A Must-Read Before Purchasing A Website

Auto Mechanic Under VehicleI’ve spent the majority of my working career helping small to mid-size businesses with their online presence. I’m a programmer by trade, and I’m comfortable with code, but my clients almost universally are not. They just want it to “work.”

I feel the same way about my car. I don’t know how it works, and I don’t really care either. I just need it to get me from point A to point B. And when it breaks down, I don’t want it to cost me any money. Honestly, if I could just teleport from place to place I would do that – my car scares me. Financially.

Unfortunately, I am almost certain that I have been ripped off by a mechanic at some point in my life. When he comes back and says that such is such is broken, I have no way to argue. I don’t even know what questions to ask. I assume they’re serious and I pay. But I always wonder if I’m not being taken for a ride.

I imagine it’s the same way for the business owner. They need a website. They need to rank on Google. But they don’t understand the underlying technology and it’s financially scary. Web Development is expensive, SEO is often even more so.

This problem is compounded by the fact that most clients I have dealt with have been burned by developers in the past. Work has been returned incomplete, training was never provided, the client-developer relationship ended badly and the client wound up with a really expensive piece of software that they do not know how to use – or even where to use it, even if they had the know-how.

To make matters worse, the next team the client hires wants to refactor their website into their own technology, and of course want to bill to do so.

I propose that a lot of these headaches stem from not asking the right questions during the development process. As a business owner, and as a customer, you have a vested interest in the technology that you are purchasing. You should be involved.

For the next few months, I want to focus my posts on considerations that a business owner might want to take into account when purchasing a website.  Today I want to start with the content management system, as it’s usually one of the first decisions that must be made in the process.

What is a Content Management System?

Most websites today run on what’s called a content management system. This is just a fancy way of saying that it stores the content in a database so that you can easily edit it. These come in many different flavors. WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal are some of the more popular content management systems.

Why Do I Care?

Your website runs on this software. If you are interested in managing your own content, you will personally be using it. You need to make sure that it works, that it’s portable, and that you can find other people to work on your site should you part ways with your current development team.

What questions should I ask?

If your developer tells you that they are using (or building) a custom or proprietary CMS, this is typically a red flag. You may have a talented developer, but the problem is that once that developer is out of the picture (they don’t return your calls or pass away suddenly or they ripped you off), you are left with a piece of technology that neither you nor your subsequent developers will understand or want to work with. Additionally, some companies won’t allow you to move your site elsewhere when things go south.

I highly recommend having your website built using a well-known open source technology. WordPress is my personal choice, but there are others [http://mashable.com/2007/07/30/content-management-systems/]. Search around online and look to see if there is a lot of community activity for that content management system (forums, posts for technical support, tutorials, etc). These things are a good indication that there is an active development community for your software and that you will be able to find another capable developer who can work on your site should your current team quit.

Be hands on. Ask to see a demo of the backend. Have them show you how you will be doing the things that are important to you (editing content, uploading pictures, whatever requirements you may have). Make sure it seems intuitive to you. If you’re not interested in managing content yourself, just make sure that you are comfortable with the system and feel confident that you can take your site with you when you leave.

Why can’t you just tell me what to do?

There isn’t a universal solution. Sometimes what may be a good content management system for one client isn’t the best for the next. Sometimes the project requirements are so complex that only a custom system will work – but I find that for most clients this is rare.

Find a solution that is portable (you can take it with you when you leave), intuitive (you feel comfortable using it), and that has a large online community (you can always find someone to help you). This will help you put your best foot forward, and, more importantly, purchase a solution that will be flexible and work for years to come.

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