As a small business owner, you'll be faced with the question of whether you should build your own website using off-the-shelf website design services or hire a design firm to create a site for you.
Building a site yourself can be daunting and going with an off-the-shelf service has several pros and cons.
- Sites claim to be as easy to use as Microsoft Word, provide industry-specific templates so that all you have to do is edit the wording to make it specific to your business, and add photos, maps or video with "just a few clicks."
- Sites are customizable, to a degree.
- If you're a new business, you can save money on the site early on by building it yourself. Depending on the service you choose, you can build and maintain your site for as little as $5 a month (costs go up when you add features and extra services).
- If you build your own site, you'll understand the software and will have an easier time updating it and troubleshooting problems.
- Depending on which service you choose, you can easily get letterhead and other printed products that match the design of your site.
- Because the site started from a template, chances are it could look a little generic.
- Without an experience small business web designer helping you out, there might be important site elements that you won't know to include. In addition, a professional designer can help you develop a long-term strategy for the site.
- While off-the-shelf options do offer e-commerce features, if your business is growing, they might not be customizable enough for a large online store. A developer can help make maintaining and using this site easier for both you and your customers.
- Off-the-shelf options charge you for additional storage -- and these monthly charges can add up quickly for an online store.
- While there is a staff on hand that can answer questions, they won't necessarily be familiar with the specific needs of your business, whereas a design firm will be intimately aware of your needs from the start and will be able to help you troubleshoot and fix any problems with the site.
Features of Off-the-Shelf Website Design Services Different services offer different features - but here's an overview of what's available:
- Hundreds of templates (often industry-specific templates) so that you can start off your design process without needing knowledge of HTML (those with more design experience can have complete control of HTML and CSS)
- Easy to customize -- you can change color and wording and drop in your own images and logos
- Access to a stock image library - some sites offer a set number of free images and then charge you for access to their archives
- Troubleshooting web staff via e-mail, live chat or phone, as well as access to training videos and user forums
- Web-hosting services
- Access to site statistics and activity reports to track visitors by page views, location, search engines and referring sites. Some sites include Google Analytics as well.
- Domain name
- E-mail addresses
- E-commerce - Build an online store or product catalog to take orders via the website, phone or on Facebook
- The ability to house Flash video
- Social media widgets
- Contact form
- Google or MapQuest maps to help people easily find you
- A visitor counter
- RSS feeds
- Anywhere from five free pages to unlimited pages included in your monthly fee
- Search engine submissions - the host will submit your site to top search sites
- Search listing tools - find out where your site is listed and where it should be listed
- Music player
- Bandwidth of 5 to 20 GB
- Disk space - the amount of storage the service provides for you - 25 to 500 MB
- Site backed up locally and remotely in case of a disaster
- Compatibility with iPad, iPhones and other mobile devices
- Search functionality for visitors
- Printable coupons to be used in stores or on the website
- Event calendars
- Testimonial manager
When to hire a professional: On a blog post for DesignSponge.com, Stephanie Peterson, the founder of Fairground Media, recently offered the following situations in which it might be a good idea to hire a professional web designer:
- If your business is growing and you think it has staying power
- If you want more functionality than the built-in templates on an off-the-shelf website builder offer
- If you're ready to take your business to the next level. At this point you need a strong strategy for your site and unique design and user experience that goes beyond what you'll find on any template.
Some of off-the-shelf service providers offer design services and will build the site for you, which includes a consultation about what you want and need on your site, a set number of revision rounds, and training on how to maintain the site after it's been built.
If you're thinking of using a professional web design firm, an article on practicalecommerce.com offered some questions to ask before hiring:
- Whether you're hiring an outside firm, or bringing a designer on staff, make sure to look at other websites the designer has created, to see if their claims are backed up by their work.
- Find out how long they've been in business. The longer the firm has been around, the more likely they have satisfied customers.
- Check references. Make sure to ask about how the designers interacted with the company. Did they just take orders or did they offer suggestions for how to improve the site?
- Be wary of designers that have a pre-set prices for sites - that indicates that they don't have full understanding of your needs.
- Make sure you have clear and consistent communication with the designer - especially if they live out of town.
- Create deadlines and milestones for the project to help ensure the developer will complete the work in a reasonable amount of time.
- Make sure it's someone you can have a long-term relationship with, because chances are you'll need help tweaking the site and tech support.
Learn more about building a website for your small business on business.com.