In 10+ years of developing websites, I’ve come across a lot of assumptions. And you know what they say about those. So if you’re in the market for a new website, the following seven questions should help make the most of the experience.
What to expect when you’re expecting… a website
Whether you’ve never had a website built before, or this is your fifth iteration, you likely have some picture in your head of how it should go. But, you don’t know what you don’t know! Without talking your assumptions through, you may hold inaccurate expectations of what is to come. Use this as a guideline for your next web project to open the lanes of communication so that your labor is not in vain.
(Note: I use the term service provider below as a catch-all term for website designer, website developer, web host, agency, etc. By that I simply mean “whoever is involved in building your website”. In the case where you have more than one person/entity involved, like a web designer and a web host, be sure you understand which responsibilities lie with whom.)
Who is responsible for updates and maintenance?
Some sites are launched and not a change is made for five years. Other sites are launched and updates are made daily. Content updates are the responsibility of the site owner (or someone they designate the task to). Software and security updates are typically the responsibility of the service provider – but be sure to ask! For some service providers, the project is done once the launch button is pressed, and you'll never see them again. A note on WordPress websites, in particular: if you as the site owner are managing your site (installing updates and plugins), you assume full responsibility if something breaks. Ask your service provider if they will be keeping WordPress versions current and if there is a fee for this regular maintenance.
Another common issue is when new devices, operating systems, and browsers are released, your once perfect site no longer works as expected when viewed on them. For example, when iPhone 6 came out a few years ago, some sites had display issues, unique to the large screen size. The same thing happened when Windows 10 and the Microsoft Edge browser were released. Unfortunately, as much as they try to “future-proof” your website, service providers cannot predict the future, so you need to take into account the very real possibility you’ll need to budget for maintenance due to technological advances every couple of years, if not more frequently.
What about backups?
Almost no one thinks about backups until it’s too late – your site is hacked, you accidentally delete a bunch of stuff, or there’s a system outage. Now what? Does your service provider (and which one!) have your site backed up? How frequently are backups taken and how long are they stored? How quickly can they be restored if necessary? What is the fee associated with this – is it included in the monthly hosting fee or is each occurrence billed individually? These are questions you should ask up front, so you’re not scrambling in a panic if something happens.
Email assistance and troubleshooting -- is that part of building / managing a website?
This will depend on how your email is hosted. If the same service provider is hosting your website and email, then you should expect at least the initial setup to be done by them. Unless you have access to the admin interface for your email, then they should also be available for things like creating new email accounts, resetting passwords, and managing email storage limits. If you are given access, then the responsibility would lie with you to manage your email once launched. When an email issue arises, it could be due to any number of things (that may not have anything to do with your website), so expect the service provider to charge you to troubleshoot.
Who’s responsible for content (proofreading, editing, the writing style)?
Ideally, you will have a copywriter involved in your website who is responsible for writing and editing content. Otherwise, you will need to be responsible for providing complete proofed copy for your website. Double check names, titles, and consistency in style. Have multiple eyes on your copy before posting it. The beauty of the web is that it’s easy to correct errors quickly, but you don’t want an errant typo sitting out there for eons before someone finally alerts you to it.
The other point to make about content: it’s super important. Expect to spend time, money, and/or effort investing in your content. If you’re serious about your web presence, copy will be a top priority. Expect to work on copy before you even get to the design of your site. It’s important to understand that a website is not the be-all end-all holy grail to big business. Think of it more as a vessel, hub, or tool that you will use to accomplish a larger business or marketing goal. If your service provider doesn’t understand this concept, find another one who is more business-focused.
Will you get our site on Google (SEO)?
If you build it, they will come. Said no web developer ever. Search engine optimization (SEO) is necessary, but it’s much more than just building any old website. So, don’t expect your site to hit #1 on Google the second it is launched. SEO should not be an afterthought, and it’s best to have clear expectations on this from the very beginning. (Remember what I said above about content being super important? SEO is one reason why.) Understand that depending on who you hire (fresh-out-of-school freelancer, experienced web developer, boutique web agency, or large digital marketing firm), their experience and their capabilities will impact your results. So, ask, before assuming that anybody who can build a website will also be able to have it rank in Google. At minimum, it’s not unreasonable to expect SEO best practices to be adhered to when creating the site, and submission to major search engines afterward.
Once the site is launched, is there a review period?
Some service providers incorporate a review period (typically 14 to 30 days after launch) before final payment to catch any bugs that may not have existed in a testing environment once users start to interact with the site. Ideally, any kinks would have been caught before going live, but for various reasons a testing environment may not be able to accurately emulate real use, and this review period offers site owners peace of mind that they’ve paid for something that they’re fully satisfied with. This isn’t necessarily standard procedure, but it’s not uncommon, so it’s a good idea to ask beforehand what happens if you find something that needs to be addressed on your newly launched site.
What happens if there is a problem (something breaks of its own accord). Will it be fixed at no charge?
It’s unavoidable, given enough time – you notice something on your website suddenly isn’t working right, but not because of something you did. So, if you didn’t break it, do you have to pay to have it fixed? Yes; that’s just part of the cost of having a website. Similar to the first point above, keep in mind that things will change outside of the control of you or the service provider. This may happen, for example, with the use of third party plugins (e.g., you embed a code into your site from another source). When Twitter updated its API a couple of years ago, it caused Twitter feeds to simply disappear from sites where they had been embedded. Poof, gone. Nobody can predict these types of things ahead of time; it’s just the nature of our changing digital environment. You will need to be prepared to pay for a fix or for figuring out an alternate solution when problems like this arise.
Managing expectations is the difference between success and failure.
There is a difference between a one-and-done freelancer who views your site as just another project to get paid for and forget about, and a dedicated professional who will partner with you to help grow your business over the long run. Depending on who you work with and what you contractually agree upon, the answers to the above will be different for everyone. Know the answers to all of these questions before working with someone new. Don’t assume that just because a web developer is building your website they are also a designer, copywriter, social media maven, search engine optimizer, and all around geek squad-er. They may or may not have those skillsets (or the mindset!); not all web developers are created equal. If you are working with an agency or firm, chances are they have a different person to accomplish each of these things together as a team – but you should still ask, as not all agencies are created equal, either.
It may seem like a lot to process, but don’t let it overwhelm you. It’s good to know what to expect so that the process, launch, and aftermath are both pleasant and productive. Once your bundle of joy, err website, is birthed, uh launched, the labor will all be worthwhile!