Once you decide your business needs a Web site, you should do a little research to determine your own preferences. Online research is a good idea whether you create a Web site yourself or hire a developer because design is subjective. Realistically, you will probably end up looking at your Web site a lot, so it’s best to try and figure out what you like and don’t like.

Not everyone who has a Web site necessarily spends a lot of time online. After all, many people work in businesses that don’t require much time at a computer. But surfing around, doing searches, and looking at Web sites forces you to find out what else is out there. Unlike many other advertising mediums, with the Internet you can easily look at what your competitors are doing with their marketing.

As you wander around the Web, study Web sites with a critical eye. Write down the Web address (URL) of each site and take notes with your answers to these questions.

* Is the overall layout pleasing? What works and doesn’t work?

* Do you like or dislike the photos? Why?

* Do you like or dislike the colors used in the site?

* Does the navigation make sense?

* Can you find information easily on the site?

* Is the written content clear? Does the site do a good job of explaining what it’s about? Can you read the text easily (is it too small or too large)? Do you like the fonts that are used?

Once you have a page of notes on other sites, you’ll probably have a good feel for how you want your Web site to look and behave. And how you don’t want it to look. What you don’t like (and why) can be as important for your developer to know as what you do like.

You may discover that many sites in your business niche look particularly amateurish. In that case, you may need to explore sites in other industries to find sites you actually like. Conversely, you may find that every site in your niche offers high-end (read: expensive) tools. Banks have ended up in this situation, for example. Almost all banks now offer some type of online bill-paying service. Similarly, to remain competitive, many real estate sites now almost always have large database back-end systems for their listings.

Because people use the Internet to find information, think about the information you want to provide. With a new site, you have an opportunity to offer information that your competitors don’t. Look for obvious holes in their coverage of your industry. These lapses are opportunities. Many people find Web sites through searches, so if you can write articles on topics that aren’t covered by your competitors, people will find your site instead of theirs.

The old saying, nothing happens without a plan is true online too. After doing all this research, you will be able to formulate a good plan of action for your site.