Interland's Platinum "Build A Web Site With You" as a solution to a techie's problem

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Biases you should be aware of: As I write this in November 2003, I am CTO of Interland, Inc., and am involved in the marketing and development of the service I discuss.


In February 2004, I resigned from Interland to pursue other interests. On March 11, 2004, Interland let go most of the developers who created the software used by this product and announced that they were concentrating their software development teams in Atlanta.

When I checked on July 6, 2004, it seems that Interland is no longer promoting this service under the name described here and the links to Platinum no longer work the way they did. Check with them to see what is available now.

The problem
I have a problem. As a person technically knowledgeable about computers and the Internet, friends and relatives routinely come to me for advice and help. In many cases, the answer is simple. They want help in choosing a computer, or between a laptop and a desktop, or which digital camera to buy, etc. I give them some guidelines, and maybe point them to something like Walt Mossberg's PC recommendations or a web site like DPReview.com. That's it, end of my involvement.

A hard problem is when they ask me about setting up a "real" web site. It might be for their business, or a nonprofit. You get to talking with them about things, the discussion turns to web sites, your enthusiasm convinces them of the benefits, and then...they want you to "help". After all, you've sold them on the benefits (or they were pre-sold and roped you into the discussion, as you might to do a doctor friend asking about the aches you've been having). Why can't you just show them how to do it? I've done this several times. The problem is that they need help with everything.  There is so much you need to know to effectively have a web site, from FTP settings to Overture or Google Adwords. For many of them, they'll need help continually to make changes or additions that need to be done quickly, and I don't want to be stuck being the "brother-in-law VAR/webmaster" forever.

My old solution
For years I've been recommending the products of my old company, Trellix. The Trellix Web client-side, "Windows install" product (originally created in the later 1990's and now sold as CuteSITE Builder) has been OK for those who mainly cared about content, had only text and pictures, and were willing to buy hosting separately and learn a new tool. (I believe in it enough to have used it for this web site since it's inception.) Even then I often had to help them set it up. That product worked for some of them (and has worked well), but I'm still getting called back for modifications from those that didn't fully master things because they don't have the time or inclination to learn all of the details (also I didn't want to take the time to teach them). And, to be truthful, the web sites were very "basic" looking. I'm not a Photoshop wiz (nor a good graphical designer, as you can tell from this web site) and couldn't help with that.

More recently, I've been able to suggest Trellix's (and now Interland's) browser-based web site authoring tools (built over the last few years and available private-labeled as part of various providers' services, and as Interland's normal "Business Solutions" offerings). There the problem is the level of the design -- those tools use templates and it takes a lot of work and knowledge to make them look "custom". At least these systems are better than many other options. They have some built-in ability to do more functionality than just page editing (especially in the higher-end Interland Business Solutions offering), including blogging in some instances and a useful catalog maker on the Interland offering. For simple businesses, or for people with an artistic bent, they do fine. In fact, new features have just been added to the Interland version, including a facility for easy password protected "login type" content, and a "gift certificate" system (both print and email, with serial number tracking).

For personal web sites, of course, all of these tools are fine. My problem is when people want a real, custom, professional-looking web site, perhaps with a catalog with nice pictures, and also help with search engine marketing, email marketing (opt-in only, of course...), etc. No matter how easy we've made the "do it yourself" tools, a large portion of the small business population wants someone else to do all or part of the work. They want a quality look that isn't cookie cutter and that reflects their business. (I heard this over and over and over again in usability testing, in focus groups, and in personal discussions. I tried to ignore it and make our tools easier and more powerful.) Their businesses may be small, but they don't see themselves as second class in any way. They want the same facilities and quality on their web sites as the bigger companies. They don't want to figure out how to do this themselves. They want it handed to them, or to be taught at their pace. They have better things to do with their time, and, as business people, are used to paying someone else to do things. (For example, they may use Intuit's QuickBooks, but they pay an accountant to set it up and do year-end and tax details.)

Interland Platinum
In late November 2003, Interland finally introduced something that I think solves my problem. It's something I can recommend to many small businesses and know that they will be pretty satisfied without me personally having to do much more than make the recommendation. It also has a price that is reasonable to most small businesses. It still has an ability to "do it yourself" to whatever extent desired, letting me feel that it is still important that we built a good, easy to use tool. Being able to manage the web site yourself when you want is something that fits with small business people's need to be hands-on when appropriate for speed and accuracy. Also, being able to do it yourself for routine changes is an important aspect of keeping the ongoing cost down.

The offering is called Interland Business Solutions Platinum. For (at this writing [Note: when I checked July 6, 2004, this link was not working, which I reported -- they seem to have modified things including the breakdown of pricing]) a base price of $95 sign up and $95/month (on a month to month contract, not a yearly contract), a professional web designer will build the web site design in HTML (using something like Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver), add some special code, import it into the end-user tool, and fill it with up to ten pages of custom content (text and images). The web site can be easily edited for changes or additions by the small business person using the browser-based site building tool. There is a 24/7 support phone line with people who will help teach you how to use the tools, how to do search engine marketing (e.g., writing titles that index well, advertising on Overture and using Google Adwords, etc.), how to use the Internet as part of your regular marketing, how to set up your email, etc. (These are not the normal Interland hosting technical support people. They are specially trained to be there to teach, coach, and give advice as well as diagnose problems.) Web hosting, of course, is part of the deal, as well as email, Webtrends server statistics, and two years of domain name registration. It also includes a powerful email marketing system for doing opt-in mailings, newsletters, etc., search engine submission, $50 each of Google and Overture advertising, etc., etc. For various vertical segments (first for accounting and restaurants, but others are planned) and some generic ones, you get written material telling you which types of pages are commonly used by other businesses like yours and how to write them, as well as tips about marketing, a list of which specific online business directories to get in (both free and fee), and more. (This is material derived from the research used to train the support people.) You get a lot.

While "raw hosting" goes for a lot less than the $95 a month charged here, the combined support, custom design, and other bundled tools makes this a very cost-effective service for someone who wants one-stop-shopping and coaching.

Traditional "turn key" web sites built for a small business average about $1,500-$2,500 and up for initial construction, with ongoing support and modifications extra. In most of those cases, if you then want to do the changes yourself, you are into FrontPage or something else that many business people find daunting. If you want to add things like new "submit-forms" that email you inquiries or requests for quotes, you have to learn more.

To many small businesses, $95 a month is a small amount, especially for a marketing expense that can be canceled if it isn't working. A $1,500 up front fee, though, is not small. A few days fooling with a do-it-yourself system is also not acceptable (which I feel is unfortunate, after spending years creating such systems). To put the $95 in perspective, doing a postal mailing to 200 customers with a monthly flyer of specials and coupons (assuming no design or labor costs) is at least $100. A good email campaign is just as effective, if not more so (depending upon the clientele), and a tool for doing such campaigns is part of the Platinum offering.

There were a variety of issues potential customers asked about that needed to be addressed. One that's probably of interest to my readers was "What happens to my web site if I want to leave Interland for another hosting company?" Obviously, you lose the easy editing tools, the automatic catalog creator, and the features that make use of Interland-specific web-services, such as the gift-certificate system or the particular forms-emailer. (Of course, you also lose the coaching about the business aspects of having an Internet presence.) The main web site, though, with all the custom design, is static HTML, and there is a new command that packages it all up, including images, and lets you download it as a zip file to aid in migration.

I hope what comes through here is my enthusiasm for the idea of "doing it WITH you". That is: An easy to use tool that covers a wide variety of needs and functions bundled with personal, one-on-one, professional help and coaching integrated with the tool.

The professional partner creating the initial web site has been a model that has been very successful for millions of web sites. The easy to use tool has been helpful to millions of others. Marketing consultants have been helping many firms take advantage of the Internet. Putting them all together on a long-term basis (with payment levels to match) is the key idea here. After the web site is deployed, you still need help going through various phases as you take advantage of what it can do, and as you want more and more out of it. You need the ability to go back to the "partner" to get through speed bumps.

There are many ways of getting custom web sites built. There are many web site creation shops and consultants, with all sorts of different focuses. Often they specialize in a particular industry and can bring cost-effective benefit through the proprietary boilerplate content they can put on your site, through specific CGI applications, or through knowledge of particular promotion opportunities. Depending upon whether or not you can, or need to, maintain the site yourself after deployment as opposed to depending upon them may determine the actual cost of taking this route. The problems for me are that I don't know which particular consultant is around for each different business that asks me for help, and the size of the up front fee they'd need to pay before seeing results.

Many companies providing hosting have "do it FOR you" (DIFY) options where they do the initial construction. You should look at the tool you end up with for modifications, as well as the support you get for using it. You also need to look at the related offerings, such as how you add functionality like submit-forms, catalogs and shopping, email marketing, etc. Look at how integrated the support is with the entire spectrum of Internet related issues, as well as with the ability to go back to having something done for you.

Should you recommend Platinum?
Obviously, I'm biased, being so close to this project. On the other hand, reactions I've seen to the Platinum offering make me feel that I have a duty to write about it on the off chance that knowing about it will help some of my readers be helpful to their friends and relatives. No offering is perfect for everyone. Check out what Interland has to offer here and decide for yourself. Compare it to alternatives.

One way to see if this is something you'd want to recommend is to look at some of the Platinum web sites already created by Interland. (It has been sold unannounced for a few months, so there are real sites to look at.) Look at the example web sites listed on Interland's web site. You'll see how varied they look. You can see the details of the offering on the Platinum offering page on the Interland web site.

-Dan Bricklin, 21 November 2003

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