[First published in the Yuba-Sutter Community Magazine]
Whether you're a plumber, a baker or a gardener, if you have a business, you need a website. Period. Do not presume that your product or service cannot be sold online or that only large businesses warrant having an online presence. We have long since moved beyond the bricks and mortar concept of the small business. We are almost twenty years into the Internet age and the rate of technological progress is accelerating.
To be literate today means to be able to read, write and have basic computer skills. Most people reach for their mobile device first to search for products and services rather than drag out the Yellow Pages. So not having a Web presence is like not having a telephone, and Google is the new mobile phone directory. It's really that simple.
So how do you go about getting a website? Who does such work: a Web Designer, a Web Developer? For me as a Developer/Designer, this is the hardest thing to explain to clients. The real answer is that you need both and most unqualified Web Designers have no understanding of the functional needs of even the simplest website; the converse is also true, most developers have little visual design knowledge. A true "Web Professional" will have both designers and developers on staff, because if they haven't, it means they are outsourcing half the work and this invariably leads to a failed website. Suffice to say, you do not ask your 14-year-old kid to do it for you, even if your business is your hobby.
Websites grow over time, just like businesses and have to be designed from the ground up with this reality in mind. This one fact necessitates the use of a strong foundation to build upon; in technical terms, a solid, proven framework for programming the business functionality into the website. It is common to call this a Web application, which is a more complex version of a static website. Even a routine contact form involves programming and testing. If a Web Designer tries to sell you on the idea of displaying your email address on a page and calling it a contact form, then don't be surprised when your email inbox overflows with spam. The reason for this is that spammers glean these email addresses using automated software. Hackers like to collect them as well.
Unfortunately for the small business person, there are a lot of fly-by-night "Web People" out there and it behooves the client to shop around and ask the right questions; a case of caveat emptor, or buyer beware. Before looking for someone to design and build your site, you absolutely have to pre-prepare the content yourself or with the assistance of a good content writer. The success of your website is largely dependent on the quality and relevance of your content. So too is SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and that is a skill in and of itself. Your content needs to be written with this in mind, therefore your content writer needs to understand SEO thoroughly. You can have the best looking website in the world but it's of little use if people can't find it.
One word of caution: when it comes to SEO, there are even more snake oil salesmen than "Web People". Go to a professional and don't be afraid to ask them about their qualifications. It's your buck. Unfortunately, the Web industry is still a young one and there are many trying to make their name in it. This does not mean they all produce quality results. Would you hire an apprentice electrician to wire your home, or an unqualified doctor to care for your family? Right now, anyone can set up and call himself a Web Designer and have no need for a license to ply their trade. A lot of the clients I meet for the first time have been already burned and are understandably wary.
So when you go to meet somebody to build your site, do not commit until you have had a chance to shop around. Let them make their pitch, gather your business requirements and draft a proposal for you, in writing. More importantly, ask to see samples of their work. Be sure to get the actual URLs (website addresses) of their past work so that someone more knowledgeable can look them over later. It's quite common for unscrupulous designers to show screen shots of work that is not their own, or not a complete functioning website.
It's actually better to have no website at all than to have one that makes your business look bad.