| Web Design

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Who you choose and how you should create your website is one of the most confusing yet essential purchases you’ll need to make as a business owner. It’s a critical and potentially expensive decision, and most business owners don’t have the knowledge or experience to do the proper research or evaluate options.

Websites can cost $500 to $50,000 (part of what’s so confusing about them!), so the wrong decision can be a costly mistake. The wrong partner will likely lead to a frustrating process and potentially poor results. In some cases, you could have a lot of expense and little to show for it.

Who should you hire for your website? Freelancer, agency, designer or developer

Should you create your website?

To begin, you may be considering a DIY platform like SquareSpace or Wix rather than hiring a professional to create your site for you. Should you spend thousands of dollars when you could do it yourself for free?

Unless you happen to have experience with web design, it’s doubtful you’ll be able to pull off an effective website without some professional help. Many small business owners try to ignore the significant risks of a poorly designed website. The potential loss of business from a website that looks unprofessional or doesn’t function properly is not worth the risk. You’re likely to lose business without even being aware of it because your site is not being found in search or is a turn-off to prospects once they get there.

And is that site really free when you think about the value of your time?

Think of hiring a professional to build your website the same way as you would a contractor to work on your house or a mechanic on your car — with some basic understanding, a little insider knowledge, and the right questions, and you can get what you want and not get burned.

You wouldn’t hire a plumber to do your electrical work, and you wouldn’t want major work done to your car at an express oil change. Websites are similar — to get it done right, you need to hire the right person (or team).

Roles and skills needed for your website

Let’s start by looking at some different roles and what they do.

Many people use the words ‘web designer’ and ‘web developer’ interchangeably, but they aren’t the same thing, and they aren’t the same skill.

Web designer

A web designer determines how a site looks.

To continue the home improvement analogy, think of them as interior designers and decorators. Their goal is to make the site look good and create the overall visual appearance through colors, fonts, imagery, and layout. They can do this in any number of ways — directly in HTML and CSS, customizing a pre-made theme, or pulling in graphic files like illustrations and photography.

And similar to the difference between a designer and a decorator, some focus on aesthetic changes like customizing colors and fonts in a pre-built theme, whereas some are ready to develop more significant creative ideas. Do you need a fresh coat of paint and a new rug, or are you looking to create built-ins and maybe take down some out-of-date paneling?

Web developer

A web developer builds out the functionality of the site. They’re like plumbers, electricians, and HVAC contractors — they handle the unseen stuff that makes a website work and function. Often, they’ll use a platform like WordPress and other plugins to manage the complex operations. They’ll fine-tune and customize using HTML, PHP, or JavaScript.

You can expect nearly every web developer to know how to handle typical website functionality like having a blog or an events calendar. For more complex and specialized functions like membership sites, e-commerce sites, or custom applications, you’ll want to find someone with more specific knowledge and experience.

Should you choose a freelancer or an agency for your website?

There are different skills needed to create a website. Sometimes one person has the experience to do both, and sometimes you’ll need a team with more specialized skills to get the best site.

Freelance web designers and developers

A freelancer might have some skill and familiarity in design and development, but they’re likely to excel at one. Take note of whether they call themselves a “developer” or “designer” — that will give you insight into their expertise, process, and priorities. It will also indicate the type of site you’ll get: One designed to look good or one designed to function well.

For example, a freelancer may be more likely to purchase a pre-built theme and customize the design. Or, they may be stronger at development, but their designs are clunky and uninspired.

Web firm or web agency

A web firm or agency should have designers and developers on staff who will collaborate and combine their expertise to build your website. Using an agency increases the chance that your site will be designed and developed well.

You will also get many more skills that may be critical to getting a website you’ll love. These additional team members may include:

  • A copywriter who will help you write or edit your text. A copywriter can either write from scratch after learning about your product or service or edit what you provide to make it more readable and impactful. Writing for online reading is a specialized skill.
  • An SEO expert is essential if having Google find your site is an integral part of your marketing strategy. SEO will include some development tasks (usually maximizing site speed and choosing an SEO plugin like Yoast). And, you’ll want an SEO expert to add the right keywords to your page titles and metadata.
  • An account manager or project manager will ensure that your project moves along smoothly. Large-scale websites are complex projects, and it’s very easy for delays and budget overruns to cause problems. Having someone on the team whose priority is efficiently moving a project forward will lead to a much better experience.

How to find the best website partner

The first thing to do is assess the size and complexity of your website.

If you need a simple, brochure-style site with a limited budget, you’ll probably do best with a freelancer. Just be prepared to accept some limitations to the functionality or caliber of the design. Also, it will be up to you to write all of your content (or hire another freelance writer).

The best way to get recommendations for the right firm or agency is to ask your professional colleagues. Start by looking at websites that you like and have similar complexity to what you are looking for. Then, ask the website owner who they worked with. Make sure you find out if they were happy with the result and the process.

Then, spend some time looking at the websites of the freelancers or agencies you’re considering. Review samples of their work and try to learn more about their process. If they have team bios or a blog, read them to understand how they work. Then, schedule a call to share your goals. This conversation should be a two-way dialogue to understand if your website needs are a good fit for their strengths and if their costs and processes will work for you.

Calculate the value of your site

Think about how valuable your website is to your business.

While a few businesses rely only on foot traffic or word-of-mouth referrals, nearly everyone wants to check out the website of any potential company they are considering working with. An outcome of the pandemic is that your online presence is more critical than ever.

Your website doesn’t need to be complicated. But it needs to demonstrate your quality, function flawlessly, and represent your brand.

Skimping on your website probably has a more substantial negative effect than you’ll ever realize. You can’t ever know and can’t measure all the people who didn’t consider your business because your site didn’t come up in search. Or, they took a look at your site and evaluated that your business is not very professional because of the impression they got from your site.

This cannot be expressed strongly enough. We all make judgments about a business based on its website.


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