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What to Look for in a Web Design Agency

December 14, 2021

What should you look for when hiring a web design and development agency? Well, I could hire a copywriter to write this post, who would list off the things you likely already know – look for a solid work portfolio, a company with a reputation, ask for referrals, blah blah blah. So, now you know the easy things that everyone else’s blog post already says. Let’s move onto the good tips.

1. Make Sure You Own Your Website!!

I can NOT stress this enough. Make sure you aren’t renting the website from the company who builds it for you. If you break up, you should be able to take your website with you. Don’t get screwed in a divorce. Sign a prenup. Any web design or development agency who doesn’t guarantee you ownership (IN WRITING) of your website and their work on it is a huge red flag.

I can’t even count on my own fingers the number of clients who have come to me with websites that they have just discovered that they don’t own, and that they will lose as soon as they switch. We now have to start from scratch.

2. NO Templated Copy!

Recently, there have been a ton of pop-up website agencies that specialize exclusively in a very specific industry like law firms, construction companies, and real estate agencies. The agency handles ALL of the content for you for a ridiculously cheap price. Here’s why: the content and design is templated and duplicated across all of their clients’ sites.

Why am I aghast at this atrocity? Glad you asked. Duplicating content is a HUGE SEO (search engine optimization) no-no. Google it if you don’t believe me – you can NOT have a bunch of copy on your site that is identical to copy on a bunch of other websites. Google will snub you. Don’t do it. Also, your website looks like everyone else’s, and will not be fit to get your message across to your potential website visitors.

For me, what really gets my blood boiling with these specialized agencies who dup websites for each of their clients is that they 100% know what they’re doing, and how they’re screwing you for SEO, and they DON’T TELL YOU THE TRUTH. GAAAAAAA!!!!!

3. Do the Designers Need a Degree in Web Design?

Until very recently, there was no such thing as a degree in web design. It’s still pretty scant. These days, there are bootcamps. So, recruit veterans! All jokes aside, anyone can learn to code. Coding knowledge is really the bare minimum of what you need in a web designer.

There are now certificates and specialized programs in web design, which is certainly a great step in the right direction for education in the industry. But most agencies don’t look for a degree in their new hires. They look for (and you should look for) EXPERIENCE. How long has the agency been around? I’m sorry to the new entrepreneurs — I’ve been there, but you just can’t learn in your first 6 months the processes and workflows that you need in order to be the best. It takes time, no matter how many years of corporate agency the founder had before they got started, new agencies are going to make mistakes before they learn to get it right. A good agency is always working on bettering themselves and great if you’re on a very tight budget, but if you have the choice then go for one who has been around for at least 2-3 years.

4. Host Where YOU Want After Launch (but for goodness sakes choose a good one)

After your website launches, many website agencies will offer to host your site for you. Host where you want!!! Make sure that you are allowed to host wherever you want. Because, remember, YOU own your website.

Honestly, sometimes the hosting they offer is really good. Jollity, for example, has a fantastic managed WordPress hosting service for small businesses (toot, toot). There’s nothing wrong with hosting with your web dev agency if what they offer is solid. Hosting requirements is definitely a separate blog post, but the important takeaway here is choice: you should have the right to choose where to host after your new site launches.

Look for another post on our blog talking about what to look for in a solid WordPress managed hosting and care plan solution. For today’s purposes, know that if they’re throwing your site up on a shared BlueHost or GoDaddy hosting server, steer clear. You know better.

5. No Templates. No Templates. No Templates.

Don’t work from a template. If your website design agency is asking you to pick a theme from ThemeForest, then they’re not a real developer. Sorry. Look, I was that person in the past, shame on me. I knew how to code, but having the client pick a theme let me make cheap websites quickly. Here’s the rub: the website wasn’t designed for your company’s goals, brand, and lead generation. It will not be as effective.

Using a WordPress theme is a solution for DIYers and early stage unfunded start-ups who only plan to keep their site up for their 1st year in business while they save up some money for a better one. Hey, if that’s where you’re at, then by all means, go for it. I get it. But plan to sale up to a custom-designed site in a year or so.

EVERY new website page should start with a design through a professional designer. I know, I know. I hear you whine “but it costs more” and “but it takes longer”. Damn right it does. Doing it right takes more time and costs more money.

Designers and developers have completely different skill sets, and you need both on your website team. If you find a dude who is truly good at both; congrats, you’ve found a unicorn. Please send pictures.

Designers know where to put the pretty buttons that make visitors more likely to click “Buy Now.” Designers know how to attract the website visitors’ eye to the video you think will convince them to fill out your lead form.

Developers, by contrast, will make that awesome video load on your site in less than 3 seconds. They’ll code the site efficiently so that it can be crawled by Google. Good developers code your back-end so that it’s ready to scale as your company grows.

Think about the difference between an architect and a construction worker. The architect designs the layout, and the construction worker builds it to stand strong for years to come. Try telling that construction worker to sit down for 40 hours to perfect the aesthetics of your home on brand new architecture software. You’ll soon find yourself in need of a new construction crew.

6. They Should Specialize in Your CMS

Statistically, your site is most likely in WordPress. Stay away from firms who say they do WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, custom sites, and 18 other CMSs. To be really good at a CMS, developers have to be in it all day every day. That’s why specialists are so good!

Don’t hire the yes man: Drupal? Oh, yes! You’re thinking Joomla now? Oh, yes.

Ummm, no. Just say no to the “yes man”.

If your site is built in WordPress, hire a WordPress design and development agency. The only exception would be an agency big enough to have a department dedicated to each CMS, and that would be like finding another unicorn.

7. What Size of Agency Do I want?

Freelancer

Need the absolute cheapest solution that you can find? Well, you can probably find a decent dude (or dudette, ahem) who works in his [Mom’s] basement and knows how to code. Since he has very little overhead, he can charge you less. There’s honestly nothing wrong with hiring this guy or girl. Your biggest risk is that they ghost. A lot.

Quite frankly, these freelancers are an excellent source of business for us here at Jollity: businesses get sick of being ghosted on, and they upgrade to an agency. Which brings us to…

Small business / established agency

This is Jollity’s size! We are a tight-knit small team of about 5.

We are large enough to provide consistently fast turnaround times, but small enough that we get to know you personally. At Jollity, we have a lot of fun with our clients, joke around on calls, know when our clients’ kids go to college, you get the idea. Established agencies are more expensive than a freelancer – the stability and broader talent base of a full team comes with more overhead. Nearly 100% of clients whose websites we built chose to continue working with us. You knew this blog post was going to talk about Jollity at some point, so quit eye-rolling at my sales plug. I’m proud of our agency, we are really damn good :-).

Large agency

Need a 50,000 page website with custom designs on each page built in 3 months? You need a bigger agency. Ironically, a larger agency doesn’t always result in faster communication turnaround times, but they can get a much larger volume of work done much faster than a small agency. They’re also more likely to have more departments in-house. So, if your company’s process for hiring new agencies is long and arduous, then it can be beneficial to go with a larger agency that offers you everything — web design and dev, copy, marketing strategy, SEO, paid search advertising, and more. Just make sure they’re actually really good at all of the services that you plan to hire them for. Often, agencies start launching new departments after seeing a revenue opportunity without actually building up the expertise needed to truly be the best in each service area. Be wary. Remember not to hire the “yes man.”

8. How Should They Price The Project?

Some agencies now go with an hourly pricing model for a website project. Truth be told, I envy them. It’s super hard to accurately price out a fixed bid for a website design and development in advance, regardless of how much time I invest with the client prior to getting started. They rarely, if ever, come out how they’re written in the SOW. Agencies with the size and reputation to get away with it have moved to hourly pricing for web projects for exactly that reason. I don’t blame them. But plan for your original website estimate from the agency to completely balloon, especially if your company has several levels of management who will want to get involved throughout the project. Yep, the meddling VPs and CEOs who like to blow things up near the finish line, you know who you are.

The other pricing model is a fixed bid. That’s how Jollity prices most of our website design and development projects. Our secret sauce is to spend a lot of time with you to make sure we truly understand all of the features your website needs. For a well-scoped fixed bid, the website agency should first be asking you:

  1. About your business – goals, how you make money.
  2. About your CRM – how do you manage sales?
  3. About your marketing – what role does the website serve in your marketing strategy?
  4. (for redesigns) Whether you intend to change the navigation and content.
  5. Who is writing the copy, if any copy at ALL is changing?
  6. Who is providing the assets (images, graphics)?
  7. When do you need it done by? If it’s a hard deadline, what’s coming up that we need to know about?
  8. Do you want your blog posts migrated? Why or why not?

That’s just a quick summary. Each of the above has sub-questions, and often generates further conversation. They’re all vital to determining an accurate scope.

Overall, your agency needs to be your website consultant. They should be talking with you about the topics above and helping you work through them. They should be advising you and helping you weigh the pros and cons of different website decisions and options. The sales process prior to signing is a great opportunity to get a taste of the consulting capabilities of the agency.

Lauren L Perfors President

Small business WordPress web developer with over 10 years digital marketing experience, specializing in SEO.
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