Getting A Good Website Can Be Tricky

I teach small business people how to write and maintain their own websites. The reason I do this is because I believe if you are an entrepreneur without a big budget and you expect the web to form an important part of your business strategy, you

  • can’t really trust a third party with your site long term
  • it’ll cost lots of money to get it developed properly anyway

What I Don’t Mean

What I am about to say does not apply if you are building a simple site with 5 or 6 pages. Such a web site might be made up of the following pages :

  1. Home
  2. About Us
  3. Products
  4. Services
  5. Examples of Our Work
  6. Contact

A site like that won’t bring you new visitors. It’ll be almost useless in that regard. If it is all you have in mind, or all you need, DON’T spend a lot of money on it. I am talking about a site that may start like a 6 page site, but is one which you have ambitions to grow into a hot, throbbing hub of information and services for your chosen target market. The rest of this article only applies to you if you have something bigger than a simple web site in mind.

Trusting a Third Party

Getting back to what I was saying earlier – about trusting a third party with your site: When I talk about trust, I do not mean the third party web developer is inherently untrustworthy. Far from it. Trust was maybe the wrong word to use.

I mean that if you outsource the whole thing to someone else, you are off-loading something that is YOUR responsibility to someone else and you probably don’t even realise you are doing it. The problem is, if the third party web developer is not experienced he won’t know you are doing it either. That’s when things fall apart.

I am a web developer for small businesses, and I’ve found that to really understand what the business owner wants and to make sure his ideas work, I have to continually

  1. Educate the site owner on what he needs to do to keep the web visitors coming
  2. Educate myself on what is best for him
  3. Find the most cost effective and industry effective ways to implement any new additions to the web site

If I don’t do the three things listed above, the non-technical site owner will never grasp that a web site that brings in new clients is a non-trivial affair and he won’t take ownership. He will be deluded.

Site Owners – Listen Up

The problem with being the web developer to a site owner who has completely outsourced the development of his site to you, is that you end up with a bigger job than you bargained for.

You end up having a duty of education and care for the site owner so that he can understand the decisions you make to promote his site. Without this continuing education program, he won’t feel like providing the information you demand, in the format you specify, so you can promote the site. If the site owner does not understand what is going on he won’t comply and if he doesn’t perform his duties (as you have specified to him), the site will die on its feet. Then he’ll blame you.

Now, in this position you begin to behave as if you are a Director of the company rather than just someone who has some outsourced work to do. And guess what – that makes you expensive as this role is onerous and time-consuming.

Outsourcing to India

I met someone the other day whose web site was supposed to form the central core of his business. His business was going well as he had a number of customers that recommended him to other customers. He had a successful word of mouth thing going on. But his web site had essentially stopped being effective at bringing in new clients. He explained to me that the site had been going for years and years ago it had been hugely successful because years ago there was no competition online. Now the site had fallen behind.

To get the site built he had outsourced the whole development of the web site to a team in India. This was cost effective, and he got to work with the same team so got to know them (on the telephone and via email). But he described two problems, and this guy was technical – he understood the code that was being written for him.

Coding Practice Issues

The cultural differences between India and the UK (his words not mine) overspilled into the underlying design. He said that his Indian team didn’t have the same approach to coding as he might have, and he found the solutions provided to him, in-elegant. I knew what he meant by inelegant. He meant that when a change or an addition was required, the software provided due to poor design, didn’t have pre-existing hooks in it to make those changes appear just like natural extensions to the existing code. The result was now, after years of development in this mode, the whole thing was now unmaintainable by anyone other than the Indian team, and he had lost his will to further develop the project. He had essentially lost sight of his own site.

Arguing the Case – Didn’t Happen

His team also agreed to everything he suggested. There was no discussion, just a willingness to do the work and get it done. This may sound great, but if your web developer keeps saying yes to everything you want, just be aware they are not in the process educating you about what is sensible and effective. You are not in a feedback loop. If this goes on for long enough, you’ll lose control of the project.

Low Cost – But At What Cost?

Keeping costs relevant relies upon the software people understanding what it is that you the customer really wants. The normal way to achieve this is to either have extensive two way discussions supported by heaps of documentation and signatures on dotted lines, or for the web people to continually produce prototypes of the web site to demonstrate functionality.

Both those methods are employed in large expensive software development projects and are normally outside the scope (be it in India or anywhere else) of the budget of most small business startups.

A Step By Step Strategy to Getting Your Web Site Developed

Now this solution is not for everyone, I am aware of that. But varying aspects of it will suit most people.

  1. Learn XHTML – this is very easy and you can do it in a couple of days. I don’t mean you can learn enough of it in a couple of days to be an expert, but you can learn enough to produce some simple web pages.
  2. Learn CSS – this is slightly harder, but certainly not beyond the scope of most people. Again, I don’t mean learn CSS so well you become a guru. Guru status is just NOT required to become effective at CSS. Just learn enough that you can apply simple CSS coding to your XHTML.
  3. If you must outsource something, outsource the graphics. If you are not a graphic designer design the layout of your page and then tell the graphic designer to make images that fit into the spaces you have allocated on your page. Don’t do it the other way around. Don’t get a graphic designer to tell you where things go.
  4. Use a number of small, low cost, third party tools, websites and services (there are hundreds of them) to add other required functions to the site that you can’t develop yourself. These typically cost between $20 and $100 and do the following types of things
  1. create menus and navigation systems
  2. contact forms
  3. small flash animations
  4. newsletter services
  5. image manipulation
  6. affiliation
  7. php scripts
  8. blogs

the list is endless . . . Outsource any portion of the above, but always write the XHTML and the CSS in-house. That way you’ll self-educate, stay in control, be able to make timely changes, and take responsibility for your own business.

Bottom Up Vs Top Down

What you will have done is to create a web site using bottom up techniques – i.e you’ll have used a building block approach which helps you to learn, understand what is going on and decide on small chunks of the project to outsource.

The advantage with outsourcing small chunks of the project rather than the whole project is that it forces you to define exactly what you want, the thing you described will be precise as it has to fit in with what you already have, you can choose different people to provide the parts that they are really good at . . the list of advantages again, is endless.