At this point, you’ve probably realized that your business needs a website.
Because people need to be able to find you online whether your business is big or small — or doesn’t need new customers at all.
When you have a website, prospects can decide whether or not they should work with you and existing customers can locate your phone number (because they inevitably failed to save it in their iPhones).
So of course you want a website. But how on Earth do you get started?
As the popularity of the keyword “I need a website built” suggests, figuring out who to work with and why is far more difficult than deciding you need a website in the first place.
And it should be. Going with the first web design company you scroll across can lead to both heartache and wasted money. But you don’t live, eat, and breathe web design and/or development — how should you know what questions to ask?
When you take the time to ask a real human person about their products and services, you decrease the chance of being disappointed by a website that immediately looks old, doesn’t work on mobile, or comes with an array of hidden charges.
Whether you decide to build your own template site or hire someone to do it for you, make sure you ask these seven questions so you end up with a website that works for your business.
Question #1: Can I see a range of sites you’ve already built?
You wouldn’t buy a car without taking it for a test drive, right?
While it would be difficult (well, impossible) to test drive your website before it’s built, you can see how a company’s websites look and feel by cruising around sites they’ve already built.
This doesn’t need to be difficult. Most web designers will include a portfolio on their website, especially if their sites are worth showing off.
Of course, these portfolios usually include the crème de la crème of the designer’s creations. Asking for examples may give you access to a wider range of sites (and at worst will give you a URL to a page you have already visited).
What to look for:
You want to make sure that you like how a web designer’s websites look, because if you don’t and decide to work with them anyway, chances are that you’re not going to like how your new website looks.
You also want to make sure their sites are easy to navigate. Can you find contact info quickly? How about an “about us” page? How quickly does that load?
If you do like how their sites look and feel, make note of what you like in particular, even if you decide not to work with this particular designer. Knowing what you like in a website can help you influence the design of your site.
If your gut is saying “ugh, this looks like my Geocities page from 1999,” don’t go with this designer, no matter how affordable they are. You will regret it.
While looks aren’t everything, it would be silly to think that design doesn’t affect purchasing decisions. For more information on how improving web design leads to increased sales, check out this piece from Kissmetrics.
Question #2: Will my website be mobile-friendly?
Mobile internet use exceeds desktop internet use these days, my friend.
This means that it’s more likely that people will view your website on their smartphones. So your new site better be mobile-friendly.
Most companies that offer responsive design or mobile sites will make this clear. Your job is to make sure that mobile-friendliness comes standard — that you don’t have to pay extra so that most internet users can access your site.
And because not all mobile-friendliness is alike, you should check out at least one of their sites on your smartphone to see if it's as easy to navigate as its desktop counterpart.
What to look for:
In short, you want to make sure you can get around their site easily on your phone. You want text passages to resize. You may even want to see if they offer click-to-call functionality.
When in doubt, ask yourself if you feel annoyed trying to navigate their sample sites on your phone. If so, they don’t offer the degree of mobile-friendliness that your business needs. You'll be able do better.
For more info on what makes a site mobile-friendly, check out this post.
Question #3: Where will my site be hosted?
Your website needs a home if it’s going to show up on the web.
Web hosts provide that home — space on a server for your website. Subsequently, they also connect your site to the internet.
But just like all other things internet, not all hosting is made equal. Some companies charge extra for hosting. Some — particularly freelancers — don’t include it at all.
And some include “shared hosting,” which means that your site is hosted with many, many other sites. This may be more affordable, but if something goes wrong with one of the sites on the server, it could affect all of the other sites. (Which is why our CEO calls shared hosting “the public pools of the server world.”)
Anyway, you should ask about hosting because you need to know whether it is included in the cost of your site and if not, if it can be added on for a fee. Your site needs a home and you need to know how much that home is going to add to the total price of your site.
What to look for:
The kind of hosting that’s appropriate for your business depends on how many visitors your site regularly receives.
If you don’t have a super duper popular (like, "thousands and thousands of unique visitors per day" super popular) site, shared hosting may be fine and dandy for you. Especially if you’re hosted on your designer/developer’s dedicated server (which means you’re only sharing space with other websites built by whoever you’re working with).
If shared hosting is a public pool, then shared hosting on a dedicated server is like belonging to a private swim club — the company you’re working with knows all of the members.
If hosting isn’t included in whatever website package you’re looking to purchase, an alternate option is to place your site on a managed virtual private server, or VPS. A virtual private server gives you the privacy of hosting your site on your very own physical computer, even though other sites live on their own areas of the same server. This makes it a more affordable option than having your own dedicated server.
Hosting your site on a VPS is like having a private pool that your homeowners’ association maintains for you.
Price out the difference between a VPS and shared hosting to determine which is best. For more information on what web hosting service is right for your business, PC Mag breaks down what hosting services are available at what prices.
Question #4: Do I need to hire a photographer? How about a copywriter?
Most professional web designers and developers don’t moonlight as professional photographers and copywriters. As such, the way they handle sourcing content for the websites they build can vary wildly.
Some might take a stab at it themselves, providing you content without any real training or grasp of best practices.
Some might expect you to provide your own site content, or to hire freelancers.
Some might have a team they work with, and the cost of their services might be included with your site or available at an extra cost.
In other words, you need to know whether you need to budget more money to pay someone to craft your content, or budget some time to do it yourself.
What to look for:
Obviously, the dream is for site content to come included in the price of your site. If this is the case, don’t be afraid to vet some of the sample sites — how does the photography look? Does the copy sell you their services?
Be sure to vet their previous work if they provide photography and copywriting services for an extra fee, too — hiring your own freelancers might be the better option if the provided copy and photography is mediocre. Additionally, find out whether they work with an in-house team or with contractors so you can get more information about the creative muscle behind your business’s content.
If they don’t provide content, ask if they can recommend affordable freelancers.
If you can’t afford to hire a freelancer and plan to write the copy yourself, see if they provide an editor or if they can recommend a proofreader, at the very least. For most people, obvious copy mistakes are a real turnoff. You want your site to be error-free when it goes live.
Question #5: What are your setup fees?
Believe it or not, "$250/month for a website" can actually mean a variety of things.
It can mean you pay $250/month, nothing more, nothing less, and the company takes care of everything from copywriting to graphics to day-to-day maintenance.
It can also mean you pay $250/month for the website design and development, plus setup fees, hosting fees, freelancer fees, plus $125/hour or whatever they see fit to charge for necessary adjustments to your site.
Getting clear about setup fees and other hidden charges is the only way to get clear about how much your website’s actually going to cost you.
What to look for:
Look for any and all charges beyond a monthly rate or flat fee. You want to account for any:
Hourly rates for website maintenance
Fees for extras, like shopping carts or mobile functionality
If a company seems to pile on additional charges, you might want to take the time to figure out how many extras you’ll need so you can figure out the actual estimated cost of a website. This will make it easier to compare Company A to Company B (who might only charge $250/month FOR REAL).
You can also compare what your website might cost to this great data from The Executionists, which details how much websites cost in 2015.
Question #6: What do you charge if I need to make revisions to my site?
As I mentioned in the point above, sometimes a flat fee or low monthly rate for a website doesn’t include any extras, including being able to get into your site to change staff contact information or update photos or anything, really.
This is one of the reasons sites go out of date so quickly — businesses can’t access the site they’ve purchased. Either that or they don’t have enough money to pay for a refresh, considering that some designers and developers demand up to $100/hour for their time.
Change is inevitable. Your site is going to need an occasional tweak. Make sure that you can afford it.
What to look for:
When purchasing a site, make sure that you’ll be able to update it and that updating it won’t require liquidating your savings.
Yes, your designers and developers deserve to get paid, so if they charge a fair hourly rate for their labor, budget in a few hours for updates each year.
Better yet, go with a company that provides revisions as part of your package (like WTC!)
Want to learn more about how freelance designers and developers calculate their hourly rate? Here’s a post from Treehouse that aims to do exactly that.
Question #7: Will I own my website when it’s finished?
Believe it or not, you can pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars for a website and still not own it in the end— and that’s not always a bad thing.
Some small business internet making services build beautiful websites on a subscription basis — which means as long as you pay for your subscription, your site remains live.
After you stop paying, your site may only live on in your designer’s portfolio.
However, companies that technically “own” your site are usually more willing to service it for free as part of your fees. So while you may own a site that you paid a $5000 flat fee for, if you need to make revisions to that site, it might cost you $150/hour.
What to look for:
Well, what’s important to you?
If you want a website that you can move from one web host to the next, or if you have enough savvy to make it look up-to-date from one year to the next, by all means, make sure that you can buy your site.
However, for many local business owners, it sounds nightmarish to have to figure out how to keep their sites fresh while also running successful businesses. A monthly, full-service subscription plan would probably work best for you if you don’t want to worry about your web presence.
The point is to make sure you know what will happen to your website once design and development are completed. Do you have to put it online, or will they? Once it's up, will it stay there forever?
What will it take to keep your site online?
If your current website is a dud or if you don’t have a website at all, be sure to ask the company or freelancers you work with these seven questions to ensure that your business is getting the web presence it needs for a price that you’re prepared to pay.
What other questions should you ask about a site before signing a service agreement? Have a website horror story that is fit to be shared with the world? Let us know in the comments below, or via Twitter @verbtaxidermist or @WTCMarketing.