Good WebDev Hunting

Est. Reading Time: 9 minutes

I have been in the information technology world since 1981 when I wrote my first programs as a student at Wake Forest, then later as an intern at the NC Dept of Agriculture and throughout my career with RJ Reynolds, AT&T, as a student at Kansas State and now with Beacon.  In 1998 when we started Beacon, there were a few web development companies out there, but now they are EVERYWHERE!  All of them claim to be the best.  I know, I know.  That’s just business.  I have talked with hundreds of business leaders with respect to web initiatives over the years.  To no one’s surprise, the four main factors that drive the decision to select a web development/consulting firm are (1) Price, (2) Experience/Capability, (3) Delivery Time, and (4) Relationship / Support.  I believe we are very good at what we do, but by no means are we perfect as there is always room for improvement.  But having been in this profession for over half my life, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of my experience-based thoughts on what good web development entails.  Of course, this isn’t all inclusive, but a solid foundation.

Website Development Facts:

  1. For business purposes, it is NOT so simple that “a caveman can do it”.
  2. Every website is a custom website.  Cost increases with the level of customization and volume of content/products.
  3. You get what you pay for.  Cutting corners, having your nephew build the site, trying to build it yourself when you have time usually produces poor results.  Take the time to do it right.  Prioritize all your requirements and desired features.  Establish a realistic budget and share it with your vendor.  Ask them to provide as much as they can with that budget without sacrificing quality.  Push lower priority requirements to a future release.
  4. Every website has a “Blueprint” Phase and a “Construction” Phase (most expensive of the two).  A good blueprint keeps the construction costs down and prevents re-work, so take the time to do it right.  Breaking these two phases into separate projects (contracts) works best.
  5. Web development, hosting and marketing depend on each other.  It is a BIG advantage to have a single vendor that is strong in all 3 areas with good customer support.  One number to call for any web-related issues.

Website Types:

  1. Marketing (Informational, lead-generation)
  2. Storefront (Ecommerce, online revenue generation)
  3. Activity-Based (Custom Applications, Blogs)
  4. Mix of the above

Website Development Differentiators:  Good firms will not only discuss your specific needs, but will also share current trends, brainstorm new ideas and proactively cover the following (at a minimum), while constantly providing ideas and consultation.  If your web development company is sitting there waiting for you to tell them what to do, find another firm.

  1. Cross Browser Compatibility:  Will your website operate in ALL the most current popular browser versions?
  2. Updates to the website:  I’ve NEVER seen a website that didn’t need updates from time to time.  How will updates be handled and priced?
  3. Content Management:  There are many, many content management systems on the market.  Of course, they vary in price based on features and functionality.  One size doesn’t fit all.  No reason to put a monster engine in a VW bug, nor a 4-cylinder into a Corvette.
  4. Coding for search engine visibility (SEO):  It’s one thing to create content for a web page, but a whole different thing to make the site search engine friendly, using meta tags effectively, the right keyword density, SEO landing pages, internal linking and much more.  You can’t just build a website and expect the world to find it.  You have to know how to construct it so the search engines “like” it…and I’m not talking about a Facebook “Like”!
  5. Professional/Creative Web Design:  The old saying is quite true… You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.  Your website represents your business.  People don’t read content as much anymore.  This is why using the right imagery with easy navigation is important.
  6. Calls to Action:  Ask yourself, “What do I want people to do when they come to my website?”  Is there a strong call to action that facilitates this?  And how will it be tracked?
  7. Analytics:  I frequently say, “you can’t manage what can’t measure”.  MAKE SURE you have some sort of analytics tool (preferably Google Analytics) to track visitors, conversions and much more.  Your website is another Sales Rep – make sure it is performing well.
  8. Site Search:  Is a site search tool included and is it appropriate for your site?  It is vitally important.
  9. Hosting & support:  If your vendor also hosts your website, can they also host your email and provide spam filtering?  Are redirects being used appropriately?  What happens if a page isn’t found?  Do they check for broken links regularly?
  10. Local digital marketing:  Will your vendor help with optimizing your listings in Google Local, Places, Maps…and other standard local venues?
  11. Integration:  Does your website need to integrate with 3rd party or back office software?  Accounting?  Shipping?  Order Management?  CRM?  Will experienced engineers be available to discuss critical requirements.

Choosing a Website Development Partner:  When you select a website development firm, there is always somewhat of a leap of faith.  Like any profession, there are good firms and bad firms. Minimize this leap by considering the following:

  1. How many years have they been in business?  Demonstrates financial stability, success and peace of mind that they have not only been providing these services, but will be around when you need them in the future.
  2. Look at their portfolio.  There are so many firms out there that showcase relatively unknown clients.  There’s a reason for this – especially if they have been around for a long time.
  3. Read their blog and Facebook page.  It will tell you a lot about their breadth and depth of skills, their people and their personality.
  4. Do they outsource or do everything in house?  Nothing against outsourcing, but I’m a big believer in minimizing the number of costly middle-men.
  5. Ask about who’s doing the work.  Does one person handle project management, creative design, development, testing, SEO and implementation?  I have yet to meet a person who is an expert in all of these areas.
  6. Ask for example deliverables.  Can they provide examples of a project plan and any other deliverables that are created prior to development?  The website is NOT the only deliverable.  Houses aren’t built without a blueprint, neither should your website.
  7. Ask about communication.  Will your primary point of contact be a Project Manager or a Developer?  Can you meet this person?
  8. Ask about the creative design process.  How many design-and-review iterations do they provide with respect to the website design – so that you can see the creative design(s) and request modifications?
  9. Ask about the CMS and eCommerce software options.  Are they locked into only one of each or do they have more breadth of experience and alternative options to meet your price and functional requirements?
  10. Ask how they test the website before it is launched.  Do they have a formal “User Acceptance Testing” process – so you can check everything out before it gets launched?
  11. Is the firm a good fit for your business culture?  Does the relationship “feel” good & honest like the firm cares about the success of your website?  Or do you feel like you are just part of an assembly line.
  12. Ask about post-launch support.  Who to call?  Pricing?  Expected response time?  After hours?  Ticketing system to insure your request is logged and monitored to completion?
  13. Do they really provide their own hosting servicesor do they use a 3rd party?  Ask this 3-part question:  Where is the web server located that houses my website?  How often is server maintenance performed and who performs it?  I’ve seen a lot of finger pointing between hosting firms and development firms over the years.

Website Development Budget:  For us, every project is quoted separately  There’s always exceptions, but here’s a “Rule of Thumb” table that I have put together based on several hundred projects we’ve performed over the years.  I hope this helps to some degree with your approach to web development firms.

Small* Medium Large X-Large**
Pages/Products 1-25 25-50 50-200 200+
Content Budget $3K to $10K $10K to $25K $25K to $65K $50K to $300K
eComm Budget NA NA $7.5K to $25K
Duration*** 1-4 wks 4-12 wks 12-24 wks 24+ wks

*Small:  option to pay monthly **X-Large: businesses w/ large product catalogs, universities, etc (thousands of pages) that require careful planning and coordination with internal decision-making groups. Many times these projects require integration with existing legacy systems and/or 3rd party software. ***Duration is dependent on the availability of resources, number of resources working concurrently and the client’s availability & delivery of content.