Choosing a Web Design Firm

Building a search-engine-friendly Web site is the first step in growing any online company. Unfortunately, this critical first step is often overlooked by businesses large and small.

Consider the following all-too-true scenario: Deep within a corporate cube farm, a brand manager receives the green-light to build a Web site for a timely new product line launch. The department that usually builds these sites — the department with a bona fide SEO (define) checklist — has its hands full with other projects. The brand manager must hire an outside Web design firm to build the new site.

With visions of Web glitz and dazzle and working outside of normal business processes for new site designs, the brand manager hires a firm that excels in building Flash-based Web sites. The firm builds a finely focused, all-Flash site that’s virtually invisible to the search engines (the only text on the page is the parent company’s copyright details). Three months later, the new online brand attains only 25 percent of its sales projection because there’s little to no search-referred traffic coming to the site.

In a panic, the brand manager asks for marketing money for a massive online ad campaign to draw would-be buyers to the site. But the expenditure is unbudgeted, so the brand manager does the next best thing: he requests the site be organically optimized to increase search engine referrals. This is the first time he’s ever heard of search-engine-friendly design.

The brand manager just learned one of the hardest SEM (define) lessons: the time to organically optimize a new Web site is during site design, not after. He could’ve kept the new project launch under budget and on target for sales if only he’d focused on hiring a search-engine-friendly Web design firm in the first place.

How do you find the right Web design firm? Start with the basics.

Designing Yeomen

The brand manager had some definitive ideas about the new Web site. He knew what the new product line’s short- and long-term goals were. He knew the targeted Web audience’s demographics, the project’s budget, and the launch date. He knew roughly how many pages the new site would have, since he knew the product line inside out. But he naively worked under the “build it and they will come” delusion of Web marketing.

The brand manager took several solid steps for hiring a Web design firm. First, he considered the design firm’s physical location. Virtual business relationships can be just as successful as local ones, but he preferred local.

Next, he considered word of mouth and recommendations from friends and business partners to generate leads for a short list of good Web design firms. He whittled down the list by reviewing the firms’ Web sites and online portfolios and weighing each firm’s key characteristics against the other firms’.

He looked for sites that were quick to load, graphically appealing, easy to use, and professional looking. He also considered each firm’s industry experience, noting details about Web design awards and how long the firm had been in business. Having answered key questions, he called each candidate to discuss the project and make his final decision.

After reviewing reference and general availability, the brand manager opted for design firms that worked on a per-project basis rather than an hourly rate. Meanwhile, he learned about the type of HTML editing software the firms used and their level of expertise with various content management systems.

He secured a sample contract for the legal department to review; business references; and a rough cost estimate. The list of prospective Web designs quickly narrowed down to a single firm.

Intelligent Design

However, the brand manager neglected to review each firm’s search engine visibility. You don’t need to know search marketing intimately to recognize when a design firm is well ranked in the search engines. You do need to ask the firm why it’s highly ranked and what it can do to make your site search engine friendly.

More Web design firms now understand the significance of building sites search engines can readily crawl and index, yet finding a firm that suits your online goals remains no small feat for any size business.

If a Web design firm can’t address issues regarding search engine visibility, you have two choices: find a new design firm that can or budget for adding an SEO firm to the mix.

Just as our brand manager didn’t rush into a purchase decision, you shouldn’t rush into a decision about hiring a Web designer without first discussing search engine visibility, either.

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