We know you’re tech-savvy (or at the very least, able to get to this site). But are you knowledgeable enough to build your own website?
These days, having an online presence is a necessity for almost every small business or freelancer. A website is the easiest way to display all the information that potential clients or customers might need. It gives you an opportunity to “brand” yourself or your business and lets you broadcast what sets you apart.
While you know you need a website, figuring out how to get one is a little trickier. Many web designers charge by the hour: Inexperienced or student designers might charge as little as $20 per hour, while an in-demand professional might charge well over $150 per hour. With a simple website taking upward of 50 hours to build, even a low hourly rate can add up to a large price tag. But while it might be expensive, a professional website with custom features can help you grow your business, and sends a loud and clear message that you're trustworthy and professional.
In this installment of our DIY or Not series, we spoke to Catherine Hnatov, a web designer for foundations, authors and illustrators, and Ken Herbert, Director of Development Services for dzine it, inc., whose web development firm has worked on sites for American Express, Merck and the United Nations. They gave us the lowdown on when you should call in a professional to design your new site and when it's worth taking a crack at doing it yourself.
Call Me If …
You want a unique online identity.
Catherine Hnatov: Web design is important if you are looking to establish a unique identity or want to incorporate your existing identity into a site. There are a lot of sites that allow you to use templates to build your own site. This is an easy route if you don't have design experience, but your site will look more generic than if you hired a designer.
You want your site to have special features.
CH: If you want your site to have interactive features like animations, slide shows or image shows, hire a designer. A web designer will know about options for these types of features that may not be available through a standard template and will anticipate issues for certain browsers and mobile devices.
Having a slow website is the biggest mistake you could make: People won't hang around and wait, so it needs to load quickly.
You’re a freelancer.
CH: It's really important to have a website if you are a freelancer, so people can contact you. Chances are, no one will Google search "freelance writer" and find your site. Nevertheless, it is important for someone to be able to get to your site and find your contact information, and it makes you look more professional when someone asks what type of writing you do. (Learn more about online portfolios: read this.)
Don’t Call Me If …
You only need a simple, informational page.
Ken Herbert: For a very basic (and free) site, consider a Wordpress blog. They have a lot of great templates to get you started. Make sure your template has an "About" page that introduces your company, a page that lists out your services, a portfolio page with previous work and a contact form. Contact forms are preferable because a user doesn't have to open another application or window. And because it doesn't display your email address, a form also protects you from spammers.
LV Tip: Squarespace has amazing templates that you can customize, so your site won't look run-of-the-mill; they'll also host your site. It's not free, but for as little as $12 per month, it will still cost less than a professional designer.
You have strong web skills.
KH: The basic languages you need to know are HTML and CSS—they instruct the look and feel of a website. HTML and CSS will allow you to construct pages and display the information that you need for potential clients and customers. If you are already proficient in HTML and CSS, consider looking into PHP and MySQL, which are dynamic languages. They will allow you to program sites that go beyond static content.
You're good at following online tutorials.
CH: I actually learned how to do web design by building my own site. I had design experience and knew some basic HTML, but I also had a lot of patience to sit there with an open textbook and take online tutorials. I swear by Lynda.com tutorials, which can help you with almost every situation, from learning a new programming language to customizing a Wordpress template. A one-month pass for $25 will give you access to an unlimited number of tutorials.
You haven’t figured out your content yet.
CH: Figure out your content before calling a web designer. You should know what you want to display, even if you don't know exactly how to display it. The more information you can bring, the better.
Maybe Call Me If …
You can't afford to pay top prices.
KH: If you go on a site like Craigslist, you can possibly find a student willing to build your site for little or no money (they're looking to build their own portfolio, after all), or a more junior designer looking for extra work.
CH: ODesk is another site that will help you put together a design team for less. Even though you're hiring off the web, there's accountability, as previous customers will post reviews after working with a designer. The site also tracks the number of hours that a designer is working on your project, so you know that you're not overpaying.
You want to set up ecommerce for your business.
CH: Setting up ecommerce for a business often requires a web designer and a programmer. Because I only do web design, I'll work with a programmer to set up ecommerce for a customer. A client could go directly to a programmer to set up ecommerce for an existing site, but I've found that they work best when managed by a designer.
LV Tip: If you want to try to tackle ecommerce yourself, check out Highwire, which helps you set up an online store. Setup is free, but you'll pay a monthly fee for the service. There are templates if you don't have design experience, but you can also customize your store if you'd like.
You want to upgrade your existing website, or you've built some of your site.
CH: For work on existing sites, you can often negotiate a lower fee with web designers. You can also negotiate a fee if you've done some of the prep work yourself, like building and resizing images, or laying out the design of the site.
Publicize Your Business
Learn how to do PR yourself
Your website is loading really slowly.
CH: Having a slow website is the biggest mistake you could make: People won't hang around and wait, so it needs to load quickly. Websites are often slow because the uploaded images are sized incorrectly. If your website is too slow, call a designer to take a look.
Your business was recently revamped or your website is old.
CH: If you're restructuring your business, it might be a good idea to put a new face on your website. It doesn't have to be a drastic change: A slight upgrade will make it look fresh and important. There's nothing more frustrating than seeing a business's website that hasn't been updated since 2009.
3 Tips for Going It Alone
There are easy ways to improve the traffic to your site yourself, like having links to and from your site. You should also begin to think about SEO, or search engine optimization: You want to be listed as high up on Google and other search engines as possible. Here are some ways to improve your SEO:
1. Tag your website with key words, but don't waste too much time.
It's a good practice to tag your posts with key words to make your site easier to navigate, but don't go overboard. For example, If you have a scone business, add the tag "scone," but you don't need "blueberry scone," "strawberry scone," "how to make a scone," etc.
2. Use a variety of words and descriptions on your site.
If you own a restaurant, be specific about what sets it apart. Refer to it as an "organic" and a "vegan" restaurant, and list the specific types of food you serve. A varied vocabulary works best. The more descriptive words you use, the more likely you are to pop up in people's searches.
3. Name your images.
When you upload images to your site, describe what the pictures are in words—don't just name them with numbers. This will also help search engines find your site.