A web designer cannot be everything to everyone. There are so many different kinds of web sites and web applications that to try and have a hand in all of them would be insanity. It would be similar to a general practitioner also doing heart surgery and orthopedics and neonatal care and radiology. Maybe not the best analogy, but you get the point.

In the field of web development there are specialists in e-commerce design and management, flash animation, web video production, database designers, search engine optimization, digital security, internet marketing, and copywriting for the Web, just to name a few. Just like medicine, each area requires an in-depth technical knowledge and years of hands-on training and experience.

And then there are all the computer languages related to web applications. HTML, hypertext markup language, was the first and most basic. Even if you end up working solely through a CMS (content management system) like WordPress it’s still a good idea to know some basics, like how to hyperlink a word or section of text in your content. There are other oft-used languages like CSS (cascading style sheets), XHTML (extensible hypertext markup language), XML (extensible markup language), and PHP(hypertext preprocessor), just for starters. Is your head spinning yet?

The objectives of any website or application determine which platform and languages are best to use. Let’s look at some common reasons for wanting to establish a website on the ‘Net.

Do you just want to have an online version of your brochure? Then working in HTML & Css in a simple code/wysiwyg editor is probably all you’ll need. A big, and expensive, program like Dreamweaver is overkill. There are many absolutely great website builders that are fairly easy to use that are well under $100. Just because a web building program is expensive doesn’t mean it’s all push-button, essentially building your site for you. Just like an expensive car, it doesn’t get you from point A to point B any faster, much less drive you there.

At this point you may be wondering if you’d need a web designer at all if you’re just going to build a simple 3 to 5 page site. Easy website builders like Yahoo SiteBuilder or Intuit’s website builder, in my opinion, will lead you down the primrose path to obscurity. They give you the illusion that web building is a piece of cake. I have yet to see one of these easy web builders offer solid advice on getting your site found in a search. SiteBuildIt! has a much more comprehensive series of tutorials to teach you what really works to building a site that gets found. They offer such sound lessons that they’ve turned their system into a course offered at major universities around the world. To me, that speaks volumes to their credibility.

It comes down to asking what’s your best return on investment for your time. Is you time better spent doing what you do best in YOUR business, or do you want to go straight to a professional to get it done right the first time? Spending time building a website will end up taking away precious time from your core business. “Saving” $500-$1000 by not hiring a pro may turn out to cost you MUCH more in the time it takes away from earning money elsewhere, at something YOU’RE an expert in.

Do you want to start a website for your community newspaper, church, club, etc.? A content management system such as WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal (yes, there are many more) would be a good choice; straight HTML pages in this environment would be too unwieldy. Once the look and feel of the site is set up by a webmaster then everyday users can log into an administration panel to submit articles and not have to worry one wit about code.

Do you want to sell something? And how many products do you want to sell? Many e-commerce platforms are versions of content management systems. Having just one product, like a digitally downloadable e-book, will be a lot different than setting up and managing a store of a thousand products. And when selling something you’ll have to worry about payment processing, merchant accounts, and encrypted security.

Do you want to start a social networking site? Adding a forum or wiki or blog to your site is one thing, setting up an application like Facebook is a whole different game. A dating site can be seen as a form of social networking, too. Adding password protection and payable memberships add another layer of complexity.

But, knowing your objectives is just the starting point. The next question to ask is “What audience do you want to reach?”. This is where search engine optimization comes in (I’m sure you’ve seen the acronym “SEO” many places by now). Knowing who your target market is will determine the best way to go about building (and promoting) your website.

The field of SEO is an every-growing niche within the field of web design and development. SEO’ers basically try to build or manage a site so that it ends up on page one of an organic Google search. This may sound easy, simple even. But, the broader the topic for your website the harder this will be to accomplish. Optimizing a website for the keyword “shoes” is a LOT harder than optimizing it for “orthopedic diabetic shoes”, just as an example.

And a properly crafted and executed SEO campaign will take a lot of time behind the scenes. This is why effective SEO is so expensive… the time it takes for an individual or team to sit at their computers and manage all the minutae that go into optimizing a website can be mind boggling.

SOME of your time and money can be saved, however, if your website if initially built around an architecture for SEO right off the bat. Doing keyword and market research, and knowing how to build pages that the search engines love will get your site going in the right direction (ie. ranking well in a search) from day one. This is why hiring a web designer that knows the ins and outs of optimization is better if your objective is page one of Google. A pretty, flash animated site that sits on page 3 of a search is as good as invisible.

So, step back and carefully analyze what you really want your website to do. Then look at other sites that are ranking well for your target market. What’s their content like? What’s their layout and design like? Using a tool like SEO Quake (a FireFox addon) will give you an idea of their in-bound links and ranking.

The final question you should ask in hiring a web designer/developer is “Can I effectively communicate with this person?” Just like a doctor with great bedside manner, dealing with a designer that really “gets” you and your business can make a world of difference. Sure, the technical knowledge HAS to be there, but great communication and customer service will make your business relationship a whole lot more pleasant. Do you want a cheap website from an off-shore business that you’ll never hear from again, or someone in your geographic area that you can meet with in person from time to time? There’s a lot to consider before one line of code ever gets written.


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