Here we are in 2016 already, and my phone has been ringing like crazy. We’ve had several new inquiries about websites, online marketing and so on. My guess is that with new budgets in place and the economy heating up, businesses are ready to start upgrading their websites and get themselves positioned for the new year.
If you’re thinking about refreshing your website with a new one: maybe upgrading to a mobile-aware version (very important), giving it a more modern look, or starting to get some search engine optimization in place, that’s great. It’s likely you already have a website in place, so you may either be switching platforms or just upgrading what you already have in place.
I’ve seen some real nightmares and botched jobs that just leave me shaking my head. I’m not really talking about design issues, but other things under the hood that business owners may not be aware of or even think about when they hire a web company. We’ve even had to fix many of these issues when the company gets burned by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
So before hiring someone to remake your website, consider asking the following questions to make sure it’s a good fit for you and doesn’t cause problems for you either in the short term or in the long run.
Website Hosting and Security
What do you know about website security, and how will you harden the website to prevent hackers?
Knowledge about website security and hardening a website–especially WordPress–is very important. Most content management systems (CMS) have vulnerabilities out of the box or with their default setup. If the web company isn’t sure or doesn’t have some specific steps they take to hacker-proof your website, you should probably keep looking. We do a lot of WordPress sites, and hackers are constantly poking our sites with a stick to see where the weaknesses are (we get daily emails). By hardening the sites, it makes it a less desirable target, and after a couple futile pokes, they give up and go find easier targets to beat on.
How often are backups run, and are they kept offsite?
Having a contingency is important to your business. I spoke with one person whose website had been hacked, and it took her web company a week before they could get it back online, because there was no backup and no contingency plan. She has an e-commerce site, so it cost her a full week’s worth of lost sales too.
On occasion, the server can get compromised, or worse, the hosting company goes out of business. If you don’t have offline backups in another server, you’re screwed. Amazon S3 is ridiculously cheap storage for automated backups (the first 5GB are free!). We back up ALL of our clients onto Amazon S3, and I pay about $10/month. We keep the previous ten backups on the server so we can go back in time if we need to. Make sure they back up the database every day, and the server files at least once per week.
How quickly can you get the site back up after an incident, and what is the process? How do we reach you during off hours?
If your web company can’t get a site back up in about an hour or two max, keep looking. We use WPEngine for our WordPress installs. They do automated backup points each night, and at any point, a single click of a button can restore the entire site back to any point in about 60 seconds. It’s so worth the little extra they charge for hosting each month. Make sure your web company has the staff to monitor urgent requests that come in over the weekend or at night.
How often do you upgrade the modules and core files, and what process do you use? When is it done?
Does the web company do it on the live website? If something pukes, it can mean your site goes down until they fix it. Do they clone it to a staging server and test it first before doing it on production? Do they make sure that they’ve done a full backup before doing those updates? Do they do the updates during off-hours (weekends or at night) or during the day and week?
What is your knowledge (and training) in search engine optimization (SEO)?
Does the web company understand how to set up SEO and make sure that everything is working properly from a search engine perspective? It’s no longer good enough to just know web design, web designers should understand proper SEO techniques and be able to advise you. Have they taken any SEO classes and even passed a certification examination?
Do you know how to set up Google Analytics (Universal), Google Search Console and Google Tag Manager?
Make sure your web company sets up the Universal version of Google Analytics (GA), and set up filters and views. Filters allow you to keep your own (or your office’s) web traffic out of GA, and it’s important to set up a filtered view. You always want to keep one view as the raw data, and set up a filtered view to do your analysis on.
Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) is very important to use. They should know how to set it up, register your XML sitemap, and integrate it with GA. If you’re going to use Tag Manager, they should know how to set that up too.
Will you set up 301-redirects for all URLs?
It’s likely that your web page URLs will change when you upgrade to a new website. Maybe the pages don’t end in “.html” anymore or “.aspx”. It could be that the actual page names will change too, so they must know how to redirect the old URLs to the new, or you’re going to have problems. I just looked at a website today that had been improperly moved. All the old URLs in Google’s index went to a dead page on the new site. Not cool, and this is going to cost them big time in site traffic and SEO juice.
Who owns the website and content?
This may seem like a strange question, but it should be asked. Our contract states that the business owner paid for the website, and it’s theirs to do with as they choose. If you decide to part ways with your web provider, can you take it with you? We recently worked with a company that wanted to leave their provider, and the web company was going to remove all the images and other assets because “they owned the license”. This was going to leave them with an ugly website and a bunch of work to get things back up in a usable state again.
What platform will you be building the website on? Will I have full admin or superuser access to the site?
You want to make sure that should you want to part ways, you can not only take it with you, but you can hire someone else to manage it for you. You should have full admin access to the site as well so you can see exactly what’s going on, and even give it to another provider to help you should you need it. It always amazes me when web companies hold their clients’ websites hostage, and won’t allow them any access to the site. It’s incredibly frustrating and stressful for the owner, because they don’t know if they can move the site or have to just scrap it and start all over.
What is the process for requesting changes to the website?
Do you have one person you’ll work with or a team? Is there a tracking mechanism or project management system in place to make sure requests get put in the queue, assigned to someone and have a due date? If it’s just by e-mail request, things get lost and dropped. What if the person you e-mail goes on vacation or is out sick? Then the request is stuck in their inbox with no accountability.
Is your team local or remote?
Time zone differences can cause issues and delays in getting urgent requests completed on time. Language barriers sometimes cause problems too. If it’s important that you have a local team with whom you’ll be interfacing on a regular basis, ask about it. If you have a local project manager that is your point person, and they deal with an offshore provider, that’s fine too. Just make sure it’s clear in your expectations.
These are our top 10 questions we think you should be asking any web company you hire. Do you have any other questions you’d ask? Tell us in the comments below.