If you’re looking for a new website, you’re probably starting to discover the vast array of web development options available to businesses, from the DIY builders, to professional web designers, developers, and web agencies. These options all offer seemingly similar products – that being “websites”, yet at very different price-points, and sometimes, though different approaches.
Which approach is right will depend on what you need for your business. Perhaps you’re looking for your first website for an exciting new business, or maybe it’s a fresh new website to give your existing business a bit of a boost. Either way, a website is a business investment – and like any investment, the right decisions will help your business thrive, while the wrong decisions can be costly.
The objective of this post is to outline the fundamental aspects of a website that you need to keep in mind when deciding how to proceed with your new website, and to help you know how to make the right decisions for your business.
After reading this post, you will:
- Know basic facts about the role and management of websites in business
- Have a basic idea of the key steps in the website development process
- Know key factors to consider for website hosting and maintenance
- Know what questions to ask a potential developer or project manager
- Have a framework that will help you to identify a development option that is suitable
How a website supports business
Before making decisions about your website, you must first
1. Websites are part of a business and marketing strategy
Fundamentally, the website is usually not the first, nor the last, step in the customers journey with you. Your customer’s journey will typically begin with a problem, need, or interest in something that is relevant to what you offer. When both their interest level’s are sufficient (refer to the customer life-cycle and transtheoretical model of change) and they see or hear advertising, conversation, or promotional content (often not for the first time), or actively do some searching, then they may land on your website. The journey that preceded this point should be crucially understood so that the website can help a visitor proceed in the right direction. The website should offer the right thing to the right user, that aligns with their stage of readiness, and the only way to know this is to truly understand your customer and their journey.
Even then, they may not become a customer until several visits later, or after more personal follow-ups. And after they become a customer, you’ll probably want to keep an ongoing relationship with this customer.
The point is that a website is not a stand-alone solution. It is a small, but important, step in a much wider customer journey. It needs to be part of your broader strategy in order for it to be effective.
2. Websites are not worth the technology they are built on.
When you pay for a website, you are not paying for the technology (well, you shouldn’t be). You are paying for the value that is being provided by that website and the time that has gone in to developing it. You are also paying to support the business model of the vendor. With this in mind, be careful to not confuse shiny features as a justification for cost (unless these are bespoke and specifically needed to fulfill your value proposition). Be careful to not adopt a technology-first mindset to finding your suitable solution.
3. Websites need continuous management.
A website is not the sort of thing that one creates, deploys, and then expects to passively work wonders without ongoing time and effort. They are not a “set-and-forget” aspect of your business.
Today’s businesses and markets are more dynamic than ever, and you will need to constantly seek to not only refine your existing marketing strategies, but also identify new opportunities to provide value. The website is central to this and will therefore require constant monitoring and adaption such as an agile, action research approach.
It’s been reported that the average website lifespan is about 2.6 years. However it will likely be much shorter for sites that are not well-maintained, and longer for those that are.
In summary, you will need to factor in the time and costs for ongoing maintenance, as well as ensuring that you will have suitable performance measures (KPIs), analysis tools like Google Analytics and Hotjar, and ability to make changes to the website. You should expect to be able to manage the website content independently, or be prepared to pay for continual support. Most modern websites are built on powerful Content Management Systems like WordPress which typically include a semi-user-friendly admin back-end, however developers can limit the functionality that is available.
4. Cyber security is a real issue and is serious.
Security threats don’t discriminate between big and small websites, or profitable from non-profitable. Crawlers search-out vulnerable websites and focus on common website technologies and smaller businesses that may be more vulnerable.
The technology available to hackers these days is exceptionally powerful and far too easy to use. Did you know that security vulnerabilities of major web platforms are published online (example) as soon as they are identified? It’s very easy to find these and then to find websites that have not been updated or patched… Security is not a set-and-forget strategy. If you leave yourself vulnerable, sooner or later you will have to deal with those consequences.
The website development process
There are are many factors that drive the pricing model for website development, with the most significant of these being the development process and time. For example, with Wix, no professional time is needed to get your website live so the price for this is free to minimal. It is completely up to the user to build their own website with their own time. In contrast, website professional’s will put their minds and hands to work for you and subsequent charge for that time.
To understand the value that can be provided by a professional, and to weigh-up the cost:value ratio as it is relevant to your business position, it’s important to understand what is involved in website development.
The traditional (and comprehensive) website development process is fairly linear (also known as waterfall, as one stage finishes before the next begins) and includes some form of the following steps:
- Gathering information: Briefly, this includes understanding the business, the purpose of the website, who the visitors and customers are, and what the website will need to achieve in order to be effective, and other high-level details (e.g., brand, business models).
- Planning: This can include the map of the website (what pages go where) and how information is organised. This will also consider the flow, or path, that the visitor make take on the website, and a rough outline of how the pages may look (aka wire frame), and deciding the right technology to use.
- Design: Images, page layouts, colour themes, and general style are designed to present the brand and support sure flow.
- Content Creation: This is more often spread throughout the project, however this is acknowledged as a specific part of the process, and is more challenging than one might assume.
- Developing and Coding: Only once everything is in place, does the development of the technology commence. This is often one of the shortest pieces of the project (for the typical, small business website)
- Maintenance: This needs to be considered as part of the process, as maintenance is crucial.
Of course, there are may ways to describe the process, however the point to note here is that the actually development phase just one of many stages, and it’s usually one of shorter stages of the process.
It is in this process that website professionals will typically identify their points of focus. Some will focus on the design phase and create beautiful designs and user interfaces, and others may focus on the content arrangement. It can be expected that agencies with higher price-points will include a comprehensive process, while the more price-competitive freelancer may simply focus on providing the technology. While varying level’s of services often provides an acceptable trade-off between quality and cost, which then suits a varying range of business needs, the hunt for affordable websites often encourages developers to position themselves into a light-touch, and price competitive process that potentially neglects essential aspects of what the website should be.
Key factors in website hosting and maintenance
Websites are a living part of a business, and keeping a website alive and healthy requires a good hosting environment, support services, and maintenance. Let’s quickly cover these.
Hosting is basically the storage of files that make the website, and the server that processes these files and delivers them to a visitor. No hosting, no website. A the basic level, this is all hosting is. The difference between a low-end and high-end host is mostly the speed at which the website loads, which is very important. Hosting prices can range from as low as about $5/m to well over $100/m. While hardware is the major part of this, support services are often bundled in with hosting to provide additional value.
Support services includes things that support the technical operation of the website. This can include things like:
- Emails (you will want [email protected])
- Email newsletter systems
- System backups
- Automated updates
- Security things (Web application firewall, SSL encryption, monitoring, patches and updates),
- Speed enhancing things (caching, CDN)
- Up-time monitoring
- Development tools and environments (for the more advanced users)
- Customer support
It’s not for me to say how much these should be valued at, or how much you need these (except for security measures, this should be non-negotiable), however if you’re looking at a thin monthly bill then make sure you’re not leaving any gaps. likewise, a hefty monthly-bill should have you well-covered.
Maintenance of your website includes both technical and non-technical aspects. However a good support service will have you covered from a technical perceptive, which means that all you should have to worry about is the business aspect. This aspect is crucial for website management, but it’s more about your strategy and less about the developer, so I’ll be very brief. However, please note that this is arguably at least as important as, and more complex than, the build itself. To maintain your website you’ll need to be able to:
- Assess and observe website performance. By “performance” I am referring to achieving your business KPIs, and the customer journey that precedes this (e.g., are all of your customers leaving after a certain page?). This can be done DIY however there is a learning curve. Many agencies provide services to support this need. Google Analytics and Hotjar should be your first tools for this.
- Reflect on the data and observations that you have made. Why are people leaving the site early? Why are people asking for something that you don’t provide? Why is no one visiting a certain page?
- Planning changes. What strategies would logically work to address the issues identified? What has worked elsewhere? What do the top bloggers on the subject recommend? What do you have the technology and resources to support?
- Acting on the strategy. This may involve editing content on websites, adding or removing pages, changing call-to-actions, or addressing your customer journeys and expectations at steps prior to the website.
Questions to ask a potential web developer
Now that you know a little more about what a website is and how it can be developed and maintained, it’s time to use this knowledge to get a relevant information from your potential website developer.
- What process you will use to build the website? Try and get an idea of what the developer will focus on, and what might be skipped over (especially if they are offing a low-cost solution). Refer to the above development process (note that there are many ways to name, or cluster, these stages), and see if you can identify their strengths and gaps. You can follow-up by asking if they will custom design or use templates/themes. Importantly, ask what input they will have with preparing the content, and how they will go about doing that. Ideally, you’re looking for consideration of business and marketing strategy here. Acknowledgement of marketing channels, customer profiles, pain-points, and value propositions are some factors that should come into focus if you are paying for a professional solution.
- How do we (this is also your responsibility) ensure a good user experience? A user experience (or “UX”) requires understanding who the user (visitor or customer) is, what their priorities are and where they can come from, so that the design, language, message, and structure can be aligned to work for that user. There should be some prospective strategy, as well as tools to enable post-launch analysis. This may require focus groups, user testing, surveys, feedback forms, or at the least some comprehensive tracking with tools like analytics and hotjar.
- Will I be able to manage the website myself once it’s live? Find out the limitations to what you can do yourself, and what the costs will be to make changes beyond this. Ask about analytical tools as well as content management (including images and video if relevant).
- How will we measure results? This questions aims at the heart of understanding the purpose of the website and the success metrics around this. Without measuring, you’ll not be able to tune your website. Ideally a developer will build in analytical tools, however they may leave this for you to manage.
- What security measures will be provided? Look for answers that address both the development (technology stack), as well as ongoing monitoring (if they are hosting for you – see below). Ask about protection from brute force attacks, SQL injection, and cross-site scripting. You may not know what these are, but the developer should. If they can’t confidently answer these then take that as a red-flag.
- What support is provided after it’s built? Do they offer a period of time where any bugs are fixed free of charge? Find out what happens if you need to add or remove something that you can’t do yourself. Are they available for emergency repairs? Some developers provide unlimited phone support, others provide tickets, others provide nothing. This may depend on if they provide hosting.
If the developer is also taking care of hosting, be sure to cover these points:
- What happens if my site goes down? It happens. A good host will include automated up-time monitoring and will respond the moment the site fails to respond to automated checks. They’ll also have a plan that includes letting you know and reporting the percentage of up-time.
- How often will my website be backed-up? Also check to see how long backups are kept, and if there is a cost to restoring the site if needed.
- Will website and plugin updates be included? Maintaining current technology is one of the most important security considerations. It’s not hard to maintain, but someone needs to be accountable. Will this be you?
- Is security monitoring included? Sometimes you won’t notice when you’ve been hacked. Small pieces of code can be embedded and work away quietly on your website. Scanning can help detect if this has occurred.
- If needed, would I be able to move my website to another hosting provider? It may not be on the plan today, but you may find the need to change in the future if your business scales, pivots, relocates, or if the developer decides to change profession.
How to make a decision
Finally, to make a decision with the information, I’ll provide a few general recommendations and guiding suggestions:
- Choose a developer or team that is the right size for you or your business. Going too large and they’ll likely to struggle to work within your budget, have higher expectations about the resources you can provide, and expect a higher-level of brand and strategy awareness from your small business than you may be able to provide. Go too small, and you may find that they are unable to respond or manage the pressures and complexities of a larger business, or be unable to deliver upon ambitious expectations. Finding a developer or company that is the “right size” will help ensure that priorities and resources are well-understood.
- Acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses in your in-house capability. Acknowledging where your strengths are, and aren’t, is essential for ensuring you’re not leaving important capability gaps, or needlessly overlapping. If you aren’t strong in digital strategy, marketing, and branding, then it’s more likely that you’ll benefit from expertise that can support this. Similarly, the technical ability to manage websites (perhaps a little HTML or CSS), and the ability to write for the web. I like to use a decision matrix to process multivariate decisions like this, however use whatever method works for you, and always ask lots of questions!
If you’re feeling ready to talk websites, then why not start here and now, by getting in touch with us? We offer a free discovery session with all potential customers so that we can explore your businesses needs and provide recommendations that align with your business’s objectives.
We use an agile approach, which means we’re flexible and can provide solutions that range from the full-blown strategic custom solutions, though to providing an effective website framework and template to get a DIY warrior started. We combine this with a comprehensive bundle of hosting and support services that ensure your website will remain technically robust while enabling you to grow and adapt as your business evolves. So even the DIY’er can evolve their website and get support with website business strategy.
- More on what we do with websites
- Contact us now to schedule your discovery session
There’s a lot more to building an effective website than simply sticking a few pages on the internet. There’s also a lot of options to choose from when it comes to DIY and professional website solutions. Consider what your business needs from a website, the capability you have internally to contribute to the development and maintenance, and the services being offered by professionals, to select the right option for your and your business. And if you’d like to chat, we’re here to listen.
I hope you have found this useful, and now feeling more confident about selecting the right website developer.