In the 14+ years we’ve been in business, we’ve worked on a lot of websites and worked with a lot of designers and developers.
Sometimes the website has been hacked and needs a cleanup and secure home. Other times the developer disappeared and the client needs help with maintenance. Some are trapped in a proprietary website building ecosystem, making other services, like performance enhancement and SEO impossible.
We draw on this extensive experience to tell you the key things you should be looking for in a website designer or developer:
- Hosting: Ensure they’re using a quality web host with top-performance architecture and security features like a web application firewall and automatic bruteforce detection and banning for WordPress logins and xml-rpc.
- Platform: Don’t get caught paying through the nose for a platform where you don’t even actually own your website. Make sure your site will be built on an open platform that can be transferred to an alternate service provider without needing to be rebuilt.
- SEO Expertise: Even if your designer or developer doesn’t provide SEO services themselves, ensure that either they or their SEO expert know what’s necessary for a new design or a rebuild.
- Portfolio / Design Techniques: you gotta like their existing designs, otherwise they’re probably not the designer for you.
Read on for the nitty gritty details!
1) Hosting: Security & Performance
Of course, as hosting is at our roots, we always want to ask about that first. Is your developer open to working with any hosting provider that offers the performance and tools that make it simplest to manage your website? Find out who they host with. Is it in-house and managed entirely by them? Or do they make use of the datacentre’s management services? Who do you contact when there’s a problem? Do they have to wait on 3rd party support to resolve issues when they arise (ie: are they reselling, and if so, who is their upstream provider? Are they any good?)
The kinds of questions to ask of them and their upstream hosting company are:
- Where are the data located physically?
- What kind of backup systems are in place both for disaster recovery and options available for self-backup management?
- What is their stance on security? How do they handle things if a website gets hacked? Who fixes it?
- Do they have free SSL Certificate options to ensure logins are secured?
- Do they enforce strong passwords on all of their systems?
- What specifically will they do to help if the site they build responds slowly like greater than 2 second page load times.
2) Platform: Own Your Website
Of anything, I think this is the most important one to focus on: what platform will they be building your site on? If they answer with some kind of entirely GUI-based locked down website builder like Wix, Weebly, Shopify, BigCommerce, or Squarespace, then you should be extremely wary. These are platforms where the designer doesn’t require any development knowledge to build your site; they simply drag and drop things into place.
Should you be paying someone to build such a site if they don’t even require any advanced knowledge to do so? Think about what happens if you wish to add something to the site that their locked-in builder doesn’t supply — can it even be done? Typically the answer is no and the only way to get what you want is to rebuild the entire website on a more open platform.
Instead your site should be built on an open and portable system that you can take with you anywhere. For example, when you write an essay or letter in Word, you can take that file with you on any device anywhere and it will display the same (or just about the same) and be equally as editable on any device using Word software. This is not true of the builders above. If they go out of business, even when you get the option to export your website, you’re only able to save the photos, videos, and text. The design is gone forever! Meaning you have to start from square one.
To make matters even worse, you have no choice but to continue paying them as your site grows with no possibility of moving elsewhere without a complete ground-up costly redesign.
If, instead, your site were to be built on WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Magento, or any of the dozens of open source portable content management systems (CMS) that are available for professional developers, you would have the capability to host that with any provider out of tens of thousands of them globally. You’re not locked in to one provider, and you can take your website with you anywhere, just like the documents you create in Word.
3) SEO: Build Your Audience
These questions are similar to those for hosting. Does your designer provide SEO advice or services? Is SEO handled in-house or with a partner SEO firm?
Any of these could be fine, but you want to then ask specific questions to ascertain their knowledge level. For example:
- Do you engage in only on-site SEO tactics or are you involved with off-site as well? What are those tactics?
- For On-Site what tags and content do you adjust for me?
- For Off-Site what kinds of sites do you set up links on?
- Do you do local SEO map/location place listings and citations?
- If it’s a redesign: How do I retain my website’s rankings after we roll out the new site? (Look for an answer describing 301 redirects).
4) Portfolio: Experience & Quality
Be sure to check out your designer’s portfolio and ensure that you like their designs and that all of their sites don’t look pretty much the same before proceeding. Many designers use the exact same design template and don’t even change the fonts or colours all that drastically between clients. This makes their costs lower and provides you with a far-from-unique website, yet they likely charge as much as the guys offering great quality unique designs.