Finding the right firm

17 Tips for Finding a Great Website Design Firm

Woman with a hard decision to make.

Amateurs, Sharks & Professionals

If you are in the market for a new website or a new design firm that can take over maintenance or SEO on your current website, it is important to be discerning, assuming you don't want to spend good money on bad outcomes.

It is frankly shocking to us how many website owners fall victim to questionable website "designers" (often, really, nothing more than someone's untrained uncle working out of their basement,) inadvertently investing precious resources in websites that range from poor to abysmal quality. We see it way too often, because eventually many of them come to more reputable companies like ours for help figuring out why their website is failing to produce results or, worse, is not working at all and the original developer is nowhere to be found.

The Amateurs

We suspect that many of the website developers that deliver shoddy websites do so without realizing that's what they are doing. In other words, they are amateurs who don't know what they don't know. In their minds, doing a basic WordPress install or creating an account on Weebly, applying a third-party theme, and ploppin in some content the client has hastily written up is good website design. The problem is that there is much, much more to building a professional website than that, if you care about getting a return for your investment. Usually, clients find themselves in these situations because, quite understandably, they are trying to save money, and amatuer developers often charge less than professionals, like in any other trade.

The Sharks

Then there are the sharks – website development firms that promise all the right things and talk a good talk, but don't actually deliver. They are taking advantage of the fact that the average person doesn't know how to gauge the true quality of a website. We see this less often, but we have definitely seen it. Recently a long-time, intelligent client of ours fell victim to just such a shark, who approached them out of the blue and made a million such promises, almost none of which were kept. When the new site launched, it was so unusable and performed so poorly in search results that business quite literally fell to near zip overnight. As a result of this disaster, the client lost tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of weeks. They came back to us in a panick, and they're back on track.

Finding a Professional

How do you avoid the amateurs and sharks? Here, in no particular order, are...

17 Tips for Finding a Website Design Firm

1. Don't Decide Based on Design Alone

Don't think of your website like a billboard design. Think of it more like a software application – an interactive tool that visitors will use to accomplish goals – theoretically the goals you want them to accomplish. A pretty website that does not meet users' needs is much worse than an ugly one that does. Design must support content and function and is just one of numerous ingredients of quality website development. Other factors, such as quality content, search engine optimization (SEO), mobile friendliness, speed, funneling and lead capture, usability, and security are equally important.

2. Great Firms Focus on Your Needs

In an exploratory meeting or phone call with the design firm, they should be asking a lot of questions about you and your needs. A great design firm will work hard to understand your organization, your users, your target audience, their goals and needs, your needs, your industry, your competition, etc., often doing research even before you meet, when possible. The development of a quality website is fully informed by this vital information.

3. Ask the Developer to Explain How They Optimize for Search Engines

This may be tricky because you may not be very savvy about search engine optimization (SEO) and don’t know exactly what to ask or how to assess the developer's portfolio sites for good SEO. But asking the question and insisting on details will at least force the developer to provide specifics. If they know what they are talking about, you should feel educated by the end of the conversation. If they don’t, you will probably be able to tell. Also, as a website owner, it's probably a good idea to do a little research of your own on this extremely important subject because you will play a role in any SEO strategy.

4. If They Guarantee Number One Rankings on Google, Run

“How do we get to the top of Google?” is often the first question that potential clients ask us. If a design firm or marketing firm guarantees you a number one organic ranking on Google, run now – you are being scammed. Every knowledgeable and reputable website developer and marketer knows that there is no magic bullet and results simply cannot be guaranteed. That's not to say it's not possible, but a reputable development company will explain that realisticly it may take some effort to achieve top rankings, especially on a new site or in a competitive market, and that SEO is about continually working to improve rankings, while more importantly increasing traffic and lead conversions in every way possible. They should be able to tell you about the many factors go into achieving those goals, including quality content development, technical on-site SEO, off-site SEO (social media, online reviews, inbound links), PPC campaigns, etc.

5. Run Speed Tests on the Developer’s Recent Sites

Site speed is super important, and Google uses page speed as a mobile ranking factor these days. The two speed test tools we rely on are WebPageTest.org and Google's PageSpeed Insights. They are both easy and quick to use. On WebPageText.org, pay particular attention to the Load Time, which should be less than three seconds (one-and-a-half is better), and Start Render, which should at least be less than a second (a half second is better). A Google PageSpeed Insight Mobile score of less than 75 should be a non-starter. A good site will do better than 85 or 90. Do this on recent sites – a good developer is always getting better at this.

6. Test Their Sites on Mobile Devices

While true professionals know that websites must be mobile-friendly these days, amatuers and sharks sometimes fail to ensure that their websites display and function well on mobile devices. Again, it's not just about what it looks like, but is it functional and easy to use on your mobile device? Test on several different phones and tablets, if you can. If you see problems, talk to them about it and see what they say.

7. Test Their Sites in Multiple Browsers

If you are a website owner, you need to be able to view your own website in the most popular browsers to ensure quality. Download Google Chrome and Firefox browsers. On a Mac, you already have Safari. On Windows, you already have IE/Edge. View the developer’s sample sites in as many different browsers as you can. If you see significant problems in any one browser, that's at least a yellow flag that you should talk with them about. Ask them if they test their sites in all major browsers on Windows and Mac.

8. Will They Help You Develop Quality Content?

You will need to provide content to the developer, but will they help guide and create content or at least assess and help improve the content you provide? It is up to you whether you want to engage the developer (or someone else) to help develop high-quality content, but keep in mind that quality content is the top factor in SEO, user satisfaction, and lead conversion.

9. How Will The Site Generate Leads?

 Lead generation, referred to as "conversions" in the industry, are often the most important goal of a website. After all, as the website owner, you are probably appealing to your visitors in the hopes that they will "convert" from a visitor into a customer, client, believer, supporter, subscriber, etc. Have they helped you identify what the possible conversions will be and what forms will they take on the website? How does the developer plan to funnel visitors towards each of specific conversion?

10. What CMS Will They Use?

Most websites are built using a Content Management System (CMS) of some kind. Many use open-source CMS's, such as WordPress, Magento, or Joomla. Others will have their own CMS platform, like we do. (Read why we don't use WordPress.) Have them explain why they use the CMS they use. Do some research of your own on their CMS. If they use their own private CMS, is it proprietary – in other words, will you be forced to only work with them on the site in the future?

We generally recommend avoiding any designer that intends to use a hosted platform like Wix.com or Weebly.com. That is definitely an amateur move. These systems are overly simplistic and limited, super proprietary, and mostly intended for do-it-yourselfers. If you've read this far, you are probably looking for a professional.

11. Ask About Hosting

Hosting refers to the web server that will "host" and serve your website to the world. Some design firms partner with a third-party hosting company. Where will the website be hosted (what company)? What is that company's up-time record? Who will provide support for the hosting account, the hosting company or the design firm? If you want, can you keep your current hosting? A 

12. Ask About Security

If they will use a third-party content management system (CMS), such as WordPress or Joomla, to build your site, do they do a basic installation, or do they perform all of the recommended security configurations after installation? For example, a top cause of WordPress infections is failure to properly secure new WordPress installations, an important task that amatuer WordPress developers are sometimes unaware of. If you get the impression that they just do the famous “five-minute” install and leave it at that, you might want to walk away. (Read why we avoid using WordPress.)

If the developer has their own CMS (like we do), what are the security features of that CMS? What is their track record with security?

13. Ask About the Long-Term

Once your site is launched, how much will they charge to do maintenance and make changes in the future? Do they round up on an hourly basis when they do maintenance and updates? Will they provide you with the login credentials to the site, your domain name, the hosting account, and any other related third-party accounts? Will you be able to move your site to a different hosting provider, if you want to? Will other development companies or SEO companies be able to work on the site in the future? Will the site be dependent on third-party providers to continue working and, if so, why? You should feel comfortable with the answers you get.

14. Ask About Support After Site Launch

Reputable website developers will offer a period of free support once a site is launched. What is theirs?

15. Get It in Writing

Sometimes, website developers, whether intentionally or not, make generalized promises they may not be able to keep. This is especially true when you have specific requirements and the developer is unable to actually make those exact requirements happen because they don't do their own programming and rely on third-party systems or plugins. Don't let this be a surprise that comes later in the process. A developer is more likely to make sure they can meet your requirements if they are detailed and agreed upon in advance, in writing. Plus, it's good for both sides to be on the same page.

16. Avoid "I Know a Guy" Scenarios

This is another amatuer alert. We hear from people all the time who tell us they tried to use a friend of friend or a second cousin who builds websites in his or her spare time from an office in their basement. We've heard all kinds of bad endings to these stories and evaluated the resulting websites. In our experience, you don't want to go there.

17. Relationship Matters

Building an effective website that will get results is much more feasible when there is a good relationship between the development team and the website owners. It is a group effort, and that includes you. The developer will need your input, expertise and knowledge, as well as content resources. You need to be able to trust that the developers have your best interests at heart and be able to work with them through the process of putting all the ingredients together. Make sure you can quickly develop a repoiré with them, especially with your primary contact. Make sure they will be available when you have questions or concerns.

Good Luck!

We don't want to see anybody get scammed or throw away good money on a bad website. Following these tips should help you avoid that common pitfall. Good luck!

Of course, we would be happy to talk with you about your website. It doesn't cost anything, and we don't bite. If we're not the right fit, that's okay, we feel confident that you will walk away more empowered.

Why Not Talk To Us About Your New Website?

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