Elbel Consulting Services, LLC
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How to choose a website developer and webmaster

There are a large number of large companies, small shops and individuals who promote their website design services. ECS suggests that you look for a website developer who is established, who will work with you to provide exactly the website you want, and who will be available over the long-haul to support and make changes to your website.

Choosing a website developer

When choosing a website designer and webmaster, you can select from individuals and companies, those who do custom design versus those who are "template-driven", and those who are overseas versus local. No matter who you select, it is important to select an individual or a company with a proven track record, and one who will give you the results and the support that you require.

What about having your high-school nephew make a website for you? In website design, as in many fields, you get what you pay for. Cobbling together some html is one thing; creating a content-driven website with marketing appeal is another. Even if you are a start-up business or a nonprofit with a tight budget, it is almost always more cost-effective in the long run to hire a professional to do a professional job.

Many website hosting companies will provide website packages that offer templates that you can choose from. These are fairly cost-effective, but generally are a fixed product and are not customized to your design requirements. Some hosting companies will offer custom website design, but this is actually farmed out to website developers overseas, leaving you without a direct line of communication to the developer. Also an issue with "packaged" custom design is that there is tremendous pressure on the website developers for fast turnaround in order to improve profit margins. This naturally results in lower quality work.

Probably the most important characteristic of a website designer is the ability to work with you to deliver the website "look and feel" that you want. Equally important are communications and follow-through are paramount. ECS uses this questionnaire as the starting point for communicating your design requirements.

The same applies to your webmaster (often the same person or company). While the website designer creates the artwork and website layout, the webmaster is responsible for the day-to-day maintenance and operation of the website, including email management. The webmaster will have an overlapping skill set that includes the more technical aspects of website management, server management, and usually programming and website scripting. It is equally important for the webmaster to have good communications skills and follow-through.

Another important characteristic of a webdesigner is a proven track record with satisfied clients. A solid portfolio including website designs for diverse clients is important, as are solid customer recommendations.

Here is a list of questions to ask a prospective web designer or webmaster:

  1. Are you an individual or a large company?

    Either response may be acceptable, but it is good to know who you will be dealing with. Large companies often subcontract website design, leaving you with no direct communication with the designer - who is usually under pressure for fast turnaround. An individual can offer more customized design and a more personalized approach to the process, which usually gives you better results.

  2. Are you incorporated?

    An individual designer or small team who are incorporated indicates a definite degree of professionalism and commitment. A "part-timer" will likely not be incorporated and may not have the time to do a quality job.

  3. Where are you located?

    Any response may be acceptable, but if the website developer is located overseas, you may encounter communication problems and you will have less ability to directly deal with problems and delays that might occur. In this age of instant communications, it is not necessary for the developer to be in the same city and available for face-to-face discussion - as long as he or she has the ability to clearly and effectively communicate with you.

  4. What is your marketing experience?

    The primary purpose of a website is to communicate information - to market a product, a political candidate, or a point of view. It is fairly easy to find HTML coders, but much more difficult to find a developer who understands not only the technical aspects of website design, but also marketing concepts and strategies.

  5. What is your experience with my line of business?

    It is not absolutely imperative that your webdesigner have direct experience in your line of business. It certainly helps, especially when you are looking to the designer for website content and marketing advice. However, general business and marketing experience is important.

  6. What sized websites have you developed in the past?

    If the developer has focused on large-scale websites with hundreds or thousands of pages, design may not have been as important as content management. On the other hand, developers of small websites likely will have focused more on the presentation and appeal of their websites.

  7. How long have you been designing websites? What is your "day job"?

    As in many other fields, experience counts in website design. This is because experience not only demonstrates, but builds artistic, design, and development skills, as well as developing communication skills. A designer who has been in business for many years will have a more comprehensive skill set and therefore better ability to meet your objectives. Many individual website designers have a "day job" - which limits their ability to respond and devote time to your project, no matter how talented they appear to be.

  8. Are you a graphic artist?

    A graphic artist (or graphic designer) is one who creates and assembles visual layout consisting of typography, images, and multimedia. Graphic artists now work almost exclusively in digital media. A person who is a professional graphic artist will be able to create a good web design, but usually will not be proficient in the technical aspects of website implementation, html and css, and scripting. Conversely, a good website designer does not necessarily have to be a formally-trained graphic artist, as long as they understand the color theory, and the basics of composition. Use their portfolio to evaluate their work.

  9. Can you help me develop content and write copy for my website?

    Many website designers do not want to get "bogged down" in the details of producing the content of a website. That is fine, unless you really need those resources to complete your website. On the other hand, some companies like ECS are more than willing to use their expertise to help you create content.

  10. Do I work directly with the web designer or simply through a project manager?

    Even if you are using a website template, it is better to be able to communicate directly with the web designer - and this is even more the case if you are having a website custom-designed. A good project manager should be able to act as an intermediary and to cross-communicate with you and the designer, but this takes more time, and there are more opportunities for mis-communication.

  11. Do you subcontract design and/or scripting and programming? If so, do you outsource overseas?

    It is fairly common for website designers to subcontract scripting and programming - not everyone can be skilled in multiple areas. Yet subcontracting can introduce delays and misunderstandings about deliverables. This is more likely with overseas outsourcing.

  12. How will I be billed? Do you want money up-front?

    It is reasonable for a designer to ask for an up-front retainer, with the remainder being billed upon successful completion of the work.

  13. How will you provide the website design that I am looking for?

    The design process involves understanding your line of business and your marketing objectives. The design process is greatly facilitated by finding a number of websites that you like and by explaining to the designer what features you like about each website. The next step is for the designer to provide one or more comps - basic website layouts. When these are approved, the designer will develop the basic website. You should be able to review and approve the basic web page layout (or "template") before the rest of the website is completed.

    When the website is completed, your final review should include making sure that the website conformed to the comp and basic template that you originally approved.

  14. How will we establish what the final deliverables are?

    The number of pages, features, complexity of content, and the number of images and photos should be determined and agreed upon before website construction begins. This should be done no matter whether project is a fixed bid or a time-and-materials (hourly) bid, in order to ensure that both you and your web designer know what must be created and when the created work is complete. A copy of this agreed-upon document (the development contract) should be available to all parties involved.

  15. How long will it take you to design the website?

    The answer will vary, depending on the complexity of your website and the load of other concurrent work that the designer has to complete. It is important to establish a deliverable date that you and the designer are both comfortable with, along with checkpoints along the way, such as review and approval of comps, completion of the basic website design, etc.

  16. What if I want changes after the design is completed?

    A designer will typically make a reasonable number of "fine-tuning" changes and enhancements as part of the design process. Changes after that are usually billed at an hourly maintenance rate, or are covered by an additional retainer.

  17. Can you design a logo for me?

    A good designer will be able to design - or subcontract design of - a logo. This will usually be done for an additional fee.

  18. Will I legally own the website you create for me? Will I get the usercodes and passwords?

    It should be clearly understood that the website will be yours upon completion (although the designer may reference it in a portfolio, etc.) You should receive all website access information, including passwords - but passwords should not be sent via email. You should also reach an understanding about artwork used on your website. One way of ensuring that you own this material is for the designer to send you the original electronic media (Photoshop and Illustrator files).

    Some components of the website, such as cascading style sheets, back-end scripts and programs and possibly some artwork may be used on your website with the developer retaining copyright and the ability to re-use them on other websites. There is nothing unusual about this arrangement, but it should be clearly communicated.

  19. Can I make changes to my own website?

    A good content management system will allow you to change your own website. This will cost more up-front to implement, but will pay for itself if you plan on making many updates. On the other hand, many clients do not want to be bothered with the technicalities of website maintenance and would prefer for the website developer/webmaster to make these changes.

  20. What tools do you use to create websites?

    This is sort of like asking your car mechanic whether he uses Craftsman or Stanley tools. Yet the answer will help you get a feel for the competency of the designer. Designers typically use Photoshop and Illustrator to create graphics. Additional tools includes color pickers, font management tools (which a novice designer will not be aware of), raw text editors, and html editors, as well as site implementation packages such as Dreamweaver.

  21. Will the website adhere to web standards?

    Standards are developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Many developers and indeed many website development tools do not fully adhere to standards. A good developer should be aware of standards and should be able to explain how standards are adhered to in HTML, XML, and CSS.

  22. Can you create artwork and find photos for my website?

    A good website designer will be able to create quality artwork for your website. Some developers will subcontract this work to graphic artists. A designer should also be able to find existing stock artwork and photos that can be purchased for use on your site. The purchase cost is typically passed on to you.

  23. Who does your website scripting and programming?

    A division of labor often occurs between graphic design and technical implementation. It is unusual to find an individual who is equally skilled at graphic design as well as back-end scripting and programming. (If you find one who does both well and who is also marketing-savvy, you have just "struck gold". We believe you will find that ECS falls into this category.)

  24. How easy will it be to enhance the website in the future?

    Your website should be designed in such a manner that it will be easy to enhance and add pages to in the future. Websites are a moving target and are always changing - which is one of the advantages of web-based marketing. Websites that are created with full-scale tools like Dreamweaver can usually be extended, but often produce HTML code that is more difficult to support. Custom-designed and custom-coded websites are usually easily extensible, but this is dependent on the developer adhering to standards and good design practices.

  25. Can you install add-on features like a store, blog and photo gallery?

    The answer should be "yes".

  26. What other services do you or your company offer?

    This might include website hosting, email campaign list management, marketing consultation, and search engine optimization.

  27. Can you help me register my domain name and host my website?

    A good webmaster should be able to help you through the somewhat technical and complicated processes of domain registration.

  28. Are you proficient in HTML and CSS? Can you show me examples?

    A good website developer should be well-versed in using a number of design tools, including the ability to "code" raw HTML and CSS. Indeed, some major newspaper eschew complex website generation tools in order to produce pages in raw HTML, which provides much greater control over the appearance of the website.

  29. How will you validate my web pages and links?

    It is vitally important that every web page be validated to ensure that there are no html errors and no "dead links". Since websites and pages may come and go over time, it is also important to periodically revalidate your links. There are a number of validation tools that a professional developer can use for this purpose.

    Your webmaster should also check for spelling errors before making your content live.

  30. What is your opinion of table-less websites?

    In years past, websites were formatted using HTML tables. Now, with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and more current standards and practices, website layout is controlled with CSS and tables are relegated more to presenting tabular data. There are still exceptions, such as implementing complex designs that will be rendered correctly by older browsers, but a good designer should be able to explain where and why tables are used.

  31. Do you use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)?

    The answer should be "yes".

  32. What is a spacer gif?

    In years past, invisible spacer gifs or images were used to control the position of elements on a web page. This practice has been abandoned in lieu of using Cascading Style Sheets. Only under exceptional circumstances should spacer gifs be used.

  33. What port is typically used to deliver web pages?

    This is a technical challenge question. The answer is that port 80 is used for Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). Here is a list of internet TCP and UDP port numbers.

  34. Will you design the website from scratch or will you use a template?

    Either answer might be acceptable, but you should know at the outset how your website will be constructed. There are abundant templates that you can choose from. These are fairly cost-effective, but generally are a fixed product and are not customized to your design requirements. Templates are often not thoroughly tested on various browsers, especially older browsers, and can in actuality cause quite a few problems.

    A good designer will be able to design a quality website "from scratch" that will meet your requirements, will be extensible, and will still be cost effective.

  35. How do you account for browser incompatibilities and browsers on different platforms (PC, Mac, Unix)?

    The designer should know that definite incompatibilities between browsers exist. Firefox is arguably the most standards-compliant browser and has approximately 25% of the browser market share (and increasing). MSIE is known for not being extremely standards-compliant. Opera is considered fairly standards-compliant.

    When considering older versions that are still in use, plus platform differences (Windows, Mac, and Unix), there are dozens of browser versions, each of which may render a web page slightly differently. A designer should be aware of compatibility issues and should test your website on the current versions of the most-used browsers. The art and science of web design accounts for these browser differences.

  36. Would you take a look at this particular website and tell me the good and bad points about it? What do you think of the HTML coding?

    This is an excellent question to ask of a potential web designer. Show them examples of websites in your line of business and ask their opinion of the websites - from a marketing, content, and technical perspective. Ask them to take a look at the HTML and CSS used in one or two websites, and to show you how to do so.

  37. What do you do to improve your skills?

    Webdesign is a moving target. Cascading Style Sheets became standard a number of years ago. HTML evolved from version 2 to 3 to version 4. Database-driven websites and content management systems are now common. Flash is used for animation and for audio and video presentation "surrounds". A competent web designer will remain so by reading books, taking seminars, and by monitoring blogs and websites that convey the most current technical information.

  38. What will you do to make my website search engine friendly?

    Search engine optimization is not something that you do to a website as an afterthought. Rather, it is an integral part of website design and content creation. A good website designer will be able to explain this to you and will explain the steps they take to ensure good website search engine ranking.

  39. How can I get high search engine rankings?

    High search engine rankings and page visibility are the result of good website design, coupled with website content (or "copy") that reflects keywords used in your line of business. A good web designer will understand the importance of key phrases used in search queries and will know that trying to "trick" search engines will ultimately backfire. (Search engines - particularly Google - have invested a lot of effort into identifying and penalizing for use of these tricks.)

  40. How can I promote my website?

    The purpose of a website is to convey information, and is of little use if no one knows about it. Website promotion includes, but is not limited to: word of mouth, promotion in brochures, business cards and newspaper ads, links from other websites (and links to them), web based advertising, including Google ad words. There are also techniques to keep people coming back to your website, such as new content, promotions, polls, and blogs. For more information, see How do I promote my website?

  41. Are your clients satisfied with your work?

    A webdesigner should be able to say "yes" and be able to prove it with a portfolio of completed - and active - websites, along with customer recommendations.

ECS website development

Elbel Consulting Services, LLC is a company with a proven track record of exceeding customers' expectations. ECS has been developing websites since 1995 and has the design experience and back-end technical ability to deliver a quality website to your specifications. In addition, ECS has significant business, marketing and media experience - important factors to consider when developing your website appearance and marketing content. ECS adheres to the basic tenet of customer support being first and foremost. Contact Elbel Consulting Services for more information on professional website design.

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