070722-finalThe final design and content of your Web site will, quite naturally, depend on your purpose and your audience. While it is fine for many Web sites to be composed primarily of written content and photographs or images, modern Web surfers prefer to interact with your site in some way, especially if they find your site useful or interesting. A few weeks ago, I discussed ways for you to create an RSS feed for your site. This is a quick and easy way to provide a very basic level of interaction for your visitors. By subscribing to your feed, they can stay up to date with the latest news or information about the site. You can even expand on this by using a service such as Feedburner to allow users to subscribe to your feed via e-mail. This is a great way to help your visitors stay informed about your site, but it is, by nature, a one-sided method of interaction. You push out your content, but you can’t get much back from your visitors. The best you can hope for is to get some basic statistics about how many subscribers you have (If you use a service like Feedburner).

Last week, I briefly introduced you to the concept of adding widgets/gadgets to your site. There are countless varieties of widgets available for your site, but most of them are designed to allow you (the Web designer) to provide content/information to your visitors. While it might be nice for you to have the latest news, weather, or traffic on your site, most (if not all) of your visitors will have their own preferred method of finding this information. The only exception that comes to mind is a personal Web page that friends or family members from around the world can visit to get a snapshot of your life, even from far away. For most other sites, especially for small, home-based business Web sites, it’s not enough to just push a bunch of information out to your visitors. To be successful with your site, it will eventually become necessary to gather information about your visitors.

There are a few common methods for gathering information about site users. The most common is to track your Web statistics…such as page views, user activities on your site, etc. This information can be obtained from a variety of services, such as Google Analytics. While this information can be quite useful, you have to know how to interpret it. And even so, it doesn’t tell you much about what people think of your site, or how interested they are in what you have to say.

Fortunately, Zoho Creator can help. With Zoho Creator, you can build simple or complex Web applications to allow users to interact with you or your Web site. One of the first simple applications I built with Zoho Creator was a subscription form people could use to provide their name and e-mail address to sign up for e-newsletters from my site. Although I don’t actually send out any e-newsletters, you can view a sample of this application at Lockworld Herald. Site visitors can simply type in their names and e-mail addresses (I’ve also provided a simple “about me” optional field) into the form and click submit. They will automatically be added to my mailing list, which only I can access through my Zoho account. One of the best features of Zoho Creator is the ability to create simple scripts (no knowledge of HTML or other scripting is required) to build in automatic e-mail messages to you and/or your subscribers with your own customized message. This is a really nice way to either get people signed up for an e-mail newsletter, or to get people to sign up for “membership” on your site.

Of course, if you’re planning to collect personal information from people, you’d better have something good to offer them in return, such as discount prices, newsletters, free access to member-only sections of your Web site, etc. If you don’t want/need their personal information, Zoho Creator can also be used to solicit feedback from your visitors, provide them with a means to report bugs or technical problems with your site, or otherwise provide comments to you. You can also choose to display all or part of the information you collect back on your site (Think carefully about this, however…if you’re soliciting e-mail address or contact information from people, you should never post it on your site for others to see).

You can also use Zoho Creator as your own personal content management system if you want to. Say, for example, you have a list of items you want to display to your users, but the list changes frequently. You can easily use Zoho Creator to build a Web application to allow you to add or edit the contents of the list. You can create a “view” of that list which is publicly accessible to allow visitors to see what is in the list without being able to make any changes to it. This can be a simple and easy way to keep the content of your Web site fresh and up-to-date without requiring you to constantly change you actual Web page(s) to reflect the changes in the content – a feature particularly useful if you are displaying portions of the same information in multiple pages on your site. You could even add a field to your database for the application that allows you to control whether a particular item is visible in the list or not without having to delete all of the other information you’ve entered into the application if you just need to take it offline temporarily.

Zoho Creator is a quick and easy way to allow visitors to interact with you site, but it can also be expanded as you learn how to use the application. I have used Zoho Creator to build my own e-commerce management solution. Although I don’t have anything I’m particularly interested in selling at this moment, I’m playing around with the idea to see if this is a workable solution for building my own e-commerce site. So far, I’ve been able to use Zoho to create a catalog of products available to purchase on my site. When someone clicks on an item’s name, they are taken to a page that displays the complete details for that product, as well as a PayPal “Add-to-cart” button that they can click on to purchase the item. By using Zoho for this (rather than editing the page directly in my Office Live Basics account), I have been able to set up scripts which will automatically update the PayPal “Add-to-cart” button link whenever the price of the item (or the shipping/handling fees) changes. In just a few minutes, I can easily add a new product to my catalog and essentially give that product its own page within my site. I’ll go into more detail in how I’ve done this in future posts, but if you want to take a look at how it works, feel free to check it out on my Web site, See an example at LockworldHerald.comLockworld Herald.

Although I still have a few bugs to work out, the basic principle is working out quite well. The biggest down-side to using Zoho Creator for this online catalog has been having to worry about whether their site is up and running, or bogged down by traffic. There have been a few times when I have visited my own site and found that the Zoho Creator pages have not loaded at all. This hasn’t been very often, but it does suggest that if you are expecting a lot of traffic on your site, you might want to find a more robust solution. Of course, if you’re getting that much traffic on your e-commerce site, you can probably afford to shell out a little money for that more robust solution. But if free is your style, and you can handle a limited amount of down-time, Zoho Creator can be a powerful way to put your small business online in a very short time.

That’s all for today. I’ll go into more details about how this all works in the next few posts. The first step, which I’ll cover next week, will be to set up your own free PayPal account so you can start processing PayPal or credit card orders online through your Web site.

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