?8 questions to ask a website (re-)design consultancy

Yesterday we discussed just a few of the reasons you might want to rip up your company website and start again. There are many more. Now, if you can get the budget to do it properly, and you have a sensible timescale (which could be many months), the most critical step is to sort out who’s going to get the project done. I believe there are four main roles involved: someone to manage the project; someone to develop the IT behind the site; a graphic designer; and a copywriter. You may choose to manage the project yourself, and to do the copywriting in-house. No problem with that. But it’s likely that you’re going to turn to an external agency to develop the website and its appearance. For a project of this size, I would ask several companies to pitch for the job, and as a matter of course, there’ll be general criteria which might be important to you, such as their track record, their location and – don’t underestimate this – how much you like them. If they tick those boxes, here are a few questions for them (and the answers you ought to be getting back, although keep those to yourself!)

1. What content management system is being proposed?
If the answer is none, ask how you are supposed to add new pages to the website, and edit existing ones, without either reverting back to the designer to undertake the work, or learning website design skills. It is essential that you can maintain your own website with no IT skills required. Look for products such as WordPress, Joomla or Drupal.
2. Can the site be developed in the future without the designer’s involvement?
Whatever the technology behind the site, it needs to be widely-used, so that future developments can be put out to tender. You must not be tied to the original design company forever. Apart from the potential cost implications of not having any alternative sources to undertake the work, design companies can – and do – go out of business, or no longer want your work. Again, look for the CMS products mentioned above, and nothing proprietary.
3. Can the site be hosted anywhere?
Insist that your website is created in such a way that you’re not tied to a particular web host now, and can move it to better performing or better value web hosts in the future, should they become available.
4. What does the company think are the most fundamental questions to be answered when designing the new website?
The correct questions are “what do you need the site to do?” and “what will the visitors want from it?” – from this point you can develop a structure which will meet the requirements of both sides efficiently. The wrong questions are to do with the cosmetic design.
5. What search engine optimisation will be built into the new website?
The answer should – at the minimum – involve keyword research by someone who understands the market; a planned internal link structure; keyword-rich URLs; body copy rewriting to optimise each page for one or more specific search term(s); and the inclusion of appropriate page titles and description meta tags. Bonus marks for also mentioning a sitemap, a robots.txt file, and canonicalisation.
6. Will a technically qualified copywriter be involved with the project?
The content for the site should not simply be carried over from an old site. If you’re not providing the new copy yourself, then a technical writer with a track record of writing in your area of technology will be needed, whether the design consultancy finds and commissions them, or you do.
7. What will the graphic design process involve?
There should be a two-stage process, where the look and feel of the site is created by a designer who isn’t constrained by the technology, and then the design is handed over to someone who can make that happen.
8. Will the site have all of these?
– a company news/blog section to which items can be added in a couple of minutes?
– a built-in, automatically updated site search engine?
– social media and other broadcast streams such as email subscription, RSS feeds and Twitter, all updated automatically with no user involvement whenever content is added to the company news/blog section?
– the facility to add images, video or downloadable documents to a page with no IT skills required? ?
– the facility to add unique response forms directly on a page (with no IT skills required), rather than having one or more general-purpose forms to cover any request?
– full setup of Google Analytics for measurement and analysis of website traffic?
– inclusion of Google Webmaster Tools to enable search engine interaction to be monitored?
– the ability to duplicate the site to create identical versions in other languages?

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