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If you think it's simply a case of who will do it for the best price, think again.
As with many things we buy there are several important factors to take into account. For a moment let's compare setting up a website with buying a house. When you are looking for a new house it's not simply a case of comparing how many rooms you get for your money. In fact there are lots of factors outside of the property itself. What is its location like? How will it stand up as an investment? The same is true of a website.
Here are the things you need to conider:
Cost is by no means the be all and end all but in a competitive market place it has to be a decisive factor. Before you start looking you should work out what you can afford to invest in a site. You should look not so much at the one off cost of having it built but the ongoing costs. When you get a quote for having a site built you should ask about ongoing costs. Find out what you have to pay for your domain name, for hosting, what they will charge you for making changes to your site or adding new pages. Also, find out what marketing if any is included in the cost.
Ask your would be designer about hosting. Be very wary of anyone saying "we have our own server". Professional hosting companies have lots of servers running concurrently from different location so that if one goes down another seemlessly takes over. They also have greater security and fire protection. This means that your site stays up whatever happens. I have known small companies where their own hosting server is kept in the toilet. That is not to say that you should be wary of smaller companies but you should ask them who they use for their hosting. It's far better if they leave this to the professionals and outsource it.
Make sure you get a proper domain name. It is important that your domain is recognised as an independent entity. You should watch out for being given a subdomain. www.yourcompany.com is good, www.yourcompany.hostingcompany.com is best avoided. It's also important to find out what domain extension is best for you. Don't let a designer talk you into a particular extension as they may be getting a bulk discount. .com, .net and .org extension are the top level domain extension with the individual country codes coming next. Decide if you want to market to a worldwide audience (and risk getting lost in the crowd) or specialise in one regional market (e.g. use a .co.uk or .us extension).
Design is not just about a page looking pretty. Functionality is more important. Look at the designer's previous work. Is the navigation obvious? Do the pages load quickly? Is text easy to read? Look through their previous work and look at it with a critical eye. Try to find things wrong with the pages.
Watch out for templates. If your designer is using templates it not only means that they're doing minimal work for their fee but your site could be penalised by search engines for being the same as other websites. It's much safer to have a site custom designed for you even if it costs a bit more.
It's increasingly important that your site is accessible to all users. You want your site to display and function properly not only on a PC screen but also laptops, palmtops, PDAs, digital TV services, mobile devices and software for the visually impaired. If your site cannot be used by all of these browsers you are losing a large proprtion of your potential audience. Ask about accessibility and request that your site be built in XHTML rather than HTML (it's on its way out) and that it uses CSS for the styling.
If you just build a site and don't do any marketing it will just sit there and never be seen. This is a mistake that too many people make usually through trying to cut costs. Find out what, if anything, is included in the cost of your design. Is your page optimized for search engines? Do they submit it for you? Will they give you any links? Optimising web pages for search engines is a key part of any site's success. There are companies who specialise in this but if your site is built in a way which makes it unfriendly to search engines there's not a lot they will be able to do for you. This is a crucial part of the design process and should not be overlooked.
What happens once the site is built? Does your designer just say "that's it, finished" and move on to their next site? You should find someone you are able to talk to about your site and seek advice without charge. A website is an ongoing project and a good designer should never wash their hands of it.
Chris Smith works as a web designer, developer and internet marketing consultant. For further information on design and free advice please visit Chris's website - Cheap Web Design (http://www.chris-smith-web.com)
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