Small Business – Choosing the Right Web Agency

Choosing the right web design agency can be a make or break decision for many small businesses, it can mean the difference between a website which works for them, or a website that doesn’t. Or, in more succinct terms, the difference between a website that supports the business and one that costs the business (time, money, reputation, brand).

A large part of Hot Lemon’s online business is helping our clients redevelop their websites because their current websites are, for want of a better phrase, “not fit for purpose”. These are not websites our clients have done themselves, in which case you could forgive them, but so called “professional” websites developed by “professional” web design agencies.

This has eventually prompted me to write this guide to choosing the right web design agency for your small business to help other small businesses of repeating those very same mistakes.

Who’s to blame for bad web-design?

Quite simply, the agencies developing the websites and the small businesses commissioning them. So, that would be everyone!

The agencies are to blame because they don’t engage with their clients, they cut too many corners and they try to template design and technology too much in order to meet a specific price point. The small businesses are to blame, because they are driving the market to a low price point, they don’t want to invest much in their website, and they don’t get involved in the process as much as they should.

Bemusement – the internet is important

Of constant bemusement to me is the way some small businesses go about developing their online presence – their website. The internet is so persuasive now, and used by so many consumers in many different ways, that a robust, professional online presence is a necessity for any business, no matter what sector, no matter what size.

However, many small businesses still approach the development (and use) of their website in a casual manner, to them, the website is of secondary importance rather than primary. Unfortunately, with this mindset, many small businesses will never experience the benefits of what a good online presence can deliver, and why it is so important to invest time and resources into it.

The race for the bottom – the bargain basement website

This attitude by small businesses can be characterised by the increasing preponderance of web design agencies offering “all inclusive”, “professionally designed” and “tailored for you” websites all for the princely sum of £199.

Now fundamentally, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this bargain basement web-design.

However, you really do get what you pay for. Bearing in mind these agencies have overheads, and they are businesses too therefore they need to make a profit themselves, the actual development cost spent on a website like this might be as little £80 to £100. The agencies in order to meet this price point need to pare down the design process to a minimum. Hence use of templates, generic pictures, generic text.

The resultant website might look ok. But does it work for your business? Does it reflect your brand? Does it communicate what you do properly? Does it sell your business? Can you find it on Google?

An old adage: “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”

Top tips for choosing a web design agency

Hot Lemon has developed some top tips for any small business to use when choosing a web design agency, these are:

  • recommendation – use your network, if a colleague can recommend an agency you can use their experience to help you with your choice
  • talk to several agencies – don’t just go to one agency, talk to several. Do they treat you as a client or as a potential cash-flow?
  • don’t make a decision on cost alone – cost is important, it’s why we budget for things. However, the cheapest is seldom the best. Saving money in designing a web site can lose money in the longer term from lost business
  • do they use English? – English is a wonderful language, however, many people don’t use it and decide to use jargon instead. If an agency can’t be bothered to talk to you in plain English that you will understand, can you really expect them to spend the time getting to know your business
  • do they understand you? – Has the agency bothered to get to know you, get to know your business, your market? They are designing your primary communication channel, they need a good understanding of you in order to do that effectively
  • benefits not features – the web is full of features! But what real benefit are they to you? Be wary of long lists of features, this is especially the case for e-commerce sites
  • beware of the up sell – you are getting someone to design you a website, be wary of agencies trying to sell you other online services for your business, whilst often useful, they can tie your business down
  • copy-writing – is the agency going to help you write the content of your website, or just design the website. Writing effective web copy is not an easy skill
  • templates – have a look at the agency’s portfolio, do they all look the same? Are they designing to a template? Many low cost web designs are template based – it’s where they save the money – not necessarily a problem, as long as the template is good for you
  • Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) 1 – the agency should offer internal SEO as an integral part of their service – not as an add on. SEO is so important it needs to be done from the start of the design process
    • SEO 2 – get the agency to explain what their SEO services are in plain English. Get them to explain their internal and external SEO services to you and their costs. Further, ascertain whether they do this in-house or sub-contract it
  • Content Management Systems (CMS) – many agencies make CMS a key feature, but do they tell you everything about CMS and is it right for you? Key things to consider:
    • ease of use – whilst you don’t need to be able to code in order to update a website with CMS, many of them are not as intuitive to use as they should be, indeed, quite the opposite
    • proprietary or published – CMS’s can come in two forms – proprietary (i.e. written specifically for a specific website), or published (Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, Coldfusion etc.), in which case the CMS is adapted for your website. Proprietary is usually more intuitive as written specifically for you, but can tie you in. Published can be less intuitive and more templated.
    • templates – CMS websites generally follow similar template designs, especially the published varieties, your choice in layout and design may be limited
    • flexibility – because many CMS designs follow templates (with some agencies just changing the logo on the template and then selling it to you for £500) they lack flexibility, you may well be limited in what you can do within your budget
    • content – just because you can update your website, should you? Were not all copywriters, and this together with the relative inflexibility of CMS websites can lead pretty quickly to some messy websites. Further, if your being sold a website with CMS is the agency going to help you out with copy-writing and SEO? Do you know enough about SEO to write search engine friendly copy?
  • e-commerce – many small businesses are attracted to the online world because of e-commerce and the ability to compete with the big boys on equal terms. Err no. The first thing any agency should do is to administer a dose of reality to your e-commerce dreams. It’s not impossible to be successful, but it’s not as easy as you may think. Things to consider asking your agency about e-commerce are:
    • software – your agency is very likely to use commercially available e-commerce software for your website, the larger agencies may have their own software which they re-use. Find out which one their using and Google it! You might find out that your paying an agency just to change the logo
    • beware of the up sell – many e-commerce packages are hugely capable, able to list and manage thousands of products and do wondrous things – this might be over-kill if all your after is a simple e-commerce website selling a few items
    • ask for options – if you’re just going to sell a few things online, make sure your agency gives you a range of options, from the cheap to the expensive. For example, PayPal provides a free e-commerce facility that can be used with any website!
    • understand the amount of work involved – often, the easiest part of setting up an e-commerce site is the design itself, understand that inputting your product details with appropriate tags and descriptions can be very time consuming – will your agency help?
    • templates – because e-commerce websites are usually based on published software, and have very complex databases related to them, they tend to be very similar in how they look as they are generally set up using templates. This could be an issue if you want to differentiate how your e-commerce site looks compared to your competitors, ask you agency how they can differentiate your site from your competitors
  • beware of the plugins – use of specific plugins might make your website look fantastic, but understand that not all of your customers will have those plugins (for example Flash, Quicktime, Java, Real player files etc. ). Ask what happens to your sexy looking website when the visitor doesn’t have Flash installed for example (iPhone’s don’t play Flash). Also, the content of Flash files are not indexed by Google, so you need to make sure your agency is communicating the content of them in other ways for search engines
  • standards matter – ensure your agency codes their websites to international standards. Those standards are there for a purpose, to ensure that websites work regardless of browsers and operating platform. As a minimum you should insist that your website adheres to W3C standards for HTML / XHTML. There is no excuse for not designing a standards compliant website, apart from laziness!
  • testing – find out what the testing regime is at the agency. Web pages display quite differently in different browsers and operating systems, what works in one browser doesn’t necessarily work in another. Find a computer with Internet Explorer 6 on it (still the default browser on 10% of all computers) and test your website on it (IE6 is usually the worst culprit for displaying websites incorrectly)
  • relationships are key – above all else, do you feel that you can do business with the agency and build a working relationship with them. Things do wrong – fact of life – do you feel your agency is going to be there to help and support you when it does?

I think that’s pretty exhaustive list of tips and things to consider when choosing a web design agency for your small business.

Things to consider

Whilst the above is pretty comprehensive in terms of assessing web design agencies, it’s not all one way traffic. Small businesses equally need to consider several points as well before beginning the web development process. For example:

  • your website is likely to be the primary communication tool of your business – your shop front to the world. Therefore dedicate appropriate time and resources to getting it right
  • understand that you get what you pay for. You will not get someone understanding your needs and the needs of your business and then design an effective website for £250!
  • if you do not understand the internet, find someone who does. Find out why SEO is important, and what drives good SEO (chances are, the £250 option will become less attractive on doing this) – as a wee plug, Hot Lemon is quite happy to chat
  • do not trust anyone who can’t explain things to you in plain English
  • don’t get too drawn into CMS and fully featured e-commerce sites, understand that your good at your business, not necessarily at copy-writing, graphic design or web design
  • whilst most websites have similar structures (it’s intuitive!), don’t be satisfied with a template design. Your customers will recognise that you can’t be bothered with your own website – so why should they?
  • your website is a critical tool for your business, don’t treat it as an add on, treat it as an integral part, and commit the time and resources appropriate to it.

The Recommended Top 10 Web Hosting Company

In promoting products and services over the worldwide web, it is very important for these products and services to be conveniently accessible to practically everyone. The worldwide web is the largest market and has the widest range as well. Thus, it is not surprising why a lot of individuals, organizations, and businesses are anchored in the worldwide web. Indeed, it is beyond doubt that advances in information technology have made everything accessible.

With these facts, it is very clear that in order for any business to reach the global market, it should be within reach for everyone. The best way to do this is through hosting. Hosting allows individuals and organizations to create web sites and make these web sites accessible by the rest of the world. This is indeed a pretty advantageous set-up since the web site owner does not really have to be technically knowledgeable about the ins and outs of hosting services. For as long as you have a concept for your web site, you can choose any service provider that you find appropriate and get connected with the rest of the world in no time at all.

On the other hand, choosing an appropriate Company for your web site may not be very easy at all. Basically, with the emergence of millions of web sites, hundreds of hosting companies emerged as well. As such, if you are not very familiar with the technicalities of hosting, choosing may not be that easy at all.

However, you can always search for the most popular hosts and compare their features, performance, and reviews. By going through top hosting reviews, you can definitely gather some useful information, as well as expert opinions on the various web hosting companies. If different reviews give out different results, you can at least get the common hosting companies that are present in those various reviews. This means that if a number of particular web hosts come out in different reviews, these hosts must be credible and quality.

Some of the top web hosting companies today include iPage, Hostgator, BlueHost, FatCow, JustHost, and Hostmonster to name a few. Among these web hosting companies, JustHost offers the cheapest hosting rate at an unbelievable $3.45 per month. Aside from this low rate, JustHost also offers discount coupons. On the other hand, if you want unlimited domain hosting, iPage, HostGator, FatCow, JustHost, and Hostmonster are the best options since these hosts offer unlimited hosting of domains. Basically, all of the top web hosting companies offers unlimited space, unlimited traffic, and unlimited bandwidth. Perhaps, the significant differences lie in the subscription rate per month, additional features, and discount coupons. Other than these factors, the top hosting companies have high host rating and excellent reviews.

Here is a list of top 10 web hosting companies.

1) iPage
2) Fatcow
3) Justhost
4) Hostgator
5) IXWebhosting
6) Webhostingpad
7) Bluehost
8) Hostmonster
9) Greengeeks
10) HostiCan

Guidelines to Choose the Best Web Designer

It takes immense talent and skills to design a web page which is creatively designed, neatly coded, easily downloadable, displays properly on different browsers and above all, can be indexed easily by search engines as well. This is why it becomes more important to choose a company which has a team of talented web and graphic designers, equipped to give you a high quality web solution.

Here are some useful tips to help you choose an efficient web designer.

Check out the previous works

Ask the company to show you the portfolio of their web designs. Most good web and graphic design companies will have a neatly done portfolio in their website itself.

The prior works of the designers highlight not only their talent but also what you can expect from them. Analyze whether all the pages are easy to navigate, whether the designs are impressive and professional, is the layout effective etc. Only after you are satisfied with the previous works, you should move further.

Give importance to HTML knowledge

Make sure that the web designer uses HTML to build a site along with cascading style sheets i.e. CSS. The knowledge of CSS is important for a designer as CSS allows the designer to easily and quickly make system-wide changes to the site.

This helps in saving time and energy and of course, cost. A good designer must be in the know of these things. If your designer is not familiar with CSS, then you’d better leave the task for some other designer.

Know about the features

Inquire what kind of features your web designer can provide you in your website. There are plenty of features available in web solutions today but you must know what exactly you would need. Your web designer must be able to suggest you the features that would make your site attractive and user-friendly.
For example, if you are building a product-selling site, you can have some flash components to enhance the appeal of your home page, a good admin panel to manage visitors and sales, security features to ensure secure payment gateways and so on.

Updating criteria

It is essential to know beforehand, how the web and graphic designer plan to have the site updated. It is better to have the ability to update the website on your own with the help of Content Management System (CMS), or user-friendly admin panel type interface which allow one to make changes to static content. Paying the designer every time you need to update your site is an expensive proposition and quite unnecessary in today’s hi-tech web world.

Performance of your website

To make sure your website performs well, ask your designer beforehand about the time required for loading a page and search engine indexing. If your site takes more time to load than the average website does, take it as a warning signal. It might be due to bad HTML coding. A good web designer will code the page in a way in which it loads within seconds and is easily indexed by search engines.

Get in touch with previous clients

Apart from just going through the testimonials online, it is worthwhile to get in touch with the previous clients and ask them about their experience with the web design company and the web designers. You can contact them either through phone or e-mail them seeking their opinion whether they were happy and satisfied with the kind of quality and service they have got.

These are just few guidelines that can be taken into consideration while looking for a good professional web designer. These are by no means the only criteria but it will surely help to find the good ones who can be trusted with your dream project.

5 Foolproof Guides to Choosing the Best Web Design Agency

In order to have a professional-looking website for your business profile or online shop, you need a professional web designer. When you have no business partner or friends who can point out which agency is good for you, choosing one might be quite a problem. Many shady web design agencies out there are ready to give you nothing but disappointment. To avoid disappointment, follow these steps before choosing a web designer:

1. Examine their portfolio

By examining the company’s portfolio, you can judge whether their design suits you or not. See also if the portfolio represents the company well and whether the company’s name rings a bell. It is better to ask the agency to send you testimonials from their prior clients. Make sure to contact these clients to confirm that the testimonials are not scams.

2. Find out if they are professionals

Communication is crucial if you want best result for your website design. Professionals are not people who use a lot of Internet jargons and terms while their clients don’t know half of the things they are talking about. Instead, professionals are people who can describe clearly what they are doing to their clients. Knowing their explanation thoroughly is important if you don’t want to end up buying products you don’t need.

3. Ask how long the company has been running

Although not always true, age can be one of the indications of a good web design agency. As trends in Internet tend to change drastically, many web designers come and go in short times. If an agency has been established for five years, for instance, this means the company apparently has good management and achievements to survive.

4. See how many people work on the team

A large company with 7000 employees doesn’t necessarily need a huge web design agency too. On the other hand, a small company of 100 people may need a larger group to manage its website. The size of your preferred web designer team depends on your marketing and development requirements. Bottom line: make sure there are people who are always ready managing your website even when you are off-duty or on a vacation.

5. Always read their terms and conditions

Terms and conditions page is one of the most important but often forgotten parts of a web design agency’s profile. By reading their terms and conditions, you may avoid future problems. Find out if the agency has good explanation about staged payment, bug fixing cost, back-up service, further updates and website maintenance, source code possession, and any additional fees.

Vital Things To Consider Before Choosing Your Web Hosting Company

Picking out the best web hosting company can be a tough decision. There are so many companies to choose from, and they all promise unlimited resources, knowledgeable support, and lots of space. But taking the time to understand how different hosting companies work will make it easy for you to pick one. We have created this helpful guide to help you chose the company that will fit all of your needs.

Know Your Hosting Needs:

Having a general idea about what your website is going to be like will help narrow your web hosting choices. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

-What kind of website are you going to be creating?
-Are you going to work on a WordPress blog?
-How much web traffic are you expecting your site to have?
-Will your website need special software?

Taking time to answer these questions will give you a broad idea about what your web hosting needs will be.

Price Tag:

People usually want to get the highest quality for the lowest price. When it comes to web hosting companies there many price options to pick from. The most common one is the free web hosting company. While these free services are okay for small sites or people who are just starting out, keep in mind that you get what you pay for. Many free web hosts will have limited features, which can limit what you are able to do.
For better web services you will have to pay a small fee. But you will have access to many other features that will allow you to create a great website.

Security Options:

Look at what type of security features that your list of web hosting companies has to offer. Generally, these services come with basic firewalls and a couple other security features. Having a strong security system will help protect your website from hackers.

Storage Amount:

Storage equates to how much space your website has for all of its content. This can include videos, images, databases, and any other things that you will be putting on your site. If you are planning on having a website that is not going to be content-heavy then you will probably need a tiny amount of space. But keep in mind that you should still give yourself some room to grow out your website.

Bandwidth:

Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transferred from your server to those that are visiting your site. The amount of bandwidth that you will need is determined by how much traffic you anticipate on having. There are some web hosting companies that offer unlimited bandwidth, and there are some that put a limit bandwidth. But be aware that unlimited bandwidth is rarely unlimited. Many web hosting companies that offer this unlimited option will run much slower than other companies.

Connection Speed:

The time that it takes for your website to load can make or break your site. Having a website that loads within seconds will help increase your traffic. This is because people want things as quickly as possible, so if your site does not load quickly they will move on to a different site.

Taking your time to understand what your website needs will be with help you pick the best service for your growing site. Having the right web hosting company will help you be able to grow your business.