Getting the Most from Your Web Designer
Getting the Most From Your Website Design Company
Twelve years ago when I started my web design company, the cost of launching a website could be allocated into three basic blocks - Design - Hosting - SEO.
Back then the design cost could range anywhere from $500 to $5000 largely depending on the extent of web graphics and the inclusion or otherwise of a product catalog. Hosting was typically in the region of $400/year and there wasn't much to be gained from shopping around for a better deal. SEO was in its infancy and anyone even aware of the term had a relatively easy task of getting their website listed by the big search engines of the day - AltaVista, Looksmart, Yahoo and Excite.
So to get from zero to receiving orders was comparatively easy when looking at what's involved today.
The design stage of any new website is absolutely critical. I've heard so many times over the years of companies who've literally had to throw away their website and start over, just to implement a new design requirement. There is so much more functionality available now, compared with 10 years ago, and if your website doesn't allow for quick/easy changes and functionality updates, you are quickly going to become static and outdated.
Lets break down the requirements of a 2010 web venture, assuming you are starting with a clean sheet.
Though many companies are still working with conventional design tools such as Dreamweaver and MS Expression, basic HTML structure is really is a technology that's on its way out. Sure, both aforementioned software programs can be utilized to do much more than basic HTML, both support ASP, PHP, XHTML etc, but the real design consideration, the one that should ultimately determine the design approach, is "Functionality". What exactly is it that you want your website to do now, and can you project forward a couple of years and imagine what your website might need to do to be competitive, in say 2012?
If that's confusing, try to break down the functionality consideration into smaller modules -
1 - Site-wide search function - providing your visitors with quick access to important content through a simple search box.
2 - Expandable navigation - having an intuitive navigation structure and one that is easy to update as your content grows, is paramount to the success of your website.
3 - eCommerce functionality - even though you might not need to sell products/services initially, if your website takes off you may need to add it in the future. But how big a job is it going to be to integrate a shopping cart into your 'static' design in 12 months time?
4 - Advertising Space - if you don't sell a product direct, can you place ads easily to monetize your website, once your traffic increases - is this going to disrupt or even destroy your layout?
5 - Polls and user interactivity - creating 'sticky' elements that engage your visitors is important in building traffic and repeat visits, how easy is it to integrate these components without "hacking" your code/template.
6 - Social Media Hooks - you might not be using Facebook yet, but you will at some point. Adding Facebook badges and page elements is either going to be simple, or not, depending on your initial design.
7 - Adding / Changing content - are you happy to pay your designer each time you need an image changing or some text updating? - you shouldn't be. But if your website is coded in Dreamweaver, you may be in for a difficult time making changes yourself.
8 - Community tools - these are important for building visitor loyalty, and include newsletters, blogs, forums and more. How easy is it going to be to integrate these tools into your website?
9 - Handheld device compatibility - it's upon us now, but in 2-5 years it will be essential for any website to be browsable from a hand-held portable device.
Those are just a few of the design considerations when planning a new website. Assuming you're going to incorporate some, if not all of the above, taking that specification to a conventional design house utilizing Dreamweaver / Expression, is going to cost you a great deal of money. But there's a simpler option available to you, a platform that comes pre-configured for the easy addition of functional modules - Joomla.
At its heart, Joomla is an open-source Content Management System (CMS) aimed at providing website owners with a simple way to update and maintain a website without the need for extensive design/coding skills. But it is much more than just that. Due to its open source concept, hundreds of developers have built add-on modules for just about every conceivable function, modules which can be installed and configured quickly without disrupting the core code of your website. Adding the functional elements listed 1-9 above can be quick and easy and they can be 'switched-in' as and when needed. Sure, you'll still need your Joomla designer to do the initial setup and configuration, and you'll probably need him/her to add in the new modules, but you shouldn't be hearing things like "What, you want me to add a blog to your website! why didn't you tell me that from the start! Now it's going to cost you.....hmm, let me see.."
Simply put, Joomla is the most flexible platform for any new website project, it won't restrict the growth of your web presence and it won't break the bank each time you need to add functionality.
There are some incredible bargains when it comes to hosting and I suggest that you apportion some of your time to developing a shortlist of host companies and then researching other user experiences with each, before you make a decision. If you're going down the Joomla route, many host companies provide Joomla and other useful scripts pre-configured for quick installation.
Search Engine Optimization is not the same animal that it was back in 2000, or even 2005. Google and Facebook have revolutionized the way in which we interact with the web and its no longer a simple case of building good Meta tags to achieve a flood of traffic.
Obviously this subject is very involved and beyond the scope of this article to explore in detail. The best I can offer you here are a few simple statements to keep firmly in your mind when you sit down to plan your website with your web designer.
1 - Content is king - build your website around content rich pages and continue to add content, indefinitely. Your website platform must allow you to add content and new pages easily in-house. Having blogs or forums is a good way to grow content on your website, but design them in such a way as to keep the bulk of the content 'on topic'. Consider adding some form of article database to your website. It's an eloquent way of separating your critical selling information from more general verbiage that's used to build traffic. Joomla is the perfect platform for building your own article database and there are tools for rewarding your visitors for becoming content contributors to your website.
2 - Key Search Terms - connected directly with point 1 above, be sure that you understand what your important search terms and keywords really are. This sounds a little deep, but quite often people come to us with a list of keywords which are either too generic, or too diverse. Use Google Webmaster tools to fully research your keywords and ensure you engage your designer in the process, since he or she will need to structure your Meta tags and content layout to focus on the important keywords first.
3 - Don't inadvertently place design hurdles in the path of search engines. You need to create your pages with content that is accessible and to do that you'll need to avoid using certain types of navigation components such as Flash. You'll need to build page file names containing keywords, so your choice of software or choice of a CMS will need to allow for that. There are many other ways to place hurdles in your design, so be sure to research this more and be pre-armed with the right questions when you talk with your web designer.
4 - You need other websites to link through to yours. It sounds easy enough but in reality, why should they? - You need to give them a reason, an incentive, and the mechanics for creating the links easily. The incentive can be that your website contains information which is valuable and therefore other website owners will want to link to it. But this is flimsy at best, we all think our content is valuable but is it unique and enticing enough to make someone go to the trouble of linking to it? This needs careful consideration, it is a key component to your success.
5 - You need a strategy for getting through the "Google sandbox" stage. No one knows the exact details of Googles algorithm and how it implements its sandbox, but basically it places new websites into a "holding pattern" until they've had time to mature. The holding pattern can be anywhere from 3-6 months and during this period you will see your site bounce around in Googles search listings, but mostly it will be buried many pages deep. Your strategy will need to include ways of generating traffic through this sandbox period, and will likely include some "Pay Per Click" advertising.
6 - Absolutely avoid any offers for "fast placement in Google" - "we'll get your website on the first page in one week" these are just not viable companies with whom to place your trust. Look for a company that gives you realistic expectations, a solid plan for developing long-lasting traffic strategies. If you're considering the Internet as a means to make a quick dollar, you're in the wrong place.
7 - Absolutely embrace Social Media and incorporate it into your web marketing and SEO campaign. Many people are still uncertain about Facebook, and don't exactly understand how it can be utilized to promote a business. Remember, Facebook is now ahead of Google as the most visited website. There are ways to benefit from Facebook in the same way you can benefit from Google. Give it careful consideration in any marketing/SEO campaign.
Of course there are many more important steps and considerations when planning an SEO / Traffic campaign, but the above points will hopefully help you in your negotiations with your web design company. If you approach them and appear to be knowledgeable and prepared, they're much more likely to take your project seriously and deliver good results.
If you take one thing away from this article, then I hope it is this - read and learn for yourself but seek some expert help and advice, independent from the company who ultimately build your website.
The Internet has changed considerably over the last 10 years, and more than ever before we need to arm ourselves with the knowledge and tools to make the right decisions about the future of our web presence. Considering the cost of your time, your initial investment, your ongoing efforts, the potential cost of any mistakes made during the inception stage, it would pay you to seek some professional advice early on. Your web designer may be located in your town, but approaching him/her pre-armed with a strategy will ensure that you get the very best out of them. Remember, many web design companies are just that. Keeping abreast of SEO, social media trends and the new world of Web 2.0 is not something that all designers have time to do.
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