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Building a website without a budget (yes, for free)

While it is naturally understood that to start up a website, you need to have some sort of a budget, with enough time on your hands, you can build a website with little or no budget at all.

No budget? Fear not

When you are pressed for budget, you still can build and promote a website. "How do I do that?" you may ask. "Easy enough." Instead of investing money in building a website, you will invest your time in it.

Here's what you need to get started:

Of course, before having a website, you need a very useful product that people will buy and use eagerly, be it a piece of software or an e-book.

Know your customers

Generally, if you love what you are doing, you are bound to know why your product is useful and why the people want to use it. If not, you generally need to research your industry on various expert websites, read what your customers are saying on forums, in blog comments, in [Amazon] product reviews and so on.

You can also learn what people want by doing doing keyword research.

Research your keywords

While there are paid keyword research tools, such as WordTracker and KeywordDiscovery, they have their free versions. While WordTracker now requires you to receive an e-mail for your each two hour trial, you can use KeywordDiscovery for a while (with very limited capabilities, of course).

In essence, you only need to:

  • enter your main phrases in the search box
  • see what else people add to that phrase
  • check out related phrases, to those additions and your phrases
  • think of related queries your customers may want to enter along with your main keywords
  • add such terms as 'how to', 'articles', 'reviews' to your main phrases to see what additional helpful content you need to create

You can also use the Google External Keyword Suggestion Tool to find related words to your main keywords and to see how competitive they are. Unfortunately, Google will only tell you whether they are not so popular, moderately popular or highly popular.

In essence, you need to compencate the tool limits by guessing what else your customers are searching for. Use your industry and customer knowledge to your benefit.

Of course, using a paid version is more convenient and more efficient, but if you have no budget, you'll have to settle with the poor mans keyword research strategies.

Choose the right software

Depending on what kind of a website you need, you will need a different content management system:

  • for an e-commerce website, you'll be better off using specialized software, such as shopping cart software, Zen Cart. It is a fully customizable, user and search engine friendly system that lets you do whatever you want - once you master it, that is.
  • want to blog only? WordPress is your choice. It is a fairly simple to use piece of software, with a large amount of plugins, which let you do lots of stuff (such as those social bookmarking buttons under this post).
  • just need a forum? phpBB is probably the most widely spread free forum software
  • need a static website? You can use any general content management system, but I'd advise Drupal.
  • Want a mixture of any of the above? Drupal, again, will save the day for you. With it, you can have static pages, a blog (and even a blog for every user), a small e-commerce shop and a very neat forum

All of the above solutions are very easy to install, easy to use and are both human and search engine friendly. In essence, I consider to be them the best of the kind (so far). They are also easy to use and have friendly communities, where you can get pre-installation questions answered, installation instructions and help with using the software.

The only exception could be phpBB. While it is the best free forum software, there's a better, though paid, piece of software, which I'll talk about in another post on creating websites with a small budget.

Generally, running a blog (posting solid articles 2-3 times a week is enough) should help you get your word out and get a loyal followship, if you remember to:

  • not to advertise directly on your blog: if you have to mention something, though, do it
  • write for your customers: what answers they want, what topics interest them, what is hot in the industry at the moment
  • always reply to your blog comments and read and comment on other related blogs

Another thing you may want to consider is to have a blog completely integrated with your website. As you have no budget, you will have to do one of the following:

  • build a site with a small number of static pages with a blog platform, WordPress, for example. Then you'll have pages for your static part of the website and a solid blog, too (can have a static homepage, too).
  • use a WordPress module for your Zen Cart (haven't tested it so far)
  • use Drupal to setup a small shop, a flexible website, a blog and a forum (the best solution for a large website, in my humble opinion)

Create content

Perhaps the most effort and energy consuming task is filling your website with content. You will need to do it yourself not to pay anyone to do it. You will need to write basic site text, informational articles, fill your shopping cart with your merchandise and reply to new forum messages and blog comments fast.

Generally, you need to:

  • not to worry about not being a writer: write, and you will be one (you can always rewrite your content)
  • write for the people
  • have a place (a blog, a forum, a place to leave reviews) to receive feedback from your customers and peers: not only you'll communicate with the people, but will also have extra site content
  • remember about your topic and try to use all the synonyms you can think of: make the text readable
  • remember about formatting the text for the Web

The most important thing to remember, probably, is to answer all the questions of your visitors with your site text:

  • what is this site about?
  • what is the product?
  • why is it useful?
  • do I get any discounts?
  • how do I contact the site owner?

and others.

You may also want to remember about inspiring trust with your website: through your words, your actions, customer reviews and such.

Here, the most valuable asset you have is your knowledge of the industry. Share it with your customers via your site, other blogs (try guest blogging), forums and such. Another way is to write articles specifically for established journals and magazines in your industry and get noticed. Not only you'll get extra visibility, but also a couple of links, too.

Another way to inspire viral marketing (that's where your customers spread the word) is to create content that will be talked about: an eye-opening article/post, a really useful product, a great, easy to use tool, an entertaining video and such. Here, the only goal you need to achieve is to strike a chord with your customers. Forget about sales, site statistics and links: think about your customers.

Make the site easy to use

Becides just having a website, you need to have an easy to use website, so your visitors would be able to find what you have to offer and actually buy and use it. While website usability sounds like rocket science, you can improve basic site usability yourself:

  • develop your homepage so that it'd show the most useful things you have to offer
  • reference other pages, when visitors may want or need additional information
  • offer related articles, pages or products
  • have an easy way to contact you
  • use text wherever possible (instead of images, Javascript, Flash, etc)

In general, you need to make your site easy to navigate and use. Think like a customer, who is new to your site and wants to learn more about the product. What would you need most on that page?

Read more on how to make a site usable.

Promoting your site for free

Website promotion is often considered the most expensive thing you need to do to your website. However, when on a budget, there are other things you may want to consider:

  • create content (useful articles, entertaining posts, tools, etc) that other people would link to
  • have a really useful product that significantly improves peoples' lives
  • communicate with your customers and peers on blogs, forums, etc

If you can not use any paid promotional methods, you need to make sure your customers spread the word themselves. To do this, your product needs to be remarkably useful, to really respond to peoples' needs and to communicate with others and give them a way to spread the word about you.

To promote your site efficiently, you'll need to create a solid content background for it (like 50-100 well written articles) and then get involved with the industry: talk with other experts, comment on their blogs, guest blog, write articles for your industry journals, etc.

Read about 25 ways to promote a blog, for example.

What to expect?

Of course, if you are no expert in any of the above fields and have no specific skills, you'll need to be absolutely careful on what you do. Generally, you'll need to learn various basics, such as SEO, usability and web design to make sure you do everything right.

If you run a business, it'd probably be best to spend some money on professionals to look on your site and to improve it. You should get significant boosts of traffic and sales, once you tweak the site, according to the advice you will be given.

While you can really do everything yourself for free (don't expect others to help you for free, though), you need to remember that you need to be persistent and patient. It takes a lot of time to setup and launch a website yourself without external assistance. I'd say an estimate of $10,000 investment in a website for it to successfully work, is a good one.

Rounding up

While, technically, any business can setup a website, you'd rather aim at providing the most value to your customers. This should make your business more efficient and it will make promoting your product, service and website much easier (especially, if you can useful content).

The only thing you need to remember about creating and promoting a website without a budget, is that instead of spending money, you pay with your time. And you need to spend significant hours before you reach any results. So buckle up, get patient, persitent and be ready to learn a lot.

If you own a charity, run a charity website or work for a charity, you should read an article about creating, improving and promoting charity websites.

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