10 things to consider before building a website

So you’re thinking of building a website. Here are some of the import an issues you need to consider and discuss with the team building your website before taking the plunge.

1. Purpose

Before starting any website project we must decide what is the purpose of the site. Who is the target audience? Most websites will have some kind of “Call To Action” (CTA) some more obvious such as “buy this” or “contact us” but it can be more subtle such as encouraging attendance at event or presenting a specific point of view. A website usually has several purposes but its most important function will be to reassure people that you are trustworthy, reliable and credible. Once you have established trust you can then begin to influence users responses. The site may have several types of users such as clients/suppliers or members/visitors and it is important to define who are the users and think about how you can meet their needs. Try to think in a user-centric way – i.e.“How can we help” rather than “This is what we have to say”. Create a website that quickly answers the questions or responds to the needs that brought the user to the site in the first place.

2. Budget

The size of your budget will define the scope of the project and will inform many of the other steps below. It is possible to build a website for virtually nothing or spend thousands of pounds but you will generally get what you pay for. The return on investment in a website can sometimes be hard to define exactly, the trust and credibility it may give your organisation will be had to evaluate in monetary terms. However there are lots of specifics that can be measured such as visitor numbers, sales or enquiries which give an indication of its success. Your website will often be the first point of contact people have with you or your organisation and that first impression is important. It is therefore well worth investing properly in a well designed, attractive website.

3. Process

Before you build the site it is important to plan the process with all of those contributing. Think about how you will work together, feedback and communicate as well as agreeing on a schedule. Even for small sites you will need some kind of plan for the different ‘milestones’ in the project such as supply of initial brief, sign-off of the design, supply of content, testing, snagging and go live date. Even if you do not stick exactly to the schedule it is helpful for everyone involved in the project to have some kind of timetable. Both the client and the designer/developers need deadlines and this will ensure that things don’t drift and the project gets finished.

4. Title and domain name

descriptive domain namesThe name of your site is important, ideally unique, memorable and descriptive of who and what you are. If you already have an organisation or company name then it’s a no-brainer but choosing a domain name is more complicated.  Shorter domain names are easier to remember but maybe less descriptive and very few domains of less than 5 letters are available now. A descriptive domain name may also help with you search engine rankings as relevance is important. Eg. www.funkywidgets.co.uk will probably rank well when people search for “widgets”. You also need to decide on the appropriate top-level domain (TLD) .com, .co.uk, .org, etc

5. Platform and hosting

This is a technical decision which will largely be driven by your budget and how you see the future of the site. In almost all cases I would recommend building a website using a Content Management System (CMS) which allows you to log-in and manage the site without the continual involvement of the original site designer. (Click here for a more detailed post on website Content Management Systems). A CMS may cost a little more than a simple hand-coded site but it will give you much more flexibility and ability to add more functionality in future. There are several options for CMS from very cheap basic online web-builder services such as Weebly to ‘premium’ bespoke CMS built by specialist web developers. For many small-medium sized organisations WordPress will be ideal – a free CMS that requires a designer or developer to set up and configure initially. As your organisation grows so your website requirements may become more sophisticated so it is important to select the right platform to allow some growth otherwise you may be faced with the cost of re-building the site virtually from scratch if you need to switch to a more powerful platform. Hosting maybe included with a paid-for CMS but if using WordPress you will need to purchase hosting separately, usually on an annual basis. There are hundreds of web hosting providers many with almost identical offerings. Your web designer can probably advise you on a good host but you need to consider how good is the technical support, is it secure and reliable and can the server cope if there is sudden increase in traffic to the site.

6. Content

Content is king, without good content your website is almost pointless. However it is about the quality and not necessarily about the quantity. It is advisable to devote considerable effort to structuring and writing the content of the site. Decide on your information structure i.e. the pages within the site and how they might logically be broken into sections. Maybe create a tree diagram

website structure tree diagram

showing roughly how the pages will sit within the sections. If you have the budget consider employing a professional copywriter otherwise try to involve people with good written English and editing skills from within your organisation. The content does not have to be complete before design and construction of the site begins (indeed the content of a good site is continually evolving) but you will need some idea of size and scope before starting.

7. Imagery

Most websites will require imagery which are a foundational part of the design because visual elements have greater impact than text. Although you may use illustrations, diagrams and icons, most websites rely heavily on photography. There are 3 main sources for photos. Photos taken by you or those within your organisation, photos taken by a professional on your behalf or stock photos purchased from online stock photo libraries. If you have someone within your organisation who is at least a ‘talented amateur’ photographer and can produce good results this will save you a great deal of money as professional photographers will charge a minimum of £500 per day. Obviously a professional will usually get far better results and this will be reflected on the website. There are many good stock photo libraries with photos from a few pounds, up to around £100 per image depending on size and quality. The big snag with stock images is that they are generic and are not specific to your organisation. In some instances it will not matter but particularly when you show pictures of people your users may sense that the images are not authentic.

Stock Photo Libraries

8. Design

Website design is a very large topic but when briefing your designer there are some fundamental things to consider. Do you have en existing corporate identity that should be the foundation for the design? What are the tastes of your target audience and how can the site best engage them? What are the values and the things that define your organisation that the design should reflect? It is also helpful to look at other sites (especially your competitors or those in a similar field) and decide what works well and what is less successful. Design is not just about ‘making it look pretty’ it is far deeper than that, how information is presented and what is the complete experience for the user. Trust your designer to do the design, provide a brief and some guidelines but avoid making arbitrary choices based on subjective personal preferences Eg. make the site red or make the logo bigger.

9. Management

Owning a website requires and ongoing effort beyond the initial design and build. It needs to be kept updated and evolve with you or your organisation and the needs of the users. Building on a CMS allows the owners to log-in and make changes as required. A website really needs a manager who is responsible for this as well as monitoring its performance and responding to enquiries or issues with the site. In small organisations this may be the job of one person but in larger organisations maybe a team. They may also have to act as ‘advocates’ for the site within the organisation to ensure appropriate and timely new content is added, while outdated content is removed or archived. The website manger need to keep up with developments online and may need to involve the designer or developers further to add additional features or make design changes.

10. Analytics and promotion

AnalyticsOne the site is live it is important to analyse its performance and try to improve visitor traffic. There are many analytics tools available, Google Analytics being the most widely used free option. Building a good website is not a guarantee of lots of traffic. I always build sites to be as search engine-friendly as possible (from a technical point of view). However there are SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and web marketing specialists who can help fine tune the content to improve its listing – something of an art as Google keep changing their criteria. This is a niche skill and you may want to consider paying an SEO specialist if you want to significantly increase site traffic and responses.

What is a website content management system?

When building a website it is very important to consider how the site will be maintained after launch. Although you could employ your web designer to manage the site it will generally be much more efficient and cost-effective for you as the website owner if you can log-in and make changes yourself. In order to do this the site must be built on a web content management system (CMS) which allows you to change the code of the web pages. In simple terms, a CMS stores the content data for a website and presents it publicly as a web pages and privately to the site editor in a ‘back office’. The back office is an interface that allows the editor to manage the site without involvement from a web designer or developer.

When clients ask me to build a web site, I would usually recommend that it’s built on a CMS. I do sometimes build small sites for clients that are simple HTML code uploaded direct to a web host, this is cheaper and quicker than using a CMS, however there are many advantages to a CMS that usually out-weigh these short-term initial costs.

Remember if you need to call your web designer every time you need to make a change this will cost money and probably take longer than if you or someone in your organisation makes the change. Most web designers are focussed on the initial design and delivery of websites and don’t usually offer day-to-day management services.

WordPress content management system back office

Screenshot of this post in the WordPress
content management system ‘back office’

Separating content from the design

A good CMS will employ templates that provide a consistent look and feel throughout the site whatever changes are made to the content. Effectively the content is kept separate (usually stored in a database) to the code that controls the design. A big advantage of this is that the templates can be changed easily so the site can look completely different while retaining the same content. It also means the user is unable to accidentally ‘break’ the site by deleting fixed elements (such as the header or navigation) or distort the layout by adding content that falls outside the main content area. That said, it is still wise for the user to have some understanding of design issues as it is still possible to make a mess with inappropriate size images, inconsistent text styling etc.

The basic functions you should expect from a CMS

  • Secure log-in using a standard web browser to a back office from where one or more people can manage the site
  • The option for your web designer to design and implement a template that keeps the basic design consistent across the site even when you change the content
  • Ability to open pages, change text and images
  • Ability to style text on pages, add links to other pages, other sites and documents
  • Ability to add and delete pages with any changes automatically reflected in the navigation
  • Ability to create draft pages that are visible in the back office and ready to publish at a later date but not yet live on the site
  • Ability to upload photos, documents and mange them in a library

Beyond the basic functions

Depending on the CMS there are many ways that CMS can provide other functions. Most large CMS platforms have scalable feature sets, offering hundreds of additional ‘modules’ or ‘plug-ins’ that can be added to the main system to provide functions as they are needed. Some examples of these functions could be to provide slideshows of images, a Twitter feed on the site, interactive web forms or spam filtering for comments. This kind of extensibility means that if there is a function you need for your site there is a usually ready-made solution you can add to the system, often very quickly and freely available. By using a CMS you get the benefit of off-the-shelf code that provides lots of functionality for the site rather than paying to re-invent the wheel and develop from scratch.

Which CMS should I use?

There are essentially 2 types of CMS; Open Source or Proprietary. Open Source means that the system is based on code that is developed by a large community and given away free to use. Proprietary systems are usually developed by a single company who charge for using their system. Both options have their advantages. Open Source systems will cost you nothing to download (WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are leading examples) are developed and supported by a huge community who freely give of their time to continually improve the system. The huge user and developer base means that most problems have been encountered and solved before and the system is improving fast. However although there are online forums and lots of online help, these systems do not provide active support to users and it will require some technical knowledge to set up and configure them before use.

Proprietary systems have a company dedicated to directly and actively supporting the user and will probably provide either phone or email support, together with guarantees about the security and uptime for the system. Their system will be ready to use and not require installation like an open source CMS. The down-side is that you are paying a monthly or annual fee and that even a large company will struggle to compete with the number of developers working globally to constantly improve a product like WordPress. Paid for CMS maybe the best option for niche markets and businesses where there maybe CMS providers who have particular expertise in that area and offer a CMS tailored specifically to the needs of that type of client. (eg church websites or school websites). Very large organisations such as the BBC may have their own proprietary CMS built specifically for their needs and complex requirements. There may also be a need for collaboration by thousands of users across a single organisation with complex publishing protocols which open source solutions can’t handle.

There are also many companies that use an open source CMS which they will install and support for you for a fee. Most web designers will have a few CMS that they are familiar with and they will be able to recommend which is the best choice for you.

What’s the difference between a blogging tool and a CMS?

The world’s leading CMS is WordPress but it started life as a blogging tool. Blogs are websites composed or a series of ‘post’ displayed in chronological order, usually with the most recent at the top and older posts residing in an archive. WordPress has now developed into a full-blown CMS that is designed to manage a complete website with many pages although still optimised to be centered around a blog. Blogger (now owned by Google) is probably the simplest free blogging tool and requires no installation and even provides free hosting for users. Blogger is ideal for just plain blogging and is a lot simpler that WordPress but is limited if you plan to expand your blog into a full website in the future. There are many other blogging tools such as Tumblr and ‘curation’ tools such as Storify or Scoopit but these are beyond the scope of this post.

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