The worth of a Website is no longer in question. This cost-effective marketing tool is always on and can easily outstrip print marketing by thousands of dollars a year. Unless it was so poorly built that no one knew until it was too late.
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!
Almost anyone with a graphic design background can become a Web designer, mostly because this discipline obviously leans towards the creative side, concentrating on appearance and layout - color schemes and palettes, images, font styles, all the stuff that makes a Website visually appealing.
A graphic artist/Web designer can't 'build' a Website though - there are far too many technical underpinning challenges and considerations. Website hosting (your Website files, databases and e-mail services) 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 level. As a by-product, their client's site typically suffers from crashes, long load times and a lack of features. Just keep in mind, hosting choices are 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/complicated
Web designers are also not code-saavy, and as such lean on "Web builders" or templates. While a builder might do some of the heavy lifting and a template may look really cool and slick, that "UH-OH" moment comes when the Web designer can't commit to any sophisticated changes outside of what that tool natively does or a template will allow.
- CLIENT: "We need granular filters for our services, something a visitor can sort through instead of seeing everything at once."
- WEB DESIGNER: "Ok."
- CLIENT: "We also want to change the home page layout a bit, maybe shifting some stuff to one side.
- WEB DESIGNER: "I'll get back to you in a couple days."
The response wasn't a definitive "No problem, let me take some notes," but instead a "Oh crap, I need some help."
If you're a budget-strapped startup there are several ways to improve your odds of finding that unique person who can 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 brick-n-mortar design studios! This is when you start asking questions.
Start by asking
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 Horror
Something else to be mindful of - Web designers who 'build' a Website using a template likely have the best intentions, however this strategy does a huge disservice to their clients by unintentionally leaving issues in place that should be handled before delivery. The two most prevalent...
- Page load times exceeding 5 seconds (less than 3 is ideal). This is almost always caused by content and server-side assets (files & scripts) that were not optimized.
- Mobile layout not tested. Leaving everything plus the sink on a page forces even the most patient mobile viewer to see content that should only be visible on a much larger screen.
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.
Since I get my fair share of calls from the 'other guy's' clients about search engine rankings that are tanking right out the gate, long page load times (increasing bounce rate) and poor mobile experiences, here are some questions (and my answers) that can be asked during that first important 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 seasoned graphic artist with extensive knowledge of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, this is a resounding "yes!"
- And lastly, how much will a fully-functional Website cost me? If you don't care about functionality or features, don't expect to pay more than $500. However if you need a Website to carry your business long-term, have a serious conversation with a Website developer. Paying almost nothing for junk usually results in the same return on investment. And really, no one should be able to answer this without first knowing a bit about your products and/or services.