There’s a lot of think about when creating a new website. The name, the logo, colours used, creating content, arranging that content, configuring hosting & backups and all the admin stuff… then there’s social media & the marketing end of things too. It can be quite intimidating so I’ve made a list of some key topics you need to be thinking about…
Before creating anything, you need to think about it. Keeping up with our brains can be tough so the easiest way to brainstorm is to write stuff down or draw pictures. That way you have clues to jog your memory about certain ideas. If you don’t document anything, what you’re effectively saying is “I have an idea but I’m too lazy to put it down on paper and execute it to my standards, so I’ll tell somebody else the idea and hope they can read my mind, plus hope they have the same if not higher standards than I do”.
Telling a developer you want a website is like telling an architect you want a house. They can build you a house, but you probably won’t be happy with it. If you’re a developer yourself, you’ve got a big advantage in that you’re limited by your imagination and not by your ability to execute an idea. Most people have the opposite problem – big imagination with no ability to execute on ideas.
If you’re one of those people with a big imagination and no technical skills, you can still build a website, it’ll just be on paper. A lot of people hate hearing that because it means work… it means writing, drawing, thinking, solving hard problems and getting distracted by hypothetical situations. But as the person with the vision, you need to do that more than anyone else.
Questions you need to answer:
- “What do I want the website to do?”
- “Why is this website necessary?”
Business Plan / Goals
This is where things start to get serious. If you have a clear concept, then you’ll naturally start to become defensive of it and a big cheerleader of it. So it’s time to start asking some tougher questions:
- What are you selling?
- Why will people want it?
- Who is your target audience?
- Where can they be found?
- How will you make money?
If you can’t answer all of these, most people will tell you you’re not ready yet. What they really mean to say is “I don’t want to work on this because I feel you don’t know what you want and this will cost all of us time and money and end up in frustration”.
Content & marketing plan
Build it and they’ll come. At least that’s what you hope. More often than not though, they won’t come. This is where a marketing plan helps. More questions that need answering…
- What core message/s do you want to convey?
- What channels will be you using & why?
- What type of content will you be creating?
- How frequently will you be creating content?
- What metrics will you use to determine success?
Unacceptable / cliché answer: “I want to use all channels and get as much visibility as possible by publishing as much content as possible”. The problem most people have with marketing is sticking to it long term. It’s very easy to create content and get excited when you’re launching a new site but when the novelty wears off and the stats are embarrassing, you’ll begin to question everything including whether or not it’s worth the time or expense in creating content regularly.
One news item per week might change to one per month and then one on an ad-hoc basis every few months. Before you know it a year has whizzed past and your ‘latest’ blog post or news article is a year old. The same goes for social media. Without a plan and somebody enforcing it, nothing will happen. Especially if nobody understands social media or is skeptical of the benefits of social media or blogging. Set deadlines, set targets, analyse performance and focus on the stuff that delivers results. That’s what happens behind the scenes. Fairly simple, boring stuff that is perhaps masked by the fun and casual public face of social media we’re all used to seeing. Can it be disciplined and fun at the same time? Absolutely, but only if you know that what you’re doing is working. And in order to determine whether something ‘works’ or not, you need to answer those questions above.
A domain name is not as important as it once was but i like to stick to these rules:
- Keep it as short as possible
- Make it memorable
- Make sure it’s easy to pronounce (i.e. if you can say it on radio or over the phone without needing to spell it out, that’s a good sign)
- Make sure it describes what your site does
It may be obvious, but you need to know what your business does and what its name is before you can even think about a logo. As for what makes a great logo, that’s pretty subjective, but to me a great logo has the following characteristics:
- at least one graphical element in it which gives a clue as to what the site / business does
- looks the exact same if printed in black and white or colour
- can be reduced to thumbnail size without losing much detail
One Line Pitch
You need to be able to describe what your site is about in just a few words. Boil your website down to its simplest form.
- What does your website / business do?
- What are the key messages you want to get across?
- Can you boil those message down to a sentence, or perhaps just a few words?
If in doubt, just describe what your websites does in a few words. Think Twitter or Facebook – explain what you do in as few words as possible. The longer your description is, the greater the chance nobody will read it. Save the long spiels for your ‘about’ page. It doesn’t have to be smart or thought-provoking… in fact it should usually be the complete opposite. If a 5 year old can’t understand what your website does from your pitch, make it simpler. If it’s a website selling flowers, I’d go with this: “We sell flowers”. This is the type of description you’ll be using on social media and it’s important you get your message across quickly and clearly.
Personally, i find this is actually one of the most difficult things to do. It’s so simple, many people just dismiss it or assume that it’s obvious what the site or business does. However, it’s a mistake to overlook this… it sets the whole tone for *everything*. It’s the most powerful ad you’ll ever create and if you get it wrong or don’t tackle it head on, early on, you run the risk of confusing people… be it employees, developers, designers, customers… what you do has to be defined and must be crystal clear.
Once you’ve got a domain sorted, you need your own custom email address. It’s amazing how many businesses will just use ‘variation business name’@gmail.com or @eircom.net. It looks unprofessional and amateurish and it’s really not that difficult to set up your own email. In fact it’s something most people could probably do themselves. Google used to offer free email for organisations but did away with it some time ago, so the next best free alternative is microsoft’s live.com. Sign up here.
Ideally, you want the same vanity address for all social networks. So if your business is called ‘Irish Flowers’, you want:
Depending on how common your business name is, you might need to find an alternative naming convention e.g. by adding ‘Official’ at the end or perhaps ‘DotCom’. What you don’t want to do is just take @IrishFlowers1 on twitter and then IrishFlowers26 on facebook. Try to keep things consistent.
This really depends on what you’re doing and how much traffic you’re getting (or expect to get). If you’re starting up a new business on the side as a part-time project and have zero customers, then a shared host will be fine. In fact a shared host will be fine for most businesses but they may need / want more control or something more flexible that makes handling growth a bit easier. Cloud hosting is more expensive but in general you pay for what you get. The trick is to get what you need +/- a bit of a buffer zone to accommodate growth. You could easily throw money at a hosting solution that you don’t actually need and will never take advantage of. I use Blacknight or DigitalOcean depending on what I need. I’d recommend both and have had great experiences with both.
Speed is as important as ever online. A content delivery network (CDN) stores stuff on servers located in different regions around the world which helps improve the performance of your site for users. If your site is hosted in Ireland but you’re targeting a global audience, a user in Australia will suffer (speed wise) in comparison to a user in Ireland. Why? Distance. It takes longer for information to travel from Dublin to Australia than it does from Dublin to Cork. We may only be talking fractions of a second but it all adds up.
Cloudflare (one of many free CDNs) provide some handy caching and security features which not only boost performance of your site around the world but also helps to prevent basic attacks. Amazon also provide hosting / CDN services and are worth a look, particularly if you’re looking to scale quickly.
Nobody likes reinventing wheels and everyone loves taking shortcuts. Content Management Systems make life better for a variety of reasons:
- many are free / open source (so they reduce cost)
- they’re well documented (again saving time and cost -v- writing your own documentation for your own custom platform)
- they usually have an active community of developers working on or with them (so it’s unlikely you’ll run in to a bug or problem with no solution)
With WordPress, or Drupal or Joomla or any CMS (there are tonnes of them out there), you can basically build a functional website in 10 minutes or less. That’s just the beginning though… there’s a whole bunch of stuff that could add weeks or months worth of work on to that initial 10 minute set up.
Design, SEO, Security, Custom Functionality… I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone that has asked for a default design, that didn’t care about search engines and that didn’t want some kind of custom functionality. So although you can get *a* website up and running easily and quickly with any CMS, it won’t be something you would (nor should) be happy to go live with.
Once you’ve installed a CMS, then comes the ritual of removing dummy content, changing settings, adding user profiles, contact email addresses etc… with wordpress, typically this is what i end up doing:
- Removing dummy posts / pages / comments
- Adding user profiles
- Change permalink structure
- Remove / delete any unwanted bundled plugins or themes
- Disable comments on pages
- Add real categories
- Add real pages, widgets & menus
- Add custom taxonomies or custom posts (depends on project)
- Move dashboard and admin layout around to my liking (although wordpress 3.8 got rid of a lot of junk on the dashboard)
- Block site from search engines (temporarily)
- Hide site behind a ‘coming soon’ page (temporarily)
What we’re really doing here is getting rid of stuff we don’t need and making the CMS come to life a bit so that it’s ready to handle ‘real’ content that means something to us.
Plugins help to extend the functionality of a CMS. They save a developer from planning, writing and documenting a bunch of code from scratch. Popular plugins often have mini-communities themselves so all of this saves time and money. Plugins also allow someone from a non technical background to build a fairly complex, customised website by clicking a few buttons and editing settings… that’s much less intimidating than writing code from scratch. It’s all fun and games however up until the point where something goes wrong (it always goes wrong) and you’re staring at a bunch of error messages or perhaps just a white screen with nothing on it (so you’ve no clue what the problem is and have to troubleshoot – which requires technical knowledge and a decent understanding of how the plugin or CMS works).
I work almost exclusively in WordPress and have been around since the days when plugins had to be manually uploaded & installed. Some of my old reliables include:
- Jetpack (which contains a bunch of features you can switch on or off – some very useful, some not so useful)
- Bulletproof Security or Better WP Security
- W3 Total Cache
- Google XML Sitemaps
- All in One SEO
Is there anything you need that can’t be done with an existing CMS and plugins? If yes, then this is the bit where the cost will escalate quickly because someone is gonna have to develop a plugin from scratch or else hack apart an existing plugin to fit. This is time-consuming stuff. It involves a lot of thought, planning and experimenting. Ideally you want to keep all custom functionality well documented and built in a way that allows you to upgrade everything and not have the site or any features fall over during or after upgrades.
For example it might be a quick and dirty solution to edit an existing plugin but sooner or later someone is gonna hit ‘upgrade’ and your custom fixes will be destroyed. It can be the same with themes… so ideally you need your own plugins or else well constructed theme files and folders.
Web design is getting more and more complex, yet to an end-user it looks more and more simple. Over the past year or so, we seem to have transitioned to ‘flat’ design where gradients, curves and any sort of depth is frowned upon. Responsive design is also hugely important today and we’ll quickly reach a stage where mobile & tablet traffic eclipse desktop traffic. In my own experience, most non developers are completely unaware of this…
A website is something that to most people, displays properly on their own set up… that could be a 5 year old laptop running IE9, or an iPhone 4. They don’t understand that a website can and should look different across multiple screen sizes and devices in order to deliver a better experience for everyone.
Luckily for us, again we usually don’t have to reinvent the wheel… there are lots of responsive, high quality themes out there (although most them aren’t free).
A website with no visitors is not what anyone wants, yet that’s what people will get if they don’t continue to invest time & energy in to maintaining it. Paying for traffic is of course the quickest way to get people to the site but it’s also the most expensive. SEO is not a one-off thing, it’s not like you can hire an SEO company, pay them a few hundred euro and you’ll appear no.1 in Google for whatever term you wish.
Today, SEO is really about creating content. Quality content and lots of it. Start a blog, publish an infographic, release some interesting stats or research from your business… share something with the world that’s vaguely related to your business and keep doing it.
If you’re selling flowers, log the reason why people are buying flowers and then get someone to create a pie chart explaining the type of occasions people are most likely to buy flowers for… or go another step and create an infographic… Mothers Day -v- Fathers Day… Valentines Day -v- Christmas… in any business in any industry, you can create an unlimited amount of content. So if you want to get to the top of Google for a certain phrase, you can absolutely do it… it just won’t happen overnight and without the ability to get creative and write / design / produce.
The example of flower stats above is mildly interesting to me. But that’s all it has to be to work. The goal is not to get me to buy flowers on the spot after seeing those stats, it’s to help make sure that I associate all things flowers with *you*. It’s a longer term strategy designed to build trust… if I see you’ve got all of these facts and stats and are sharing them with the world and interacting with other customers, I’m much more likely to go to you for flowers than I am somebody else… because you’re showcasing the fact you’re a flower expert. If I have a question or need advice, i won’t ask a random flower shop owner for help, I’ll ask that guy/girl that produces those crazy / geeky flower stats and seems obsessed with flowers.
A lot of us take security online for granted. We see a green padlock and think the site we’re about to hand over sensitive information to is trustworthy and the data will be secured using some magic technical wizardry. Securing a website is always a work in progress simply because finding exploits is also work in progress (for the bad guys). The bad guys will always stay in front but you can put in place some simple measures that make your site less of a target. It’s just like securing a car or a house – don’t leave things unlocked and don’t leave valuable items on show.
You might think no business in this day and age would process hundreds of thousands of transactions and store the personal details of users along with their credit card data in unencrypted format, but you’d be wrong. That example is particularly impressive because it breaks all sorts of laws and the data being stored was also completely unnecessary.
When using WordPress, I like to use some security plugins that eliminate the basic weaknesses… because most websites are actually powered by wordpress, and wordpress code is all open source, that means that *if* hackers can find a weakness, they can potentially compromise millions of websites and (high profile websites). If I’m a hacker wanting to hack this website, first of all I’ll check to see if it’s running a CMS – if so, then perhaps I can exploit a known vulnerability… but if the site folders & structure has been changed to something that doesn’t resemble a known CMS, then straight away that causes a bit of a problem for me – because if I’m not sure what CMS the site is using, then i have to look for another way in…
And that’s all security is – making a hacker’s life more difficult and staying up to date with new exploits and methods hackers have been known to use. You’ll can never quite prevent hacking, but you can lock things down so that even determined hackers will give up. Usually, that would also mean making life a bit more difficult for good guys too. They might need to go to a bit of extra trouble each time they want to login… maybe 2 factor authentication or maybe they can only access the site from certain IPs or devices… that level of security is overkill for most websites, but it’s worth investigating and experimenting with.
Most people will have had an experience where they’ve erased something by accident or lost a drive containing data that wasn’t backed up. I remember using word to write an essay in school (before it had autosave features) only for the power to cut and the computer to switch off. Disaster. Hours of work lost.
With websites, it’s becoming easier to automate backups. Most CMSs will have plugins that handle backups. Some of them will zip the database and email it to you ever week. Others will store the backup on your Dropbox or Google Drive. Most hosting providers will also provide backup services that you can remotely manage / automate (usually for a small fee). Is it worth the additional expense? Absolutely. Just ask yourself how you’d cope if your website was nuked right now. How long would it take to get back online in its previous state? Without any backups, the answer would be ‘never’. Backups are usually optional but you should make them compulsory. That goes for anything digital.