We just took over a client’s first website that was a fiasco. The site was done in WordPress but everything, I mean everything, including all of the copy, was put into the site with images. That means, from the viewpoint of search engines, there was literally no searchable content on the site. In addition, the site had no web analytics, search engines were blocked in WordPress, there was no sitemap, etc., etc.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time we’ve seen this. We’ve been involved in several projects where a client’s initial site was poorly executed with many of the essential basics overlooked or just flat left out. It makes me nuts!
People pay good money, which is a start-up is precious, and end up with a website that sucks. How does this happen?
Usually, it’s the client’s first-ever effort at creating a website, which means they are not yet educated buyers of these services. This is not a shot at anyone, it’s just a fact. Imagine if someone asked you to buy a 747 for the first time. You’ve never done it before so you don’t know what you don’t know. Some people describe this state as unconsciously incompetent. How can you possibly make a good buying decision without someone helping you who knows the process?
This is where the role of the designer/developer comes in. If they are good and have significant expertise supporting inexperienced clients through building websites, their primary role should be that of a guide. This means they need to lead clients, protect them from falling off the proverbial cliff and be willing to tell them when they are going down the wrong path.
Sadly our client mentioned above got an inexperienced guide the first time around, a developer who knew little and delivered accordingly.
(Note to self: stop here and move on before the rant gets out of control and I start talking about Internet Carpetbaggers.)
So let’s talk about
five or six or seven key things to look for in a great website “guide:”
Use the Buddy System
Find someone who knows websites, and has been directly involved in building several, to help you identify the right company to work with. Ask them to work with you and help vet possible providers.
Wants to help
The very first thing to look for in a provider is a company that wants to help you. They’re driven by a sense of participation and know that their abilities can take you where you need to go. They are really interested in getting it right for you, not to please you, but because it’s their responsibility to you as a client.
Content Management System (CMS)
Make sure any company you work with is using a content management system that you can understand, and ask them to show you training materials they will use to support you once the site is launched. Make sure the CMS is not proprietary. If you split with them, any new company you work with needs to be able to use the same tools. In addition, you should not have to pay any ongoing licensing fees for use of a first-class CMS.
Also if anyone tells you “not to worry, you can change the copy without a CMS,” run away as fast as you can.
When you select the final contender get references and actually call them.
Look at the sites the company has built and ask their references the following questions:
- Did you get a written proposal with actual deliverables and a project schedule?
- How close to the original schedule was it completed?
- Did it stay on budget? If not why and how were the additional charges handled?
- How easy was it to get hold of the developer if you had questions?
- How responsive where they to your questions?
- Was there any discussion about underpinnings of, or planning for, SEO?
- Did you get any training on the CMS? Did you get any training support or materials as part of that process?
- Have you made any changes since the site was launched? If so who made them? If the vendor did them what did it cost?
- Are there any analytics installed on your site? If so are you getting any kind of reporting on website traffic?
- What would you have done differently now that the site is launched?
At the end of the project make sure everything is in your name and you have all of the access credentials for the website, web hosting and anything else. The number of times we’ve had to rescue credentials from previous developers is silly. Some developers think this gives them some level of control over the long-term relationship.
Some conventions for websites are there because they should be. Don’t let a developer talk you into something just to be different. We had one client who had been told their primary navigation should be at the bottom of the web page because it would make them stand out. Actually, it turned out to benefit the developer because that let them use a site template they had created for another company. Bad, bad idea…standing out for bad reasons is never a good idea.
Make it Mobile
Almost 30% of our current client websites are accessed via a smartphone or tablet, and the percentage is growing. Make sure your site works on a mobile device. This doesn’t mean being to see a teeny-tiny website, it means a true mobile site optimized for the platform. WordPress will do this as a natural byproduct of creating a site if you use a responsive design theme.
At the end of the day, if you’re creating your first website you can’t be expected to know everything. So find a “guide” with whom you are comfortable and trust them to lead you through the process. It’s complicated and important. Your website is the first contact many people will have with you and your company. Think about that first impression: good, clean and solid wins every time.
So give yourself a break and realize that if your website sucks it’s probably not your fault, but getting it right is your responsibility. In some cases limping along with a bad site can do more harm than not having one at all.
…and the very last thing to remember is, do not hire somebody’s cousin’s brother’s nephew. Hire a professional who depends on good work, repeat business and word of mouth to make a living.