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Custom Web Design – How it Works

If you are new to doing business on the web, this article will give you the basics of what happens when you hire a good firm to custom design your web site.

When a business owner determines that a custom created website is going to be the best match for their company’s needs, this is generally because they have realized two important things:

1) That they don’t want to become a webmaster themselves
2) That an out-of-the box template-based website package is not going to fit what they want.

If you’ve reached this decision, I want to congratulate you. Few busy small business owners have the time to become a web designer/SEO on top of running their company, and package sites are seldom the truly professional route to go, though they do have their uses. And yet, even after having reached this conclusion, if you are new to the concept of having a web presence, you may be feeling puzzled as to how the whole design process will work, once you have hired a designer.

Allow us to lay out for you, step by step, what you can expect your experience to be during the process of the development of your web site. This outline is intended for the use of small businesses, as it’s a very different world than the more complex internal issues that apply to large companies and corporations. We will base this outline on our own experience of how we work with our own clients, and though every company works a bit differently, you can assume that things will go roughly like this:

The Initial Consultation

Potential clients either fill out our form, email us directly or telephone us. We set up our Web Design Quote Form because it asks the very basic questions about the project, and when a person fills this out, we have an immediate overview of what services they are seeking. Whether you use a form, send email or call up a design firm, these are the simple facts you will need to begin with:

  • What does your business do/offer?
  • Will your website be e-commerce or purely informational?
  • If informational, how many pages will you require for your website?
  • If you do intend to enable shopping, how many products do you intend to begin vending with?
  • Will you be requiring additional forms, features, password protected logins, etc?
  • Do you want a blog to be part of your website?
  • What are your expectations about how and by whom the website will be updated? Yourself? Or do you intend to retain the designer as your webmaster?
  • What are your goals for the website? What do you want it to do for your company?

Because we are small firm, we have to be pretty choosy about which projects we take on and which ones we either refer out to another developer we trust, or simply decline. The size of our firm means that we have only so much time to give, and we have to spend it wisely with the clients we feel we can help most. Sometimes, some circumstance of a project makes us realize that one of our colleagues is going to be a better match for the potential client’s needs, or we may simply not want to work for a business that approaches us. Just like you screen different developers, developers screen clients. At Solas Web Design, we want happy clients, so a lot of discussion up front is vital for us both to determine if the partnership will work.

Because of the importance of this, be as expressive and detailed as you can when you are having initial consultations with a potential web designer. Some business owners are wary about revealing too much information about their company before a contract is signed. If this is a concern for you, you can ask the design firm to sign a non-disclosure form that will be your assurance that they won’t disclose your plans to others. In our own experience, a phone consultation and a review of our website is generally all people have needed to feel confident about speaking to us about their aims. We appreciate this faith in our ethics, and assure you, if you are considering working with us, what you say may be spoken in confidence that we will not give out your information, whether we end up working with you or not. To us, this is a basic courtesy you should be able to count on in the business world, yet, on the other hand, be wise where you place your trust. Not all web design firms are as concerned about ethical behavior as we are.

Once the Web Design Contract is Signed

You did sign a contract, right? Even if it’s for a small project, a signed document protects the interests of both you and your developer. So, let’s assume here that the designer you’ve picked to work with is smart enough to have made a contract the first order of business.

Then comes the real work!

I have to say, it’s at this part of the process that the wheat really gets separated from the chaff when it comes to how good of a communicator your web designer proves to be. Because about 80% of our work is for clients we never meet in person, our ability to communicate clearly via phone and email is absolutely vital. I want to add here that your ability to communicate your needs with clarity is a big part of this. No matter how good a designer is, they are never going to be comfortable being given the role of mind-reader. For example, supposing you were to tell the designer that you don’t know what color palette you want in your site design, and tell them just to do something ‘good’. The designer then puts in two days of work creating a blue-themed design and presents it to you, at which point you say, “Oh, but I hate blue.” At this point, I’d say the designer will be justified in tearing their hair out. You need to make specific likes and dislikes known BEFORE the work happens. It isn’t fair to the designer if you don’t give them instructions and then make them re-do things over and over again because your thinking is foggy. This is the time to become crystal clear about what you want. To help this process along, these are the questions I ask my clients, and you should ask them of yourself, in case the person you’re working with doesn’t.

  • Can you please send me the links to 3 websites you really like?
  • Can you tell me what you like about these websites? Look, function, etc?
  • What kind of image are you trying to project? Corporate, modern, fun, trustworthy?
  • What colors do you like?
  • What colors do you hate?
  • If I’m creating a logo for you, what icons, fonts, etc. do you feel best represent your company?
  • Is there any artwork or image that MUST be incorporated into the design of your website?

The fact is, being a great business person doesn’t mean you’re the most creative individual in the world, and I certainly understand that. Chances are, you are hiring a pro because you want them to be able to put your ideas into action, in both artistic and functional manners. Some business owners know exactly what they want their website to look like, right down to the shade of green they want in their background. Others say, “Please, I’m hopeless when it comes to visual things. What do you think would look good?” As an award-winning artist, I’m comfortable going either route, but if a client is putting the look of their web presence in my hands, I need to know that they are putting both the task, and their trust in my hands. Clients can feel pretty confident about the fact that I’m not going to design something that looks awful, and if they are unable to be creative in this area themselves, they need to delegate that responsibility fully to the designer, and not keep asking for revisions due to a lack of decisiveness on their part. This is one of the main reasons it is so helpful to take a gander at other websites the client likes.

Our first step is always to design the homepage of the website. Because you want your website to be consistent from page to page, in order to make the visitor’s experience streamlined, getting that design all in shape on the drawing board of the homepage is a smart way to go. In this way, once the client has approved the design of the main page of the site, I’ve got the layout ready to work with as the basic structure for all the subsequent pages of the website.

If your custom website is informational

In general, informational websites tend to be less complex than e-commerce ones. A very basic website may be only a few pages about what a company does. Medical practitioners, lawyers, or service-oriented businesses like construction companies or landscapers generally fall into this category, whether they want a 5 page site or a 50 page one. Please read the following if you are launching an e-commerce business, as well, because everything here applies, and we’ll follow up with some special considerations for e-commerce sites. Once the general design has been approved by the business owner, the next steps are to create the next pages. Here are some basics to keep in mind.

  • You must be responsible for providing the basic written content describing your company
  • A good, SEO-based web designer may make editorial suggestions about how best to word things in order to improve the value of your content
  • You should provide photos that you want to be a part of your pages – few small design firms are going to have the man power to take your photos for you
  • The speed with which your site will be developed depends largely on how promptly you provide the necessary photos and text for your website
  • If your developer tells you that something you want to do is a bad idea, be prepared to consider their suggestions seriously.

I feel that the first and last points on my list are worth digressing on. Very often, we come to a fork in the road with a project because it is time for a client to provide the written text that makes up the content of their website, describing their company, their services and their policies. Sometimes, business owners seem to develop a sort of mental block at this point, and tell us they just don’t know how to write well. I’m never going to expect that super writing skills go hand in hand with being a talented business owner, and in many, many cases, we have ended up writing a great deal of the content on clients’ sites. On the other hand, it would be totally unreasonable for a business owner to expect me to pull basic facts about their business out of thin air. At the very least, they need to outline and describe the services they provide and the history of their company. If they are not happy with their own writing skills, I can polish the basics up for them. I can also use my SEO skills to discover the most relevant ways to word things, which is always important. But, it will be up to you, the business owner, to tell me what your company is all about. You are the expert!

My last point on the list relates to the type of advice I am sometimes honor-bound to give to a client when I see them asking me to do something I know is a bad idea. On a small-scale, I might see that a policy of the company is going to be perceived as unfriendly. For example, I recently designed a site for a new business that wanted their merchandise returns policy to state that items had to be returned in 2 days. Now, I spend a good 60+ hours a week on the Internet, and I had never seen such a limited, restrictive return policy. I told the owner it came off as unfriendly, and that they should consider extending that time frame to at least 7 days. Happily, she saw the sense in this and was glad I’d brought it up so that she could change it.

On a more serious scale, a client might potentially ask a developer to incorporate unwise or unethical elements into their site. Unwise might mean the owner wants a whole bunch of Flash graphics to be the main body of their website. As a search engine optimizer, I know that this will result in their website reading as a blank to search engines, and I would never advise a client to go with something like this. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t work for someone who wanted me to do this. Unethical requests from an owner might include keyword stuffing, spamming, cloaking…all bad stuff. Again, no amount of money would make me agree to do something like this for a client, knowing that the end result could be their website being permanently banned from the search engines. So, my point here is, if you’ve picked a developer because of their proven good track record, put faith in what they are saying if they tell you something you want is a bad idea. I guarantee, when we have to do this, it is never with the intention of hurting the client’s feelings. It’s because we have their best interests, and our own reputation, at heart. A competent designer should be able to suggest compromises that make you happy while at the same time being friendly to your human and search engine visitors.

Your designer should keep in touch with you throughout the design process, sending you the various pages as they are built, for your review and approval. We build our clients’ websites on our own server prior to launching the completed site on the client’s server. This enables us to get everything just right before we go live. You should expect prompt replies from your designer at this time. We get back to our clients within 48 hours in general, and usually, much faster. At the same time, we have heard developers complain of clients who micro-manage and demand an unreasonable amount of attention, sending more than 5 emails a day and calling twice on the phone. Yes, you need your questions answered, and deserve to have everything explained to you, in full, so that you can understand it, but the cases are few in which you are going to be the only client your designer is working with, so be considerate of this as well, and don’t feel neglected if a question takes a day or two to receive a response. At the other end of the spectrum, it is completely intolerable to work with a designer who lets your questions go unanswered for a week, two weeks, etc. We have had redesign clients come to us for this very reason, and if your designer is not being prompt in their replies, tell them you need more attention from them, and if they still do not show signs of making your needs a priority, it may be time to look elsewhere.

When your small business site goes live

At last that happy day arrives when all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed and it’s time to launch your website. You deserve to take a moment to celebrate this achievement, which has likely involved a great deal of work on your part. However, do not be surprised if the next thing you hear from your web designer is, “Okay, now for the real work.” This is what you should be hearing if the designer wants to continue working with you and is being retained to stay on-board as your webmaster, SEO consultant or marketer. The need to compete, to grow and to stay vibrant is exactly why your website will never be finished. Because the goal of increasing the valuable written content of your website, and winning backlinks are likely to be ongoing pursuits for the life of your online business, you need to have plans about the promotion of your website after launch. Depending on who you’re working with, the designer may either offer these types of services, or refer you out to an SEO or Internet Marketer they trust. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of thinking that launching your site is the end of the story. It is only the beginning.

What to expect if you are launching an e-commerce web site

As I’ve mentioned, all of the above points apply to launching either an informational or shopping-enabled website. But I’ll make no secret of the fact that the latter project is going to be more involved and more labor-intensive on the part of both the site owner and the designer. Let’s take a look at some of these special issues:

1) Choosing a shopping cart
Obviously, this is a key decision, and there are probably thousands of carts out there. What you need to know is what the cart the designer likes working with offers. Does it have a product number limit? How about inventory control? Can you use it for special promotions, discounts, gift certificates? Does it contain a database, or does the designer have to build a database? The cart we use is the database. We don’t build database-driven websites, preferring to use a more search engine friendly, static layout. Every designer will be doing something different, and it is so important that you understand whether the products they plan to use will actually do what you need them to, in terms of providing the shopping experience you want your customers to have.

2) Merchant Account/Payment Gateway
Unless you own a credit card processing machine (and it’s certainly an option to buy one), you will need to set up a merchant account and payment gateway that allows you to process credit card transactions securely online. Different carts integrate with different solutions. The cart we commonly use integrates with about 15 different Payment Gateways, including the two big ones, Verisign and Authorize.net. We have our clients handle setting this up, as it is connected to their bank account, and they may need to go to their bank to get this all set up. You will be filling out a bunch of forms, setting passwords and the like. As the last step, the designer will integrate your cart with your Payment Gateway so that it all works together. Some very small businesses choose to simply forego accepting credit cards at first and may either take phone orders, faxed order forms or use Paypal to accept payments. Though these choices are likely to result in fewer sales in many markets, they are an inexpensive and simpler way to offer some shopping function if you are not yet ready to implement a professional shopping cart.

3) Are we there yet?
We have built e-commerce websites with as few as 1 product and as many as 1500. As you can guess, the time frame for a completed website is going to vary hugely between these two ends of the spectrum. Do get a time estimate for the designer of your choice, so that you know if it’s going to meet your needs. If you are asking for a rush job, expect to pay more. One of the things that makes e-commerce projects take longer relates directly to how swiftly the client gets the designer all of the product photos, descriptions and prices, shipping weights, tax information, etc. So often, new web business owners simply do not realize just how much work is going to be involved in this on their part. Prepare for the fact that you are going to be taking/finding dozens, hundreds, or thousands of photos and writing descriptive text for each of these. It’s going to be quite a task, and the developer will be counting on you to accomplish this job promptly so that you don’t leave them hanging with a contract that never gets completed because you burn out. It’s often at this point in the process that new clients come to feel new respect for what we do. Many have never sat for 10 hours straight in front of a computer before, fiddling with images and text. For a little while, at least, they get a taste of what it’s like to be a web developer, and are so glad that they’ll be turning those duties over to us as soon as they get us their inventory information!

A good designer will keep you abreast of batches of product pages as they complete them, and you should review these to double check for mistakes or to request any changes that need to be made during development.

4) The launch
Just like an informational website, the launch of your site means the end of one phase and the beginning of another. E-commerce business owners need to be especially clear before signing a contract about their expectations for how new products and pages will be added over time. If you hired a designer to build you a content management system because you need to handle your own updates, they need to train you to use it. Our clients, by contrast, tend to keep us on as their webmaster and pay us our hourly rate to add new pages and products, and give them SEO advice. Consider your options and choose wisely for your business.

SEO notes every small business owner should know

We are going to be very strong and straightforward here on recommending that any developer you hire is skilled at building search engine friendly websites. We earnestly urge you to read our Simple SEO Guide for the Small Web Business before you hire any designer so that you can judge whether they know what they are doing. A lack of education on your part could result in a huge waste of time and money if you pick a designer who is not SEO-oriented. Or, pick a really bad guy and you could end up with a banned website! You definitely don’t want to go there.

And yet, even with an excellent SEO-based site, you need to know the following: It may take anywhere between 2-9 months for your website to be indexed by Google and other search engines. Again, read the above SEO guide for more about this. You should not expect to be seeing full traffic/sales on your website for a couple of years, unless you’ve got an incredibly rare and popular product that makes a huge hit. If you have money to advertise, you’ll see results more quickly, but if you are depending primarily on natural search engine rankings, it is going to take time and whole lot of effort to begin achieving your goals. Older websites will automatically have numerous advantages over you, and it is not reasonable to expect to beat them out on day one. That’s got to be your long-term aim.

A little effort every day goes farther than sporadic bursts of effort. Add a new article on Monday, 3 new products on Tuesday, blog on Wednesday, run a sale over the weekend. Whatever you do, don’t let your website stagnate as that is the surest road to invisibility in the Internet marketplace. And perhaps, most importantly, study your market and learn as much as you possibly can about how search engines work. Make the time for this, as education is what is going to set you apart from your other small business competitors.

The fact is, the market is becoming increasingly saturated for most industries. Every year, it gets harder to break into the search engines in a meaningful way, but you are doing what you should be by beginning now, and by preparing yourself for all that will be involved in running your small business website. We wish you the best of luck, and hope to be hearing from you!


Further Reading
Good web businesses begin with good business plans. We highly recommend a visit to SCORE. Your local area likely has a chapter of this free service which is run by volunteer business professionals who give you the benefit of their business advice. An appointment with SCORE may be of great value to you in forming your business plans.

The Cre8asite Forum is currently one of the best forums on the Internet if you want to learn more about SEO, marketing, web design, Internet security, blogging and a host of other web-related topics. It is free to join, and their motto is that there are no stupid questions, so you need not feel nervous about asking about very basic subjects. The forum is moderated by some of the most respected professionals in our industry, and we really value our membership there. It is free to be a part of this forum, and well worth taking a gander at.

The Small Business Administration website offers good information about loans and grants that may be available to you and might be worth you investigating.