You want a good-looking Web site, but you’re put off by the technical details. Perhaps you don’t want to struggle with Web-design software. Or perhaps you dislike the generic look of pages created with automatic site builders.
If you don’t want to tackle Web authoring yourself – or you have complex or highly-specific needs – hiring a professional makes sense. However, if you do intend to hire a Web designer, shop around, compare prices, and get references before you commit any money. To that end, here are some important questions to ask any prospective Web designer:
1) How much control will I have over my site design?
Some designers will ignore your ideas either because they can’t or won’t design what you want. Make sure your designer understands that he or she works for you. And find out whether you’ll be getting an original design or a pre-built template.
That said, recognize that no Web professional can do it all. The World Wide Web may be a broad medium, but it has unique limitations. Some of your ideas may not be practical or even possible. In any case, have your Webmaster explain what he or she can create for you, in clear, jargon-free language.
2) Do your designs conform to current Web standards?
Just as there are codes and best practices in home building, so too are there industry standards for Web design. One important “best practice” is that modern Web design separates appearance from content, using one or two distinct files to control color, fonts, positioning, and other page properties.
Sites coded to standards are easier to manage and more likely to work in different Web browsers. Furthermore, it will be easier for someone who didn’t create the site to make changes, because the pages will be coded in a language universally understood by proficient Webmasters.
3) How will I handle updates?
If you intend to update content regularly, ask whether (and how much) the designer will charge for such updates. Will he or she be quick to make your changes?
Alternately, if you expect to do a lot of updating, see whether your potential designer can set up a content-management system, one that will let you update the page content yourself online. A growing percentage of Web sites are now created using CMSs (content-management systems). Ask your designer whether he or she can build your site in WordPress, Joomla!, Drupal, or another widely-used CMS.
A CMS allows you (or whomever you designate) to update page content with minimal technical knowledge. Furthermore, your site will be more “future-proof” than one created using older methods, especially a site made solely with desktop software. Sites built with desktop software can prove difficult to update without technical skills or the use of that special software. Meanwhile, if the creators of that software stop making or supporting it, the site may need to be rebuilt from scratch.
Bottom line: you’ll have less to worry about if your Web designer works with open standards. You’re even better off if he or she builds your site in a well-supported CMS, such as WordPress.
4) Who will own the domain name?
This refers to www.yourname.com. Make sure that your designer registers your domain in your name, or at least offers the option of transferring it to you without additional cost.
Otherwise, your designer may hold your domain name “hostage”, possibly refusing to release it without a large fee (for the record, a domain name costs around $10 per year to register – and I always give my clients the option of registering it themselves).
5) How much will the hosting cost?
Hosting refers to having a place for your site to be reachable when people type your domain name or find your site via a search engine. Some designers will quote you one fee for building your site without telling you how much you’ll pay monthly to host it. Unless your designer will be performing regular maintenance and updates – or your site handles a lot of input from visitors, such as an interactive or e-commerce site – you should not agree to exorbitant hosting fees.
If your designer plans to charge you more than $25 a month to host a basic, static Web site – not including fees for maintenance and content updates- find a better deal. As with domain names, I give my clients the option of signing up for their own Web hosting, an easy process that I’m happy to walk them through.
One great advantage of owning your own Web hosting (as well as your own domain name) is that you can have a different Webmaster take over your site without much difficulty. You may even decide, later on, to take over the site yourself.
In any case, make sure that your hosting provider is reliable. In particular, ask about the “uptime guarantee”, which should be more than 99%. If it’s not, you could end up losing business because your site is down.
A quick note: some Web designers make their profit mainly from marking up the hosting. If you’re getting a reasonable price for creation of the site, it may make sense to pay your designer a premium on the hosting, especially if he or she will be caring for your site and offering support.
6) Will you also handle the writing?
If you’re not a writer, be aware that many Web designers do not offer professional writing services.
Find out whether your designer will include the services of a professional writer or editor, and have that amount quoted in your estimate before you agree to anything. Alternately, find a writer who can work with your designer, and get hard copy of all estimates before you begin.
You may even find a designer or Web firm that also offers professional writing services, either in-house or via one of their freelance partners. Even then, ask to see samples before you agree to anything. And have all estimates sent to you before you extend any money.
7) Can you include interactive features?
Make sure your designer can accommodate any dynamic needs your site may have. Will you want a feedback form that can collect and send you customer information? Do you need to accept credit cards? Are you planning to take surveys or offer customers the ability to upload files? Perhaps you will be running online courses, maintaining a database, or in need of “members-only” password-protected pages.
Those things require varying degrees of programming and/or complex configuration processes. Make sure your designer is up to such tasks before you begin.
8) Do you create “search-engine friendly” pages?
If your customers can’t find you, your site won’t generate much activity. Make sure your potential designer knows how to make your site “search-engine” friendly. While SEO (search engine optimization) is a specialized field, a good Webmaster knows at least some basic strategies for creating Web pages that show up well in search engines.
9) Do you offer a guarantee?
Make sure you have a contingency plan in case you’re not happy with the work. And don’t pay your designer the full fee until the site is up and running. Learn all the terms and conditions of the services you’ll be receiving before you agree to anything.
With the right Web designer, your site can be quick to load, pleasing to view, profitable, and visible in the search engines. You’ll have an Internet presence that reflects positively on you and complements your overall promotional goals – all the things any good Web site should do.
— Mike Matera is a professional communications consultant, specializing in WordPress, Web copywriting, and content development.