In the old days of the Internet, business owners shopped for web design services the same way they shopped for print advertising. All that really mattered back then were graphic design and pricing.
Today, your website is no longer just a site on the web. It’s REQUIRED to be lead generator, a profit center and a content marketing platform.
If you are looking for bid on a website, you are viewing your site the wrong way – you need to focus on results shopping, not price shopping.
Remember, its not about winning design awards, its about winning new customers.
So here we go, these are the questions that you absolutely must ask before choosing any web designer.
This is the most important question you will ask. In fact, if you only ask one question, ask this one. And don’t accept a simple ‘yes’ for an answer. Dig deep, ask many questions. Make sure you ask the agency owner, not a staff member. Don’t let them change the subject and talk about fluffy design stuff or how fancy their office space is. Keep the discussion about results, rankings, and return on investment.
Its critical that an experienced search engine optimization professional oversee the strategy, design and execution of your website in order for it to have the highest possible search engine potential and social media impact. SEO-friendly web development has evolved into its own genre of web coding, and very few web design firms are qualified to build these kinds of sites. As an example, a stunning 80% of our website projects last year were rebuilds of brand new sites. I have listened to business owners literally cry over lost rankings and the corresponding lost revenues. In other words, they paid a lot of money for a new website, and ended up losing even more money from lost rankings.
The number one epidemic in web design today is search engine failure. Small businesses by the thousands are hiring local web design firms based on the front end eye candy, and they are paying dearly. There is a great example on Search Engine Land of a web design firm that failed so badly, the client had to revert back to the old website to salvage their rankings, and their business.
This phenomena is not only afflicting small business websites. It happens every day to companies big and small. A great example is Ryanair, a multinational company that lost big money on a website re-design fail. They presumably hired a high-priced creative agency to redesign their website in 2014, and they lost all of their top rankings when they launched their new website:
Again, don’t just let them say “yes we do SEO” and let them get away with a one liner – make them prove it. The difference between an SEO specialist and an true SEO expert is like the difference between a paralegal and an experienced trial attorney, or a nurse and surgeon. Spend some time asking about SEO and how they are going to build a website that will generate new, high quality leads. By focusing your due-diligence on search engine expertise, you can weed out many service providers to develop a short list of your best options.
It’s virtually impossible for a one-man-band to build an SEO friendly website, especially if its for a competitive niche. SEO, design and coding are three separate and distinct skill-sets. Let me be clear on this: no person can truly master all three of these skills. Sure, some people can do all three, but at the end of the day, I can guarantee that an individual can only be truly great at one of them. You cannot get a high performance website without at least three people working on your site. At my firm for example, every new website project is assigned five people: A graphic designer, an SEO expert, a project manager, a lead developer and support developer.
The web design and Internet marketing fields have a lot of flight-by-night companies. In general, you will not get the best results from a one or two man band working out of a home office. This is a simple due diligence item. Insist that you have the first meeting at their office, and be wary of companies that only communicate on phone calls and in coffee shops.
This is one of the biggest pitfalls out there. Here’s the scenario: A business owner price shops, then goes for the lowest bid and ends up getting a scraped WordPress theme with little or no customization. There is nothing wrong with a web design company using a theme as the base of a design – we use them sometimes too. The problem with pre-made themes is that they are created for the sole purpose of selling thousands of them at a very low price. They usually look great, but they always have search engine problems. You either need to clarify with the web design firm that they are creating custom web design files (and will be able to provide them to you in PSD format on request) OR they will work with a theme providing they can strip out the junk code and fully customize the features within the framework of the theme. If you are getting a low cost quote, you are likely getting a copycat theme – so this is a very important question to ask.
One of the biggest problems I see in my market is the old bait-n-switch scam. It goes like this: the smooth talking agency owner goes to the first meetings, helps close the sale and then slips away like a thief in the night. You should always have the agency CEO’s phone number, and you as the business owner, should be able to talk to the agency owner as needed. On the other hand, you should also expect there to be a project manager that will manage the day-to-day issues from project kick-off to launch, as well as throughout the long-term SEO service relationship.
One of the biggest red flags these days is agencies that offer too much in house. And this can be a really big red-flag. They promote themselves as one-stop shop and offer content writers, video production, photography, social media posting, SEO and pretty much everything else under the digital sun. While this is pitched to you as a strength, it is actually a weakness. You, as a business owner, likely specialize in a specific niche. If you can’t succeed offering everything to everybody for your own business, how can a web design agency offer you everything under the digital sun?! On the other hand, many of the best agencies in your market will have strong relationships with other niche service providers and can help you manage these services in a way that produces a great looking, high performance website. In other words, work with a firm that can help you assemble a team of providers that are the very best at what they do, instead of have a team of marginal providers in house.
Many small businesses owners call us and complain how their previous web developers “took the money and ran” and left them hanging in the wind. In our case, most companies choose us for long term SEO services, and our packages include website updates and ongoing support. But many web designers sell website design as a one-time project, so post launch support can be a major issue. Most websites (should) have a content management system like WordPress. WordPress is like an operating system for your website. Just like Windows and Mac, your CMS needs to be updated along with all the plugins that enable many of the cool new features and functions on your site.
A couple other red flags related to this topic:
Holy Cow! You would not believe how big of an issue this is. We work with home services contractors, doctors, lawyers and many other types of companies that come to realize they do not own their website. MAKE SURE that your design and development agreement stipulates that you own the site upon final payment. MAKE SURE that they use open source software so that you are not only authorized to use it, but it will be easy for you to find development support if you get in a pinch. We use WordPress because it is open source backed by one of the world’s largest development communities. Custom coding and / or proprietary content management systems are bad because you will not able to find another developer to work on your site if the original development firm disappears.
It goes without saying that you should do your own online research and reference checking. If an agency can get good rankings for their own business services, that is usually a good sign. You are a business owner – you know that your happy customers can sell you ten times better than you ever can. Its no different with web design and SEO. The trick is to call deep. Anyone can “stack the deck” with a couple good references. But if you call past those first two or three and call five or ten or more, you will get the real picture.
Once you have identified SEO savvy web designers in your local market, be sure to create an agency comparison chart so you can compare services and deliverables apples-to-apples. A lot of work goes into web design and the devil is in the details. Ball park estimates may or may not include things like ownership rights, search engine friendly coding, mobile responsiveness, custom design, or a content management system. By asking the right questions and getting a clear list of product specification, you can avoid the gotcha heartache so many small businesses have experienced this year.