Websites are not a 'set and forget' exercise – you're going to need an ongoing, mutually beneficial business relationship with your website designer/developer. Just like any successful business relationship, it helps to ask the right questions upfront to see if there’s a good fit between your business and theirs.
Whether you’re looking to find a new website developer, or want to learn more about the one you've got, try asking these questions to get you started.
Do I own my website?
This is an important question to ask your website developer. Variations on this are 'is my website portable?', or 'what are the costs if I wish to move my website to another company?', or 'if your company goes belly-up, what happens to my website?'
Your website is an investment. It’s critical to have a good understanding of this issue, preferably before you engage a new developer. If you don’t feel comfortable with the answer, choose a different developer.
Which Content Management System will you use?
Except for the most basic of brochure-style websites, a Content Management System (CMS) will be used to help your developer to build your site, and to give you the tools to self-manage some content (words, documents, photos, videos, etc.) on your site.
If an obscure or proprietary CMS is used to build your site, then the chances of having any other web developer work on your site is low to zero. Here are a couple of sites that track the most popular CMS:
- CMS usage statistics: overview of statistics for CMS technologies
- w3techs World Wide Web Technologies survey: usage of content management systems for websites.
At the moment, Wordpress is the most popular CMS. But before you insist that your website is built using Wordpress, it’s important to note that:
- different CMS suit different purposes – for example, Drupal is very popular with larger enterprises and government, and Magento is a specialist eCommerce system
- an off-the-shelf CMS is not appropriate for all sites – highly original sites or applications might be better custom coded using Ruby on Rails, or your site might be part of a much bigger Software as a Service (SaaS) system such as Shopify
Have you produced a website like mine before?
Just because a web developer doesn’t have a site like yours in their portfolio, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them a go. But if they do, there’s an improved chance they’ll spend less trial and error time than an inexperienced competitor.
What are the likely ongoing costs of my website with you?
Aside from managing content, imagine you don’t want to add any new functionality to your site after it goes live. What are the costs of keeping your site running as is? Ask about hosting, domain names, security updates, SSL certificates, payment gateways etc. Find out more about how to choose and register your domain name.
What are your charges for service and support?
Some website developers might lure you in with a low initial price, but then slug you with high maintenance and update charges, ongoing and/or ad-hoc fees.
Do you offer support outside of business hours?
If your website goes down on a Friday night, how bad is that for your business? Can it wait until Monday morning before anyone can take a look at it, or is it mission-critical that someone look into it sooner?
What do you offer in terms of marketing my website?
SEO or Search Engine Optimisation is the phrase you'll hear most often but that’s just the start of what you could spend on marketing your new site - online or offline.
Some web development companies don’t offer this service at all, preferring to leave it to others whose main service offering is digital marketing. Some businesses offer entry level services to get you started, while others claim to offer a full suite of digital marketing services (keep in mind it could be outsourced).
Can I meet with the people who are doing the work?
This is another way of asking 'Do you outsource?'. Whether or not you think outsourcing is a good or bad thing is up to you. Ultimately it’s about your website developer taking full responsibility for the work that is produced.
How long do you estimate before my website goes live?
Do you have a critical time by which your new site has to go live? Maybe the developer has a huge backlog of work and they can’t even start on your site for the next three months?
Will my site look good and work well on a smartphone or tablet?
Smartphones and tablets have overtaken desktops as the more popular way of accessing the internet. Does your website developer know about responsive web design, or perhaps they recommend a mobile-specific (m.) version of your site? This is a rapidly evolving area of website design and development, so this question is about checking that your web guy is in touch with the issue, rather than in denial.
What's in it for the salesperson?
Do you feel like you're being pushed into paying for extras that you don't quite understand and maybe don't need?
Are you being coerced into buying a package (which may or may not be suitable), rather than a solution?
How much is the salesperson listening, and how much are they talking?
Make sure the salesperson's commission isn't their biggest incentive.
Final word of advice
Don't be afraid to get the answers to all the above in writing. A reputable, experienced, confident web developer will have no problem with this because they know it helps to get the relationship onto an open, transparent platform right from the start.
It can also help you compare and contrast offers to your business needs.