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Small Business – Choosing the Right Web Agency
Choosing the right web design agency can be a make or break decision for many small businesses, it can mean the difference between a website that works for them and one that doesn’t. Or, more succinctly, the difference between a website that supports the business and one that costs the business (time, money, reputation, brand).
A big part of Hot Lemon’s online business is helping our clients revamp their websites because their current websites are, for lack of a better phrase, “not fit for purpose”. These are not self-made websites by our clients, in which case you can forgive them, but so-called “professional” websites developed by “professional” web design agencies.
This eventually led me to write this guide to choosing the right web design agency for your small business to help other small businesses make these same mistakes.
Who is to blame for bad web design?
Simply put, the agencies that develop websites and the small businesses that commission them. So that would be everyone!
Agencies are guilty of not engaging with their clients, cutting too many corners, and trying to over-engineer design and technology to meet a certain price point. Small businesses are guilty of driving the market into low prices, not wanting to invest heavily in their website, and not getting as involved in the process as they should.
Astonishment – the Internet is important
I am constantly amazed at the way some small businesses develop their online presence – their website. The Internet is now so compelling and used by so many consumers in so many different ways that a robust, professional online presence is a must for any business, regardless of sector or size.
However, many small businesses still approach the development (and use) of their website casually, for them the website is secondary rather than primary. Unfortunately, with this mindset, many small businesses will never experience the benefits of a good online presence and why it is so important to invest time and resources into it.
Race to the bottom – a website for a bargain basement
This small business attitude can be characterized by the growing dominance of web design agencies that offer ‘all inclusive’, ‘professionally designed’ and ‘tailored for you’ websites, all for the amazing sum of £199.
Basically, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this affordable web design.
However, you really do get what you pay for. Bearing in mind that these agencies have overheads and are also businesses and therefore need to make a profit themselves, the actual development costs spent on a website like this can be anywhere from £80-100. In order to achieve this price, agencies need to keep the design process to a minimum. Hence the use of templates, generic images, generic text.
The resulting web page may look fine. But does it work for your business? Does it reflect your brand? Does it communicate what you are doing correctly? Is your business selling? Can you find it on Google?
Old saying: “You pay peanuts, you get monkeys”
Top tips for choosing a web design agency
Hot Lemon has developed some top tips for all small businesses to use when choosing a web design agency, these are:
- recommendation – use your network, if a colleague can recommend an agency, you can use their experience to help you in your choice
- talk to several agencies – don’t just go to one agency, talk to several. Are they treating you as a customer or as a potential cash flow?
- don’t decide on cost alone – costs are important, so we plan things. However, the cheapest is rarely the best. If you save money on website design, you may end up losing money in the long run due to lost business
- do they use english? – English is a wonderful language, but many people don’t use it and prefer slang. If an agency can’t speak to you in plain English that you can understand, can you really expect them to spend time getting to know your business
- do they understand you? – Did the agency make an effort to get to know you, your business, your market? They form your primary communication channel and need a good understanding of you in order to do this effectively
- benefits rather than features – the web is full of features! What real benefit do they bring you? Beware of long lists of features, especially for e-commerce sites
- keep an eye on the auction – get someone to design your website for you, be wary of agencies trying to sell you other online services for your business, although they are often useful, they can destroy your business
- writing texts – whether the agency will help you write the content of your website or just design the website. Writing effective web content is not an easy skill
- suggestions – look at the agency’s portfolio, are they all the same? Do they design from a template? Many low-cost web designs are template-based – saving money – which isn’t necessarily a problem if the template is good for you
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) 1 – the agency should offer in-house SEO as an integral part of its service – not as an add-on. SEO is so important that it should be implemented from the beginning of the design process
- SEO 2 – ask the agency to explain in plain English what their SEO services are. Let them explain their internal and external SEO services and their costs. Also, make sure if they do it themselves or with subcontractors
- Content Management Systems (CMS) – many agencies make CMS a key feature, but do they tell you everything about CMS and whether it’s right for you? Key things to consider:
- Ease of use – although you don’t need to know how to code to update a website with a CMS, many of them are not as intuitive to use as they should be, quite the opposite
- proprietary or published – CMSs can come in two forms – proprietary (ie written specifically for a specific website) or published (Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, Coldfusion, etc.), in which case the CMS is tailored to your website. Proprietary is usually more intuitive because it’s written specifically for you, but it can tie you up. Posted can be less intuitive and more templated.
- suggestions – CMS sites generally follow similar templates, especially published versions, your choice of layout and design may be limited
- adaptability – as many CMS templates follow templates (some agencies just change the logo on the template and then sell it to you for £500) they lack flexibility so you may be limited in what you can do within your budget
- content – just so you can update your site, right? Not everyone was a copywriter, and that, along with the relative inflexibility of CMS sites, can quickly lead to some messy sites. Furthermore, if they sell you a website with a CMS, will the agency help you with copywriting and SEO? Do you know enough about SEO to write search engine friendly copy?
- e-business – many small businesses are attracted to the online world because of e-commerce and the ability to compete on an equal footing with the big boys. Error no. The first thing any agency should do is make your e-commerce dreams a reality. It’s not impossible to be successful, but it’s not as easy as you might think. Things to consider when asking your agency about e-commerce are:
- the software – your agency will most likely be using commercially available e-commerce software for your website, larger agencies may have their own software that they reuse. Find out which one they use and Google it! You may find that you are only paying the agency to change the logo
- keep an eye on the auction – many e-commerce packages are extremely powerful, they can list and manage thousands of products and do amazing things – this could be overkill if all you need is a simple e-commerce site that sells a few products
- ask for options – if you plan to sell only a few things online, make sure the agency offers you a range of options, from cheap to expensive. For example, PayPal offers a free e-commerce option that can be used with any website!
- understand the amount of work involved – often the easiest part of setting up an e-commerce website is the design itself; be aware that entering product details with appropriate tags and descriptions can be very time-consuming – will your agency help you?
- suggestions – since e-commerce sites are usually based on published software and have very complex databases associated with them, they tend to be very similar in appearance as they are generally set up with templates. This can be a problem if you want to differentiate how your eCommerce site looks compared to your competitors, ask your agency how they can differentiate your site from your competitors
- watch out for plugins – using specific plugins may make your site look fantastic, but be aware that not all of your clients will have these plugins (eg Flash, Quicktime, Java, Real Player files, etc.). Ask what happens to your attractive site if, for example, the visitor does not have Flash installed (iPhone does not play Flash). In addition, Google does not index the content of Flash files, so you should make sure that your agency submits their content in other ways to search engines
- standards are important – ensure that your agency codes its websites according to international standards. These standards are there to ensure that websites work regardless of browsers and operating platforms. At a minimum, you should insist that your site adheres to the W3C HTML/XHTML standards. Other than laziness, there is no excuse for not designing a standards-compliant website!
- testing – inquire about the testing regime at the agency. Web pages display quite differently in different browsers and operating systems, and what works in one browser may not necessarily work in another. Find a computer running Internet Explorer 6 (still the default browser on 10% of all computers) and test your website on it (IE6 is usually the worst culprit for websites not displaying properly)
- relationships are key – above all, whether you think you can do business with the agency and establish a working relationship with it. Things go wrong – a fact of life – do you think your agency will be there to help and support you when it does?
I think this is a pretty comprehensive list of tips and things to consider when choosing a web design agency for your small business.
Things to consider
While the above is pretty comprehensive in terms of evaluating web design agencies, it’s not all one-way traffic. Small businesses also need to consider several points before starting the web development process. For example:
- your website is likely to be your company’s main communication tool – your store to the world. Therefore, devote adequate time and resources to getting it right
- understand that you get what you pay for. You won’t get someone who understands your needs and those of your business and then designs an effective website for £250!
- if you don’t understand the internet, find someone who does. Find out why SEO is important and what drives good SEO (probably making the £250 option less attractive) – Hot Lemon as a little plug happy to chat
- don’t trust anyone who can’t explain things to you in plain English
- don’t get too hung up on full-featured CMS and e-commerce sites, understand that you’re good at your business, not necessarily copywriting, graphic or web design
- although most websites have similar structures (it’s intuitive!), don’t settle for a template design. Your customers will recognize that you can’t be bothered with your own website – so why should you?
- your website is a key tool for your business, treat it not as an add-on but as an integral part and devote time and resources to it as appropriate.
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