I offer half an hour of free consultation on any new website enquiry before undertaking a job. I am happy for longer consultations but anything over half an hour is charged at my hourly rate. Because of this I felt it would be prudent to write a “website 101” for potential customers to answer the regular questions I’m asked in consultation and hopefully give them the tools to either understand enough to know what questions they really need answering or to decide it’s not for them before they invest any more time or money.
There is a lot to read below, but it really is only a fraction of what could be discussed and I would explain all of this to you at our appointment anyway so by reading on you will save yourself time and expense at our appointment.
The first questions you need to be able to answer are …
- Why do I want a website?
- What do I want the website to achieve?
In 20+ years of building websites for over 500 customers there are a few questions and misconceptions which I have long felt needed addressing but never found the time to do. Nobody wants to read pages and pages of information when deciding on their best course of action but, at the same time, not making an informed decision can be a complete waste of time and money. I will try and keep this brief and explain the pure fundamentals of having a website, as I see it, by making direct comparisons to owning and running a real high street shop.
I feel this is really important to understand before delving in to any more detail about specific aspects of building and running a website because, in my experience, any disappointments with a website are always based on either lack of communication at the outset or unrealistic expectations on the customer’s part. Hopefully in this article I can communicate well the entire process in a brief but clear way and tackle both of these issues.
A website is not an advert in a local directory or a poster on the wall. A website is a business premises just like a bricks built shop on a high street but just existing in a digital world. It exists all day, every day in public view. It needs to be inviting, easily found, well promoted and secure when nobody is around. It costs money to set up, money to run, time and commitment to make it pay for itself. It isn’t a case of pay to get it started and then never look at it again for 20 years and expect it to drive custom your way. It won’t.
Size of your shop
I’m always getting asked “How much does it cost for a website”. Using the building/shop analogy, if you went into an estate agents and asked “How much for a building” they would want to know whether you wanted a wooden shed on a street corner or an 18 room stately home in the middle of 200 acreas of parkland. The same applies here. There is no easy answer. You need to consider what you ideally require and start the discussion there. I’m calling it a shop but just like a building can either be a workshop, factory, office, conference room or retail premises, your website can also perform many or any functions. I’m just going to call it a shop for ease.
How much work, time and cost?
My part of the process is that of a project developer with the shop. I am here to take your ideas (these can vary from nothing to very specific) about what your shop should look like. Maybe I will offer advice along the way based on my experience which you may, or may not, accept. The project is basically getting your shop to the point that you can then stock it and open the doors to the public. In real world terms this could be simple aspects such as decorating, carpeting, layout of displays, fascia design, etc. or it could be more complicated such as taking down walls, building extensions, etc. All this combined with the size of the property will dictate the cost and just like in the real world there is some co-ordination between designer (me) and customer (you). They don’t call it “Building” a website for nothing. This will be carried out to make a shop which is attractive and communicates your trade to the public to give it the best possible chance to attract customers. Once the front doors are open the responsibility to make the shop pay for itself is passed to either you as the customer or somebody you designate to manage the website.
The process of developing your shop ready to open to the public may include stocking the shelves and sorting the window display by the developer as a whole package. This is fine but it needs to be remembered that your web designer’s area of expertise is web design and however well you understand the expectations and nuances of your chosen trade, your web designer only knows the basics of your trade. This is why you need to communicate well what you need from the shop, what your expectations are and what you want in it. Just like in the real world, if the shop fitter is going to stock the shelves and layout the window then you need to supply them with the stock. If you sold hats you wouldn’t expect the shop fitter to source all your stock too and tell you how to run your business. So provide your designer with, as best as possible, an overview of what pages and categories you require and all the text and photos you feel are appropriate. Lots of good quality text by somebody in the know is essential for scoring well with search engines.
You’ve got your shop, you and I believe it’s ‘fit for purpose’ within the budget you have. Just like a real shop there are now regular overheads to consider. A real shop will probably have electric, business rates, water rates, phone line rental, delivery van, ground rent, etc. Your website is no different. These will definitely be in the realms of Hosting and a Domain name (maybe several domain names even). They could also include the rental of third party additions for handling money transactions, streaming video, etc. Maybe even staffing costs. A standard website would purely be hosting and domain name. If you consider the hosting costs to be like your business rates. They will vary depending on the size and use of your shop. If you have a large shop, with many visitors and lots of products you can expect to pay more money. Your domain name is a bit like your phone number so people can get in touch and will be the same irrelevant of the size of your business. Neither the hosting or domain name costs include maintenance, consultation or further work on the website itself. This would be considered a website maintenance contract and cost extra.
Another misconception to tackle here is the 100% available to the public. Be prepared for this to be more like 99.5% regardless of what anybody tells you. The magic that makes websites visible online are called “servers” and these are computers like any others. The power can go down, software may need updating, a computer can crash, etc. These “servers” have everything possible to protect against this but there is no 100% guarantee. Just like your real world shop may have to close for a few hours due to a power cut or workmen in to mend the drains. 99.5% may sound almost like 100% but don’t forget there are 365 days in a year so if the website is down for half a day in every 100 then that’s about 2 days a year. That said, in my experience it’s more like only a few hours in the year.
Now your shop is running, well stocked, well presented, staffed and the door open to the public it needs to be kept current. We’ve all seen shops with faded window displays showing goods from 10 years ago and covered in cobwebs and, apart from a few exceptions when needs must, most people avoid them. Your website is exactly the same. The text and pictures need to be kept up to date. Having a photo of your works van on from 1995 will be seen by your customers as an indication of the care you will show them in the service you provide. Google (and all other search engines, there are more than one!) know this. If your website is left to stagnate it will start to disappear down the search results. If you are not prepared to regularly add a post on your blog, update a bit of text here and there when necessary or update your photos then you need to find somebody who is or accept that your website will suffer.
Just like “window dressing” this should be written in to your regular routine of website care. In the real world the odd bit of maintenance will be required on your shop. The fascia needs repainting, the door handle replacing, etc. Things do not wear in the same way as digital information, which is the same all the time. So a photo on the front page today will look exactly the same as it will after a million views in 10 years time. What does happen is technology changes. Computers evolve, screens evolve, browsers (the program on your computer, like a virtual TV, which displays the websites) evolve and, probably most importantly, people’s expectations evolved. Things like Facebook arriving in 2006 changed how most people saw websites working, smart phones meant that people wanted to view websites on smaller screens, broadband sped the process up so people got used to seeing larger images.
I tend to think of the computer world like “dog years”, every year to us is like 7 to a dog (or computer!) so your 10 year old website is a bit like owning a 70 year old company car for your business! There are also legal implications which need to be considered as the law is always trying to adapt to new online threats. In recent years this has been the implementation of GDPR laws and indirectly the requirement for all websites to be hosted securely ( SSL hosting, with the padlock symbol ). All of these could affect your website so, even though your website is still the same as it always was, in 5 years time it may not display perfectly on new browsers, may not meet new legal or technological standards, may not play well with Google and so you start losing visitors, or just not be seen as attractive to the general public so they lose confidence. Re-evaluation of your website on a regular basis is important. You would not open your real high street shop and not expect to have regular expenditure to continue to generate income.
Advertising the shop
High Street shops do not just open and expect customers to come flooding in. They may receive some passing trade from the local footfall but they need more than that and so most will advertise in a variety of ways. Leaflet drops to local homes, adverts in local papers, opening events, etc. Your website is the same. The internet is your (digital) high street and you need to let people know it’s there or you won’t receive the visitors you need to survive. To tackle another misconception; Google will not just list your website! Virtually everybody thinks Google is a map of the internet. It is not. Google is the digital equivalent of the phone directory. When you open your real shop you did not just appear in the printed phone directory. You had to wait until the next print run. Google does its best to find all websites available and list them but it takes time and they don’t find everything and they don’t always get it right. You need to be on Google but how and where you appear is a process called “Search Engine Optimisation” or “Search Engine Marketing”. Both are complicated, specialist and on going, to be at the top of Google is a different challenge for every business and in highly competitive areas of trade can be very, very expensive.
Social media is a great, free, start. Promoting your web address (domain name) via any means is good. On your newspaper adverts, business cards, flyers, side of your van, etc.
Word of mouth
Your business on the high street will attract customers through word of mouth. If you are doing it right and have something the public wants they will tell others about it and they will visit you. In website terms this is called “inbound links” and it’s when other websites include a link to your website on their own website, effectively endorsing your website and driving potential customers your way. Just like you can’t make real people send others to your business premises you can’t force people to link to you. There are incentives you can offer but this is a whole subject on its own. These ‘inbound links’ not only bring customers but search engines, such as Google, see this activity too and if loads of people are recommending you to others then the search engines decide you are offering a great service and they push you higher up the listings when people use the search engines.
Just like your shop is in the high street and in plain sight, your website available for all to see all the time. Just like a real shop, this raises concerns about security. The bigger your shop and the more attractive your content, the more seriously you will need to consider security. Tackling the misconceptions again, there is no 100% secure solution for anything. Real or digital. We’ve all seen “Oceans 11” and “Mission Impossible”. The more secure something is, the greater lengths people will go to break in as long as the payload is worth it. If companies like Amazon and Facebook get hacked with all their hundreds of experts, years of experience and millions of dollars then you can be sure that you can’t be any safer than those. Vigilance and contingency plans are always good.
Don’t rule out vandalism being the motivation for damaging your shop too. Just like mindless individuals may put a brick through a high street shop window on a drunken night out, there are also vandals on the internet who may attempt to damage your website purely for the thrill of it or even maliciously if you have fallen out with somebody or they don’t like your competition to their own shop. All the real world personal politics still apply here. Good security software and a strong password are essential.
Will my website last forever?
As public tastes, fashion, technology and laws change it may become uneconomical to continue tweaking the shop here and there and the only sensible way forward is a total rebuild. Again, like the real world. Every now and again we’ll see a high street shop close for a while so they can strip out the entire shop, maybe expand, move walls, redecorate or even move premises because their existing premises are no longer fit for purpose. Your website will not last for ever and regular updates may be good enough for years but the world changes, computers change, the public changes and your circumstances change. Your website may need to change too. I have had many websites which were created 15 or 20 years ago and the computer language they were built in has been discontinued by the creators and so as other technology changes and online threats evolve, there is no way of bringing these websites up to standards and expectations and complete website rebuilds become necessary. Maybe this is like having your high street shop on a high street which has become abandoned and derelict and will only get worse so you have to decide whether to move to a better location.
Fit for purpose
This is something I find myself saying regularly. Your website will be built “fit for purpose” at the time. Nobody can predict changes in public taste, technological breakthroughs, companies closing (who may make components in your website), etc. I say that your site is ‘fit for purpose’ for the first year providing all the above maintenance aspects are considered. If I build a website structured to perfom well with search engines but 6 months later there are no “inbound links” and the information has not been updated and no advertising has been carried out in social media, print, etc. then I cannot take responsibility for the site’s poor performance in Google unless you have specifically contracted me to perform these duties.
Which bring me to the final question – do you do this yourself or pay a manager? Which is a business decision you will need to ask yourself.