16 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Website

Be sure to vet your web designer thoroughly before signing a contract.  Here are some possible pitfalls and must-have items to look for:

  1. What does their online portfolio look like? Does it reflect their recent work?  Are their websites responsive so that they look good on mobile devices?A web designer’s portfolio should speak for itself.  A good designer keeps their portfolio updated to show their latest work.  Look at the copyright dates in the footer of their sites.  Make sure they have sites built within the last 3 years.  If their work isn’t updated, it can mean that they are really busy, so you may not get the fastest service—or it could mean that they haven’t been working a lot, indicating that there’s not a demand for their work.  While both of these things can be red flags, take into account other factors before deciding.

More importantly, your designer’s websites should be responsive, so that they look good and function well on mobile devices.  These days, you MUST have a mobile-friendly website.  Otherwise, you are losing out on search traffic from Google on mobile devices.  In fact, over 60% of Internet users are doing searches on their phones and other devices.  And as of early 2015, Google is penalizing websites that are not responsive for mobile devices.  Your site simply won’t show up in mobile search results.

Here’s how to easily tell if a website is responsive.  If you are looking at a website on a desktop monitor or on your laptop, minimize your web browser window to its most narrow width.  You should see the website logo get smaller, yet still be easily visible at the top of the screen.  The navigation menu should either become stacked neatly as a list of links, or the menu should turn into a menu button.  Sometimes it will just say “Menu” or become a square button with 3 little lines on it.  When you click the button, a list of menu links will appear.

Also, the text of the website should fill the window and be easy to read.  Images will shrink to fit the width of the viewing window, and the content should stack down the page.  Often, any sidebar on the site will appear below the main content.  Everything should be nicely formatted and look good.

The site should also look this way on mobile devices with smaller screens, such as tablets and phones.

  1. Do you like the websites they have designed and developed for past clients? Do their sites reflect the kind of look and feel that you want for your own site?Look at the portfolios of several web design firms, so you can get an idea of what they offer.  Have they built sites in your industry?  Have they created sites for large companies or small businesses?  Do the sites have a more corporate feel or a personal touch?  Do the designs you like reflect the kind of image you want to project?A web designer’s work should stand on its own.  If it doesn’t resonate with you, move on.  Don’t expect a designer to create something completely out of their range, or you will be disappointed.  Whenever I have tried to work with a client I couldn’t relate to, our visions clashed, and the project did not work out well.  If you have a special vision, make sure the designer you choose has a compatible style.

    Also look for a good selection of sites.  Established, experienced designers should have at least a dozen excellent samples up for viewing.  If they have less, they could be just starting out, or they simply don’t have the clientele due to lack of expertise or bad service.

  2. How does their site look? Can you navigate it with ease? Can you find what you are looking for?Unfortunately, web designers can get busy and fail to update their own websites. As I said earlier, neglecting to update their portfolio can mean that they are overwhelmed with work already to the point of not being able to give good service.  It can also simply point to their incompetence.  Regardless, some features of their site can show you what to expect from their work.If you can’t find what you want on their site, don’t expect them to be able to create clear navigation for you, either.  Beware of clever page names that are confusing or pages that are too cluttered and disorganized.
  3. Are there testimonials or reviews on other sites such as LinkedIn, Google and Yelp? Do the reviews link to current websites they have built?Google a web design company to see if they have Google reviews or Yelp.com reviews.  Also, look on LinkedIn.com.  These reviews are offered independently of the designers’ sites, so they are usually more objective.  Do beware of really bad reviews, however.  If you see a really negative one, keep in mind that anyone can post reviews, not just real customers.  And the negative reviews hold more weight than positive ones, making ratings look lower.  One of my colleagues got a horrible Yelp review after she simply told a caller she needed more information to give him an accurate quote.  He felt her request was unreasonable and blasted her on Yelp, bringing down her rating, even though he wasn’t even a customer of hers yet.
  4. How much experience does the web designer have? How long has their company been in business?
    One of the most common complaints I get from new clients is that their old web designer “disappeared off the face of the earth” and stopped responding to calls and emails, leaving them with unfinished sites after taking their money.  As a web designer with over 20 years of experience, I can’t imagine leaving a client in the lurch with no explanations or communication.  If I can’t help a client (and it does happen sometimes), I explain the situation upfront, then recommend them to someone who can help.I recommend choosing a web designer with at least a few years of experience.  While it’s great to give beginners a chance, you may find yourself shopping around for a new web designer if they aren’t stable in their career.  Also, beginners just can’t offer the foresight and know-how of seasoned professionals.  Don’t pay later.  Get it done right the first time and save yourself the hassle.Sometimes it’s hard to tell how long a web design company has been in business.  Check their About Us or Our History page.  If it doesn’t say how long they have been around, proceed with caution.  New designers often just won’t mention it rather than admit they are just starting out.  Also, they may exaggerate how long they’ve been in business.  Google them to see what their ranking is.  If they aren’t on the first page, they probably aren’t as well established.  Note, however, that first page rankings often go to larger firms who have the money and workforce to optimize their sites for search engines.  You can find some smaller companies and good freelancers on the second or third page of results.  Just be sure to do further research.
  5. Can you find valid contact information for them? Can you contact them easily by email or phone? Do they get back to you quickly?Make sure the designer has a Contact page on their website.  When you email them, see how long it takes for them to respond.  Your inquiry should be answered within one business day, at least.  Keep in mind that designers need a break, too.  Don’t expect replies on a weekend or holidays.
  6. Will they build your website with SEO in mind by putting in relevant keywords in targeted areas on each page, so you can be found on search engines like Google?SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. Sometimes SEO is included in the design price, or you may need to request it as an extra feature.  Most web designers offer some type of SEO in-house, but others will outsource this work.  Regardless, they should provide you with a quote or referral.  Outsourcing SEO and web marking is common, because these services have become their own specialty.
  7. Ask your designer how they plan to build your website. Will they build it in a Content Management System (CMS)? If so, what CMS are they using?These days we are well beyond the time when throwing up a simple HTML site will do.  Not only do sites need to adjust to different screens and devices, they also need to be easy to update.  A CMS can help you maintain your site quickly and efficiently.

Hands-down, the most powerful and easy-to-use CMS is WordPress, which is trusted by more than 74 million people worldwide. Nearly one in five websites use WordPress. Because WordPress is so widely supported, it’s easy to find a designer to help you, and your site is portable, so you can host it just about anywhere.  Ask if your designer can build your site in WordPress.  If they suggest Joomla, Magento or some other platform, insist on seeing a demo of the editor before you decide.

  1. Do they offer custom logo design?Not all web designers are graphic designers, and not all graphic designers offer logo design. Sometimes logo design is included, but beware if the price for everything seems low.  If you are only paying a few hundred for the entire package, the design quality may suffer.  Logo design is part of your branding, so you should consult a designer who has experience with branding specifically.  Your logo should appear on all of your marketing materials, so you will need a high resolution version that is suitable for print.  Be sure to ask about these specifics when you get a quote.If your web designer does not offer logo design, they should be able to recommend some services that fit your budget.  Expect to pay at least $300 for a good logo.  (Check out a site like 99designs.com for options.)
  2. Do they offer quality stock photos?Some stock photos should be included with your design price.  Most designers offer at least one high-quality image per page.  If you are looking for specific images for your site, you may need to pay a bit extra.  Your designer should be able to direct you to some inexpensive photo sites.  Pricing ranges from $1 to $2 per image to $15 or more per image, depending on the site and the quality.A note about stock photography:  Viewers are starting to ignore or distrust photos that are too slick and obviously posed.  Consider using your own photos or asking your designer for alternative and creative options.
  3. Do they offer web hosting and domain name registration?A domain name is your website address, such as WidgetsByBob.com.  A web host is simply a company that stores your website files on computers called servers that are connected to the Internet all the time.  Most web hosts also offer domain names, so it’s a one-stop shop.You can usually get your domain name and web hosting through your web designer.  Check first, because web designers can give you a discounted rate, since they pay less for chunks of server space, and they get volume pricing on domains.

    To give you an idea of pricing for web hosting, I offer a $100 annual plan to my clients.  It includes registration for one domain name and web hosting for one year with 1 GB of space and 1 GB of bandwidth.  This plan is about 5 times more than 99% of my clients ever need.  In addition, I personally manage client websites and make sure WordPress gets updated, so sites remain more secure.

    Another note about your domain and hosting:  Make sure you actually OWN your domain name and your website content.  When your designer registers your domain, you should be listed as the registrant contact.  The designer will need your name and address.  (They may use their own phone number and email address on the listing to protect you from lots of spam and telemarketing calls.)  Upon request, they should give you login information, so you can transfer your domain name or web hosting whenever you wish.  Some unscrupulous designers will hold a client’s site hostage and refuse to release the domain or website content.  If they are hesitant to give you the login information, find another designer to work with.  If your designer goes out of business, you could be stuck without any way to access your site.  Save yourself the hassle later, and get the information you need upfront.

  4. Do they offer custom graphics?As I noted before, not all web designers are graphic designers.  Some web designers simply use stock photos and templates where they just plug in some text.  Graphic designers can design things such as logos, custom banners, and other unique images for your site.  Make sure to ask if you need custom work.
  5. Do you enjoy their personality?This question seems basic, but remember that you will be forging a long-term relationship with your web designer.  Speak to them on the phone, if possible, to see how they respond to your questions.  Look them up on Facebook and other social sites to see what kinds of things they post.  Look at their LinkedIn profile to see what their background is.  Do your research, and you will be happier in the long run.As a web designer, I know that I am happier when I work with clients I like.  In fact, I will go to great lengths to help those clients get an amazing website.  I will even throw in some extras for free.

    Remember that your web designer is also evaluating you to see if you are a match for your project.  Good web designers will tell you that a project is beyond the scope of what they are able to do, and they won’t take on more than they can handle.  If your web designer lies about their abilities or you get the feeling they aren’t being truthful in any way, trust yourself and find another designer to help you.

  1. Do they communicate well with you?Your designer should respond to your emails or calls within a business day and in a professional manner.  If they aren’t getting back to you quickly before you start the project, don’t expect their service to be any better afterward.While I’m happy to consult with clients on the phone, I prefer to use email, so we both have a record of what we’ve discussed.  That way, we are always on the same page, and I’m often able to respond more quickly than playing phone tag.

Also, you should be able to get email from your designer, so they can send you links to your website in progress.  Obviously, you need to be able to get online to view the work being done and send feedback about your needs.

  1. Does the website proposal look professional?  Does it detail exactly how they plan to build your website?A good web designer tells you what to expect and when.  You should get a detailed proposal outlining the work you will get.Your proposal should address the following items:

    How many pages you get, along with an outline of the page names and structure of the site

    What features are included in the website design, such as: domain and hosting, blog, contact form, photo gallery, custom banner or logo design, number of stock photos included, website stats, social sharing links, SEO.

    What platform or CMS your site will be built on (WordPress is the most flexible, portable and easy to use)

    – Whether your site will be responsive for mobile devices (This is a MUST.)

    – What the total cost of the website will be (Even if the designer works on an hourly rate, there should be some estimate of hours spent.  Also, if there’s an hourly rate, you should ask if the designer will offer a cap on hours charged for a certain amount of work.)

    – What the payment terms are (Some designers require payment upfront, especially for smaller projects.  Often, clients make a down payment of half the cost, with the other half due upon delivery of the website.  If the price is more than you can pay upfront, and your designer accepts PayPal, look into PayPal Credit.  If you qualify, you can get 6 months with no interest.)

How long it will take to complete the site (A simple 5-page website shouldn’t take longer than 7 to 14 business days.  If you get a quote for a longer wait than that, your designer may be too busy to deliver your website promptly.)

How many revisions are included (Usually this includes several rounds of edits or unlimited edits for a certain time period, usually up to 30 days after delivery of the first draft of the website.)

Fees for updates and maintenance for the site (Watch out for hidden costs here!  If they charge a monthly fee for web hosting, see what it includes.  If you are paying more than $10 per month for hosting, you should be getting some extras, such as monthly content updates, security updates, and backups.)

Contact information for the web designer

  1. Finally, does the proposal address all of your needs and are all of your questions answered?  Do you feel like you are getting a good rate for the work proposed?If something isn’t covered in the proposal, bring it to your designer’s attention.  Be sure the features you want are included in the contract before you sign anything or make a payment.I decided long ago that requiring a signed contract wasn’t necessary.  Instead, I provide a detailed email proposal.  My terms are that upon receiving an affirmative reply to the email and/or payment from the client that the contract is binding.  This approach greatly speeds up the process, so I’m not waiting for paperwork in the mail to get started on a project.  In fact, online payments allow me to give same-day service.

I hope this guide helps you plan your website and get the RIGHT web designer for your project.

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