Surfing on the cheap Featured

10:07am EDT July 22, 2002

Sure, you’d like to be on the Web, but you don’t want to shell out a few thousand dollars to get a site up and running. There are design costs, hosting fees and no guarantee you’ll ever make a dime for your efforts.

But there are alternatives out there for businesses that want to give a Website a trial run with a minimum investment of time and money—if you know where to look.

If you already have Internet access through a local service provider, start there. Some will offer free or low-cost Websites as an extra value for their existing customers, though they typically are small (one to five megabytes worth of space), but enough to do a basic site with a company profile and contact information. You may have to design the site yourself using a Web-authoring tool, but by using a template that comes with most programs, your site should be up and running in an hour.

Don’t expect to be able to design an award-winning Web page. The space requirements are more than you probably have available, and a professional designer is almost always a requirement to create a visually stunning site.

Another source of free Web space is America Online. Anyone with an AOL account is entitled to two megabytes of free space. Members can use Personal Publisher software to design a basic Web page and then upload it to America Online. You can have color backgrounds, create clickable images or just use a template to make a standard page. Once the pages are uploaded, they are available to AOL members and anyone with an Internet connection.

AOL’s PrimeHost division also has two services that focus on businesses wanting to establish a Web presence. PrimeHost enables small and midsized companies to put their business on the Web and to target people using AOL and the Internet. Users also receive a discount to those registering via Submit It, the automated search engine registering service.

“Putting your business on the Web is important, but bringing customers to your business Website is crucial,” says Barry Schuler, president of creative development for AOL Networks. “AOL’s PrimeHost is in a unique position to offer dual listings—on Internet search engines like AOL’s Netfind and in the AOL Business Directory, which enables PrimeHost customers to list their business where 10 million AOL members can search for business Websites.”

There are two levels of service: domain and commercial. The domain service level, targeted for small businesses, uses templates, community chats and message boards, and the ability to store more than 1,600 pages of text with graphics. The commercial service, geared more toward medium-sized businesses, offers domain service features and the option to conduct commerce and store more than 3,200 pages with graphics. Domain Websites start at $99 per month, and commercial sites cost $199 per month after a start-up fee of $149 for AOL members and $249 for non-members.

Users can pick a Web name, choose the layout and design for the site from one of six predesigned templates, then customize the site with color and style options. Pages are available to be modified at any time.

Quick commerce

For those ready to jump right into Web commerce, Viaweb may be worth considering. For $100, a business can list 50 items for sale on its page, or for $300 you can list 1,000. There is no setup fee and no contract to sign. Users also don’t have to download any software, because the Web creation is done using your Internet browser.

Viaweb’s concept has attracted the likes of Rolling Stone, Frederick’s of Hollywood and NASCAR, all of which have sites.

“The site you create will look professional and legitimate,” says Paul Graham, president of Viaweb. “That’s important for a retailer. You will be using the same tools that Frederick’s of Hollywood uses, so you can have results that are as good.”

Web pages can be accessed directly, or can be found through the Viamall, which lists all of Viaweb’s online stores at one Website.

“Our big advantage is, we’re not just cheap,” says Graham. “What our customers like is control. Viaweb doesn’t require technical ability. It can be run by a marketing person. With a traditional Website, if you want to change something, you are at the mercy of the MIS. With Viaweb, you can change anything on the site 24 hours a day.”

Viaweb clients must have a credit card merchant account to process the transactions. Businesses have the option of have the numbers sent to them directly, or can opt for a cybercash option.

For more information, go to www.aol.com or www.viaweb.com.