Whether you're a sole trader or a multinational corporation a website is now an almost essential part of running a business. Even if you don't sell products directly online a site can still be used to showcase your services and skills or help people locate your premises. You could pay someone to create a site for you but there are plenty of packages around that allow you to do the job yourself at a fraction of the cost.
You can build a website using cloud tools without installing any software on your PC or you can go for a more traditional design package that lets you work offline and upload your design when you're ready to go live.
There are free options, particularly with the cloud-based tools, but these usually have some limitations such as restrictions on the size of the site, the number of pages or which features you can add. You won't have to worry about this with an installed solution but bear in mind that there will be additional costs to host the site and to obtain your own catchy domain name.
To help you decide which option is best for your needs here are - in no particular order - TechRadar Business Centre's top ten web design tools for small business.
1/ 350 Pages
Price: £0 to £19.99 per month
For sole traders and small firms the simplest options are the cloud-based site builders that allow you to design a website in your browser. These are ideal for start-ups or if you just want to test the water.
You build your site using a simple drag and drop process based on a choice of templates. Photos and graphics can be added to your pages and resized on the fly using floating toolbars, 350 Pages also supports embedded audio, video and Flash plug-ins. Hosting is included but you'll pay extra if you want to use your own domain name.
350 Pages has a free option that allows you to build a single site with up to 15 pages. If you want more pages or more sophistication, such as the ability to use eCommerce features to sell online, there are various pricing options ranging from £2.99 to £19.99 a month. These also remove the adverts that appear on sites made with the free version.
Price: £0 to £25 per month
Moonfruit works in a similar way to 350 Pages with a free starter option and prices ranging from £4 to £25 a month. There's a shop facility even in the free version whilst the premium packages offer mobile-optimised pages and access to the Getty image library.
The range of templates on offer is impressive and they have a cleaner more 'designer' look than those on some of the other cloud sites. The interface makes it easy to move items around resize them, change fonts, colours and more.
We were impressed by how easy it is to produce a stylish, professional-looking site using Moonfruit. If you're trading in a creative field the look and feel of its output will appeal but it's well worth a look for any small business.
Price: £0 to £2.54 per month
A drag and drop approach is taken by Weebly too. There are more than 100 themes to get you started and these can be customised to suit your taste. Useful features include the ability to create photo galleries and slideshows, embed multimedia and create forms. It creates a mobile optimised version of the site for you automatically and includes eCommerce tools.
If you've worked with websites before you'll like the fact that Weebly allows HTML/CSS access so that you can make changes to the code – adding affiliate links and ad banners for example. You can use your own domain name – which will cost you extra – or get a free weebly.com address.
Upgrade from the free to the Premium version (US$3.99 per month payable a year in advance) and you can embed videos and documents as well as being able to build up to ten sites per account. You can also remove the discreet Weebly advert that appears in the page footers.
4/ MAGIX Website Maker MX
Price: £0 to £4.99 per month
If you're a complete newcomer to web design and want something that's quick, simple and cheap then this could be the tool for you.
MAGIX is a company better known for its desktop software but Website Maker MX is a cloud program that runs in your browser. It's easy to use, starting with a template and allowing you to drag in your own images and text. There's a choice of navigation styles and the Website Assistant will take newcomers through creating a page in easy steps.
You can use Website Maker for free although it will constantly bug you about features that are only present in the paid version. If you decide to upgrade it's cheap at £4.99 a month for the Deluxe package but you have to pay extra to set up your own domain.
It's worth a look if you're a first timer or need only a simple web presence. If you want anything more sophisticated though you're likely to outgrow it fairly quickly.
5/ WebEasy Professional 8
If you have a slightly larger business or you want to take more control over the design process then you'll need a package that you can install on your PC. This gives you the flexibility to design and preview the site offline and upload when you're ready. Bear in mind though that you will incur hosting and domain costs in addition to buying the software.
WebEasy Professional 8 uses a simple three-step design process. You select from one of 500 templates, add customisation and features then publish it to the web. Built in eCommerce tools allow you to create a PayPal shopping cart and make eBay compatible store pages.
There are options to make photo galleries and blog pages, plus the program includes a wide choice of clip art and buttons to help you personalise your design. Three month's hosting is included in the package price.
There's a Platinum edition available with extra features and a year's hosting for £102.12.
6/ Serif WebPlus X6
Serif has long been a champion of affordable software and its latest WebPlus X6 product offers a step up from the cloud offerings. The £81.69 price tag includes 30-days free hosting (or a full year if you buy the boxed version from Amazon or PC World).
Like the cloud tools you start with a template – there's a good choice including ones for mobile sites – you can then move things around on the page and drop in your own content. Even clever features like rollovers (where buttons change as you move your mouse over them) and social media widgets can simply be dropped into place.
WebPlus has a useful Site Structure view that lets you see how all of your pages link together and there's a clever Colour Scheme Designer that helps you pick matching shades and apply them across the site.
7/ Xara Web Designer MX
Xara Web Designer MX works in a similar way to Serif WebPlus and is equally easy to get to grips with.
A gallery pane to the right of the screen lets you keep track of your pages and you can change colours just by dragging a swatch from the bar at the bottom. We were impressed by some of the features on offer here. Even the standard version lets you create fly-out menus and pop ups. Something we especially liked is the way it automatically reflows text around a picture as you drag it around allowing you to move away from the rigid template feel.
For £89.99 you can buy the MX Premium version that offers extras including Flash animation and slick page-transitions but for most people the standard edition will have everything they need.
8/ Web Studio 5.0
For medium-sized businesses or those that perhaps need to maintain multiple sites there are a number of options available. Of these semi-pro offerings Web Studio 5.0 offers the familiar drag and drop operation, a shopping cart, forms design, drop-down menu creation and graphical rollovers.
There's a steeper learning curve here than with some of the other tools as you start with a blank page rather than a template. However, it uses a ribbon-style interface and has video tutorials built in so even though it's a powerful tool it won't scare away beginners.
A single copy is US$159.99 and there's a business licence option that allows you to use the software on up to five machines for US$630.
Price: Modules from £31.15
CoffeeCup is a little different from the other offerings here in that it's modular. You buy the Visual Site Designer (US$49) to get started then add things like Shopping Cart Designer and Web Form Builder as required.
The extra modules cost around US$39 each but there are package deals available which combine the most popular options at a reduced rate. It's straightforward to use with some attractive templates included. For hardened web geeks there's an HTML editor module available which allows you to work with the underlying code of the site.
If you want to start small but have the ability to grow your web design capability as your business expands CoffeeCup is an attractive proposition.
10/ NetObjects Fusion XII
NetObjects has been making web design software for over 15 years and its latest offering Fusion XII combines some powerful features. It has eCommerce options, integrated analytics to help you assess your site's performance and access to an online image bank. You also get a Site Wizard that lets you build pages fast – ideal for trying out ideas – and there are templates for mobile-friendly sites.
Fusion is based around a site map that lets you see how all of your pages link together and there's the option to access the HTML code if you need to. Fusion is relatively pricey (though it's a lot cheaper than pro tools like Dreamweaver) but it is a very powerful package offering a lot of flexibility.
If you don't need all of the latest bells and whistles there's a free Fusion Essentials version based on an earlier release. This still allows you to build a good-looking site and is a useful way of seeing if Fusion is for you before you lay out any cash.