White's Papers #4
What To Ask When Hiring A Web Designer
By Dominic White. Posted February 27, 2017
I was working on my laptop in my local coffee shop a while back when a conversation from a couple tables over grabbed my attention. It was between a local business owner and a person he had hired to build his website. Naturally I couldn’t keep myself from eavesdropping but I quickly regretted it. This web designer was overselling this business owner on a website that was more powerful and more expensive than he needed. I don’t poach business from other designers so I kept my mouth shut but it inspired me to sit down and write this article to try and help educate small business owners on the questions they should ask any potential web designer.
Before You Read This:
The intended audience of this article, as with most of my white papers, is the very small business owner or sole proprietor who has a service-based business and a limited web budget. They have no plans for a blog and the site will only need occasional updates they plan on having the designer make for them. They can’t afford a web design company so are most likely hiring an independent freelance designer.
My intention isn’t to disparage freelance web designers. After all, I am one. My goal is to educate small business owners so they know what to look for and hopefully avoid the the kinds of difficulties I’ve had to help clients resolve during my career as a freelance web designer.
Question 1: How do you build your websites?
Ideally the answer will be, “In whichever way is best for your business.”
However, the most probable answer will be “We use WordPress.”
WordPress is a content management system (CMS) that stores its content in a database and calls it up when the page is loaded on a web browser. Both independent freelance designers and large design firms use WordPress for very good reasons. It’s relatively easy to update content with, it has a massive support community, and it is extremely powerful with a wide variety of plugins available to add functionality without having to spend time coding.
The odds are good your web designer uses WordPress, but they may use other CMS platforms as well. Joomla and Drupal are other popular ones, but WordPress is the most widely used by far.
The potential issues with any CMS is that they can be significantly slower than your standard static site, usually require a more expensive hosting plan, and are simply more powerful than they need to be for the typical small, service-oriented business. (I’ll be talking more about the issues regarding WordPress vs. Static Sites in my next White’s Paper)
Speed Comparison: Static Site vs Wordpress Site
Results From Dareboost.com's Website Speed Test Comparison
Depending on how a particular designer builds your site, they may use a lot of plugins and / or premium themes that require constant updating leading to unexpected maintenance costs.
If your designer only builds sites with a CMS regardless of your business’s needs, they may not be the best fit for you.
I was hired to rebuild an out-of-date website in WordPress as a subcontractor. When the project was completed the client of my client was very unhappy. The new site ran noticeably slower than her old site, and she did not expect there to be site maintenance which she would have to either do herself or pay the contractor for. I wound up rebuilding the site from scratch as a no-maintenance static site and have since stopped doing sub-contract work and only deal directly with the client.
Question 2a: Where will the site be hosted?
Some web designers, like myself, will set you up with a hosting account with a provider (godaddy, hostgator, dreamhost, weebly, etc) in your name, with your billing info, and give you access with the username and password. You will be responsible for keeping the credit card information up to date so your hosting and domain names continue to be renewed.
Some web designers will take care of the hosting for you and send you a monthly or yearly bill. If a web designer does this, the chances are good they are White-Labelling an existing host provider by placing their own logo and branding on a third party webhost. Webhost reselling services are standard with most of the large web hosting companies. If your client is using one there is the possibility they are marking up the cost making you pay more than you normally would if you were hosting it with the same service under your own account.
Web Host Reselling Sample
Granted there is value to just letting your web designer host your site and making sure everything gets paid on time so you don’t have to worry about it other than paying their bill, but this can lead to difficulty if you lose touch with your designer (or have a falling out) and have no idea where your site is located or how to gain access to keep the hosting account and domain name active.
Even if your web designer is hosting the site for you, you should still request the access info to the hosting and domain regristry accounts (usually the same, but not always) for your own peace of mind. If the web designer refuses, it's time to find a new web designer.
I got a call from a new client whose site was down because their designer neglected to renew their domain name. They could not get in touch with the designer and had no idea where the domain name or site was located because the designer was hosting it himself. I was able to track down the parent domain registry but because the client’s name and email was not on the account, and with the designer not returning our calls or emails, there was nothing we could do. Fortunately no one else had bought the domain so we were able to purchase it back and make sure it was in the client’s name. However their site had to be rebuilt from scratch.
Question 3: What monthly costs can I expect to pay?
For most small to medium sized websites that are not being regularly updated, the costs above and beyond the hosting should be zero to minimal, unless other services are being provided, such as AdWords Management. If there will be monthly maintenance costs, ask what they are for, why they are necessary, and what the most you can expect to pay per month will be.
I have a client who was approached by a new web design firm who specialized in websites in his industry and offered to do the site for free as a portfolio site. It was built in WordPress with several plugins, some of which were premium plugins whose free trial offers were about to expire and hadn’t been paid for yet. Because of the amount of plugins, along with yearly subscription fees for the premium plugins, the site needed frequent regular updates. The company told him it would cost a substantial monthly fee to maintain his site. I replaced the premium plugins with free reliable ones and now maintain the site for a reasonable cost.
Question 4: Will my site be fully responsive?
Most designers are building mobile friendly sites in 2017, however you want to make sure the site is not just mobile friendly, but also responsive. (The terms are becoming interchangeable, but technically “mobile friendly” means it is easily readable on a mobile phone, where “responsive” means it’s easily readable on tablets, desktops, laptops and phones.
If you have an older site that is not at least mobile friendly, you should seriously consider getting it rebuilt or have a designer edit the css code to make it mobile friendly. On April 21st, 2015 Google started penalizing websites that were not mobile friendly on google searches performed on mobile devices.
If you don't have the budget to rebuild your site, see my White's Paper #2 on how businesses on a budget can help minimize the search penalties without rebuilding their entire site.
You can use this website to test if your site meets Google's mobile friendly requirements.
Question 5: Can you give me some client references?
This seems obvious, but in my entire career when I've been contacted by clients who were not directly referred to me, not one of them ever asked me for references. They have asked to see websites I've worked on, but that's not the same.
Thanks to the nature of the web, anyone can present themselves as a professional. However there's more to professionalism than being able to build a nice website.
I have gained a few clients because their old web designers simply got too busy for them or shifted their priorities, or turned out to be unprofessional. One client had their website built by a high school student, who was now in college. In another case a company had a site built by a freelance web designer who got hired on full time and had no longer had time to get to the changes they had been repeatedly been requesting.
Some clients have had designers suddently go out of business. Other clients came to me because their designers stopped returning their calls and emails all together without explanation or notice. (See Question 6)
Checking references is the best way I know of to help make sure your talented web designer is also a professional business person.
Question 6: What happens to my site if you go out of business or get hit by a bus?
The reality is it’s extremely difficult to make a good living as a freelance web designer these days. Some freelance web designers are doing it while they look for full time jobs where they don't have to constantly look for new clients, get a steady, predictable income, and most likely get better health insurance. Some designers do it part time and then no longer have time for it. Some simply move on to other careers. Unfortunately, some freelance web designers aren’t adept at the basics of good business practices and will leave their customers in the lurch when they decide to no longer offer their services.
When working with a part time or full time freelance web designer it's important to remember you are working with a single individual and not a firm where there are people who can back them up. Knowing how long they have been in business and having a plan for your website if they go out of business can help prevent nasty surprises like the example below.
In addition to the surprising amount of clients I have whose designers simply fell off the grid, there is one extreme case that took me by surprise a couple years ago. A client was referred to me and he was in a panic. His site was built and hosted by a small local company. He was notified on a Thursday that the following Monday the company was going out of business and shutting everything down. He had 4 days to build a new site or have no website for his law practice. Because the sites were built with proprietary technology they couldn’t be transferred to another host. Fortunately I was able to rebuild his site and get it online before the old site went offline.
In the more tragic aspect to life, people get sick. Accidents happen. Because of this it's important to make sure you have a file containing all the information you need to access the site that you can hand off to another web designer should something unfortunate befall your current one.
I give my clients all the information they need regarding the hosting of their website. Should something happen to me, they can give this information to any competent web designer who should be able to pick up right where I left off.
My If I Get Hit By A Bus file for clients.
There is an additional bonus for the client in having all this information they can give to another designer. It keeps your current designer motivated to provide their best quality work and customer service as they know you have the means to replace them at any time.
If you have any questions about this article, or about your own website, feel free to Contact Me.
Next White’s Paper
My next White’s Paper will be an in depth look at when WordPress is or is not appropriate for your business site.
To be notified when the latest White’s Paper is posted follow:
To receive White’s Papers in your inbox, Subscribe to the email list.