Let me start with a brief introduction. In 1991 I graduated with a degree in graphic design from Saint Vincent College, and from 1991-1996 I worked in prepress for various printing companies. In 1995 I started hearing about this "World Wide Web" thing that was going to transform the planet. Ever interested in new and shiny things, I began investigating and ended up building two websites - one for the company I was working for and another for a famous New Orleans landmark - Pat O'Briens. I'm sure that the folks at Pat O's have no idea who I am at this point, but yes I built their first website in 1996 (this was probably one of the first company websites in New Orleans at the time). To put it lightly, it was a headache. The designer in me wanted to create a beautiful layout - nice fonts, beautiful pictures, etc. However, the technology was not yet capable of supporting my desires. I won't go into too much detail about the woes of the time, but suffice to say the internet was not ready for much more than web pages with text.
In 1997, my prepress experience landed me a golden opportunity to work at AGFA Gevaert in Boston where I was hired as a product support representative in their Graphics division. Two years of product support (basically sitting on the phone for 8 hours a day) taught me two things: 1) sitting on the phone was not for me, and 2) the internet was indeed going to change the planet. I had a ton of time to "surf" and every day brought a new interesting website to look at. I had to be a part of it! I applied for a position with the Web Group at AGFA and within one year I was the Webmaster of AGFA (BTW, nobody really wants to be called a webmaster these days). While working as a Webmaster, I took night classes at Boston University in their newest major - eCommerce. Classes included C++, HTML, database management and the like. Before long I was a double-threat - graphic designer and programmer!
The internet has transformed in so many ways since I built that first site in 1996. In some ways building a basic website has become easier. There are tools out there that allow the greenest novice to put up a small site in minutes. But if you're looking to build a business website with bells and whistles galore, things have gotten much more complex.
So how do you get the ball rolling without expending a full year's profit or making yourself insane? I suggest you start small, slow and steady with an iterative process. So, let's get started with this top 5 list:
1. Define your identity. Have a good understanding of your business and the words you would use to describe it. This seems glaringly obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people know exactly what their business does but they have no idea how to define it in words that make sense to potential clients. Companies like Apple define themselves by an intention, not an outcome. From Andy Scherer at Impact Branding & Design: "Apple did not base their identity on their products, but they did establish their identity on innovation. Their intention is to be as creative as possible in finding technological solutions for their clientele. They went through a difficult time with their computers originally, but did not let that define them. No matter what happens with the iPad, iPod, or any other one of their products they will maintain their innovation which will never cease."
A helpful way to get things moving here is to look at your competition. Browse their websites and take notes on the words they are using to define their business. I'm not suggesting you plagiarize content - merely that you look at the keywords. For example, if you're selling underwater digital cameras, you'll want to make sure you use this exact phrase in your content. Don't dilute your message by adding keywords that do not apply like "cheap digital cameras" because you're only going to generate unwanted traffic (and potentially get a negative mark from Google). Your content should be an accurate reflection of what your company offers in terminology that makes sense to your potential client. You may want to try using Google's Keyword Tool.
Do your best on this step but don't get stuck. It's important that your content is acceptable from the start; however, content can be changed at the drop of a hat. Because search engines like Google will immediately start indexing (reading) your content I will recommend later that you forgo using Google Analytics until your content is ready for the world to see.
2. Create a design that suits your business. This step can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but I'll give you my recommendation on how to achieve this. It used to be that you'd hire a designer who would produce Photoshop "image flats" - image only previews of what your site would look like. The issue for many designers is that while they are proficient in the use of Photoshop, they are uncomfortable transforming the design into functional HTML pages. I recommend that you either choose a predone template that can be tweaked by an HTML expert, or hire a designer who is also proficient in HTML. Specifically, hire a designer who will build your flats in functional HTML skipping the image flats all together. I feel that image flats are a waste of time for you and the designer because it adds an extra step (and potentially another person) to the process and the design that you see in image flats may not always translate well into functional HTML.
When looking for a designer, insist that they will provide you with the following: Functional HTML Templates for your various pages - Assuming that your site is much like every other business website, you'll need a handful of templates: 1) Home page - this is usually the most unique page on the site and you should spend time making sure it's well done, 2) Sub page - the sub page can be repurposed for About Us, Contact, Leadership, etc. 3) Article display page - this is used to display an "article" like a press release, employee profile, etc. 4) Any other unique page design you require. Sorry I cannot be more specific about number 4 - each site is unique. Try to envision all of the templates you may need and make sure that your designer understands which content goes into each and how it will function.
Make sure that your designer takes all potential display devices into account. You should be able to view your site on a regular computer monitor at various sizes and on various mobile devices such as Apple iPad, iPhone and Android phones. This process should be handled through the use of Responsive Design, so make sure your designer understands this principle.
3. Hire a developer. You have your great design finished, and now you need to put it on a web server so that the world can see it. This can either be the same person who created the design in HTML, or it may end up being a different person. Either way, you'll want to hire someone who is comfortable taking your HTML templates, putting them on the server, and transforming them into workable templates in a Content Management System (CMS).
Allow me to explain this a bit. Your HTML pages need to exist somewhere on a web server so that when you type "www.mycompany.com" you end up on your company's home page. There are many companies out there who can "host" your website. My current preference is Rackspace - they have a variety of options/price points and their service is next to none. After you've established a web host, you need to decide which CMS you're going to use. You do not need a CMS, but believe me you'll be happy if you have one. It will save you time and money in the long run.
If you have a CMS, the process to make changes to the content is simple:
- Log in to your CMS with credentials provided by the developer (user name and password)
- Make the change to your page, and click Publish. You're done!
- Completion time - minutes.
Of course I have a recommendation for a CMS that will not break your bank - ExpressionEngine (EE). I've used almost every other popular CMS out there including: Joomla, Textpattern, Wordpress, Drupal, Typo3, and Mambo. My experience with all of these has been satisfactory; however, my experience with ExpressionEngine has been exceptional.
After you've decided on a CMS, your developer should install and configure it for your needs. After your CMS is installed, your developer can begin transforming your HTML templates into pages that you can actually edit. If your site is not extremely complex (there are only 2-3 templates), you should expect to see results in about a week.
When the templates are fully functional, your developer can provide you with a log in so that you can begin editing the site content.
4. Test your site. After your content is ready to go, you must test your site on multiple platforms using multiple browsers and devices (mobile, desktop, tablets, etc.)
Don't expect that each browser will provide exact pixel-by-pixel rendering of the page. Do expect that all of your page elements appear in the right place on the page. In other words, your logo, navigation, side bars, content, and footer should all be in the right place on the page. There will be minor discrepancies between how your page looks on a PC and a Mac - this is unavoidable and should be expected.
5. Implement analytics. Briefly, analytics is "the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of internet data for purposes of understanding and optimizing web usage". You've spent your time building a great website, but if you don't know how it's performing then you'll never be able to make it even greater.
I save this step for last because you do not want search engines to begin indexing your site until you know that the content and UI are solid. If you only choose one tool for your site analytics, you'll want to use Google Analytics (GA). It's free and it's undoubtedly the best.
In the end, remember to take it slow, stay focused on what you want your website to say about your business and use the many tools that are available to help.