Website Buyers Guide for Small Businesses

When purchasing a website, either updates to an existing site or a brand-new custom website, there's a lot that you need to know just to pick the right designer/developer.

What you need to know before you buy a website.
This guide will tell you what you need to know about a website before you get one, helping you avoid mistakes that cost you both time and money.

It will tell you what to ask prospective web design and development companies, how to choose a hosting provider, and what kinds of things to think about before buying a site that will determine whether your site is a success or a failure.? At the end of the guide is a list of questions to ask prospective designers/developers, and hosting companies.

The 2 Stages of a Website.
There are two basic stages to having a website

  1. Acquisition: Getting a new site or upgrading an existing site
  2. Ownership and Maintenance:? This is the part that most web designers and developers never tell you about.? You'll need to think about how you will update and maintain the site as time goes by.? If you site is to be effective it will need to be easy to change, otherwise there will be no way for you to keep it current and have it work properly for your business
Get started in the right direction: Figure out what it is that you are trying to accomplish.
Decide what you are trying to accomplish with your website that will help your business grow or solve a problem that is preventing growth.? If you can't think of either, there is no reason for you to get a website.? All to often people just get websites without any idea how they will help the business.? Figure out what the site will do to help your business before you do anything and make sure that whoever you get to do your site understands what you are doing and why from a business prospective.? Too many web companies know nothing about business and will happily sell you whatever they can regardless of its value to your business.

Hopefully, your designer/developer will listen to your business needs and then be able to recommend some things to put on your site that will solve your current problems.? If they don't ask you what you want to do with your site and know something about having tried that before you could waste a lot of money!? Make sure that you work with someone who has developed sites for other small businesses or you'll end up spending a ton of money on a site that isn't at all relevant to your customer base.

Buy only what you need, right now.
Don't waste time and money trying to put together long-term plans for your site or buying functionality that you think you will need next year.? Only buy what you need, right now.

As soon as you launch your new site you'll begin getting feedback from your customers and prospects and 9 times out of 10 what you thought you'd need in 6 months is not what makes sense for you and your business.

Moreover, if you choose the right developer they will be able to affordably add things to your website when you need them, without having to throw the whole thing out and start over.

What website software will your designer/developer use?? Will anyone else be able to use it?
Find out what type of software your designers use to build your site.? If it's flat HTML then it doesn't particularly matter because those sites typically run on any webserver with little or no modifications needed.? If they use FrontPage, run.? If you are looking for a Content Management solution make sure that they are using one that is either open source or another readily available commercial software package.

Acquisitions 6 pieces to an online presence:
To have a web presence and effectively market a business online there are 6 components that you'll need.
  1. Design
  2. Production and Development
  3. Interactive Features, Databases, and Programming
  4. Hosting
  5. Domains
  6. E-mail
Design
The design of your site and how it looks is incredibly important.? In most cases people don't even read the content on your site, but if it looks nice and is designed so that it's easy to use, people will feel comfortable that you are a reputable company.

Website Production
This is one aspect to the technical side of your website.? You'll need to have someone cut out and process the graphics; optimizing them for the web and fast download, and write all of the HTML for your site.

Interactive Features, DataBases, and Programming
If your site is going to include any interactive features such as calendars, online newsletters, forms, or password protected sections, someone will need to write the programs and integrate them into your site.

Hosting
There's no way around this one.? If you want a website you'll have to find a hosting provider.? There are literally thousands of companies out there that offer hosting for under $10/month.? That might sound like a bargain, but the first time you have a problem and need to get someone on the phone you can forget it.? These companies offer little or no customer service.? We suggest going with a company that might charge a bit more but that will be there for you when you need them.

Domains
Since you'll likely want to have your website accessible via your own domain you'll need to both register the domain and have the DNS hosted somewhere.? You'll also need someone to keep an eye on the domain renewal for you.? I can't tell you how many times we get customer that we are hosting calling us to complain that their site or e-mail is down only for me to discover that they let their domain expire.? When you are trying to run your business, it makes sense to find someone who will keep an eye on that for you.

E-mail
You will need e-mail to communicate with your prospects and customers.? Having a hotmail, yahoo, or aol account makes you look like a small-time operation and doesn't allow you the kind of control you need over your e-mail.? What do you do when a salesperson quits?? How will you get the e-mails from the prospects and customers that he or she brought in?? Finding an outsourced e-mail solution that'll let you use your own domain and give you control over your companies e-mail will help you avoid lots of headaches down the road.


Find a developer that provides all 6 services.
One of the biggest headaches that businesses have regarding their website is having to manage 3, 4, or 5 different companies to get all 6 services.? Trying to get designers to play nice with a web hosting company and programmers can be a nightmare, and in the end they all end up pointing the finger at each other with you holding the bag, out both time and money.? Finding a company that can provide all 6 services will be the choice that over-time will save you the most time, money, and headache.

Costs
There are three basic costs to Acquiring and Owning a website:
  1. Initial design and build out of features
  2. Hosting
  3. Updating the content and adding new features.
Ownership
So now that you have a website what are you going to do with it?? The three basic parts of website ownership are:
  1. Content updates
  2. Feature upgrades and enhancements
  3. Tracking and Reporting (this is optional, although I'll describe the benefits of tracking below)
Content Updates
To keep either keep your site fresh or add things as your business changes you'll need to be able to make updates to the site.? The most common things that people change are text and pictures, adding new pages, and tweeking the design.? Most designer/developers will charge you hourly to make these changes to your site.? Other developers will offer content management systems that will allow you and/or your staff to easily make changes to your site whenever you'd like.? Content Management Systems (CMS) typically add to your monthly but, if you are going to be making regular updates to your site this the way to go.? You get more control over your site and can better predict and budget for your monthly hosting/maintenance fees

Feature Upgrades and Enhancements
Adding new features to your site typically involves another work-order style purchase from your developer.? You sit down with them and spec out what you want and they tell you how much it will cost.

Before you go with a certain developer ask them what would be involved with adding a new interactive feature down the road.? Make sure that they build sites such that when you want to add something you can do just that and don't have to throw away the whole thing and start over.? A lot of times people will go with the cheaper guy up front, not realizing that if they want to make changes they'll have to start over from scratch.

Tracking and Reporting
This is an entire subject in and of itself, so I'll only touch on it here, briefly.? Basically, you'll want to be able to see what's happening on your site so you can get an idea of what's working and what's not.

All to often people want to purchase Google AdWords or other search engine optimization services, but without a good tracking program running on your site, you are wasting your money because you'll never be able to adequately determine if what you are doing is working.

We run tracking and reporting software on all of our sites.? It is the data that we glean from that software that helps us figure out what to change, add, or leave on our websites, and we highly recommend it.

Questions to Ask
Web Developer/Designer Questions:
  • What will it cost to make additions and changes to the site later?
  • How much will it cost to add pages?
  • What about adding additional and integrating interactive functionality and features?
  • How do you host websites that you design and build?
  • If they offer a content management system, ask them what software they use.
  • How do you organize and archive all of the files used to create my website?? If I want to take those files and go to another designer will it be something that another designer can use?
  • Do you provide: Design, HTML, programming, hosting, domain hosting, and e-mail services?
  • How much flexibility will I have after we design and build the site?? What if I want to add a calendar or password protected section?
  • Who will change and update the site?
  • Will I be able to make the changes?
  • How much will it cost for:
  • Day-to-day updates
  • Monthly hosting
  • Major feature upgrades:? Can you easily and cost effectively add new features to the site without having to throw away the whole thing and start from scratch?
What happens if I want to leave and go to another developer/hosting provider? Hosting Companies:
  • Do you provide daily back-up services?
  • What operating systems do you use on your webservers?? We recommend Linux or Unix.? Windows web servers are incredibly unreliable and should you choose a host that uses windows you can expect a lot of downtime.
  • How much disk space do you offer?
  • What is your monthly bandwith allocation, and how much is additional bandwith should my site exceed my quota?
  • If they offer content management services:
  • Can I see a demo of the system?
  • Do you need any special software?
  • Do you need to know any special programming languages?
  • What software are you running?
  • What if I leave your company?? Will anyone else be able to provide service with the same software?
Armed and Ready to Shop
Now you're ready to get out there and start looking for a developer, and armed with the list of questions below you will be able to ask intelligent questions and find the right designer, developer, hosting and e-mail provider to help make your online business endeavors a success.

Good Luck!

Ryan Chapin