Congratulations! You’ve decided to hire a professional web firm to create your website. Now it’s time to ask questions and gather feedback to help you narrow your selection of firms to just one. But what should you look for—and how?
In-house website development
First, you’ll want to work with a firm that can handle an entire website project in-house, from start to finish. This means avoiding low-cost firms that use offshore outsourcing instead of doing the work themselves. These middlemen tend to deliver sites that are clunky and poorly designed.
You’ll also want a firm with whom you can build a long-term relationship so that future changes can be handled by the designers and developers who actually built your original site—not by someone with little investment in the success of your project or with an understanding of its intricacies.
What to look for
There are a hundred skills used in the design and development of a website. Look for a firm that:
- doesn’t piggyback on the design work of others by using pre-built templates
- recommends a content management system (if required) based on your needs
- achieves effective graphic design principles across multiple screen sizes and device platforms, including mobile
- has ideas for amplifying your marketing efforts beyond the website
- has a solid grasp of typographic principles
- can create clean HTML, CSS, and JS code by hand, with strong familiarity with server-side optimizations
- effectively employs image and video compression techniques
- is able to organize your content in a clear, easy-to-grasp manner
- writes headlines and text with a strong, effective voice tailored to your audience
- helps choose and set up the best (not cheapest) hosting for your website’s needs
- provides essential support post-launch to help you with managing and promoting your website
Apart from steering clear of website design/development firms with poor websites and poor-quality client work, you can save yourself a ton of grief by avoiding firms that:
- rely on visual layout software to code websites, e.g. they don’t code by hand, from scratch
- use pre-built templates instead of creating a design that fits your needs
- lack the ability to provide copywriting services
- promise your site a high ranking thanks to their search engine optimization (SEO) techniques
- offer cheap upfront costs
Look for happy customers
This one’s simple. You’ve probably narrowed down your selection of firms based on the appearance and content on their websites. Now look through the portfolios of your shortlisted firms and contact the companies listed. Ask to talk to their head of marketing and ask how the working relationship was like with that particular firm. Did they meet the timeline? How accessible were they to questions and support requests? Did the firm provide helpful information throughout the process? Did their costs increase over time or were they able to adhere to the budget?
Many website projects go far beyond design, development, and copywriting. To be successful, they end up encompassing print materials, email marketing, online advertising, and even radio spots. It takes a well-rounded marketing strategy to strengthen your website’s success. Ask your firm what their capabilities are beyond websites.
Words matter. So does size.
Even taking everything above into account, it may still be difficult to narrow down your selection, especially when a web firm’s work appears lovely. But a website’s effectiveness is about more than how it looks. It’s also a factor of the quality of the written word. Spend a few minutes reading through portions of their site to evaluate the quality of their content.
Next, evaluate the care with which they code websites by using this rough metric: size. Size, or page weight, can reveal quite a bit about a firm's understanding of image compression, server-side compression, and the quality of their code. In a web browser, you can check the number of megabytes of data that were needed to create the layout you’re viewing. (Use the web inspector tool.) A savvy developer/designer keeps in mind visitors on slower connections and those on mobile devices, and will work tirelessly to keep the page weight down to under 1-2 MB. If you’re perusing sites with 5MB, 10MB, even 20 MB homepages that don’t justify that weight, then in all likelihood you’re looking at a site that’s machine coded and poorly optimized. That’s the kind of site you want to avoid—and the kind of site your potential customers will grow frustrated with.
Learn the tremendous impact a poorly coded site can have on the visitor experience in our article on hand-coded websites.