Don’t get tangled in the web

eb wizard Andrew MacKay gives his top tips on how to get the most from developers if you’re thinking of taking your business online

YOUR website might have been cutting edge in 2003, but with the current rate of technological change, one that’s even a few years old is the modern equivalent of a shop front with peeling paint and a missing letter. If phrases like “it will take a few hours for the dns to propagate” are putting you off updating your business website, or even if you’re just setting up shop and don’t know where to begin, you’re not alone. Though most of us use the internet every day, the technology behind it can seem both daunting and mysterious.

If you are a novice, a professional-looking website will require a web designer – but even then it is useful to have a basic command of the terminology; it might even save you money.

The difference between a designer and developer is becoming increasingly blurred but simply put, the designer does the layout of the page and developer does the programming to make that page display in a web browser.

Designers are responsible for graphic elements such as fonts, colour choices and the way different content elements are arranged on the page. They will also make decisions about the way people interact with that content. A good designer will try to understand your business and the relationships you are trying to build with your customers. Before approaching one it is a good idea to think carefully about your motivation for having a website.

Traditionally, the roles of graphic designer and programmer were separate disciplines that met in the middle. In agencies, these roles are still somewhat separate but the freelance market is dominated by designers who have learnt to code and programmers who have learnt graphic design. Generally speaking a web developer will be someone who is capable of producing a finished website from paper to internet. It’s worth bearing this in mind when asking for a quote. If you’re looking for a stunning portfolio page with very simple interactions, a graphic design graduate who took an evening class in coding might be a great fit, but if you already have strong brand identity and need an e-commerce store with international shipping, they might struggle.

You should keep a scrapbook of website design elements you like and dislike: it’s far easier to point to a website and say “I want a layout like that but in a different colour” than it is to provide an abstract description what you want. Most websites need a few basic elements such as a contact form, a place for your logo, a navigation menu and a main product offering. A clear idea of your objectives will make the process of selecting the necessary components far easier.

The old maxim goes that you can have a job done quickly, a job done well, and a job done cheaply, but you can’t have all three. A student looking to build his portfolio may be able to make you a fantastic website for £200. However, he will be learning as he goes and fitting it in around his studies or day job, so it may take months to complete the work. Think twice about going for the bargain basement option: often the difference between a good website and a great website is in the details and these take time, which costs money.

Websites are essentially just a collection of files: the images and written content displayed on the web page, and the code that makes them work. The files live on a server, which is the name given to a powerful computer that is always connected to the internet.

The layer you can see is called HTML, which stands for hypertext markup language. Hypertext is what makes the internet useful. When you click a link and are transported from one page to the next, it’s hypertext that makes it happen. You don’t need to know the ins and outs – that’s why you hired a professional – but this should make your conversation with your developer a little less intimating.

To make a business website useful it needs to be current. Whether you want to inform customers about your latest special offer, keep your menu up to date, or write a regular blog, you will need the ability to update it yourself. This is where a content management system (CMS) such as Wordpress comes in. A CMS provides an interface you can access from your browser, which will allow you to publish content in a familiar way; most modern CMSs allow you to use a rich text editor (a bit like Microsoft Word) to edit your posts.

An e-commerce site, which is more complicated to upkeep than a regular website, is essentially a powerful CMS that lets you manage an online store. You will be able to upload photographs of your products, enter a description and set a price. There are many out-of-the-box e-commerce applications (Magento is a powerful one that provides functionality such as inventory management and international tax calculations but is probably overkill for smaller stores) but be prepared to pay a premium for bespoke functionality.

The internet used to be confined to an ugly looking beige box under the stairs. Now it’s in your pocket. The huge number of devices able to browse the web includes HD televisions, tablets and mobile phones – and you don’t want to have to build a separate site for each. This has led to a technique known as responsive design, which uses relative rather than fixed measurements that will display effectively on a variety of mediums. It is only right to expect your content to be accessible from these devices but unless you have a budget approaching double figure thousands, don’t expect your site to look exactly the same on each one.

The same consideration should be made for web browsers. Sure, your website looks different on the office computer that hasn’t been updated since Windows XP, but do you really want your developer to tone down the features on your cutting edge boutique to keep it standardised?

In order for people to be able to visit your website, you need a domain name. For a simple website, this will cost from £2 to £5 per month, although it’s worth paying a little more for a reputable host with good speed and high uptime. I recommend Dreamhost, which allows you to host multiple websites for the same price and has an excellent customer service team. For high traffic sites and to run complex software such as Magento, your costs will be considerable higher. Most web developers will be able to set this up for you, for a small annual administration fee.

So, you’ve set a budget, decided on your needs, and chosen a developer. How do you get the best out of them? The first and most important consideration is: content, content, content. Many people approach a developer asking for a website, say how time sensitive it is, and then spend weeks dodging emails about content for the front page, or expect a finalised colour scheme without having settled on a background image.

Also bear in mind that changes cause delays. Imagine you have hired a builder, only to say “I absolutely love what you have done with the roof tiles, but we’ve decided the conservatory should be west facing, not south”.

Finally, remember: if you’ve done your research and hired a professional, you should listen to them. You know your audience best, so by all means stand your ground if the first design doesn’t fit with the brand you have spent years building. However, if they tell you a Flash slideshow isn’t the way to go, or that you can probably lose the gif of a dancing penguin, they know what they’re doing.

Andrew MacKay is a freelance web developer who offers WordPress instruction at