Last Updated on
I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t remember their first attempt at a successful website. Mine was created during the early days of the Internet’s popularity at expage.com (a free service that shut down in 2007) during junior high. Getting people to sign your guestbook on these one page websites was THE metric for success back then, and I, like many of my classmates, was obsessed with this concept for a while.
This obsession led me to researching options for making my page more attractive, and I started to dabble with HTML as a result. While my TAG instructor was content to hand me some extremely dense printed material and call it a day, a friend of mine in the same program was kind enough to walk me through a few basics. I’m a visual learner, so this was doubly helpful because learning HTML is like learning the most complex foreign language ever.
Knowing how to speak the lingo is as important for retention as writing or reading it, and while my friend understood that, she moved shortly after she started teaching me HTML. Learning a whole language on my own was overwhelming to me at age 13, so with nobody else I could turn to for guidance (this skill set was very rare, and exceedingly so in rural Iowa back then), I moved on to more manageable projects.
It would be over a decade before I dusted these skills off again, and the landscape had changed drastically during my absence. Like many who are lost when it comes to joining the nebulous Internet, I latched on to a bright life preserver known as WordPress. HTML still had a place in its editor, but PHP drove a lot of the more complicated functions you could add through plugins and themes.
Thankfully, you don’t need to be a coding whiz to build a decent WordPress website, so I bore the difficult learning curve of its platform and was able to put together a blog for my then and present favorite hobby, Magic: The Gathering.
While I have not given it the attention it needs in recent years, that simple project was my first step to understanding how websites are actually structured and what makes them successful.
My original blog posts (stories) of league nights and various games were how I developed my card-playing theories and started seriously flexing my writing muscles. Between my friends and ties to the local Magic community, I had an audience that actively wanted this content. They brought me views and feedback that I used to improve and vary the content I was putting out, and they also showed me the importance of using social media to advertise my content.
These same mental muscles and lessons play big roles in how I help tell the stories of businesses across the country today. Learning how to captivate an audience is definitely not easy (especially when you’re a business owner with tons of things on your plate already), but having someone in your corner who understands that and can help you follow a path that has been forged through years of work and experience makes an overwhelming task feel infinitely easier.
By this point, you’re probably asking how you can find someone like that. The first step for researching web companies is as simple as knowing what to ask when it comes to website design and maintenance. Knowing these questions would have saved me a lot of mistakes when getting online as a teenager and as a young adult, and it ultimately played a key role in making the world of websites feel less overwhelming too.
You deserve those same benefits, regardless of who you choose to hire, so I’m going to lay out what I’d ask and expect from a web company in today’s post as a prospective customer.
If you’re wondering why I’d take the time to do this, the answer is simple. Not all web companies are as customer focused as we are, and often operate under the assumption that you either know what they do, or they can fleece you for all you’re worth. Both scenarios bring an undue level of hardship when you’re navigating blindly, and that can be devastating when you’re getting a business off the ground.
Now let’s start clearing the hurdles that could keep you from successfully getting and staying on the Web.
Can I add my own domain to the website I create with your web company?
The answer to this question should always be yes. Your domain, or web address, plays a central, foundational role in your online presence, and it is what your website and its search engine optimization (SEO) will be affiliated with. As a result, getting and using your own domain is mandatory for a healthy online presence down the road.
There also shouldn’t ever be any extra charges affiliated with using your own domain with a finished product from a web company unless you are buying/renewing a custom domain directly through them as well.
If they start telling you that you need to transfer your domain name to their control, require you to use a stock domain belonging to them, or begin adding miscellaneous fees for something similar, you should hire elsewhere.
Am I able to download a backup of my website?
This is a trickier question, because it typically means you need to make a choice if you are undertaking the project of building your own website. Do you want your platform to be easy to use, or do you want to invest time and/or money in a more substantial website?
If you’re using a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) platform like Weebly, Wix, or Strikingly, the answer is going to be no. WYSIWYG companies each have their own take on giving you web design tools that are much easier to navigate than WordPress, Joomla, Dreamweaver, or any of the dozens of different website platforms out there. These tools are designed to work within an extremely structured environment and the companies involved want you to keep paying them to host your content, so they forbid you from using their products elsewhere.
However the negative is obvious: if something happens to that web company or their servers, your website is gone. In some cases, an error in billing or a decision made by your web company (such as a platform upgrade) can also cost you everything.
If the answer to this question is no, and you aren’t using one of these environments, you should stay far, far away. The best example of a popular platform denying you access to your website data is wordpress.com. Not to be confused with WordPress, which can be run on most hosting servers, wordpress.com is an extremely restrictive hosting environment for WordPress websites without any of the benefits a WYSIWYG offers.
While they receive a lot of business from people who are not as familiar with what WordPress actually is, if you’re going to take the time and effort to learn how to use WordPress, you deserve to be able to connect to your files via FTP and access a copy of your database should you need to fix a mistake, change who hosts your business website, or restore a website that is hacked, damaged, or lost in some other way. Or you know, save extra copies of a project you spent ample time and/or money on!
What are you using to create my website?
Tailored specifically for any web company or freelance designer you’re considering, you can learn quite a bit about them by how they answer this question. If the answer they give you is any sort of WYSIWYG, don’t hire them. As we mentioned earlier, WYSIWYGs are specifically designed to be easy for anybody to learn. A professional building sites within these restrictive, novice-friendly environments really isn’t anything special and will often stifle what your SEO can achieve in the long run.
By comparison, a good answer will tell you not just about the platform, but about how it is either going to be hosted (if they’re handling the setup for you) or what type of web hosting you need to purchase for it to run at its best. You may even receive tips or options for keeping your website maintained and up to date after it is finished.
Is there anything else you recommend for my website?
If all you’ve spoken about regarding your website is a domain and a hosting plan, the answer to this question should almost never be no. The only exception involves WYSIWYG platforms, which really don’t have much more to go over beyond the options in their menus. While this simplicity is attractive if you’re doing the design work yourself, there are also far better alternatives. Any web company offering them should be jumping at the chance to tell you about these options.
When building these more robust websites, the single biggest area people choose to cheap out on or skip is website security. SSL certificates, malware scanners, and firewalls are treated as optional by business owners and web companies alike, despite them being the bastions you need in order to protect customer and website data.
For businesses expecting traffic across the country, continent, or world, a content delivery network (or CDN), can also be invaluable. These are designed to serve your website content from locations that are close to the people accessing your website, which can cut down on the time it takes for them to load it. Faster website load time = better SEO and customer retention.
There may be additional recommendations beyond these basics as well – the discussion you have is likely to vary on a company by company basis.
What am I getting with my service?
Web companies that bumble around trying to avoid a direct answer to this question are not web companies you should trust with your online presence. That said, if there’s a feature they aren’t sure of, it’s okay for them to say they don’t know in the moment – so long as they get you an exact answer before you proceed.
This shows a willingness to get you the right information and ultimately help you make an informed decision. Some elements like SEO can be very intangible and difficult to describe, especially if you’re working with a new platform or obscure environment. Taking the time to get an answer for every question you ask and a thorough understanding of what you’re getting will help you avoid shoddy service and wasted money.
If uncertainty becomes a theme with basic questions, however, you should pay careful attention as this is a major red flag. After all, if someone selling you a package doesn’t know what you’re getting consistently, you have to wonder how good any package they sell really is.
Do you own any of my content?
Ooh, an easy one! If the answer to this question is anything other than no, don’t hire them. It’s expected for a web company to own and maintain their hosting platform, email servers, and any other element of their infrastructure, but the moment they start laying any kind of claim on your content, they’ve crossed a line.
The only exception to this rule should be during the development process of a website or changes that are being made to improve SEO prior to a contract’s completion. Even then, any company worth putting your faith in should be turning the ownership of their work over to you once it has been finished and paid for.
How can I contact you?
Being able to contact a web company by phone is mandatory as far as we’re concerned. There’s simply no substitute for being able to have a real, in the moment conversation about questions you have, issues that have arisen, or updates on a given project.
A web company doesn’t even need to offer 24 hour support to do this well – clear timeframes for when customers can call or when a callback will be attempted after receiving a message are sufficient. Exercise caution with companies that don’t offer phone support at all – this often suggests that your interests are not something they consider a priority.
Email is another option that most companies can and should offer – so long as it isn’t their primary point of contact. Not everybody likes calling and speaking with someone, and many others are simply more comfortable with typing out a quick note and getting on with their day. This is perfectly fine in cases that do not require technical support (in the moment troubleshooting is generally the best way to diagnose and solve a technical problem) or immediate consultation.
Contact forms on a web company’s website are generally the last of your reasonable options for reaching out to them. These should be designed with specific goals in mind, such as scheduling appointments, reporting technical issues, or asking questions. Anything too broad is simply better handled by phone or a direct email, as you can lay out details more thoroughly with these mediums.
We offer all three of these options to our customers. By calling 319-229-5225, emailing email@example.com, or using our contact form, we are able to speak with new customers through any venue they need while offering prompt responses to our existing customers as well.
Braden is one of the founders of Midwest Websites, and has been professionally writing and developing websites for over 7 years. His blog posts often take an experience from his life and showcase lessons from it to help you maximize online presence for your business.