Almost everyone needs a website, but almost no one knows how to choose web developer.
That’s through no fault of their own. It’s a classic asymmetric information problem: websites are complicated, and judging what makes a good one requires knowledge most people don’t have — except the endless numbers of people offering to build those sites.
It’s how buying a car would be, if there were thousands upon thousands of car-makers and no easy way to judge their products’ safety, performance, mileage, or reliability.
The problem is made even worse by how relatively easy it is to call yourself a web developer. This is a low-barrier-to-entry problem: while it’s hard to build any kind of car, thanks to easy to use tools like Wix, Squarespace, or WordPress, anyone with minimal web skills can create a simple but good-looking website.
And yet some website projects still require deep software development skills, without which the resulting site may be unmanageable, insecure, or even useless.
So how do you choose a web developer? This guide will show you.
Level 1: Do you even need a web developer?
As I indicated a moment ago, there are tools available now that make creating a basic website easy. The easiest are all-in-one, hosted offerings like Wix, Squarespace, and WordPress.com (this is the simpler, hosted version of WordPress, which we’ll discuss more later). “Hosted” means that the organization offering the web-building tool also hosts your finished website.
For many small organizations or individuals, these tools may be all they need, and they can be a very good deal: no cost up front, just a monthly fee on the order of $20 or so, which includes taking care of all the technical maintenance and updates that otherwise you’d have to worry about.
Here’s a checklist to see if this kind of tool is the right choice for you:
❏ Is your website intended mainly as a brochure or showcase, maybe with a few simple interactive features like a contact form, or basic e-commerce or donation capabilities?
❏ Will your website host relatively little content, say tens to hundreds of pages covered by around 5 to 10 main menu links?
❏ Will it draw relatively little traffic, on the order of tens to hundreds of visits a day, as opposed to thousands to millions of visits?
❏ Do your branding and design needs fit into established categories, like those for a store, professional practice, nonprofit, blogger, or artist? Is a template design for one of those likely to be adaptable to your needs?
❏ Do you have a basic comfort level with learning new consumer software tools, at about the level of complexity of a presentation program like Microsoft PowerPoint, and do you know how to make good basic design decisions about photos, colors, and fonts? If not, do you have access to someone like that?
If you answered yes to all of these questions, you may not need a web developer at all, and a tool like Wix, Squarespace, or WordPress.com might be a good match for you: a very low cost way to create a perfectly good website.
If you answered yes to all except the last question, you should hire someone to help you — but that person doesn’t need advanced web development skills. A web-savvy graphic designer, who is familiar with the web-building tool you’re using, is likely to be fine.
If you don’t have time to write the text content yourself, or don’t have good writing skills, you’ll need to hire a writer as well.
Note: Those who have been around for a while may remember when non-experts built their own websites using visually-oriented HTML editing tools like Dreamweaver. You probably don’t want to go this way any more. Modern websites, even the basic ones, involve a lot more than just HTML pages. Furthermore, sites built this way quickly get chaotic as they’re updated over time, unless the work is being done by a skilled web developer who can study and edit the HTML directly.
Level 2: You need a small but solid web development firm.
As organizations get larger they tend to need more from their websites, and more is at stake if a site isn’t right.
Here’s a checklist to see if you’re at this level:
❏ Will your site’s size and/or complexity exceed the limitations of template-driven offerings like the ones described at Level 1?
❏ Will your site need to provide advanced interactive features, such as a complex online store, or custom functionality unique to your organization or your site visitors?
❏ Do you expect moderate to high levels of traffic? Hosted solutions like those at Level 1 share server bandwidth among many customers and so may bog down under traffic spikes.
❏ Do your branding and design needs require complete control over the way your site looks and feels?
❏ Although you’re beyond Level 1, do you expect to remain below the large enterprise level, where sites can become huge, very complex, face very large traffic loads, and may need constant monitoring and maintenance?
If you answered yes to these questions, you’re at Level 2. In this case, your organization is probably going to need to hire at least one professional web developer, and quite likely a firm. And a hosted web-building tool probably won’t meet your needs, because of the trade-offs required by running a single hosted tool that has to serve many different kinds of customers.
At this level, a website might be built using the full, non-hosted version of WordPress, the most popular web-building tool in the world. (You’ll often hear WordPress and other such tools called a content management system, or CMS. A CMS is a web-building tool that stores content in a database, which is the most common approach these days.) There are other options, of course, including enterprise-grade alternatives such as Drupal, which you might want to consider if you expect your site to keep growing.
The full version of WordPress is more powerful and flexible, and therefore potentially more difficult to use, than the hosted version at WordPress.com. It also needs to be installed on a separate hosting service, and someone who understands WordPress and web hosting needs to maintain it.
But although WordPress web development can get quite advanced, the basics are still relatively easy.
For that reason, as customers transition from Level 1 to Level 2, they enter a danger zone: it’s in a grey area between spending too much money for Level 1 and too little for Level 2.
The danger lies in the nearly limitless supply of web developers who can build sites using WordPress or similarly easy tools. Competition can be good, but too much competition means this business has become commoditized, prices have been driven down, and many of the service providers are marginal.
They may not be all that highly skilled, they probably can’t afford to devote much time to your project, and when you have to call on them to fix or update your site, they may not be in business any more.
Given how much individual projects can vary, I can’t give an exact budget range that defines the danger zone. But I can say that in the United States, while a Level 1 site might cost very little, if you’re hoping to build a Level 2 site for less than $10,000, be very careful. Expect the budget to grow as your needs grow.
Here’s another checklist, this time for vetting web developer candidates:
❏ Do they do thorough requirements discovery? This is a careful process of finding out what your exact needs are, as opposed to just adapting a standard approach. With larger sites, investing time here not only yields better results, but avoids expense down the road — measure twice, cut once.
❏ Do they have expertise in information architecture? This is the discipline that covers the organization of large amounts of content. Without information architecture expertise, a medium to large site can quickly grow its way into chaos as new content has to shoehorned in where it doesn’t fit.
❏ Do they thoroughly understand what it takes to maintain a site and its webserver for speed, reliability, and security? If not, you may suffer frustrated customers, lost transactions, or hacking or malware attacks. Don’t underestimate this last one; on the modern web, assume that all sites are being probed for vulnerabilities, usually by software “bots” roaming the Internet around the clock.
❏ Do they have a thorough, scientific quality assurance (QA) process? QA testing is a discipline in itself, and at Level 2 and above, sites are complex enough to require it, as opposed to the more informal inspection that may be fine for a Level 1 site.
❏ In addition to the required technical skills, do they have the design skills to achieve your branding and communication goals while making a site that looks great and is easy to use?
❏ Do they have lots of happy clients, especially ones with sites at the level of yours?
❏ Are they located in a place you understand well enough to know whom you’re dealing with? You can find some amazing-looking deals online if you shop the world, but bear in mind that the less you know, and the less recourse you have in the event of problems, the greater your risk.
Because of the danger zone I described earlier, If you’re just barely in Level 2, you might want to consider staying in Level 1 for a while rather than trying to squeeze out a Level 2 site on the cheap. The latter choice is a case of being penny wise and pound foolish.
If you know you’re at Level 2, then take some care in interviewing developers, and plan to spend enough money to hire skilled, experienced professionals who will be able to take enough time to do things right.
Level 3: Enterprise web development
At this level, we’re talking about websites for cities or other large government agencies, corporations with national or global reach, or nonprofits at the same scale. Although WordPress can do a lot, it’s not really designed to scale to this level, and it’s more likely the site will be built using a tool that was, such as Drupal or Adobe Experience Manager.
Here the needs are likely to be highly customized, and the stakes are very high. Budgets tend to start in the high seven figures, frequently reach six figures, and can reach seven figures for very large, complex, and powerful sites.
For these reasons, you need one or more experts to choose your expert (organizations at this level tend to have them available). You may need an IT person for the technical side, a business analyst to define your business requirements, and a marketing expert to look after branding, messaging, and user experience.