Building A Compelling Web Page

A good design is more than just pretty pictures.

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When Pensacola, Fla.-based Saltmarsh Cleaveland & Gund changed its brand and its logo to give the firm a more modern feel, the 11-partner firm decided it was time to update its Web site. The four-office, $9 million firm launched a new site at the beginning of the year. "The Web site redesign was part of our new image," says president Ronald E. Jackson. "We changed our image to be more modern."

Those changes included renaming Saltmarsh Cleaveland & Gund as Saltmarsh, and selecting a new logo and colors. "We consider the Web site as one of the front doors to the firm," says Jackson. "We wanted to update it to correspond to our new image."

The re-design wasn't a huge investment. "While our initial site development was rather expensive, the re-design wasn't that costly, since we were re-working what we had," he says. He estimates that the firm spent between $3,000 and $4,000 on the new site.

Partner Insights

The firm used the same Web designer who had worked on its previous Web site, George T. Johnson of Grendel.Fly, a Web design, development, and hosting provider based in Gulf Breeze, Fla. Saltmarsh also worked with the Appleyard Agency, a Pensacola-based advertising and public relations agency that helped update its corporate image. Appleyard did the mock-up for the general look of the new site, while Johnson did the programming.

Microsoft Goes Live on the Web

Microsoft has launched a new service built specifically for small businesses that includes a hosted Web site and site tools as part of its emerging Office Live services.

"This is really for businesses with 10 of fewer employees that don't have the IT resources on staff or the IT infrastructure to host their own site," says senior product manager Karen Dayan.

Microsoft kicked off a beta program of the new Office Live services in February. The product's three components include Office Live Basics, which offers a domain name, five free business email addresses, a hosted Web site, a site-designer tool, and tools to check site traffic.

"Basics is all about getting a professional Web presence," says Dayan.

Another element incorporates a password-protected shared workspace that owners can use to manage client information and more than 20 online applications, such as a contact manager, a project manager, and a competition tracker.

Office Live Essentials includes all of the features of both Basics and Collaboration, along with more storage space and more advanced Web site reports, and Microsoft Office Small Business Accounting.

Pricing for Essentials is expected to starting at $29.95 per month when Office Live is launched, which is expected later this year. The system accommodates 10 users, with the ability to add more for an additional fee, which has not yet been established.

The entire process took about three months, according to Jackson, who notes that the firm not only wanted to update the look of the site, but also "wanted enhanced functionality."

That included two new capabilities: the first being a service called Bridge that allows clients to access and share their QuickBooks files from any computer connected to the Internet. "A lot of our clients use QuickBooks," says Jackson. "We saw a lot of other ASPs offering a QuickBooks ASP service. We decided we can do it here locally, increase our knowledge of QuickBooks and improve our clients' access to it and have their data here on site."

The firm also added the Secure Accounting Files Exchange to enables clients to transfer their encrypted data directly to Saltmarsh. "We had clients who were trying to transfer very large files to us through email and there were always problems," says Jackson. "SAFE allowed us to open up a pathway for our clients to deposit files on our server so we can retrieve them. It solves a lot of security issues."

Jackson says the firm is "very pleased" with its new site, though he notes, "It was a lot of work, because we had to provide all of the updated content and information."

While the new site has been complete for some time, Jackson notes that the firm's work is far from finished. "Improving our Web site is a continuous process," he says. "We're always looking for new ways to do things and we have things that we change every month."

The firm provides continuing education for other area CPAs, so it updates its offerings regularly. Jackson notes that the firm adds current articles frequently, and updates the site with new information-for instance, about new employees as they join the firm.

Today, even the smallest of small businesses must enable would-be clients to find them online. And the days of having a static Web page are long over. Thanks to a proliferation of Web-site design services and do-it-yourself tools, small and midsized business owners don't have to break the bank to establish a compelling Web presence.

One-Stop Shop

Many vendors that serve the tax and accounting market offer tools that are based around the belief that many firms can't afford to spend the thousands of dollars needed to pay someone for a first-class Web design.

"Most of them don't have a need for a $10,000 or $200,000 Web site," says Teresa Mackintosh, vice president of marketing for Creative Solutions.

Companies like CSI provide applications for building sites, including products that have templates for setting up pages. They also offer hosting and a variety of tools and content.

CSI Solutions uses templates in WebBuilder CS, which has a $250 start-up fee and a $65-a-month subscription fee. WebBuilder offers unlimited storage for the subscriber's Web site, along with many commonly used tools. Most recently, the company began offering content from Forefield, which provides enewsletters, along with other resources.

Similarly, CCH offers a tool called SiteBuilder, which it acquired in 2001. Like CSI, the company has a one-time set-up fee of $295. Instead of charging a monthly fee, CCH has an annual fee of $895. It also has fees for a variety of other design and content services, including a $99 charge for an additional 100MB of file space. The company also offers design services. These include the Deluxe Graphics Package for $605, and custom splash pages for $300.

There are more than 30 template styles available and a firm can use default text for the Welcome and Firm Profile pages that can be accepted, modified, or replaced. CCH also provides content, such as federal and state-specific Tax Alerts, a monthly listing of federal and state tax due dates, and 28 calculators.

SiteBuilder also includes File Share, which allows users to share information, such as data from tax returs, with clients in a PDF format. They can also access Profit Drive reports and CCH Practice invoices.

Making a Change

A well-designed Web site can even change the way a business is run. Just ask Marcus Fryar, financial manager of Fryar Management Group in Durham, N.C.

The financial management firm, which has revenue of about $300,000, provides accounting, tax, group and employee-benefit programs, and strategic planning services.

"I use my Web site to manage my whole practice on a day-to-day basis," says Fryar, a sole practitioner who runs his practice with the help of two student interns.

In April 2004, Fryar wanted to add payroll to his roster of services. He settled on an application offered by Hauppauge, N.Y.-based AccountantsWorld. While shopping for the payroll product, Fryar found the vendor's AccountantsOffice Online, billed as a "virtual office," which included a number of other tools, along with payroll. Among the tools incorporated with the payroll system was a Web site builder. Although he had a Web site, built using Microsoft Front Page, Fryar decided to use AccountantsOffice to design a new one to give clients access to the Web-based payroll offering.

Fryar, who loves the results, used one design templates and uploaded his own images. "It was very easy to use," he says. "I spent a couple of hours customizing the site, moving things around, changing the colors."

Now, his site is updated automatically with new client newsletters and articles from AccountantsWorld. He also adds information quarterly. The turnkey system also includes a domain name, email, and tech support, as well as a library of articles, newsletters, and financial calculators that can be added to the Web site.

With templates, users can add as many of their own customized pages as they choose, and access a gallery of images that can be uploaded. "It's much easier and quicker than using a design service, where, if you want to make changes to the site, you have to send someone else the information to make the changes for you, and it's a whole lot cheaper," says Fryar. (AccountantsWorld also offers Web site design services for $99 per hour.)

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