How to find and utilize outside help to get your website up and running

By Christopher Freeburn

While creating a website for your business is an increasingly easy task, many small business owners lack the time or technical inclination to do it themselves. Others wish to create elaborate websites that would stretch the talents of even relatively web-savvy amateurs; still more simply seek to avoid the generic template look of many web-hosting firm-created websites. In these cases, hiring a website designer can be a good option for the small business owner.

Getting it right is important. Your company's website is likely to be the first way that many customers encounter your business. Don't forget that a substantial number of consumers begin their product research online. (For more on this, see Part I of our Website Best Practices series on Search Engine Optimization.) So if your business's website doesn't measure up to those of your competitors, is confusing, outdated, or doesn't provide an adequate amount of information, you will only have succeeded in alienating potential customers, who will quickly click away from your website. A poorly designed and implemented site can sabotage potential sales by instilling a negative view of your business in the minds of customers just as effectively as a run-down storefront can discourage walk-in customers.

"As people have grown used to the Internet, they have also become more discerning," says Boston-based data security expert Jim Mott. "Their expectations have grown higher because there are so many high-quality websites out there." Those high quality websites, ones that are well-laid out, loaded with useful information, and have visual appeal are the standard against which your company's website will be judged.

Finding the right designer
The best place to find a web designer is, unsurprisingly, the Internet. You can use the major search engine websites to identify designers in your area. Also take a good look at websites you find particularly effective. Website designers often receive some sort of credit on sites they have designed, but if not identified, don't be afraid to call up the company whose website you like and ask who they used. This tactic also lets you get a feel for the client experience and answer some key questions: How responsive were the web designers to the small business's input? How long did the process take? How many bugs have been encountered since the launch? And, perhaps most important: How much did it cost?

When selecting a designer, be sure to ask for a list of websites he or she has designed. Good designers will have a portfolio of clients whose websites you can examine and whom you can contact for a reference. "Like any other service professional, a good web designer should be happy to refer you to other satisfied clients," says Mott. "Any reluctance to do so is a warning sign." Be sure that the web designer you choose has experience with the sort of website you are looking to construct. "If you want your website to allow online sales or have embedded videos, make sure the designer you choose has worked on websites with those capacities," Mott says. Be sure to check out your competitors to see what their websites offer and who designed them.

Here are some additional tips for working with website designers:

1. Know what you want. To identify the elements your website needs, first examine your competition's websites. What do other similar businesses offer? Detailed product catalogs? Online ordering or sales? Links to informational videos on YouTube that help customers better use the products? Think about what your business does and how you'd like the site to appear. The website of an antiques dealer should have a different appearance from that of a lawyer, dentist, or small manufacturer. A good web designer will understand this, but will still need your input. Create a detailed list of the elements you think the website needs and talk them over with the web designer. Make sure that the designer understands what you want.

2. Provide information. The more information a web designer has to work with, the better the ultimate result will be. Be sure to provide the designer with your company's marketing and promotional materials, including high-resolution photos and artwork, catalogs, brochures, advertisements, and news articles in which your business is mentioned. Such materials allow the website designer to make sure the website complements your other marketing efforts by maintaining design continuity.

3. Stay involved. Don't simply pass the project off to the designer. Even if you have created a detailed list of elements you want to see in the website, it is best to keep the process collaborative. The more communication between you and the designer, the better the website will ultimately look and the more it will function the way you want.

4. Keep control. While it will be necessary for the website designer to have access to the site during the design, and perhaps for ongoing maintenance, make sure that you retain administrative control of the website. That means making certain that the website's domain name is registered to your company, that the web hosting account (the account with the company that will keep the website on its servers) is in your business's name, and that you have the master password to the website and any email or ecommerce accounts.

5. Backup all data. Your website should be backed up on your company's own computers, so that it can be easily restored in the event of a disruption at the web hosting company. Your business's website is your property and it is important to make certain that you have access to its materials at your convenience.

This article is the third in a series to focus on website best practices for small businesses. Be sure to check out Part I on search engine optimization and Part II on how to use social networking to enhance your business's online profile.

Similar Content