If you have a small business you pretty much need a website. And you are probably aware of that since you are reading this.
But taking on a website project might be intimidating for someone that doesn’t do this every day.
On top of that, agencies and freelancers might not be something you are not looking forward to working with and taking the wrong decisions can lead to wasted money.
Don’t get discouraged. It’s not that hard to get it right. You also don’t really need to make it perfect. Realistically there is always room for improvement.
Take the project seriously but at the same time don’t stress out too much.
If you pay attention to a few important points you can make sure you get good value out of your investment. That is the goal of this post so grab a pen and paper and let’s dive in.
1. Give your website the attention it deserves
Your website is the face of the company. It’s what people see before they interact with you.
Maybe I’m stating the obvious here but by the number of websites I see poorly put together it seems that many people just don’t think about how much their website speaks about the company.
Thus they don’t give it any proper attention.
People that you want to do business with will likely see your website before any other kind of interaction. Not all of them, of course, but most of them.
People leave and breathe online.
“94 percent of business buyers do some form of online research” Accenture Interactive – 2014 State of B2B Procurement Study
Stats are nice but also think about your own actions.
What do you do when you need a new product or service? Do you go out the door and walk around from door to door searching for the thing that you need?
What do you do when you what to try a new restaurant? How about when you are looking for a weekend outside the city?
I guess you get the point, your online image is the face of the company.
The thing about all of this is that you probably want to look good, to be an attractive option for potential clients.
And keep in mind, you are two screen taps or clicks away from your competition.
If you go to a meeting with a client, you probably dress nice, look sharp, professional, like you know what you are doing, right?
The same thing goes for websites. If a website looks like it’s been slapped together by a 10yo. it’s probably going to make visitors run away.
Think about going to your next client meeting in your pajamas.
Here is a random website in its pajamas.
Would you trust this business?
Even worse, not having a website whatsoever might lead people to question you legitimacy as a business. Are you legit or just trying to scam a fool?
Your competition seems to have a decent website, so where should I place my bet?
In summary of this point, here are some things to consider:
You should have a website even if your business is offline, people look for you online before visiting your physical location. Heck, people search online for product info while they are in the store.
- The website should work well on mobile devices because people are just stuck to these things.
- It should be easy to use, easy for the consumer to find the information that he is looking for, be it what you offer, how you offer it, pricing, etc.
- It should look trustworthy because competition is two taps away “back, tap next search result”
Take a critical look at your existing website. Does it pass the above checks?
If not, maybe you should consider a re-design. Maybe a re-structuring of information to do a better job at presenting your business and the benefits of working with you.
If you are just now starting to build your website make sure that your new creation will pass those checks.
2. Set clear, specific goals
You probably heard this before, “if you don’t know where you’re going every road will take you there”.
But I bet you know where you want to go, more business.
However, as simple as it sounds, you need to get more specific about what goals the website should achieve that will lead to more business.
Growing business means different things to different people so I can’t give you specifics.
For a startup it can mean the next round of funding or to attract general consumers, for a specialized service might mean attracting CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, for a small restaurant it can mean converting more people from close proximity into regular customers, and so on.
Your website should be specifically tailored for the people that you want to attract.
Let’s say that you want to generate email leads for your restaurant. This would be the main goal.
Then you could add to it that you will give out a free meal to help convince people to sign up.
You then send other emails from time to time with various offers that over time will increase the number of customers that regularly come to your restaurant.
Maybe even reward people with some kind of points each time they eat at your location. They could then use those points to get discounts.
Setting this type of specific goals helps define what you should do to achieve them and give you a better sense of direction.
You may also notice that suddenly the “simple website” needs an email subscription system and some sort of reward system to keep track of customers and how many points they accumulate over time.
The more specific you can set your goals the more likely you are to achieve them. Just make sure you are being realistic with your goals.
Take some time to define your goals and how should those goals be achieved. How detailed you are in this is up to you but the more detail, the better.
3. Plan how your website will achieve its goals
Many people rush to web design agencies or freelancers asking for a “ballpark estimate” for a website.
Pricing varies like crazy, from the $100 the kid next door is asking to the tens of thousands that a big agency is asking.
Crazy at the first glance, not so crazy if we dive in.
Before you have a plan, a “ballpark estimate” is as useful as melted ice cream on the sidewalk.
It’s the specifics that will drive the final costs. So, what are these specifics?
Some groundwork has already been done by the above point with the goals so let’s dive deeper into some of the questions that will help define the details.
What do you want people to do on your website or as a result of visiting your website?
We touched on this a bit in the previous point. But this time try to go a bit deeper.
Continuing with the imaginary restaurant from the previous point, we want people to subscribe to a newsletter.
I get a free lunch if I sign up but why would I bother with a free lunch at a restaurant I know nothing about?
You need to dig a bit deeper and figure out what would make you look attractive for potential customers so that when they see your offer they will be immediately hooked.
It could be a simple photo gallery, it could be your portfolio if it’s something that you need in your business, it could be a list of past clients if you are in B2B.
This is up to you to figure out. But make sure that it will hook your customer, not you.
You might consider that something is attractive but will a customer that doesn’t know much about your industry consider it attractive?
Take me as an example.
I could blog about coding and design techniques or write tutorials but would the usual small business owner find it attractive? Probably not.
Who is going to maintain the website?
A website is not really something that you set and forget. It’s a nice story but it doesn’t really work out that way.
At the ‘least-possible-work’ side of things, you still need to make updates from time to time to the CMS (content management system) that holds everything together.
Why? Without going into technicalities, for security reasons.
You might also want new pages added or changed from time to time. Who is going to handle those?
Depending on what exactly you need in terms of maintenance you might decide to do it yourself or to hire someone to do it. Agencies will offer this as well.
If you have the time and you like to get your hands dirty you can do these yourself.
If you are not sure about this, consult your agency.
When comparing agencies and their pricing you might want to take maintenance into consideration as well.
You are not necessarily tied to the agency that built the website to also maintain it but it might be more convenient.
Who is going to handle content creation?
You obviously need something on your website, a company description, service descriptions, images, marketing messages, and so on.
Who or how do you want to handle that?
Are you going to write your own content, take you own photos, etc? For a lot of people, this is their thing and it can work very well if you have the skills.
Are you going to let other people do it? If so, who?
These will add to the total cost of the project either in terms of money or time so you need to take them into consideration as well.
How are you going to promote the website/who is going to do it?
Just building the website is not going to do much in some cases. You might need to do some marketing work.
What kind of marketing would you need to do? Who is going to do it?
Maybe you don’t know much about marketing and that’s fine. This is your answer to the question and you are going to ask for advice and a price for the suggested course of action.
Ask your agency for suggestions and the reasoning behind their suggestion.
You might discover that you need some extra functionality or some extra pages to support those marketing efforts.
Do you need branding services or is that handled already?
Maybe you have the company for some time now and you already have the basics at least, things like a logo, overall brand colors/style that you use in your materials.
If that is the case, don’t rush to change them. If everything looks ok there is no real reason to redo it unless you want to.
If you are not sure, consult the agency.
If your branding looks like it’s all over the place then yes, you probably should consider an identity service.
This means an update for the logo or a new one and the development of general brand guidelines that will be used throughout all of your marketing materials.
This ensures that you are consistent in your presentation, look and feel across the board.
When you have the answers to the questions above you not only have a pretty solid plan but can also get a good price estimate.
Even if you don’t have all the answers, you know what answers you need and what to ask for if you feel you need some advice.
Grab a piece of paper of whatever you like to use to make a plan and start noting ideas.
Things where you would need advice, competitor website, websites that you like.
Note everything until you have somewhat of a complete picture of what your website will look like in the end and how it will work.
4. Understand quality if you want to understand price
Various people will bring various degrees of quality at various prices.
From the way they handle the process to the design work, to the coding work to the final setup and beyond.
But how can you judge the quality without having experience in the industry?
Quality in the development of a website can split into a few different sections.
How are things handled? It there a process in place or is everything done without any order?
A good process will help ensure that goals are met, things move at a decent pace and end up actually done.
At the same time, a good process will ultimately ensure the quality of every stage of the project which we are going to touch next.
In terms of design, quality is not beauty. This is a strong point in my design philosophy.
For me, the quality is driven by how well looks combine with ease of use without affecting each other.
This is, in my opinion, the ultimate goal in design, to create something that is both beautiful and at the same time easy to use.
If ease of use is thrown out the window people might get frustrated and move on to other solutions.
If looks are thrown out the window people might question the legitimacy of the service/product even if it’s easy to use.
You can think of Apple as a good example. Their success is based on this mix of beautiful design and ease of use.
In terms of coding, things are quite different.
Quality coding will ensure that your website will be fast, secure, easy to maintain and easy to change.
This is a bit trickier that it sounds.
A lot of times a developer makes the initial website, down the line other ten different people make changes and the code ends up being a mess.
Not only can this affect how fast and secure your website is but at some point it will drive maintenance cost so high it wouldn’t make any sense.
I’ve witnessed this with a pretty big project where things got so bad that every little ‘5-minute’ changes would end up taking hours.
At that point, it’s hard to justify the costs but a total rebuild also costs a lot. Tricky situation.
The nasty part is that you just can’t tell if an agency has code quality in mind unless you understand code yourself.
The good part is that if you need a small website, the situation is quite hard to get as dramatic as in the example above.
Probably every developer prefers to start a project from scratch than to work on an existing one. There is a reason for that.
When you work with an existing project you have to first figure out how everything is put together, what connects where and so on.
On top of that you, ideally, respect the system that has been put in place, if you figure it out. Hmmm.
You might think a ‘small change’ to a website can’t go wrong but a lot can go wrong. Especially if changes happen frequently.
In essence, the quality in terms of maintenance boils down to how well will the original style of doing things will be respected so that the code or the visuals don’t end up a mess and other people can work on the project further down the line.
I guess that the best way to get a grasp if an agency cares about quality is to get a feel for their website if there is anything broken if they pay attention to detail.
Pro tip: take a look at the copyright date at the bottom of the website, you’ll be surprised more often than not.
Other than that read their marketing material, their blog, see if they mention anything about quality.
I know it’s not the greatest thing you’ve ever heard but it is what it is.
5. Figure out what people expect to find and give it to them
We established that looks and ease of use are important. But that’s not all, folks!
Just as important and maybe even more important is to have the right elements, the right pieces of information present, in order to support the end goal of the page.
For instance, if you have a restaurant website, what would persuade potential customers to have a lunch there?
It could be some images showing how nice the place looks like, it could be customer reviews, it could be the menu, it could be the pricing, a map of the physical location, etc.
Think about these elements and make sure they are present on the website, easy to view, placed in the right spots.
What would help persuade people to try your services? What are people expecting to find on your website?
Take a look at some of your competitors to get an idea.
6. Stay away from trends that create more problems than they solve
We’ve already talked about the ease of use and how it can mix with good looks. There are however some trends going on that are not that great.
You want to look modern but some modern things are not ideal. Here are some examples:
No menu on desktops
When mobile started gaining serious traction designers and developers started to take what is knows as a ‘mobile first’ approach.
This means that you consider mobile devices first and then you would adapt your project for desktops.
However, things got a bit too far and a lot of people just ignore the desktop. One of the more problematic side effects is the lack of a proper menu on desktops.
There is the typical ‘hamburger’ menu present in most cases but it just adds an unnecessary extra action to reach the information you are looking for.
This is essence means that the website takes control of the scroll behavior instead of letting the browser handle it.
This is bad on multiple levels. First of all, you take away what the user expects, the scrolling behavior that he is used to.
Secondly, different websites have different ways of dealing with scrolling meaning that one has a way of doing scrolling another has a different way of doing it.
Bye bye consistency.
It’s surprising to me that even if desktop monitors tend to get bigger and with bigger resolutions, some designers make the text so small it’s hard to read even for young people.
What is the point of having any product description or marketing messaging if I can’t easily read it?
Make sure text is easy to read and if it’s aimed at older people this is all the more important.
Heavy loading images or video backgrounds
Large image or video background look cool. But like with anything you can easily go overboard with this cause more problems than you solve.
Well, you don’t solve anything, to begin with, because this is just something you do for the sake of looking fancy.
So when these things make the website take ages to load, what is the point?
I’ve seen websites where I would look at blank sections waiting for the image to load not sure if anything would eventually load or something is broken.
So, if you are going to have big images or background video make sure that they can load fast.
It might also be a good idea to add some form of animation to let the user know something is about to load. Don’t let the user stare a blank screen.
Avoid trends that sacrifice user experience.
7. Decide who is taking decisions and who handles communication
I mention this because it really is an important part of the whole website thingy.
Feedback to the designer can get out of control when it starts to contradict.
This usually happens when there are multiple people overseeing the project and each individually talking to the designer/developer.
This is also something that agencies are guilty sometimes, passing you around from the account manager to the designer because (he understands design..so you should talk to him) to the developer, etc.
Communication between parties should be a one to one thing. One person on the buyer side one person on the agency side.
If in your organization you involve ten people in the planning of your website, great. One person should ultimately take responsibility for decisions and then communicate with the agency you are working with.
The same thing should be happening on the agency side.
I’ve been involved in projects where a client would say one thing and the next day his partner would request something completely different because they didn’t talk among themselves.
Decide who is going to be the representative from your company to talk to the agency and who is ultimately taking decisions.
If 5 guys in a room have 5 different ideas someone has to take responsibility and make a decision.
Bonus: Measure things and use that data to take decisions
The point of measuring how things evolve over time is to help you make decisions about what works and what doesn’t, what needs to stay and what needs to change.
The trap here is that you can measure all sorts of things that ultimately tell you nothing.
What to measure is going to be different from business. Ideally, you take some time to figure out what you should track.
What I can definitely say is that what you track should be correlated to your goals.
For instance, if you are the restaurant owner in all the examples in this article you might want to track the number of online reservations and how this number changes over time due to marketing efforts.
This can give you an idea if what you do in terms of marketing evolves for the better or not.
Correlating that with a total amount of visitors might tell you if the website does a good job at convincing people to make a reservation or not.
The whole story is a bit more complex than this but I’m trying to give you an introduction to it keeping this as simple as possible.
Take some time to figure out what makes sense to track for your particular case. With each metric ask the question “how can this metric help me improve anything in my business?”
Hopefully, I managed to make things a bit clearer and convinced you to pay a bit more attention to your website.
If you are thinking about building a website or re-building an old one block some time in your schedule to go through all the action steps.
By the end of it, you should have a pretty solid plan for your project and definitely more changes of good ROI out of it.