While the first “prefab” websites had all the design panache of a Ford Edsel, today’s offerings can literally give your Web presence the look and feel of a Fortune 500 firm for under $100. The days when top Web designers wouldn’t return your calls for less than $10,000 are long gone—it’s a buyer’s market for personal fitness trainers.

Other than an extremely slick feel and often arresting beauty, probably the greatest advantage website templates offer is immediacy. You can download, customize and publish in as few as 24 hours. Price is another advantage. Entry-level website templates go for $50 or less and generally feature all the preconfigured pages you need: “home,” “about,” “links,” “frequently asked questions (FAQs)” and “e-mail contact.” More advanced packages, which cost about $90, will give you access to even more page templates, such as online ordering domains, credit card processing and live chatroom support.

Either way, all you need to make these sites your own is a Web authoring program like Microsoft FrontPage (www.microsoft.com/frontpage) or Macromedia Dreamweaver (www.dreamweaver.com) and a little patience. Simply fire up the program; customize your template with company-specific text, pictures and links; and publish to the Web. That’s it. You’re done.

If you’d rather not mess with the
customization details, you’ll have no problem finding a Web designer to handle the finishing touches locally or online. Of course, as with any other purchase, venture out into the market with your eyes open.

Research and Customize

Do a little footwork before you settle on a website template for your company. Here’s what to look for and what to avoid when shopping for an online identity.

Explore the Full Range of Vendors. Type “website templates” into any major search engine and you’ll get a plethora of companies vying for your business. You’ll also find plenty of “free template” offerings, although you probably won’t find much support from these providers if you need help or want just minor customization.

Look for Compatibility With Your
Web Software.
While most website templates are designed to work with common Web authoring tools like FrontPage and Dreamweaver, a few are not. It’s a good idea to check.

Test the Tech Support Before You Buy. Too often, bargain basement Web vendors will take your money and then forsake you to a lackluster tech support center. If possible, test tech support before you buy; otherwise, do it very soon afterward so you’ll be able to get a refund if the support is essentially nonexistent.

Nail Down Customization Costs/ Timeline in Advance. Most template companies will do a little customization for you, or at least point you to someone who will help. Basic changes can cost as little as a few hundred dollars; more sophisticated changes can cost thousands. Either way, if at all possible nail down the costs and the project timeline before you buy.

Hire a Local Web Designer for Customization. The advantage of a local Web designer is that you’ll be able to meet face-to-face. You won’t have to risk wasting your life away on hold, in a chatroom or in endless e-mail correspondence while you wait for tech support. Many Web designers like working with template customization because the major hurdles, such as overall concept and broad-stroke execution, have already been completed before you knock on their door.

Easy on the Bling

While it can be tempting to go all out with your new marketing tool, think about the following before you invest time and money:

Use Multimedia and Flash Only If You Must. While graphically dazzling, Macro-media Flash effects and similar animations tend to slow page downloads. In addition, such home page special effects sometimes make it tougher for search engines to find and list your site, which could result in low search-engine rankings. If you must use such effects, consider putting them behind the home page.

Verify That Flash Effects Can Be Easily Edited. Some template companies enable you to edit Flash effects in Microsoft Notepad, a very simple word processor found in the “Accessories” program folder in Windows. Other companies require you to edit their effects in Macromedia Flash—a great program, but tougher
to master.

Don’t Buy More Site Than You Need. While some personal fitness trainers may have a real need for a 30-plus page website template, many others can get away with eight pages or less. Remember, once you purchase a template you generally have the right to alter any page for a new use. A “client list” page can be easily
repurposed as a “Web links” page, for
example, with just a few keystrokes.