In 1987, Walter Maerki opened Discount Golf, a shop that manufactures custom-fitted golf clubs and sells them for prices well below those of comparable brand name clubs. This Mariemont store attracted a loyal, local following and consistently generated annual revenue of about $150,000.
Ten years later, Maerki brought in fellow golf enthusiast and local businessman Bob McGraw as a partner. Shortly after joining Discount Golf, McGraw launched the shop's first Web site www.discount-golf.com. He retired the following year, and McGraw and new partner Gary Couch now oversee a business that generates $600,000 in annual revenue, three-quarters of which flows in through the Web.
Like most Internet entrepreneurs, even those who are computer savvy, McGraw began the expansion of his business online by consulting with a Web page designer. Aside from the business owner, perhaps no other person is as important to the success of an e-commerce store as the site's designer.
The designer must build a site that's appealing, easily navigated and secure, and must also maximize the site's exposure on the Internet by achieving and maintaining high rankings on popular search engines. Since Web page designers generally host the site, they must also vigilantly maintain their equipment and provide adequate backup to protect the e-store from service outages.
Before beginning the technical work of achieving these objectives, designers should understand the client's business.
"We have to know what they do or there's no way we will be able to make it come through on the Web page," said Terry Erdt, founder of Multimedia Production Services (www.mps.net). MPS designed McGraw's first Web site, now located at www.1aaaadiscount-golf.com, and is currently building his third and latest site at www.super-discount-golf.com.
In addition to understanding the client's business environment, Erdt also believes it's important to understand their personality.
"Bob is a hands-on businessman," Erdt said. "He's a spontaneous, creative person. He has a lot of good ideas, and he needs to be able to implement them quickly and easily."
To enable such flexibility, Erdt is incorporating MPS Quick Web into the latest site. MPS developed this technology, which allows on-line retailers with virtually no knowledge of Microsoft FrontPage or HTML, the language generally used to program Web pages, to make textual and graphical changes to a site without help from a professional programmer.
When the new golf site is functional, McGraw will be able to change its content, adding features and products and placing items on sale without contacting MPS. Other MPS clients already utilize Quick Web. William Strietmann, owner of Strietmann Realty, regularly updates listings and real estate news on his site (www.strietmann-realty.com), and Scherzinger Pest Control (www.stopzbugs.com) highlights solutions to seasonal insect problems
Erdt also believes that communicating McGraw's love of golf and his deep and broad knowledge of both the game and its equipment is vital to the success of the on-line store. This involvement and knowledge is important to the sophisticated clients who purchase custom clubs and will be portrayed through streaming video on the new page. Using a technology known as Digital Stories, the site will show the manufacturing of a golf club, from the initial fitting to the finished product.
David Osbun, project manager at WebFeat Inc. (www. webfeatinc.com), the Mariemont-based Web design firm that created www.discount-golf.com, McGraw's second on-line golf store, also believes that it's important to understand the personality of the business owner. He asks clients to surf the Web and write down the addresses of sites they find appealing.
"This gives us an idea of their tastes, their favorite colors and all of that stuff," Osbun said. "We can spend 15 hours designing a great, technologically advanced site, but if they don't like how it looks it's no good."
Web page designers then pull this business and personal information together and design the site's graphical and textual layout. Both Erdt and Osbun believe that ease of navigation and quickness are the most important aspects of a site. Until high-speed connections become more widespread, sites heavily laden with large graphic files take a long time to download and frustrate potential customers.
WebFeat achieves quick download times for www.discount-golf.com by minimizing the size and complexity of graphics used there. Although it includes streaming video, McGraw's latest site also will load quickly. Digital Stories, the streaming technology that MPS incorporated into the site, is more like a slide show than a movie. Using high quality photographs and voice-overs, the technology sacrifices the flowing action of movies but loads much more quickly than movie-like videos, even faster than compressed formats such as MPEG. The MPS-designed site www.abstinence-ed.com is a good example of the Digital Stories format.
Once a Web site is up and running, one of the truths of traditional marketing takes over: Customers can buy your product only if they know you exist. Many people begin shopping on the Internet by entering a particular product into a search engine. Golfers looking for a set of custom clubs might enter "custom golf clubs" or perhaps "discount custom golf clubs" into the search box of one of many search engines and Web directories.
But entering either of these terms into a search engine results in a list containing thousands of e-stores that sell these products. Since consumers will generally page through only 20 or 30 of these sites, Internet retailers need a high ranking just to be considered by Web shoppers.
While search engines utilize similar technologies to rank sites, each has its own particular set of criteria for doing so. Some rank sites according to the number of occurrences of the search term throughout a site. Others look only for that term on the site's first page, and still others look for the term in the site's coding, scanning the title and other identifying labels contained in the programming.
Companies such as Webposition.com, Rank1 (www. rank1.net) and Searchengineboost.com promise to increase a site's rank on Internet search engines. These companies claim to know the criteria used by each of the major search engines and directories, information that's often protected as a trade secret by the companies operating the engines.
Osbun says he incorporated no ranking tricks into www.discount-golf.com, but the site performs very well on major search engines. Using the search term "discount custom golf clubs," the site ranks second on Hotbot, seventh on InfoSeek and 11th on AltaVista. It's also one of only three sites included under the "discount custom golf clubs" subcategory in Yahoo's Web directory.
Yahoo is by far the most used of all Web search tools, with an estimated 60 percent of all Internet searches beginning there. Although Yahoo recently added a search engine, it's mainly a directory of Web sites, with each site fitting into categories and subcategories, like the books in a library.
Yahoo demands that Web page designers strictly adhere to its submission procedures. Even when these rules are carefully followed, getting a site listed on Yahoo can take six months or more. MPS successfully submitted McGraw's original site to Yahoo, and WebFeat succeeded at keeping the site listed after they redesigned it.
McGraw also uses other forms of Internet-based advertising to bring customers to the site, including links to his site from other golf-related sites and from list servers and portals such as www.askjeeves.com, www.snap.com and www.lifeminders.com. He uses traditional advertising venues minimally.
McGraw's marketing strategy seems to be working for discount-golf.com, attracting customers from around the world to the on-line store, while Cincinnatians continue to stroll through the doors of the Madisonville Road shop. And he insists that, although the shop pulls in only 25 percent of the company's revenue, it's here to stay.
"I would never close the brick-and-mortar store," McGraw said. "The Web sites generate a much larger portion of our sales, but I love dealing with people face-to-face."