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The Plug-and-Play Web Site, Part 1

If you’ve been thinking about setting up a Web site, you may have felt overwhelmed by the complexity. Sure, creating a few pages is no big deal – everyone seems to be doing that these days, from fifth graders to grandmas. But what about setting up a serious Web site, something that you plan to use to promote a product, for instance?

If you read the computer press, you’d be forgiven for thinking that without spending tens of thousands of dollars, you won’t be able to do much at all at your Web site. Want to take orders at your Web site? Cough up a few thousand bucks for a shopping cart system. Need a chat group? You’ll need another thousand or so. Discussion group? Open your wallet again.

There’s another problem, too. In order to install all these things, you need control of the Web server, or to be working with a Web-hosting company that’s going to charge you a fortune. With all this expense, how can the little guy compete?

There is another way, what I like to think of as the "plug and play" Web site. It’s quite possible to build a great Web site, at a low cost, and with relatively little hassle. When you want to add something to your Web site, you simply "plug" that item in. There are a couple of ways to plug something into your Web site:


  • Find a service to provide the item you need at their Web site. You create a link from your site to theirs; the utility you are adding will appear, to your site’s visitors, to be running at your Web site.

  • Find a CGI application or script and install it at your site. There are thousands of free and low-cost CGIs, and you can often get them installed for $50 or $100. (We’ll look at this method of enhancing your Web site next week in Part 2 of this article.)


Think about this for a moment; if you can run a CGI on someone else’s server, you’re suddenly released from any restrictions imposed by your hosting company. Even if your hosting company doesn’t want you to run scripts, for instance – or perhaps you have an AOL Web site – you can still do all sorts of things that require the use of scripts. You’ll see just what I mean in a moment.

Chat’s All, Folks — Adding a chat room is the first of these plug-and-play methods that I find so interesting, and the method we’ll look at this week. Here’s an example. Let’s say you’d like to add a chat room to your Web site. You don’t find many Web sites with chat rooms, because they can be complicated and expensive to set up. But companies that have them say that chat areas help create a sense of community at a Web site, make people feel part of something, and keep visitors coming back. Chat rooms can be a great promotional tool, too. You can find celebrities or experts to do talks or Q&A sessions, then promote the event to the Web at large.

Furthermore, let’s say that your Web site is a "personal pages" site at AOL or CompuServe; you can’t add a discussion group, can you? Yes, you can. Though it’s true that you can’t install the software on most personal page Web sites, you don’t have to run the software on the same server that hosts your Web site.

Finally, let’s say you don’t want to spend a lot of money. In fact, let’s say you don’t want to spend any money at all. But chat software can cost from $50 to $600, or a lot more. Or it can cost nothing.

I know of two companies that will give you a free chat room, TalkCity and NetDIVE.

<http://www.talkcity.com/irc/apply.html>

<http://www.netdive.com/>

Of the two, TalkCity currently has the best program. They’ll set up a room for you at no cost, and it’s your chat room to do with as you please. In contrast, NetDIVE’s program sets you up with a connection to one of its chat rooms, rather than one customized for your site.

Setting up a chat room on TalkCity is easy. You fill in a form, then wait a couple of days. They send you a little block of HTML that you insert into a Web page. This HTML creates a form at your Web site, which is used by visitors to log into your chat room. When a visitor clicks the Start Chatting button, a Java program is transferred, and the chat session begins. You can see an example of this at my Web site’s examples page.

<http://www.poorrichard.com/examples/>

This page contains a variety of low-cost and free utilities you can add to your Web site; the link to the free chat room is near the top. Read the information about the chat room, then fill in the form at the bottom of the page to begin chatting.

It takes a little while for the Java application to transfer the first time, but subsequent sessions can be faster, since the program may come from the browser’s cache. (Note that you may not find anyone in my chat room; I’m using it as a technical example, though I may run chat sessions later.)

Notice two things about this chat room. First, there are ads at the top of the page. Okay, so it’s not entirely free – TalkCity gives away the chat rooms so they can get advertising revenue. Also, notice the name of this chat room: PoorRichardChat. The room is named after my latest book, Poor Richard’s Web Site: Geek-Free, Commonsense Advice on Building a Low-Cost Web Site. So this chat room is really my chat room, and visitors don’t think they’re entering one of TalkCity’s many other chat rooms.

Of course, the chat room actually is running on TalkCity’s Web server. But many visitors may not even notice the URL in the Address field, and even if they do, they probably won’t care. After all, they’re clearly in a chat room associated with the site they’re visiting.

The TalkCity chat room is a great example of the plug-and-play Web site. Need a chat room? Thanks to Talk City, you can have one for free – even if your Web site is hosted by AOL.

Taking Orders — Another major problem for people setting up Web sites is taking orders for products. Shopping cart software (the system that works as an electronic catalog and order-taker) can be expensive, and setting up your own secure server can be pricey, too. Many Web hosting companies provide both these things, though they may charge an additional fee. Some provide a secure server, perhaps even for free, but not shopping cart software. If your hosting company can’t provide what you need – or if they can, but at a high price – you can find it somewhere else. That means, once again, that even if you are hosting your Web pages at an ISP or on-line service, you can still have a shopping cart system and sell products on your Web site. (Note that I’m not recommending personal sites in this context; if you’re selling products online, you should probably have your own domain name and be set up with a proper Web hosting company… but that’s another article.)

There are loads of companies that provide shopping cart systems that you can rent. Go to my examples page again, and look for the Rented Shopping Carts link:

<http://www.poorrichard.com/examples/>

You can see an example of one of these shopping cart systems – VirtualCart, which costs $25 per month to rent. You fill in a series of forms, your shopping cart is set up on their server, and they tell you which page to link to at their site. You can then create a link at your site – Order Now!, for instance – that takes visitors to your shopping cart on the VirtualCart site.

VirtualCart is by no means the only company in this business. There are many enterprises that carry out "transaction processing" and provide shopping cart software. There are two things shopping cart software can do. The first is to take the order; many systems simply take the information from the buyer, and save it in a file. The second part of the process is actually getting a bank to give you money, and this is known as "transaction processing." In other words, the software contacts the bank, and processes the credit card information to begin payment.

Installing your own transaction processing system is expensive and complicated. But you don’t need to install it yourself, you can use a service. (VirtualCart currently doesn’t carry out transaction processing, though it will soon.) This may cost as little as $40 to set up and a $40 per month charge, plus a 20-cent or percentage-based fee per transaction. And the company will probably even throw in shopping cart software.

The URL below lists a few places that sell transaction processing services; note that the overall page of links from my book is quite large at 182K, so it may take some time to load.

<http://www.poorrichard.com/links/index.html#354>

Tune in next week, when we’ll look at the second way you can enhance your Web site – CGIs.

[Peter Kent is the author of Poor Richard’s Web Site: Geek-Free, Commonsense Advice on Building a Low-Cost Web Site. Win a free copy at the Web page below.]

<http://www.poorrichard.com/info/tid.htm>


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