Buyer beware – Don’t buy a website before you read this.

I’ve seen a couple of rants on LinkedIn recently from fellow digital agencies or freelancers who have been approached by business owners in need of help. They need help because the website that they paid for is either broken in some way or not fit for purpose. I get at least one call a week from business owners who have spent money on a website that’s riddled with issues. It’s devastating to our industry but what can be done about it?

Well, to start with, do your research.

If I’m going to buy a new car, I don’t walk into my local dealership and buy the first one I see. Neither do I walk into a showroom and pick something I like the look of. I do research, lots of it. I look at different websites to see what’s out there, maybe buy a magazine with reviews, read other reviews online, talk to friends who have gone through the process and ask what and who they recommend. I don’t know the first thing about cars, I don’t know how they work and to be honest have no interest in finding out. But I do know what problem I need it to solve (in my case it needs to be reliable, be able to fit lots of luggage in the boot and have a good safety record), and I’ll get to know enough to make an informed decision before I drop $20k at the dealership.

I get that there’s still no guarantee it’s going to end well, but odds are much better if I put some effort into understanding what I want and spend time finding out what I need to know before I buy.

Same goes for your website and digital marketing. Don’t be fooled by sales speak and promises. It’s your responsibility as a business owner to know which questions to ask before you embark on a relationship with a digital agency or freelancer, and I’ve written this article to help you.

Ten questions to ask before you hire a web designer or developer.

1. Are you using a theme or will this be a custom design?

Themes are like a ‘skin’ for your website, and there are literally millions of themes available for WordPress. You can lose a day looking for the perfect one. If you have a small budget (below $5k), a theme will give your web designer a head start, which in theory means they can spend more time helping you work out what to say to your customers and help you get a great looking site that encourages your site visitors to do whatever it is you want them to do when they visit. There’s nothing wrong with using a pre-designed theme, just ask if that’s the case and find out what the limitations are. Will it allow you to grow your site as you grow your business? How much customisation will be included? Does it come with additional monthly fees?

2. Is your designer a graphic designer or web designer?

A designer is a designer right? Wrong. Having 10 years graphic design (print) experience does not a web designer make. Same the other way round. I’m not saying that there aren’t people out there that can do both, but if you need a website designing, hire a website designer, not a graphic designer, IT guy, marketer or your nephew. Why? Because designing for web is very different to designing for print. Print is a static thing, what you see is what you get. Your website on the other hand needs to work beautifully across lots of different devices and browsers. A graphic designer who hasn’t learnt the basics of code won’t understand this. Nor will they understand things like how page size affects loading times, or how to make a site fully accessible.

3. Are you using a page builder?

A lot of themes come with page builders and you can add one to a custom built theme. Some are great, some are terrible. By terrible I mean they can be tricky to use, awkward on mobile and add huge lag to your page load speed. (This is bad for your visitors and because Google say so). Not all page builders are created equal. Some will help you to update the site. Most will give you huge ability to change the design and create new page designs without needing to know how to code.

What you need to know: If you’re tech savvy, you’ll pick up how to use a page builder pretty quickly, if not, you’ll probably not be any better off and will still need a web designer to take care of updates for you. If you’re a marketer and want to split test and build landing pages, a page builder will enable you to do just that. Just remember, with great power comes great responsibility. You’ll need an eye for design and and time to invest.

4.Where can I see past work? Do you have any case studies?

Any experienced web designer will have some sort of portfolio. You can see what kind of work they do and who for. It’s definitely worth spending time looking at these. Do you like the designs and more importantly, do you think the designs appeal to your target market? Are the pages displaying correctly and quickly? Can you tell at a quick glance what the site is about and who it’s for? Is the content easy to read? Can you navigate around the site easily? This is like looking at the cars in the showroom. You’re doing a mental comparison to find the right fit.

5. Where can I read independent reviews?

Most websites have review on them. Where do the reviews come from? If you can’t find these reviews at an independent source (like Google My Business, LinkedIn etc), then how do you know they are genuine? Do your research! Search for reviews elsewhere and take the time to read them. Were they happy with the end result? How did they find the process? Is the website doing what it was designed to do? Are they still happy 12 months down the line?

6. What do you need from me?

If you’re building a new website, there’s going to be some work for you. You’re going to have to spend time with your web designer/agency answering lots of questions about your business (TIP: If they don’t ask lots of questions about your business, walk away), so the end result can meet your business needs. You’re going to have to either pay for a copywriter and work with them to curate compelling content, or spend time researching and writing your own. You’re going to have to provide images and testimonials. Find out what they need from you and think about whether you’re prepared to make time for a website project right now.

7. What do you know about marketing?

A good website designer will know about marketing. They will know your website is more than a pretty face, and with the right structure, content and design, can be an incredibly powerful asset for your business. If your website designer or digital agency is not talking about strategy, get the hell out of there. If they talk about strategy and you’re not prepared to listen, get the hell out of there.

8. What are the ongoing costs?

WordPress is incredible because of the supportive community and because of the ‘plug-ins’ that mean your designer/developer doesn’t need to build every little piece of functionality. Some plug-ins are free, which is great, but what level of support do you expect there is when something goes wrong? Premium plugins are a likely requirement of any WordPress website, and as most of them are subscription based, you’re going to have additional ongoing costs. You’ll also need good quality hosting and you might want to have someone take care of ongoing Website Maintenance & Security. Don’t be surprised by this. Do your research!

9. Can I update my site and will you show me how?

I had a call from a local business owner who had a site that took a long time to load. In addition she wanted to make changes to the site but thought it was broken. I took a look. The site was built with one of the less-loved page builders (which may have contributed to the slow loading time), but the only reason she couldn’t update the site was because she couldn’t work out how to. Granted, the page builder in question wasn’t super-easy to use, but the company that built the site provided zero training on how to update it. (Which tells me that the page builder was to make their job easier, not the clients, but I’ll save that rant for another time). If you intend updating your new website in-house, ask about this before you sign.

10. What if something goes wrong after the site is live?

WordPress releases regular updates. The plug-in authors release regular updates. These need attending to daily. Sometimes you push the button and the thing updates and you get on with your day. Sometimes you push the button and the thing updates and breaks another thing, or everything. Then what? We provide after-care for our clients in the form of a Website Maintenance and Security Plan. We believe in long-term relationships with our clients and take great pleasure from working together to watch their business thrive. We take care of stuff they don’t want to care about. Find our what support is available once your site is live.

There are other questions, but this article is turning into a book, so do your research! Find out who owns the site. Make sure you have full access. It’s your responsibility to know your hosting details and to have full control of your site. Get to know. Ask about Google Analytics, ask about SEO. Keep asking questions until you’re sure you have the right fit.

So, there you have it. 10 questions to ask before you hire a web designer, developer or agency. If you’ve been burnt, I’m sorry, and incredibly angry on your behalf. I hope these questions help to ensure that never happens to you again. Unfortunately every industry has its fleas. Fortunately with the right amount of research, you can get a website that will deliver a good return on your investment without doing business with one of them!

Where can I find out more?

If you’re a small business in Australia, the Small Business Development Corporation have some helpful tips, including a downloadable PDF with more questions you should ask and this handy Build a Website Workbook.

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