As an industry, Web development has a remarkably low cost of entry – you don’t even need to buy dedicated Web design software to get into the game, just a text editor will do fine.

As a result, there are lots of people developing websites who – shall we say – don’t really have the required experience. So how can you tell the difference between someone who’s just started and someone who’s actually got the experience needed to deliver the site your business is looking for?

I think that there are a few sharp questions that can help you to make a selection.

Will it cost extra to make my website accessible?

I’ve heard from quite a few Web design companies that they charge extra to make a website accessible, and that they ask up front if the website ‘needs’ to be accessible. I’ve even heard of Web designers advising clients that they don’t need an accessible website if they are not in the public sector. The fact is all websites should be accessible – it’s the law. Accessibility should not cost extra, it should be built in as standard. And, if your website turns out not to be accessible, it’s your business that’s liable, not the designer.

What quality guarantees do you give?

Web development is a largely unregulated industry, and it may seem that whether a website is ‘good’ or not is subjective. Actually, there are several measures that can be used to provide some kind of check on the quality of work. For instance, we guarantee that our sites will validate – using a third-party tool – as properly written HTML, or we will fix it* (the exceptions being when we have to include third-party HTMLwhich does not validate or when the client introduces HTML errors). We also guarantee that we work within Google’s Webmaster guidelines – yes, many people are surprised that Google tells developers how to structure sites, but it does, so we follow those rules.

Will Google be able to index all of my site?

It’s essential that all parts of a website can be indexed by Google, and this isn’t something that should be assumed or left to chance. We offer this as a guarantee, except where a technology is used that prevents indexing in some way (such as Flash or JavaScript). If your designer is suggesting using Flash, Java, JavaScript (perhaps for something like drop-down menus) then they should also be telling you that there is a search engine risk in using these technologies, unless they are either implemented correctly and/or alternative ways are provided for the site to be indexed. Not only are all of our pages fully indexable, all of our content-managed sites include, as standard, an automatically updating Google XML site map.

Can I update my website myself?

It’s your site. We do provide smaller, static HTML websites which don’t include content management, and typically we would maintain these for clients (let’s face it, you wouldn’t want to code HTML unless you had to). But for our content managed websites, which is the majority of what we do, our clients have almost complete control over their content – and so should you. You should also make sure that the content management system isn’t something that the developer has created; that it’s a real ‘product’ that’s available and can be supported from many sources. That way you’re not tied to your developer if things go trotters up.

On which browsers will my website work?

The correct answer is all current ones. Many Web developers do not test their websites in browsers other than Internet Explorer. Since Internet Explorer has the largest market share (and it’s most likely what the client is using) they feel safe in doing so. However, the remaining browsers make up a significant share of the user base that equates to millions of people. You don’t want any visitors locked out of your site. We design sites which are standards-compliant and work with all modern browsers, though we don’t (unless requested) support legacy browsers such as Internet Explorer 5 or Netscape 4. There really are too few of these around to make the resulting compromise on your site (by being forced to code for 10-year-old browsers) worthwhile. Again, we guarantee that we test in Internet Explorer 6, 7 and 8, Firefox 2 and 3, Safari, Netscape, Chrome, Opera and Konqueror (a Linux browser).

Do you use tables to lay out your site?

Quite a few Web designers sadly use invisible tables to hold the page layout together. For the client, this is something that’s hard to detect, since it’s not evident when looking at the design itself. But it is something that needs to be checked – a site that uses tables won’t be accessible, will perform less well in search engines and will be significantly slower to load. Tables should only be used where tabular data (such as a list of products) is being displayed.

What do you do to ensure good search engine results?

There isn’t a single clear answer to this, but the best one you can hear is that it will be accounted for at all stages of development. Good search engine results are not something that can be achieved without careful planning at every stage of development, so if you don’t hear the developer being proactive about search engines all of the time, then it means it’s not being considered. Our answer to this is; everything. We try to use everything we know, at every stage, even if the advantage is trivial, to provide good search engine results – in short, to never miss anything. (Even for meta keywording, which many designers have written off as ‘not worth it’ – which is not totally true – we have a robust automatic solution built into our content managed sites.)

Can you provide the copywriting?

Ask your Web developer about content, and he/she will probably roll off the glib statement that ‘content is king’. Now ask them if they will be writing the content for you. Most likely, you’ll be asked to provide the copy yourself. This is a real issue – the heart of a website is the content, and it has to be professionally written, catering equally well for both people and search engines. This isn’t a job to foist off on the client. Despite our expertise in content management, usability, accessibility and design, we consider that the core of the website is the content, it’s not just any old text that’s dropped in later – it’s the core part of our planning. That’s why all of our copy is written by a writer with well over a decade of Web content experience, who is a Fellow of the Institute of Copywriting, and who has also written for published magazines.

Who owns the completed site? Can I have a copy of the files?

Like all created works, a website is subject to copyright law, and the design remains the property of the designer. However, being straight-forward people, we don’t really get on with that as a notion: I don’t have to pay my plumber each time to use the loo. So, as far as we are concerned, the site is yours. If you want a copy of the files, you just have to ask. What remains ours is any underlying code or application functionality which would be wrong for you to resell or reuse. We think it’s a good idea that clients have a copy of their site anyway, for safe keeping. Who knows, a meteor could hit Cheshire tomorrow.

Can you let me have the phone numbers of a couple of your clients?

It’s one thing to have a portfolio of finished sites, it’s quite another to let prospective clients talk to current clients. We’re very happy for this to be the case (at the appropriate time) but for some reason many Web developers are totally fazed by this and refuse. You have to wonder why.
These are all pretty straightforward questions that have a direct bearing on how successful your website will be. Your new website is important and has to stand the test of time: so don’t be afraid to ask.

Like many Web designers, we’ve produced work in the past that doesn’t meet today’s standards, so our guarantee applies only to our recent work, for obvious reasons.