“Your new website is terrible and it is probably your fault.”  That is not what you want to hear after 6 months or more of hard work on your company website – but it happens more often than you can imagine.  Sometimes the site is awful and companies don’t even know how bad.  They usually hire someone like me to analyze the “pretty site” and find plenty of issues that were missed or weren’t in scope.  Today I’m speaking specifically to small businesses, but I’m betting that every company can appreciate these few considerations when kicking off a website project.

Understand the ROI
A website is a means to an end, it isn’t an art project. What is the business need you are trying to meet? Common needs include brand awareness and lead generation. Other common requirements include e-commerce, content distribution and more. Know what you want it to do for your business and invest accordingly.  Don’t do it for the sake of doing it.  Have an actual business case – which means assigning real numbers to the investment and what you hope to get out of it.  I’ve seen many effective SMB’s that can live with just Facebook or a LinkedIn profile as their main avenue of communication and lead generation.

Align on Design
Design aesthetic is important because it is subjective. Instead of spending thousands on design comps, ask your web team where to go for examples.   Go to the theme selling sites for open source platforms, and review demos. Find a couple you like. However – and let me emphasize this – don’t build on these themes. You can buy them and play with them and use them to prompt you for content presentation ideas.  But use them as a reference point of what you like from a design aesthetic or a prototype, not a final project. Many of these themes have bundled functionality. Most drop out of maintenance after a couple of years requiring a rip and replace because of security vulnerabilities, deprecated code and more. Focus instead on theme frameworks and commercial grade plugins and extensions.

Get Your Branding
Your website developer is not your logo team, messaging team or tagline team. Get with people who do that and do it well. Alternatively, ask your web team if they can do it or know someone who does. Don’t assume it is included.  If it is included, my guess is you are working with designers and marketing people and are lucky if you also get a quality technical team.  Understand the gaps in your provider’s capabilities.  One team, and especially one person, is not “all the things”.

Get Your Content
Companies large and small struggle with this. It is simultaneously the most important item and the one that is neglected the most.  The approach I mention above for finding themes with a certain design aesthetic should help with creative uses of content.  Ultimately, your company has to have something to say.  If it doesn’t, then why are you in business?  By the way, messaging is not content.

Registrar
This is where you make decisions about who owns the domain and which domain name system controls where your website is served. Don’t assume this is set up correctly, make sure the three types of contacts are correct especially the owner and technical contact.  It is good to audit this annually and you should get a reminder to do that from time to time.  Ignore third party offers of renewing your domain, they are mostly scams.  Know who your registrar is… it is astonishing how many people don’t know this.

DNS
Don’t assume this is included or figured out. Slow DNS is bad for website load times, adding as much as half a second or more. Decide who will manage this – you, your IT team or your web management team. Investment in DNS is tied to how important speed is to your business. Hint – especially if you are doing commerce, speed should be on your mind.

Hosting
The biggest mistakes happen here, especially with SMB’s going to the big name web hosts – they think the well known brand and Superbowl commercials buy them something. The truth is, most of these hosting companies have such a huge legacy to deal with that they are many generations of technology behind the curve. And when they fail, they fail spectacularly. I won’t call out companies specifically here, but just from my personal experience I can cite four companies in the last three years which had multi-DAY outage events… one of which lasted almost a week.  Communities of people “in the know” universally despise many of the web hosting companies you are probably most familiar with because they are the ones that have to deal with those awful systems, not you.  Most designers are reselling terrible web hosts, they get a commission which is fine, but their recommendations are not always in your best interest.

Email
The days of “email is included” should be put to rest. If email is part of a package hosting deal for $5/mo, there is a good chance it is not awesome. Be intentional about how your business email will run. Office 365 is great for people who are Microsoft oriented. Google G-Suite is likely good for everyone else, especially if you use Android devices.  There are of course many other options.

Transactional Email System
You’ll need a dependable way for email to get from your web server to you or your leads. Transactional email is by far the best way. Don’t use SMTP or your company email system if you can avoid it. Have email come from a different domain than your main company email. For example, domain.net vs domain.com. Correctly configure white-labeling and SPF records on DNS according to the transactional email provider instructions.

Don’t Forget Ongoing Changes and Management
This of course includes all the standard system administration functions from backups to securing the site to ensuring updates occur in a timely fashion.  If the site is easily configured through interfaces vs managing custom code, you may be able to do some things yourself.  But if you think you’ll have regular content changes – and don’t want to do them yourself – then consider a retainer.  The person who maintains your site may not be the same one who built it, but you’ll get a lower rate if you keep surprise change requests to a minimum.  Think about the entire life-cycle of your system – begin with maintenance in mind.  Maintenance of systems is usually the largest cost of ownership for you and happens over many years.  Make sure what is being built can be maintained effectively for a reasonable cost.  Make sure your technical team endorses the approach. Don’t dictate providers, platforms, themes and plugins – especially if your internal or external technical team pushes back. Technologists and engineers have visceral reactions to solutions they believe to be “junk”. There are many right ways to accomplish a business goal with technology. If you are married to a particular approach find someone who can support that approach. Both you and the team you are hiring should be professional enough to “agree to disagree” and move on if needed.