The worth of a Website is no longer in question. This cost-effective marketing tool is always on, and the revenue it can generate will easily outstrip any print marketing by thousands of dollars a year.
Unless it doesn't.
Websites with great UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) design enjoy higher visitor conversions (visitors becoming brand advocates).
So you're new to the world of having a Website. The prospect of showcasing your products and services to billions 24 hours a day, is almost too exciting. But, you're also cautious about costs, time and hidden pitfalls. "Who do I hire, what questions do I ask, what should I expect, how do I find the right person?" Fear nothing, because as a seasoned graphic artist and Website developer, I'll whip through some helpful suggestions based on budgets, goals and schedules. Web Designer or Web Developer, lets go!
Web Designer vs Website Developer
Almost anyone with a graphic design background can become a Web designer, mostly because this discipline leans towards the creative side, concentrating on appearance and layout - color schemes and palettes, images, font styles - which is all the stuff that makes a Website visually appealing.
Not everyone can 'build' a Website - there are far too many technical underpinning challenges and considerations. Website hosting (files, databases, e-mail, management) is the first, and a challenge unto itself, and unfortunately most Web designers opt for the lowest cost solution in order to maintain their profit margin. As a by-product, the client's site may typically suffer from broken pages, long load times or lack of features.
Always ask about Web hosting choices since they're like cars and washing machines; you get what you pay for.
- Shared hosting - worst/low budget choice
- VPS - best balance between cost and management
- Cloud - most expensive, robust, flexible, and complicated
Web designers are also not code savvy, and as such may lean on licensed product from a Website developer. While a Website template can handle some heavy lifting to make a site look really cool and slick, that "UH-OH" moment is when the client ask for changes outside of what that template natively allows for.
- Client: "We need a way for visitors to sort through our services instead of seeing everything at once."
- Web designer: "Ok."
- Client: "We also want to change the home page layout a bit, moving some stuff to one side.
- Web designer: "I'll get back to you."
The response wasn't a definitive "No problem, let me take some notes," but instead a "Oh crap, I'm gonna need help."
If you're a budget-strapped startup there are several ways to improve your odds of finding the right person to build this almighty online presence and work with you, long-term. One way is to get social - on any given day you can find a local Facebook or LinkedIn group to start a discussion like, "I need help finding a website developer."
Be careful though, because while responses might come in at a pretty good clip for hours, most of the 'recommendations' may be linked to poorly performing Websites, some of which are even brick-n-mortar design studios!
Up front questions
To ensure a long-term return on your Website investment, you have to ask the potential hire a few questions.
- What deliverables should I expect from you and what do you need from me?
- How will we collaborate; by phone, e-mail, in person? Expect a seasoned Website developer to have a custom-built client portal to alleviate the grief and frustration that comes with e-mail collaboration.
- Will you custom-build my Website or use a template?
- How much work does your fee cover - what if during the development cycle I need extra features?
- Do you know enough to help me long term or should I anticipate hiring someone for maintenance (Website & server), custom coding, graphics, etc?
Avoid Template Disaster
Anyone who 'builds' a Website using a template likely has the best intentions, however this strategy can become a disservice to the client by unintentionally leaving issues in place that should be resolved before making the site live. The most prevalent...
- Page load times exceeding 5 seconds (less than 3 is ideal). This is almost always caused by content and server-side assets such as files and scripts that were not optimized, and is important because of how it impacts mobile visitors and search engine ranking.
- Untested mobile layout. Leaving everything plus the refrigerator on a page forces even the most patient mobile viewer to wait for content that should only be visible on a much larger screen. Since mobile visitors are typically looking for information on an impulse, it's not the best strategy to include every bit of content for smaller resolutions.
- You don't own the licensing. Hiring someone who uses a Web template is no different than hiring a plumber or electrician - you don't get the tools. Ask for clarification upfront about a template license or expect updating your site to quickly become a mental and financial pain.
Learning the fundamentals of Website development takes time, so I can understand why most Web designers prefer to to push templates - slick advertising like "Loved by 20k," "#1 selling theme of all time," and "Streamlined installation" are very tempting when your only strategy is to make a quick buck. However these $30 - $150 pre-designed Websites, which are coded by Website developers to satisfy every online itch, typically come with issues the client will have to pay to resolve long after their Website goes live.
Pro - client gets a functional Website in days (as opposed to weeks or months) with little to no effort on the part of the Web designer.
Con - this new Website is code-heavy because all the yummy template stuff is loaded onto the Web server. This almost always causes cascading problems, such as lower search engine rankings than competitors, which means less Website visitors due longer page load times.
Asking the questions from above can help you drill down to one of two people for your project and budget.
- The person who uses the same template from the past six clients and likely doesn't know a lot about its inner workings (AKA the code). They will charge you $300-$700 out-the-door, which at first seems very budget-friendly, but when your search engine ranking dips, or you want a major layout change, expect to pay someone else a lot more than the original fee to fix all those underpinning issues or to add custom code.
- Pay a Website developer a reasonable fee for her/his time to properly strip-down a theme or build a Website from scratch. Your Website will be a lot easier for both of you to work with long-term while improving your visitor experience.
I get my fair share of calls and e-mails about the "other guy" after search engine rankings tank, long page load times (increasing bounce rate), and poor mobile experiences. Here are some questions (and my answers) that you should ask that guy or girl during your first phone call.
- Can you ensure my page load times are above average.? Absolutely! Since search engines penalize slow loading Websites, I optimize page content and server-side files for page load times below 3 seconds.
- I need an e-commerce Website - what payment gateway do you recommend? This really can't be answered without knowing what products, and how many, you have. If you only have a few products or your budget is minimal, you probably won't benefit from a dedicated merchant account. An online payment service like PayPal, 2Checkout or Google Wallet may be more cost-effective.
- Are you familiar with the latest SEO trends and techniques, and how much do you charge? Yes. However don't expect anyone to do it for less than $250 per page. Due to sheer complexity of current requirements (e.g., Google changes it's search algorithm several times a year), keyword/phrase research and placement, meta descriptions, etc. there is a lot of ongoing work that has to be done. And then there's grammar; nothing damages credibility more than misspelled words and poor sentence structure. You want to work with someone who, at least through their own Website and proposal, has good grammar skills.
- Do you provide custom graphic design or if I provide images, can you make them Web-ready? As a graphic artist with extensive knowledge of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, this is a resounding "yes!"
- Lastly, how much does a Website cost? If you don't care about functionality or features, likely no more than $500, but paying anything for junk usually results in no return on investment. If you need a Website to carry your business long-term, talk with a Website developer. And no one should be able to provide a quote without first knowing a bit about your products and/or services.