choosing the right web developerIf you’re starting out in business, or refreshing your website, have you given some thought to who will develop and maintain it?  Its easy to Google and find a web designer or developer, but many small businesses come unstuck because they’ve gone for a cheaper developer, or someone they know, without doing their homework first.  Unless you’ve asked some critical questions beforehand, it can end up costing much more than you thought in time, lost income, or fees.

Here’s my top 7 tips for choosing the right web developer:

Tip 1 – Do they understand your Brand, and your sales process?

Ask to see their portfolio and check if they have built sites for businesses similar to yours.  Many designers are very flexible and can build in whatever style is required – corporate, funky, child-friendly – but some are best designing in one style.  Check that your developer is going to be able to create something that will suit your brand. 

Do they understand web development enough to build not only beautiful but successful sales websites?  You can check this by trying to buy something or quickly find information on one of their portfolio website – if its too hard, avoid them.  There’s no point in building a beautiful website that your customers can’t use! 

Of course, if they don’t have a portfolio, or won’t show you one, think twice about whether you want to invest time and money with them.

Tip 2 – Web skills – Search Engine Optimisation, User Centred Design.

Do they understand how to build your site so it will rank highly on Google, Bing and Yahoo?  There are tricks within site design and content that can help you rank more highly on these and other search engines, and it’s important that the developer you choose understands these and builds them into the site design. 

Can you easily find your way around the sites they build, and through the fulfillment path (online shop, or signup form) with a minimum of clicks?  Or is it difficult and frustrating? 

Tip 3 – Web skills - Accessiblity

Is there enough colour contrast between the site content and key navigation or sales buttons?  Are the pages easy to see and read, even for colour-blind people (very important if your market is male and your site is red or green!)?  Is there an option to turn off sound and stop videos (very important if your users are viewing your site in an open-plan office!)? 

Do they build websites only in Adobe Flash?  If they’re building a promotional microsite that is not your main site this may not be a problem, but as Googlebots can’t read Flash files, if you want your site to appear in search engines, get a developer who builds in HTML.  You can still have beautiful Flash animations on your site; just embed them in the HTML page and surround it with typed content for a better result in Google. Better yet, ask if they build in HTML 5, which will give a similar effect to Flash animations while being search-engine friendly.

Are the sites they build easy to read and use in all browsers and screen sizes?  Mobile phones are now the fastest growing way for people to use the web, and if your site doesn’t work on an iPhone, this might be a problem in the medium term.

These might seem like strange things to ask, but they can make a big difference to your site’s success over time.

Tip 4 - Project management expertise and capability

Can they deliver what you need on time? Will they complete the job? While you might start with a developer with the best intentions, sole operators completing large complex sites may run into trouble if they get sick or swamped.  Ask yourself if what you are asking them to build is realistic given their capability, in the timeframe you want.

Tip 5 - Customer service

Do they get back to you quickly?  Report regularly on WIP?  Advise you of issues when needed?  Follow your direction?  Advise you appropriately? Deliver what and when they say they will? One good way to check this is via referrals from other people who have used them – check the developer’s website for testimonials – or ask them if they will provide recommendations.  If it’s a big site, a regular WIP catchup with them is a must.

Tip 6 – Site updates and maintenance.

How long do you want to have a relationship with them?  Is it just to build and launch your website, or do you want them to do ongoing maintenance? 

If you will be updating your site regularly (and most website owners need this) it’s a good idea to give some thought to how this will happen and how much it will cost you.

Most developers these days should offer a content management system where you can easily make site changes yourself.  An out of date website with old information or products is the kiss of death nowadays for any business.  And maintenance should not be a nightmare, or expensive, or hard.  If they don’t offer a content management system (and by the way you should ask to see this and check that its easy to use) then ask them how they will manage site updates, and what it will cost, and how long it will take. If this won’t suit the way you want to run your business, consider going elsewhere.

Do they build in standard programming languages – HTML, php, asp, javascript, ColdFusion?  Or do they use their own software that they’ve developed (known as proprietary software)?  If the latter, will this make it difficult for you to manage updates, and accommodate future expansion plans for the website?

Tip 7 - Contracts and site ownership.

It’s also a good idea to sort out up front who owns what in the site.  If your developer goes overseas for 6 months to Guatemala with the site files and you want to refresh or add to your site, what will you do?

What length of contract will you be intending and can you extract yourself from it if necessary?  With the best will in the world, business needs and websites change, and you may need a different set of skills further down the track.

If they have built in proprietary software (see previous tip) this might be a problem as they will probably own this code, if not your site, and other developers may not be able to program in their language without a lot of time and therefore expense. 

My tip is to sort out who owns what in the initial stages, not when you are in the middle of the build, so that its clear to both parties and will allow you to update your site as you need to.

Happy building!

This article was contributed by Jane Woodley of JaneWrites, a digital copywriting and marketing consultancy.  Jane Woodley is an online marketing strategist, consultant, and copywriter, and has worked for such companies as ourbrisbane.com, the Virgin Blue Airlines Group, ADMA and Peak Usability.
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