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Business special: The best free tools for SMEs

Free small business software guide

E-Commerce Web Site Analytics: HitTail Basic

If you're willing to invest some time analysing your e-commerce site and its visitors, you can tweak your pages to improve their natural exposure in search engine results. How do you know your changes are working? Use a tool to see where your current website visitors come from, then monitor the results after you make changes to your pages.

Most website hosting services retain logs with information about which visitors view which web pages. If you don't have access to your web logs or find them too complex to understand, third-party services will do the work for you. One of the easiest web analytic services to use and understand is HitTail.

HitTail Basic is a free service for smaller websites with up to 100,000 visitors per month. It collects information about the search phrases used by your visitors. First, you sign up for an account on its website. Then you add a bit of JavaScript code provided by HitTail to each of your web pages.

You'll see HitTail's findings when you log in to your account. The service also offers suggestions about underperforming search terms so you can create new web content to emphasise these words. The objective is to increase the number of visitors to your website, which should expose your products and services to more prospective buyers.

A paid service, HitTail Plus, is available if you manage a busier website or require enhanced services, such as a longer history.

E-Commerce Shopping Cart: AgoraCart

You'll need a shopping cart if you offer more than one product or service for sale on your e-commerce site.

A shopping cart will organise and display your products to prospects. It will also accumulate items in an order, keeping track of multiple products, until the shopper is ready to check out and pay for the purchase.

K-Factor Technologies' AgoraCart is a flexible and highly capable shopping cart. You can set up, reasonably quickly, a simple template-based store that's suitable for a business just starting in e-commerce. Yet AgoraCart also supports the integration of fairly sophisticated web designs for an established e-business, though such integration will require more time and technical skills to implement.

AgoraCart is a free download that must be installed on your web server. If you pay for a Pro membership you will receive access to add-ons and chat-based product support.

Mailing List Management: Mailman

There's no better way to remind your customers of the value your business can deliver than by sending a carefully crafted email, such as an electronic newsletter with details of your new offerings and special sales, that can stimulate additional purchases from your loyal and receptive customer base.

Many businesses start by setting up a customer email list using an email client installed on their PC, such as Microsoft Outlook. However, for lists containing more than a few dozen addresses, a mailing can slow down your PC. Errors will bounce back, potentially clogging your inbox.

A better approach to tackling mass emailings is to offload the processing from your PC to a server. You may be able to use your own email server, which is often the same as your web server if you use a web hosting service.

Mailman is a free application. It can be set up on many web hosting services, where your business website typically shares server resources with others.

Mailman has a polished look and an accessible menu interface. I like the way it can automatically process bounced messages. You can configure it to retain temporarily unavailable addresses while removing the truly dead addresses from your mailing list. This helps trim the deadwood from a larger list.

Firing off a message to thousands of email addresses at once can bring a shared hosting server to its knees. So I recommend you check with your service provider to determine what size and configuration of mailing list your server can handle.


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