February 18, 2018

Rachel Strella

What Small Businesses Need to Know Before Hiring A Website Company

Small Businesses

My executive coach said recently, “if you don’t have a website you don’t have a business.” I agree, but I would take that a step further to add, “if you don’t have a good website, you don’t have a business.”

It’s my goal with this post to define good, because not all websites and web development services are created equal. Unfortunately, there are too many small business owners taken advantage of because they don’t know what they don’t know when it comes to online marketing.

Why Is This Happening?
First, let me begin with why this problem exists. There are companies who specialize in certain facets of marketing (video production, online directory search, lead generation, etc.) Because there are so many different types of marketing specialties, some companies have added those services under their umbrella to serve a greater pool of customers or to upsell existing customers. However, many of these companies don’t specialize in these add-ons, and thus the customer is not well-served.

Agencies are notorious for this, but I also see a lot of small businesses do it, too, because they want to offer value to their customers who ask if they also (fill in the blank).

In the past month, several of my onboarding customers, prospects and colleagues have fallen victim to the ‘throw-the-service-under-the-umbrella’ tactic and they are suffering the consequences.

Why Am I Involved?
Strella Social Media specializes exclusively in social media management. However, about two-thirds of our clients need another element (or two!) before social media can effectively help them meet their goals. Often, that element is a website but there are dozens of other services that we could include depending on their desired outcomes.

We also know that social media is most effective when combined with other marketing outlets. Fortunately, we can refer our customers or prospects to exceptional vendor partners who offer complementary online marketing services.

What’s Not Good
I’ve talked to several trusted web developers. There are a lot of factors to consider. First, be aware of a few red flags when shopping for a website provider.

#1: A Proprietary Management System. The Content Management System (CMS) is critical. It’s highly recommended that your website provider use an Open-source CMS (preferably WordPress). A proprietary CMS is of zero advantage to a customer. If the website company goes out of business or if you want to move your website, later-on, you are stuck.  Using an Open-source CMS guarantees that you can easily transfer your site.

John Webster, my primary client website developer and owner of The John Webster Company, advises the following.

DON’T GET TRAPPED: Avoid anything that would lock you into a long-term relationship with any company. Make sure whatever is created for your business is portable and able to be supported by other firms.

A factor that caused me to start my business was the principle that people should be able to fully own their website and that is what open-source CMS has done for the industry.

#2. A Boxed Solution. A credible website company will take a holistic approach to your needs and customize solutions based on your business goals.

Chris Walter, software developer and website developer, advises the following.

A company should express a clear interest in providing a solution that is custom to your needs and understands your specific goals and expectations. The easiest way to evaluate the credibility of your web developer is to consider how they spent their time in your initial meeting. Did they sell you on why their product/process is so great? Or, did they ask questions about what you plan to do with the site and your specific goals. Did they ask if you plan on making updates or the kinds of ongoing assistance you would need to maintain the site?

#3. Ownership or Copyright by the Web Company. Be extremely cautious of a company that will offer to take photos and write copy for your site, as part of their package. Some of these companies own the rights to these materials, and it’s buried somewhere in their contract. Be sure to get clarity on this. I’m working with one company who has not moved their website, even though they are not happy with the services, simply because they would have to start from scratch by taking all new photos and videos for a new site.

What’s Good
#1. The Basics – Already Included.  According to John Webster, there are a few features included in a good CMS. All should be standard (free) inclusions, which means a client should not be charged for these elements as add-ons. A few examples include social media integration such as social sharing buttons; built-in SEO tools to help you add keywords, headings, alt tags and the creation of URLs for search engines; publishing tools for optimal workflow and the ability to move and change content; analytics; and easy administration with a simple dashboard for the user.

 #2. Clear Expectations and Positive Results. Chris Walter advises the following: The most reliable way to know that you are hiring a developer who will build a website that is easy to maintain and will provide the functionalty you need is through a referral.  This is not simply finding someone in your network knows a web developer. Rather, this should be a recommendation from someone who has worked directly with a company and achieved positive results.

Questions to ask anyone who recommends a web developer:
- How long ago did you work with the company who created your website?
- How responsive were they to your questions or requests once the project started? (Most will be on their best behavior before the contract is signed
- What were they responsible for providing during the development process)
- Were there any changes they requested after the development started? How was that handled?
- Have there been any changes made to your website since its launch? If so, who made the changes? If it was the developer, what did it cost and what did the process look like? If they made the changes, what was that experience like?

 #3. Flexibility. The biggest challenge I’ve experienced has come from the rigidness of a website. In other words, a limited ability to make basic changes or additions. Sometimes it’s the fault of a poor CMS and other times it’s the web company controlling site access. Either way, a CMS – and the hosting company – should have the ability to update the site to meet the demands of changing online strategies. With that, the customer should also have access to tools built into the site (to view user activity) as well as external basics such as Google analytics. This will allow the customer to gauge what’s working or not working and make the changes necessary to meet their goals. Thus, why flexibility is essential. Be especially aware of what pages you will have the ability to access.

A Word About the Contract
I talked to small business attorney, Jan Matthew Tamanini of JMT Law, LLC. She understands that it’s not always feasible to have a lawyer review a contract before signing. However, she encourages small businesses to review a contract carefully.

“If you have anything that you don’t understand, make sure that you take it to the other party and get clarification,” she says. “If there is anything in your contract you do not understand, do not sign it.”

Simple advice, but unfortunately, I have seen people sign a contract without even reading it, let alone understand it. That contract is your binding agreement. It’s essential that you understand what it means.

Key Take Away: Do Your Homework
When buying a used car, few rely solely on what the car salesman tells us. We research cars online and talk to other people. Why would you not do the same thing for your marketing investment?

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2 comments on “What Small Businesses Need to Know Before Hiring A Website Company”

  1. Great article, I must say. But strangely, an increasing number of small business owners are opting for websites builders. It is complicating the situation further.

    1. Hey Jarwal,

      Thanks for commenting. I do agree that business owners are attracted to the website building options available online. They are inexpensive and easy-to-use. Some continue to add features that are very useful, in fact. But, not for everyone, especially those who may not have design or graphics skills.

      I appreciate your note.

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