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Hiring a Web Developer—What To Ask
by: Rebecca Ragland

Hiring someone to build a Web site is not a small undertaking. Most people know so little about what it takes to build a presence on the Web that they feel slightly intimidated by the whole idea. It would be less formidable to build a new location for your brick-and-mortar business than to put your brand—your business face—in the hands of someone who may speak a different language than you in terms of what building means. Most Web site developers are happy to know what look and feel you want to convey; when you tell them how you want to be perceived as a business you are doing them a great favor. Nothing is harder than having to guess—and even worse, getting it wrong.

Fortunately, there are some tricks to finding the right developer. If you know someone who has a Web site that you like, ask who did it. The best developers are found through word of mouth. The Web site development business—just like any other—is only as good as its reputation.

Do Your Homework

Take the time to look at Web sites that your competition has. Look in general for styles and functionality that appeal to you. Write down the URLs (Web site addresses) of these sites and give them to your developer. If they don’t want to know your opinion, you know that they are not the right people to help you.

Ask to see Web sites that the developer has done recently. Go to the site and look around, paying special attention to how easy or difficult it is to find what you are looking for. Ask to see active sites—not designs that have been made and not sold to anyone. Of course you may want to look at those later, but first look at what they have successfully achieved for other clients. Most developers/designers are delighted to show off their work. Ask for references.

Ask about the following skills if you are planning a more complex Web site with interactive and e-commerce functionality, or are planning to add these components in the future:

  • Can you (the developer) develop tools to help us easily update content?
  • Can you also develop the back-end functions?
  • Can you develop secure e-commerce solutions?
  • What development languages do you know?
  • Do you use flash intros in your designs?
  • Do you use frames? (Frames should be avoided.)
  • What Web-authoring tools do you use? (Adobe & Macromedia are standard tools, Front Page is not for commercial use.)
  • How quickly will my site load and what browsers will you test it in?
When you look at their portfolio of published sites, look for these things. You may want to have a Web-knowledgeable associate look with you.
  • Is it easy to find information and to get back to where you started?
  • Is the navigation system simple and visually appealing?
  • Are there broken links?
  • Are the pages and overall design consistent?
  • Is there a contact page and site map and can they easily be found?
  • Is there enough relevant information?
  • Are things aligned properly?
  • Is the text easy to read?
  • Do the pages load quickly?
  • Does the site make use of the right colors?
  • Are page titles appropriate and informative?
  • Is viewing the site a pleasant experience?

Go through your project ideas. You are not obligated to enlist their services unless you are perfectly confident they are the right person for the job.

Remember, most developers and designers work widely across the entire United States, if not the world. You want someone who knows how to use the Net to reach a wide audience, not necessarily someone in your hometown. By considering non-local as well as local developers, you’ll have a much better chance of finding the perfect fit for your company.

Things to Ask Yourself and Tell Your Developer

  • What kinds of information do I want on my Web site?
  • Who do I hope will use my Web site?
  • Will my Web site require regular updates?
  • Will I be able to make changes myself? If I require someone to
    make changes, does the developer have that service available?
    If so, at what cost?
  • Will I need to sell products or services through my Web site?
  • Will I need a database to store and retrieve information?
  • Do I want my Web site optimized for search engines?
  • Is initial optimization included in the package I am purchasing?
  • When do I need the job done?
  • What is my budget?

Some Basic Definitions

Here are some definitions of basic terms you will need to know when you have a conversation with a Web developer or designer. Even having a small idea of what these terms are will help you feel confident when you interview a potential Web developer.

Web Development Services

A good developer should have knowledge in site design, architecture, good navigation techniques, and an understanding of search engine optimization. If you use a freelance firm they may need to hire out for some of these services. It is good to know something about what will be done by the developer/designer and what will be farmed out. Most freelancers have someone that they work with on an ongoing basis.

Programming Services

Programmers are people who write code. You or your developer will need one to create databases or develop forms or other interactive properties of your site. Some of these things are simple and others quite complex. The programmer must be fluent in the programming language you choose to build your site with.

You want to be sure your site functions correctly with most computer platforms. Most people should be able to see your site as you intend for it to look no matter what browser or operating system they use.

The above services are very important to your site's success with the search engines.

Web Hosting Services & Your Domain Name

A host is a service (server) that makes it possible for your Web site to be seen across the World Wide Web. The host is critical. If your site is down half the time then you are in big trouble. You do not have to pay a significantly larger amount for an excellent Web host. Ask for their statistics. Ask about security and redundancy.

The more control you have over your Web site hosting the better. Should your developer go out of business or you lose touch with them you will still need to interact with your host. Make sure that you have control over your domain name. Do not turn it over to a developer or a host without being certain you can access it under all circumstances. Be certain it is in your name and that you have access to it. It is your brand; take care of it.

Web Sites and Search Engine Optimization

A site should at least be developed to include basic search engine optimization. Optimization is both a built-in property of your Web site and a long-term process. Basic optimization methods to can be applied to your site as it is built, even before you commit to long-term optimization services. If you are upgrading your current Web site, ask if these optimization techniques can be added. Basic optimization methodologies must be in place so that your site can be promoted through the search engines. Later, when you want to expand your online efforts, having these basic optimization properties in place will save you money.

Here are some basic principles that have been laid down by the Googley folks who design all of Google’s sites. If your Web developer understands these are good basic principles of design and business on the Web, then you are in a good place.

    1. Focus on people—their lives, their work, their dreams.
      You know what you like to experience. Make sure that you extend that to products that carry your name, including your Web site.
    2. Every millisecond counts.
      No one has time to waste—least of all you. There is a lot to absorb in this world and you want people to get to the heart of whatever you have to sell quickly and efficiently.
    3. Simplicity is powerful.
      Bells and whistles are fun, but they can be annoying and time-consuming. You are a business, act like one. Save the flash and toys for other sites. That does not mean that you cannot have an awesome listings engine that has all of the latest innovations. Just tone down the flash and the music on a business site.
    4. Engage beginners and attract experts.
      Be relevant to those who are familiar and comfortable with the Web as well as to those who are new to it. Keep the complexities down to a minimum. That listings engine I mentioned above should be very easy to use as well as full of options.
    5. Dare to innovate.
      Especially now. Look into ways to enhance your site and stand out from the crowd. For instance try adding that listings engine I mentioned rather than just plugging into MLS. Use video of your listings or properties. Learn to use established methods in new ways.
    6. Design for the world.
      Know that you are being seen everywhere from Henderson to Dubai.
    7. Plan for today's and tomorrow's business.
      It will be there if you have the vision to prepare for it.
    8. Delight the eye without distracting the mind.
      Do not treat your Web site like a billboard. Entice your visitor’s eye.
    9. Be worthy of people's trust.
      You know what that means. A little research will let you know if your potential Web developer/designer does too.
    10. Add a human touch.
      Make people feel like your Web site is somewhere they want to visit, stay awhile and meet the owner.