#h#Must Have: A URL#/h#

Ilise Benun has changed her mind. The marketing consultant with a specialty in Internet self-promotion told her clients, not long ago, that a company website was not always a necessity. Now she is proclaiming that "every business needs a website."

Internet companies may be down or sinking, technology spending may be a ghost of its former self, but consumer use of the Internet keeps growing. Benun (www.artofselfpromotion.com) is finding that no business owner now feels comfortable owning up to the lack of a website. Everyone casually asks: What’s your URL? No one wants to admit to not having one. "They get sheepish," she says. "They say `it’s not up yet.’"

Benun, a graduate of Tufts (Class of 1984), founded her business in Hoboken in 1988. When the Internet began to ripen, she added online self-promotion to her marketing business. She is the author of Self-Promotion Online and of Designing Websites for Every Audience.

Her insights into websites for small businesses include the following:

Know your customer. This old "offline" idea is vital to online success. Conduct surveys, look at the communities in which you do business, and figure out just who might be likely to buy your products or services. There are a number of ways to find out who is visiting your website, but that is not all you need to know. You need a profile of the person — or company — most likely to be in the market for what you are selling.

Match your website to your customer. If you sell a fairly long newsletter online and your customers are commuters, think about providing printer-friendly copy they can take on the train. If you sell reading glasses or retirement in the Arizona sun, make sure the typefaces used on the website are good and big.

Honor Internet conventions. The graphic browsers that turned the Internet into an Everyman tool are only a scant decade old, but already there are standard ways of doing things. Web designers may want to erase the underlining beneath links, but, says Benun, think twice before allowing them to replace it with something more esthetically pleasing. Already, surfers look for the lines (usually blue) that signal a link. Take it away, and they may go away unsatisfied.

Think about connections. The broadband revolution has not yet reached much of the globe, or even blanketed upscale North American communities. Be aware that your customers may still be dialing up. This means slow downloads, and a concomitant need to keep graphics simple.

Create hierarchies. There is a tendency, says Benun, for business owners to lay out everything they have on their homepage. However, most surfers come looking for just one or two things. Put the really important items front and center, and move the rest of your offerings to subsequent pages, reached via homepage links.

Shop wisely. Benun hesitates when asked how much a small business website now costs. "You can get a website for $1,000," she says. "And you can get the same website for $5,000."

She proposes that small business owners decide how much they can afford to spend, and then approach several website designers with that figure. Ask each what he can give you for the amount you have budgeted. If a website need only do a modest job — perhaps provide directions, contact information, and operating hours — a low-cost Internet set-up kit could be the answer. Benun says even one of the free websites offered by some Internet service providers, including American Online, could be a solution. At this point, she says, even one of these barebones packages "is better than nothing."

What the smart business owner wants to avoid, at any cost, is a business card that lists no URL at all.

#h#E-Mail Etiquette#/h#

Yo, IMHO the guy U work for is a jerk. MHOTY for putting up with him this long. he makes the idiot I works for look smarter then Einstein. LOL.The good thing is that neither one of them has a clue about the money we’re skimming from the Browning account. ROTFL.

Ozana Castellano would disapprove of the above paragraph, typical of millions of E-mails whizzing around and between businesses, for any number of reasons. A business communications specialist at Mercer County Community College’s Center for Training and Development, she spends most of her time doing on-site corporate training, and more and more she is hearing pleas for help with E-mail etiquette, form, and content.

"E-mail is out of control!" says Castellano. She points out that it grew up free of English-class rules for correspondence. While workers have been drilled on how to set up, write, proof, and send a business letter, there has been no equivalent instruction on E-mail. At the same time, E-mail has become a communications favorite for nearly every type of business correspondence. Here is her advice for steering clear of the E-mail style of the above message:

Don’t use acronyms. The only acceptable acronym is FYI, states Castellano. Everyone knows "FYI" means "for your information," but many people will be thrown by the likes of "IMHO," which is E-mail speak for "in my humble opinion." Likewise, not everyone will know that "MHOTY" is shorthand for "my hat’s off to you." Even the fairly common "LOL," which means "laughing out loud," and its less-common cousin, "ROTFL" — "rolling on the floor laughing" — are bound to cause some head scratching.

The pop shorthand is beloved by everyone intoxicated with the new communication. But, Castellano points out, it can cause embarrassment if the receiver is unable to decipher the message and thinks he must be out of the loop. If he has to send a reply asking for clarification, the point often is lost, and there is discomfort on both sides.

"I don’t even like ASAP," says Castellano. In this case, her objection is not so much that some people may not know that the acronym stands for "as soon as possible," but rather that it is too vague. "To me, ASAP may mean today," she says, "but to you it might mean Christmas."

Always add a salutation. All business — even the larceny business addressed in the above E-mail — is personal. Keep E-mail personal by always taking the time to start an E-mail with the recipient’s name and to end it with your own.

Drop the "dear." Castellano says the way to begin an E-mail is with "Hi" or simply with the recipient’s name. "Dear" is for letters, she declares, and not for electronic messages. As for "Hi," an opener that feels a little to informal and/or juvenile to businesspeople of a certain age, she says it is fine in most circumstances. When in doubt, just open with the recipient’s name, which may be preceded by a title — Mr., Ms., Honorable, or the like — in more formal relationships.

Break up text blocks. Four or five lines generally is enough for one E-mail paragraph. Longer unbroken stretches of text are hard to read on a screen. Break up long paragraphs into several short paragraphs, says Castellano. Better yet, use lists, numbering each item.

Don’t pack too much in. Unlike a letter, which may be kept on the desk for easy reference, E-mails are read fast before being deleted or filed. Including several agenda items often means that one or two will be ignored in a reply. If you want to ask your boss for a raise, the go-ahead on a new project, a new desk, and the month of August off, it is a good idea to send him four separate E-mails.

Watch grammar and spelling. The state of E-mail content often is a disgrace, says Castellano. Recently a large company called her in to instruct employees on basic grammar and spelling issues. Common errors, she says, range from mixing up "then" and "than" to starting sentences with a lower case letter to ignoring subject/verb agreement. With everyone on staff E-mailing all over the place like crazy, these lapses are on broad display, undermining not only the individual’s credibility, but also that of his organization.

Proof on paper. Castellano admits that in a go-go world, this is a tough one, but she says it is essential that E-mails be printed and proofed. "You’ll miss mistakes on the screen," she says. Doing so is not a huge problem if the E-mail is going to a close friend, but it can be if it is going to an important client.

Don’t write what you wouldn’t shout. Once the "send" button is pressed, the E-mail takes on a life of its own. It may be read only by its recipient, but there is always the possibility that it will be forwarded to others — maybe hundreds of thousands of others — with the simple tap on a keyboard.

"So many people have gotten in trouble because of E-mails," says Castellano. While the E-mail at the beginning of this article was sent to give a pal a chuckle, it is a good bet that its sender would not be LOL, let alone ROTFL, if his boss read it.

#h#Must-Have Bookmarks#/h#

The Internet can be overwhelming, but it needn’t be. Jeremy Caplan, a journalist who has written extensively on the Internet, says most research needs can be met with just a few bookmarks. At the same time, he points out that there is always something new on the Internet. Each day brings a new, potentially amazing, site or service.

Caplan, a New York resident who maintains a website full of surfing tips at www.jeremycaplan.com, is a graduate of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School (Class of 1997). Now an associate editor of Time Magazine for Kids, he wrote a column for Princeton Alumni Weekly when he was a student, and got his start in professional journalism under George Plimpton at the Paris Review. He has written for Newsweek, where his technology reporting led to a staff job at Yahoo! Internet Life, a now defunct publication that kept early Internet users up to date on the hippest, most useful addresses in cyberspace. The magazine is gone, but Caplan keeps up on the latest and greatest on the ‘Net. Here are the sites he consistently finds most helpful:

Refdesk. Caplan inherited a dictionary with his office, but he never uses it. Neither does he thumb through a thesaurus or seek information for his articles in a medical or a legal dictionary. Refdesk has replaced all of these books, and more. "It’s Colin Powell’s favorite site," he says of the omnibus reference tool.

"There’s a translation tool," he says. "You can translate from English to other languages." The site also provides headlines from around the world, people search tools, currency converters, job banks, world clocks, obituaries, crude oil prices, commodities futures, a daily fuel gauge report, the Old Farmer’s Almanac, NOAA weather warnings, federal toll free numbers, information on how to clean anything, zip code finders, college rankings, phone rates, a genealogy search, Ellis Island records, two airline flight trackers, a weather glossary, drug information, a perpetual calendar, and a plethora of news-based jokes.

Truly, with a refdesk (www.refdesk.com) bookmark, it would be entirely possible to forego the rest of the Internet.

Tiny URL. Say you need to reference information on one of the thousands of pages on a big corporation’s website. Chances are that the address of the page where the information rests will go on for lines and lines. Try to copy and paste it, and it may break apart. Try to type it, and there is a good chance you will tear out your hair and/or make a couple of mistakes.

Caplan has just found a website that cuts those long Internet addresses down to size. It’s called TinyURL (http:tinyurl.com). It replaces unwieldy addresses with teeny, tiny addresses that never expire.

Archive. Archive.org is a site that is best known for its WayBackMachine. It has indexed and stored pages from Internet sites large and small, still functioning and defunct. It is a way to find full text news stories by date, and to re-read articles in websites that no longer exist.

Nationmaster. Statistic junkies, marketers, social policy researchers, and journalists may wonder how they ever functioned without this site. It provides comparative data by country for a host of categories, including government, health, labor, language, media, military, religion, transportation, and crime.

Idealist. While a site like Refdesk contains just about everything, a boutique site may be a better choice for homing in on one area. One of Caplan’s new favorites, www.idealist.org, aggregates articles on social issues, running the gamut from adoption, AIDS, and feral cats to housing for artists and global warming.

Public Agenda. Caplan likes this site, found at www.publicagenda.org, because "it gives all perspectives." Avoiding over-heated rhetoric, the site attempts to give a balanced picture of the major issues occupying both policy makers and the public. Included are abortion, campaign finance, child care, crime, gay rights, immigration, race, the right to die, and Social Security.

For each issue, the site gives an overview, a digest of recent stories, three perspectives, links to facts, findings, and perspectives, a list of important players and their contact information, people’s chief concerns, major proposals, areas of public consensus and demographic division, and cautionary notes about survey findings.

Google. By now, Google is a must-bookmark for anyone with a keyboard. But Caplan points out sections of the master-search site that many surfers miss. One is its catalog of images. Simply click on the work "images" above the Google logo and type in the name of a person, place, or thing. The result is page after page of pictures. Often links to more information are included.

Another Google progeny is Froogle. A comparison shopping engine, it is found at www.froogle.com Still another Google sub-site is Google News. It can be accessed from Google’s main page. Google News lists the top news stories in real time, providing links to nearly every news outlet in which they appear. Each article is given an age notation — 20 minutes ago, 14 hours old, and so forth.

For Internet trends, which tend to closely mirror trends on dry land, Google has Google Zeitgeist. Found at www.google.com/press/zeitgeist or simply by typing the words "Google Zeitgeist" into the search engine, the site lists top searches for the preceding week and month overall and by category.

One more Google find Caplan reveals is Google Answers, at www.google.com/answers. Users type in detailed questions, and send them off to Google’s 500 certified researchers. Prices for the responses begin at $2.25. Many are answered for under $10, but prices can go up to $200. The person posing the question states what he is willing to pay.

There is a list, by subject, of questions that have been answered, the price they fetched, and how satisfied the questioner was. In addition to the reply, most researchers provide extensive citations and a number of links to further information.

Says Caplan: "Even people who use the Internet a lot are constantly surprised by what is out there."

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