Thursday, October 4, 2012

Part I: Pre-exploration (Building a small business website)

Summary: Should you build your small business website yourself, pay a professional to do it, or do something else?
In this section, I will cover the most important decisions you need to make before you start building a website. For other topics, see:

Table of contents Buy or build?
The first and most important decision you need to make is: whether to hire a professional or build the site yourself (possibly with some help). Either option has pros and cons. Building a website yourself will most likely be the cheapest option. It will also give you full control of the site, so you will not depend on anyone. But the result will most likely (although, not necessarily) look less polished. So if you have a sufficient budget, consider hiring a professional.

How much would hiring a professional cost?
It will cost more than building the site yourself (at least, money-wise), but the exact amount could be $200, $2,000, more, or somewhere in between. The cost will depend on the website's complexity and other factors. Keep in mind that development cost should not be the primary concern when hiring a professional. The first question you need to address is: who (and how) will be in charge of the website maintenance after the site is up and running? Here is a common conversation I often get into when someone (SO) asks me (ME) for help:
- SO: I have a website built a year ago. Can you take a look at it?
- ME: Sure. It looks nice. Who built it? And how much did you pay?
- SO:Some guy from Poland charged me $400 for it.
- ME: That's not bad, not bad at all. So what do you need me for?
- SO: Could you make a small change? I need to update price list on this page?
- ME: Okay, do you know where it is hosted? Or which platform it is built on?
Now the conversation takes a bad turn. The small business owner does not know where the site is hosted (in response to the question about hosting, I normally get the site's URL). Or he may know, but have no idea how to access the control panel or source code. Hardly ever does the owner know which platform (PHP, WordPress, ASP.NET, etc) the site is built on. To make matters worse, the original developer is nowhere to be found or cannot be easily reached. [By the way, I'm not picking on Polish developers here; this can happen with contractors from U.S., Mexico, Russia, China, India, or any other country.] So, the poor small business owner is out of $400 and needs to rebuild the site from scratch.

How to avoid problems when working with a contractor?
Here are some topics you need to consider and discuss with your contractor to avoid common pitfalls (here, I'm focusing only on the aspects most likely to be missed by novices; you will need to discuss requirements, payments and other important topics that should be obvious):
  • Check contractor's experience and the websites he has already built (the longer the contractor has been in business, the more sites he should be able to show you). Do you like them? Notice the sites built for the same type of business (feel free to borrow ideas from them).
  • Determine who will own and maintain the site once it's build. If the contractor will be responsible for maintenance, discuss the associated costs (normally, maintenance involves monthly fees). Make sure you understand terms of maintenance, i.e. what the maintenance fee will cover. Ask for a typical response time (if you need to make a minor update or fix a problem).
  • Ask where the site will be hosted and how long the contractor has been using this host. Were there any issues? How long did it take to resolve them? Check if it would be possible to move to a different host if you experience consistent problems (such as long response time, outages, etc). Make sure you agree on who will be responsible for troubleshooting the issues if the site is down or experiences problems.
  • When discussing costs and fees, ask for a payment breakdown to see how much goes where, e.g. how much web site hosting or domain name registration will cost, how much the contractor will take, etc.
  • Make sure you own your website's domain name. If you cannot be the owner, ask the contractor if he can transfer ownership to you in case you decide to move on.
  • Ask which technology the contractor will use to build the site. Stay away from Adobe Flash-based sites: they can look flashy on your computer, but may not work on other devices (such as iPhone), and will most likely cause you problems in the long run.
  • Request to have a copy of the source code (you will need the complete project). Source code may not make sense to you now (or ever), but if you hire someone else to maintain your site later, source code will be needed.
  • Make sure you website will be optimized for mobile access and will work on slower connections.
  • Ask the contractor about his search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. Don't fall for the paid SEO services.
  • Discuss the separation procedure. If you are not happy with the contractor, or want someone else to take over support or redesign the site, how will you get the source code and other files (such as photos, etc)?
  • Check if you can be allowed to access the site's hosting control panel (in case you want to make changes). If so, do a walkthrough and make sure you know how to log on and get around.
  • Once the site is built, check the following:
    • See how it works using different web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari).
    • Check site for content: read all text, look at images.
    • Test all hyperlinks to make sure they point to the right locations.
    • When hosting files (such as PDF documents), make sure you can download them.
How to be a good client?
Other than being a prompt payer, try to provide the information requested by your contractor on time. Remember that while the contractor takes care of the site's web design and operation you own its content. We know that you are busy with your primary business, but without your feedback, the contractor will have nothing to put on the web pages.

To DIY or to not DIY?
If you have little money or cannot (or do not want to) spend more on the online presence, the do-it-yourself (DIY) is your only option. In the rest of this series, I'll discuss how to make the best of it, but regardless of the path you chose -- buy or DYI -- I hope it will be informational to you.

P.S. After publishing this post, another alternative (in addition to hiring a professional or doing it yourself) came to my mind. Depending on the type of business you are conducting, you may be able to find a provider specializing in hosting small business websites for the folks just like you. For example, my local auto mechanic, hosts his site at Repair Shop Websites. I haven't checked, but I suspect that other businesses may have something similar (e.g. here is one targeting food service businesses: BistroSquare). On the positive side, such providers optimize their services for the needs of specific industry, their websites normally look professional, and they should be more reliable than a random guy you find on the internet. Unfortunately, such services are not inexpensive, at least, when compared to the DIY option. But I would check them out anyway. Maybe you can find a deal that will make sense to you.

<< Introduction Read Part II >>

See also:
4 Easy Steps To Create Your Small Business Website