cost associated with all these processes. They are one-off development costs, and ongoing maintenance costs.

Lots of choice

There are many ways you can have a website. The simplest and cheapest is to take advantage of the massive website your internet service provider (ISP) already has. Most ISPs offer free website space to their customers. This is how most children (and other individuals) create a website for themselves ... they get some free space with the ISP their family uses to connect to the internet. The advantage of this is that it's free. The disadvantage is that it's very limited, often to only a page. For a business or organisation, it also lacks your operating name — the name appears as an afterthought, after the ISP's website address.

On the other hand, the most expensive approach would be to set yourself up as if you were an ISP yourself, buying your own 'server' computer to house your website, running it live on line 24 hours a day and available to the world. The advantage of this is total control. The disadvantage is astronomical cost.

In between these extremes, most businesses and organisations create a formal presence on the internet by renting space on an ISP's server computer, but licensing that space to their own operating name. This gives them dedicated space on the internet where they can create whatever they like.

Securing a website name

Let's assume you are going to have a website by renting space on an ISP's server and licensing it to your own operating name.

The very first thing you need to do is to secure the rights to use your operating name as an address on the internet. This is often not easy. There are many millions of websites already using many millions of licensed names. And if someone, anywhere on the entire planet, is already using the name HappyHarry, then you can't have it, even if your registered business name is already Happy Harry.

Licensed internet names are called domain names. You can go to the website of any domain name licensing business and use their website to search international records to see if the name you want is already taken. By adjusting your searches you can work out what variations of a name may still be available to license. If you find something available that works well for your operation, apply immediately for the licence before the name is snapped up by someone else. Once you've got it, you've got it, for as long as you pay the annual licence fee.

Securing a website developer

At this stage you may want to get some professional help, unless you have a nephew who swears he can make you a website.

Apart from clever nephews and major internet design corporations, middle-ground web developing businesses are remarkably thin on the ground. They seem to pop up like mushrooms with each new dawn. Many of them vanish as fast. One of the best assurances you can get is a word-of-mouth referral from someone you trust who has already had a good experience with a website developer.

So go where you feel most recommended. Don't commit yourself to paying for anything until you're confident these developers are good at what they do, are listening to you, are easy to deal with person-to-person, and are priced within your budget.

Simplifying things

Developers and hosts are usually different businesses. So too are domain name licence companies. And ISPs (internet service providers that you pay for internet access) are often separate businesses again.

This all means you may end up paying a series of separate accounts regularly to a series of separate businesses. It can also mean that you will be dealing — both initially and in ongoing work — with different people for different things.

That's fine, but you might benefit by asking what other services any of them provide. It'll simply be easier if your ISP can be your host as well, and also host and license your domain name for you. It not only simplifies billing (it's often cheaper, too) but it will also mean you tend to deal with the same people for anything to do with your website.

So look for ways to reduce the number of separate businesses that are handling different aspects of your website development and its ongoing management and support.

Planning ahead

Once you're happy with the professional developers you've chosen, you can initiate the first steps of creating your intended website with them.

It's a very good idea to try to imagine how your website might grow and what the long term possibilities are. This can sometimes affect the initial planning.

The main start-up issues will be —

  • Discussing your needs in broad terms - It will be important to the developer to know what things you need to have in your website, so they can decide how to approach its development. For example, whether it will contain animation, audio or video segments, many images, many features for downloading files, a shopping system, and so forth. All of your ideas have to be interpreted in coding formulas. The developers will know what it all means and how difficult or expensive this or that feature will make the website.
  • Choosing a website host - They will need to be able to run your kind of website on their server, and give you the support and services the website will need. For example, some hosting businesses do not also host databases for clients, and some do: you may or may not need a database. Some support only a few major programming languages: your website may or may not call for specialised programming languages.
  • Transferring your domain name to that host or ISP - Domain names, just like websites, need to be 'hosted' by the ISP or host company for you. This is not the same thing as annually relicensing the domain name, but you may be able to have both licensing and hosting of your domain name supplied by the same business. That would be easier.
  • Setting up any email addresses that use your domain name - This may be by transferring all your email hosting to the selected ISP business, or by simply setting up redirections to your existing email provider. Emails generally travel around the planet pretty fast, so it's fairly unimportant how many places they get shunted through before they arrive on your computer. The place you go to (usually your ISP) to get your email is where you have what's called a 'pop' account. It's the place all your emails finally come to, and from where you download them. But you can have other email addresses hosted on other servers that simply redirect to your 'real' address. Or you can have other new pop accounts. You should discuss these options with the developers.

First things first

Most people feel they ought to have a website, but don't give much thought to why, or what purpose the website should serve. As often as not, it's there solely to give a whiff of credibility to the business or organisation — "Well ... um ... we OUGHT to have one."

So the very first thing to decide is just what your website is for. What's its job in life? Apart from 'a presence on the internet', what do you want out of it?

In a nutshell, most websites are either online brochures or online shops. They either present information about your business or they actively ARE the business, providing your products or services directly to buyers.

'Brochure' websites are essentially promotional, and like any promotional material they should accurately reflect the business and encourage browsers to use its services. Such websites can be out there primarily to generate new enquiries, or they can exist as places for more detailed information for people who have already made a telephone enquiry.

'Shop' websites are there primarily to sell your products directly to clients on the internet. They can generate actual sales (using secure credit card systems for online payment), generate orders for sales (using email to send you orders for products you can bill manually), or generate sales enquiries that you can follow up on personally.

You need to be clear about what you expect from your website.

Visible and invisible design

When we talk about designing the website, we're not just talking about how it looks. We also mean how it works. Both are important.

Unlike a piece of printed promotional material, a website is an active and dynamic device. People going to it can wander around it looking at whatever takes their fancy. The website can be made to respond to them in different ways. It can lead them to other things. It can trigger other ideas. It can offer variable choices.

So you need to think about both these aspects of design. Not only "what should my website look like?", but also "how should it work?".

How it looks

In some ways the visible design is easy. If you already have a business or organisational look — a logo, a typeface, key colors, visual style, and so forth — these will translate fairly easily to the internet pages of your website.

There are some things you need to understand, however, about the limitations of graphical website design and how it sometimes will differ from printed materials.

The key issue is that websites don't exist at all until they arrive at someone's computer. It is each browser's computer that creates the website for the browser. It does so by following the instructions it's receiving as best it can. It's all rather like a complicated knitting pattern — you don't see the sweater until someone knits it from the pattern. With websites, the end result is 'knitted' each time by the receiving computer. It can vary an awful lot.

So each browser's experience of the website is unique to that browser's computer. It depends what tools the computer has. It may have a large monitor, or a small one. It may have many fancy typefaces available, or only a few basic ones. It may be able to play music and animations, or not.

Websites have to be graphically designed to be variable on varied computers. This means some compromises have to be made. On different computers, it may not display your preferred font. The use of color may vary. The size of things may vary. The screen layout may vary. All the images may be disabled. The image at right shows the same website page as it appears on many different screens, including an internet-capable phone.

Think about which aspects of your corporate look are important and which can be treated more flexibly.

There are ways to ensure certain things look almost the same on most common computers, but it can cost more time and money to achieve them.

How it works

You will also need to give thought to the invisible design — how the website's contents and functions should be structured and how they will present themselves to the browser. What choices are presented to people first arriving at the website? How do they get around? Will the website have a range of single pages, or would it be better with a number of separate multi-page sections? How do browsers remember where they are in the site's hierarchy?

Some common choices for small businesses are —

  • A brief welcome and summary on the entry page (often called the homepage or index page).
  • A permanently available general menu of the other main pages.
  • A 'what we do' page describing the services or products in more detail.
  • A 'who we are' page giving background information about the operation's history and skills.
  • A contacts page listing relevant contact information.
  • An automated email facility for enquiries.
  • A page of quotes from existing clients.
  • Free advice or features that browsers can access or download.
  • A links page that contains direct links to other associated websites.

Larger websites often also contain —

  • A site 'map' ... a page that displays the entire website in a schematic form and can take the browser to any selected page.
  • A permanent menu of major sections only, with the detail pages appearing in the menu only when browsers go to that section.
  • Pop-up (secondary) windows explaining something in more detail.
  • Video or audio playback.
  • Catalogs of products and services.
  • Registration systems enabling interested browsers to sign up, and associated customer or mailing list management for the website owner.
  • Automated systems for generating and distributing emails and electronic newsletters.
  • Interactive pages that registered browsers can add to themselves (such as blog pages, chat pages, diary pages, and so forth).

A major consideration for commercial websites is how difficult or time-consuming it is for a visitor to find their way to what they want.

First, people visiting your website need to know exactly how to go anywhere within the site. On many websites this is not obvious. It should be. Second, your website should deliver immediate results to those who know what they're interested in. Developers often refer to this as the 'three-click' rule, the idea that any visitor should be able to get where they want within three mouse-clicks.

You can plot the invisible design of your website by using a conventional hierarchical chart. This will help show the intended logical structure of the site, and the site's internal links (how visitors travel around).

That planning chart could look like this —

Working with a developer

Whoever you choose to help you design your website and, more importantly, write the programming code that creates it, the essential thing is that you listen to each other and understand each other.

The coder especially needs to be able to explain what's happening in everyday language, and equally you need to be able to explain to them what you want. The two of you need to have the same goal — your website the way you want it — and between you achieve as much of that as internet programming allows.

They also need to be mindful of your budget. It's very easy for programming, an expensive skill at any time, to rapidly exceed your intended costs. Be very clear at the start about what you can afford. Remember that you may not need to have everything on day one. Some of the things you hope for your website might be held over for later so as to spread your spend. Even so, it's a good idea for you and the developer to know what the long term possibilities are, because it sometimes affects how you do the initial website.

Above all, though, try to encourage a good personal rapport with the developer so you're both on the same wavelength.

During the process, make sure you have plenty of opportunities to check on progress. Ideally, they will develop your website at a development site on line, so you can go on line yourself and check what it's starting to look like. Then, once you're happy with the work, you can approve it so that it can be made public on your own internet address.

Now you have a website. It's time to sit back and wait for the public to find it. Will they?

Promoting a website - the internet is a busy street

It's all very well having a nice new website, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But how does anyone know it's there? Well, your mother knows, no doubt. But unless your mother's a great international gossip, that's not going to cut it in the competition for attention on the internet.

It's a global truth that most small businesses don't spend a lot on promotion. In fact that's often the reason they choose to use a website instead of print materials — websites are far cheaper to produce than brochures, and don't need to be reprinted every time there's a change.

But websites themselves need promotion. Here are some things to think about.

Publishing your website address

Since you almost certainly already have a budget for business cards, then as soon as possible you should reprint them to include your brand spanking new website address and its associated email address. And don't hold back on distributing them. Cards are cheap. Give them away liberally. We know one small business that always gives everyone at least two cards rather than one ... and they're bold enough to say "I'll give you more so you can pass some on". It's remarkable how often they do — if you tell them to.

Similarly, make sure any document anybody ever sees from your business now also contains your website and email addresses. That includes letterhead, invoices, notes, and absolutely anything else you can think of.

If you already have some way of regularly communicating with clients, whether by post or email, send out a bulk notice giving everyone your new website address and updated contact details.

Mutual linking to and from associated websites

One of the easiest ways to spread your website address around, and at no cost, is to back-scratch with other associated websites. The massive advantage to you, especially at the start, is they're bound to be better known on line than you are, so to some extent you'll be piggy-backing on their market. Later, as your website attracts visitors too, they will get an equal advantage in return.

Have a look around the internet, using search engines to locate appropriate websites that are not directly competitive with you but in the same general field — other websites your potential clients might also visit. Do they have a page of links to other websites? If they do, then you can email them and ask their permission to put a link to their site on YOUR links page, while they put a link to your site on theirs. Some of them will say no; many will say yes.

Using keywords for search engines

Most people use search engines like Google to find what they're interested in on the internet. They type in a few key words and the search engine gives them a list of websites that feature that subject.

One option is to do nothing about this. The search engines will eventually find you anyway. It can take up to 12 weeks or more. But you shouldn't do nothing.

The very first thing you should do is make sure that the words used on your website, especially on the first page, ARE words that your potential clients will search for. Then at least you might get a good position (near the top of the list) in anyone's search for those key words.

The second thing you can do, and you do it during the website's development, is have your developer insert metatags into the website code. These are also key words, though they're not visible on screen, and search engines do read these metatag words. It's another opportunity to make sure you cover all the likely search words prospective clients might use.

Registering with search engines

You can also take the trouble to register formally with various search engines. It's not too difficult or daunting to do this. Essentially it speeds up the process of getting found by the search engine, and getting listed in people's search results.

Once registered, if you want to spend money, many search engines also offer opportunities to commercial websites to pay for promotional space on any search engine results page that includes your site's key words. Be warned: this can turn into a daily bidding war with your competitors.

Registering with directory websites

There are also many directory websites around the planet. There are bound to be local business directory sites for the area you operate in. Some of them offer free listings, some paid listings, and some both. Try to locate useful commercial directory sites and get listed with them in appropriate business categories.

Paying for professional marketing

Finally, there's no shortage of businesses out there who will promote your website for you for a fee. Generally, they do all the things listed above. You'll be paying them for two reasons — first because they take the time to do all that work for you, and second because they are very good at doing it. Presumably.

Be cautious, though, about engaging professional marketing services. All of them are expensive. Many ARE very good. Many are not.

Conventional advertising & promotions

Remember that old-fashioned advertising and promotions have been going on for a long time and they do work. Just because it's a website on the internet doesn't mean you have to promote it on the internet. In fact it's often cheaper and more effective to promote it by conventional means. It's certainly more targeted because you are not paying money advertising pointlessly to 10 billion people who are not your target market. You can instead choose a relevant newspaper or magazine that is aimed at the people you want to sell to. Doesn't that make more sense?

You can also generate more targeted soft promotions ... word of mouth referrals, a little article in a local magazine, little cards and flyers, announcing the website on related internet bulletin boards or by emails ...

Two types of cost - Less than you thought ... ... but more than you think

On the whole, websites are cheaper than print promotions, and of course if they are successfully used to actually sell your business's products or services, they pay for themselves.

However, don't fall into the trap of thinking they are free once you've set them up. Certainly the initial development and creation cost is the greatest cost at any time, but a well-run website will have ongoing costs. Most small businesses and organisations do not allow enough for these monthly or yearly ongoing costs.

So there are two types of cost — the initial development costs, a one-time expense, and the ongoing maintenance costs.

One-time development costs

  • Domain name registration
  • Domain name transfer
  • Other licences
  • Design fees
  • Programming fees

Ongoing costs

  • Internet connection
  • Domain name re-licensing
  • Domain name hosting
  • Other annual licences
  • Email hosting & services
  • Website hosting
  • Maintenance & management
  • Promotional costs
  • Further development costs

Glossary - Common internet terms

Did you ever feel, when you asked someone about websites and internet stuff, that the answer was partly in a foreign language? Or at least in the strangest form of English you ever heard?

Don't fret. You're not alone.

Here's a simple list of some of the terms you're most likely to hear, and what they're talking about.

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ADSL
Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line. A form of DSL — a way of using a telephone connection or any communications cable that delivers much faster data exchange than conventional phoneline technology. The 'assymetrical' version allows uploads and downloads at different speeds.

AVI
A language that describes video or audio to a computer and is one of the common standards for playing movies or sound on the internet. The letters stand for Audio Video Interleave.

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Blog
Short for web-log, it's a loose term with many variations in meaning. Basically, a blog is a website function where you write anything you want to on an ongoing basis, like a diary. The latest additions show up at the top, so visitors can read what's new. Some blog sites allow visitors to comment, rather like a bulletin board. Some do not. There are few rules.

Broadband
This term refers to any internet connection that transfers data faster than 384 kilobits a second. Most people use the word loosely for any type of high-speed connection.

Browser
Either the computer program you use to look at websites, or you yourself as you look at websites.

Bulletin Board
A website that allows visitors to post messages that others can reply to. The messages are usually displayed in separate 'threads' ... strings of replies to each original topic.

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Chat
Live voice conversation across the internet.

Chat Room
A website that enables visitors to talk live to others.

Chat Program
A computer program that enables two or more people to talk live to each other without going to a website chat room.

CMS
Content Management System. A term describing websites that enable their owners to make live changes to the website's content through a user's control panel, and thus without having to write changes in an internet programming language.

Cookie
A unique code that a website plants onto your computer when you register with the website, so that whenever you visit the site again it will recognise your computer and automatically log you in as a member. Not all membership websites do this. You can tell your computer to disallow this if you feel it is insecure. But then, of course, you'll have to log in to that website manually every time.

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Dial-Up
The original form of connection to the internet, using a conventional telephone line in a conventional way. It's a relatively cheap way to connect to the internet, but it's slow to download (look at) websites and send or receive emails. Really good if you want time to wander off and make coffee while a website loads onto your screen! The use of dial-up is increasingly being replaced by much faster DSL connections.

Domain
A piece of internet 'real estate' ... space on someone's server that is licensed to a particular user, most often to commercial businesses.

Domain Name
The internationally licensed name used on the internet by a particular user, most often by commercial businesses.

Download
A transfer of data files from another electronic store TO your computer. So everything you receive is reckoned to be coming 'down' to your computer — does this mean you're at the bottom of the heap?!

DSL
Digital Subscriber Line. A way of using a telephone connection or any communications cable that delivers much faster data exchange than conventional phoneline technology.

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Flash
The most commonly used program and language for enabling websites to display animation.

FTP
File Transfer Protocol. One of the internationally agreed standard systems by which computers exchange website data files across telephone lines. It differs from the more common HTTP standard in that instead of delivering web pages in their intended public view it delivers lists of website files — it takes a more 'backdoor' approach to entering the website, and thus it usually requires password access. These initials at the start of a website address mean that your computer will use the FTP standard system to get and display website information on your screen.

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GIF
Graphics Interchange Format. It's a space-saving image format using a limited pallete of up to 256 distinct colors. GIF is a useful and popular image format for use on the internet. It also supports simple animations.

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Hit Counter
A small display on a website (usually at the bottom of the home page) that shows how many people have visited the site. It's not much used these days.

Home Page
The first displayed page you come to when you go to any website. It's sometimes also called the entry page, or the index page.

Host
Any business that provides storage services to people wanting a presence on the internet for themselves or their own business. Unless you operate your own 24-hour server computer, you need to rent space from a host business to store your emails, websites, and other internet resources.

HTML
HyperText Mark-up Language. The most common internet programming language. Professional programmers usually refer to such languages as 'code'.

HTTP
HyperText Transfer Protocol. One of the internationally agreed standard systems by which computers exchange website data files across telephone lines. These initials at the start of a website address mean that your computer will use the HTTP standard system to get and display a website on your screen.

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Instant Messaging (IM)
Live typed conversation across the internet. Special computer programs allow users to use their computer to 'talk' to one or more other people by typing their comments to and fro amongst each other.

Internet
The name for the overall network effect of having many millions of computers using international telephone connections to exchange files and information.Try clicking here.

Intranet
The name for a network of computers that exists between a number of specified computers. An intranet is a kind of mini-internet available only within a certain context — usually a commercial business or organisation.

ISP
Internet Service Provider. Any business that provides commercial services to people wanting internet connections ... most often the business that acts as the initial conduit for your telephone connection to the internet.

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Java
A now common internet programming language.

Javascript
Another common internet programming language, not directly related to the Java language, despite the name similarity.

JPEG / JPG
Pronounced jay-peg, this is a language that describes a photographic image to a computer and is now the common standard for displaying photographs on the internet. The letters stand for Joint Photographic Experts Group, the name of the committee who created the standard.

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Link
A graphical button or a piece of text on a website that has been programmed so that when you click it, it tells your computer to display another website or web page. On a website, a 'local' link takes you to another page of that website, while an 'external' or 'offsite' link takes you to a different website.

Log In / Log Out
If you register as a member with any website that offers or requires it, each time you arrive at that website you log in with your name and password so that the website 'recognises' you as a member.

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Metatags
These are key words that can be embedded into the programming code of your website, but don't appear on screen. They are read by some search engines, so chosen with care they can help your website achieve a good position in the results a search engine gives someone looking for services like yours.

MPEG / MPG
Pronounced em-peg, this is a language that describes video or audio to a computer and is one of the common standards for playing movies on the internet. The letters stand for Motion Picture Experts Group, the name of the organisation who created the standard.

MP3
MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 is more commonly called MP3. It's the most commonly used digital audio encoding on the internet.

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Pop Account
Your account for incoming email with whatever business hosts your email. Your pop account is the final destination of your email address, where all emails addressed to you eventually arrive, and from where you download them.

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Registration
Many websites require you to register with various details (usually name and contact details). Such sites are therefore only semi-public, since much of what the website contains is for members only.

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Server
Any computer that is turned on and connected to the internet 24 hours a day with the primary intention of having its files available to others. Server computers are normally owned and operated by internet service businesses, but in fact anyone's computer could act as a server if they have the time and money and don't mind half the planet cruising around their hard drive.

Streaming Video/Audio
Video and audio files are big and take a long time to load onto your computer. Conventionally, therefore, if a website contains video or audio files for you to play, you can't do so for some minutes because you have to wait for them to download. Streaming technology uses smaller (and less perfect) video and audio files that download faster than the playback speed, so you can start to play them almost immediately, while the rest of the file is still downloading in the background.

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Upload
A transfer of data files FROM your computer to another electronic store. So everything you send out is reckoned to be going 'up' from your computer — does this mean you're at the bottom of the heap?!

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Web
Of course the word means 'network' and on the internet it originally referred to the network of privately-owned websites originally known as the World-Wide Web (from which we got the initials 'www' in old website addresses). That's now largely history, but the word 'web' is still used, most often just to mean 'the internet'.

Webcam
A small digital camera you can attach to your computer that transmits a live moving image of what it's looking at (usually you) so that special internet software can send the image live to another computer.

Webmail
An email service that exists on a public website, rather than being operated for you by whatever business you use to connect to the internet. The advantages of a webmail service are that it's free, and that you can collect your incoming emails from anywhere by simply going to the webmail website, so you don't need to log on at home from your own computer. The disadvantage is that webmail services usually have severe limits on use and storage space. For a business, webmail also denies the ability to use your own commercial domain name as your email address.

Wiki
Fast becoming a common term, it's been adopted from the invented name of the highly successful website Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that is self-building and self-managing. The prefix 'wiki-' is now used to refer to any website that grows itself by being open to public uploads and by monitoring that activity to make prioritising decisions about the content.

WWW
It stands for World Wide Web. When the internet first started to grow in its popularity and impact, it was used in various different ways, for which different terms were developed. One was the 'usenet', another 'newsgroups', another the 'worldwide web' — which meant privately operated websites. The term is not much used nowadays, but remains in the initials at the start of old website addresses.

Have any questions or would like to talk about the possibility of having a website? - Freek van Eeden at 083 456 2864 or email us

Whether you are an individual needing a basic website or a large or small business requiring a custom designed eCommerce online shop, we have the experience to creative the right website to compliment your business. From a single page website to database driven content websites we will provide a free quotation for all your web requirements.