This past week, my company received an RFP (Request for Proposal) regarding website design and maintenance services. Although state associations and larger organizations often follow this formality, this instance was unusual because it came from the owner of an individual campground. Although we submitted a bid on the project, it reminded me how most people do not know the truly important questions to ask a prospective webmaster. With that in mind, let me outline a few of the questions that should be asked, along with some of the answers that should be anticipated.
- Who is going to be the lead person on the project, and how will I contact that person throughout the course of production … and afterward? What is the background of that person, and are your work philosophies compatible? There may be a “team” of individuals working on your project, but you should expect to be in contact with the team manager, not the water boy. If key aspects of the project will be subcontracted or outsourced to an unidentified company or individual, you may want to look elsewhere.
- How many projects have been completed for similar companies that are comparable or larger than your own? How long has the company been in business, and what is its track record? Portfolios are always going to show a company’s best work. Campground review sites show both positive and negative reviews, and they help to present a more complete story. With this in mind, you might want to ask the company for an example of what it considers its own worst work.
- Will you provide an outline of the site’s proposed content and structure? Know what you want the site to accomplish, but let the developer propose the specific means to attain those goals. If you hire a painter, you need to tell that contractor what color you want on your living room walls, but it is probably best not to tell him what brand of paint to buy and what kind of brushes to use. Let the painter determine what will work best and what he prefers to use, based upon his experience. If you tell your webmaster how to do his work, you might very well be demanding the use of outmoded technology.
- What will be our respective roles in the ongoing development and maintenance of the site? Do not be obsessed with infrastructure, particularly presumptions regarding any particular CMS (Content Management System) platform. Too many people are determined that their new website should be built in WordPress or another specific CMS platform, simply because somebody told them that this was the way to go. The important question to ask is, “Who will be maintaining the site – you or me – and what will it cost over time?” In most instances, you want somebody who will stay on board to offer ongoing assistance to one degree or another, not somebody who expects you to sink or swim on your own.
- How will the initial content be provided, and who will edit that content? Typically, you will be expected to provide the basic text and photos that will be used on your site, but how are those supplied materials taken to the next level? Will photos be professionally enhanced in Photoshop? Will the text be proofread, edited, and professionally rewritten … then sent back to you for further revisions and final approval? What you do not want is somebody who does little more than copy and paste. Even the best photos need to be optimized, and even the best text can be improved, keeping in mind that the text on a website must be written for two audiences: a broad audience of human beings and a smaller but equally important audience of search engine robots.
- Speaking of search engines, will basic SEO (Search Engine Optimization) components be included in the cost of the project, or are those add-on services? Will Google Analytics be installed on your site at no charge? What additional SEO components will be included? Often, if you do not ask, services that might otherwise be provided at no charge will be absent from your project. Beware of extra charges for important services (such as Google Analytics) that are available at no charge and simply need to be setup and installed.
- Will the new site be expected to work on the full spectrum of devices and operating systems that are currently being used to access the Web? Specifically, is the new site designed to be fully functional on any and all of the latest smartphones and tablets? Older sites may have been built when compatibility with Internet Explorer 6 was an important consideration. Today, when people wait in line to be the first to buy the latest iPhone, backward compatibility is not nearly as great a concern as forward compatibility. Things like use of Flash animation (no longer supported on iOS and the newest Android devices) or separate mobile sites are old-school technologies. Be certain that you will be investing in the latest, solidly established technology. Avoid throwing money away on either old technology or planned obsolescence.
- What other services can the webmaster provide in-house? A new website should be a key component of an overall branding strategy. If the website development company has an understanding of and experience in orchestrating overall branding strategies, that is a big plus. If not, you could find yourself in the position where the graphic design that has been incorporated into your new website cannot be transitioned into the high-resolution demands of other formats such as print advertising and signage.
- What are the projected up-front (first year) costs of the project, and what are the anticipated long-term costs? I have seen “bargain” websites that needed to be scrapped and replaced a year later, and I have seen companies that charge outrageously overpriced, recurring fees for alleged SEO services. Expect to make a financial commitment when a new site is built and launched; however, beware of excessive long-term maintenance costs, particularly for intangible services.
- Can I find your business online if I type your business name followed by the word “complaints” in a Google search box? Needless to say, you perform this actual search yourself, rather than asking the prospective webmaster this question! If there are relevant results, read through a few. You are better off being forewarned now than putting yourself into a situation where you will be writing one of those reviews yourself a year from now!
You might have other questions in mind that you feel are important. If so, ask them! The important thing is to let your webmaster do his or her job, but to ensure that when that job is done it will be consistent with your own ideas and objectives.
This post was written by Peter Pelland