You need a website.
But what’s next? Should you build it yourself? Should you hire someone? Why are some agencies or freelancers quoting you $1,000 when others are quoting $100,000? Why the discrepancy — and what are you paying for? You’ve heard of Squarespace and GoDaddy … but what are they?
In your new role as “the client,” it’s helpful to understand a few fundamentals about how websites come together so you can be as engaged in the process as possible.
First, let’s take a look at the “traditional” order of operations when it comes to web design and development.
How do you build a site the “traditional” way?
At Tamara Olson Designs, we start with discovery and user experience. We dive deep with our clients to understand the business objectives and user needs of the site. Why have a website? What is its purpose going to be? This understanding helps us decide how content should be organized and what “calls to action” we want to highlight and encourage. The deliverables we give to our clients during this phase are typically site maps and wireframes. If you’re comparing website development to physical architecture, you might think of these as website “blueprints.” Here’s an example site map and wireframes. This phase is often called “user experience design” (you can read more about UX design in my blog post “What is UX Design?“).
The next phase in our process is visual design: applying a “layer of paint” to the wireframes, and turning the blueprint into something that looks like the real thing. Here are the visual design mockups created from the same wireframes in the previous section. Designs being sent to you (in all likelihood) are not “real.” They are “mockups” of what the site will look like, made using a program like Photoshop or Sketch. In order for it to be a real website, it needs to be re-created using code.
But I don’t know how to code. How am I going to be able to update my site?
We could just write a whole bunch of code and leave it at that. It would look and behave like any other website … but every time you needed to make an update to the site (add a blog post, change your company hours, swap a picture, etc.), you’d need to call me. A content management system (CMS) is a system that allows you to manage your content. Building a site using a CMS allows its owner to update content without having to take a course to learn how to code. When we build sites at Tamara Olson Designs, we integrate them into the CMS so our clients have all the controls they need to update and maintain the site going forward.
What are some examples of a CMS?
You might have heard of Drupal or WordPress — these are both open source CMSes, meaning you can download the software and install it on your own hosting for free, and you can build your own tools for it. Conversely, a CMS such as Squarespace is not open source (also known as “proprietary”), which means the platform is gated so only in-house Squarespace developers can produce tools for it and edit the core code.
Should I use a pre-made template or should I “build from scratch”?
Many open source developers and proprietary content management systems offer pre-made templates. This means all the design and development we described above has already been done; the infrastructure and logic has been built to allow the user to update and customize it.
For example, take a look at this WordPress theme. For $59, you get all the design and code, along with CMS integration that gives you a lot of customization options. (In other words, you can swap out the images, videos, text, etc. with your own, and probably even make quite a few layout, color, and styling decisions — it depends on how much flexibility the theme developer built.) Yes, you’re working within predefined parameters, and the process is a little backwards from what we described above (you’re starting with a designed site and retrofitting your content into it) … but you’re going to save a lot of money going this route.
For solo-preneur or small business websites with relatively straightforward functionality needs, I almost always advocate going with a pre-built template — either installing a theme on WordPress and populating it (there are tons of themes, and really swanky ones will usually run you about $60), or going with a SquareSpace, Wix, or Weebly. It is significantly cheaper, and you can end up with a snazzy looking site.
Although services like Squarespace try to make their solutions consumer-friendly, you can still hire someone that understands the CMS and has okay design/development skills to populate your site and do the heavy lifting. The internet is the Wild West, so even within this approach prices vary wildly. If you’re going with a pre-built theme, the hired person or firm will be spending their billable hours on content strategy, population of content, and small design tweaks, and probably will run you around $1000-2000.
You can probably already see that building a site “from scratch” is going to be significantly more expensive and time consuming because your developer is literally coding it from the ground up. That said, if you’re looking to do something custom, or you want to make sure your designer (and you) have complete control, a “from scratch” experience and theme is the only way to go.
Earlier you mentioned “hosting” — what’s that? Do I need it?
The files that make your website a website (the front-end and the CMS code) need a place to live. If you’re going with Squarespace or Weebly or Wix, they’re going to give you hosting as part of your monthly fee. However, if you’re planning on using your own install of WordPress, those files need somewhere to sit. You’ve probably heard of some of the popular cheap hosts: BlueHost, HostGator, GoDaddy. I personally use and recommend WPEngine for reasons I’ve outlined in “Why I recommend WPEngine”, but you should decide the solution that’s best for your needs.
Once I launch my website, can you make sure I get to the top of Google?
Unfortunately, there’s no magic way to get to the top of Google. There are, however, ways to “optimize” your site to give it a better chance; we call this search engine optimization (SEO). Some SEO techniques are technical, some are tactics for optimizing your content for words that people are searching, and some involve “link building” (getting other sites to link to you, which gives you a boost with Google). For more information, check out our post, “How to use the Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress.”