What Every Small Business Website Needs

A guided tour by a small-business-entrepreneur-turned-developer

Four years ago I started a business with a group of friends from University. Adam and Yoani had a dream to change the coffee industry and make it even fairer than fair trade. I joined as a third partner and spent the next year helping them set up the business structure, negotiate imports of coffee from Nicaragua and manage sales and customer service. It was unlike anything I ever thought I would do with an education in philosophy but it was one of the most life-forming and useful experiences of my life. The freedom of owning your own business is one of the greatest thrills in life.

We were young, inexperienced and for the most part were doing everything for the first time. Amid the millions of tasks we had, the hardest and largest I think was the website. As an e-commerce business, getting our website right was a top priority. I had no understanding of web development back then but had the privilege of seeing the process of our business website being developed by my business partner Adam and another partner that joined our team, Ali. Together, Adam and Ali were the dream team. They worked extremely hard to build that website from scratch using Adam’s original design and Ali’s amazing PHP skills. But even having confident front-end and back-end developers on our team didn't make building the website easy. It's always harder when you're building it for your own business and it taught me a lot about how to work with developers, and now clients, in a more efficient way.

It is what inspired me to learn to code and become a web developer a year after leaving ECC. Fast-forward 4 years and here I am, a Front-End Developer, starting the second business of my life - my own. As a business owner myself I know how hard it is to get a website up and running that meets all of your goals and dreams. I also know how expensive it is and how difficult to find a developer that can work within tight budgets.

The good news is that there are many developers out there that will not gouge business owners while still providing excellent work. My biggest struggle before I could code was knowing how to communicate with developers about what I wanted and also how to trust their opinions on something I knew nothing about. Investing in the right developer to build you something right the first time around will save you headaches and thousands of dollars later. Here is my list of the most important things you should be asking of your web developer for your website. And if they don’t understand what you’re talking about that should be a red flag that you might want to spend a little more…or a lot more, by hiring somebody who does.

What To Ask For In A Website

Clean Code

If you’re not a developer, you’ve probably never heard the term “clean code”. Code is everything when it comes to a website - literally. It’s what the website is made of. Clean code means that the code abides by some generally understood coding standards that makes your code easy to read and easy to work with, as well as more efficient. You should ask the developer building your website to give you clean code for the following reasons:

  1. It will make it easier for you to build on top of it and make your website grow in the future.
  2. It will enable future developers to fix problems on the site or make changes if the original developer is no longer available. There’s a good chance that the developer you originally hired won’t be available indefinitely to update your site and do repair work when needed. It will save you a lot of money in the long run if you have someone build your site with clean code so that future developers don’t have to spend so much time trying to makes sense of messy code.

How do you know if your code is clean? Ask a developer to look it over.

Responsive Design

Responsive design means that your website will “respond” to whatever device it’s being viewed on. In other words, it’s mobile. It should look just as good on a tiny screen as it does on your 27 inch computer monitor. Try it! Start resizing your browser when you land on a website. If you can see the design rearrange itself as it shrinks, it’s responsive! A great example of this is The Boston Globe website.

Responsive Design is the standard nowadays and totally worth your investment. If you start developing a website in the present day and it’s not responsive, it will seem out of date. It will take your developer more time but it will be worth it in the end as many people these days look at websites on their phone. You don’t want your audience to ignore you because they can’t navigate your website on their phone. That will happen.

An important thing to distinguish, however, is a mobile website from a responsive website. A lot of companies have “mobile” websites that only show a partial amount of the full website’s content. Then somewhere on the footer it’ll have a link to the “Full Website”. This is a really bad user experience that you don’t want to give your clients. Responsive websites can have all of the content available to the client, on any device.

You should not have to deprive your mobile users from getting the full picture. Make sure to ask for that from your developer. Nowadays, with something called Media Queries in CSS3, it’s entirely possible to make your website look clean and simple while still maintaining all the information. A good question to ask might be whether they do mobile-first design. And you can always ask for examples of their mobile design. For some background I recommend this great article by Ethan Marcotte in one of my favourite publications, A List Apart: Responsive Web Design. And checkout this for more recent articles on responsive design.

Accessibility

If you’re a business in Ontario, Canada, you may have already heard about the AODA - Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. This act guarantees the rights of individuals with disabilities to access to services from all businesses in Ontario. But this doesn’t apply only to Ontarians. All websites need to be accessible to people of all abilities. The difference with Ontario is that as different standards in the AODA become enforced over the next 3 years, companies that do not abide will be at risk of being fined as much as $50,000 per day for not abiding.

That is why it is so important for the developer that you hire to implement strong accessibility standards. The strictness of what level of accessibility your website must have varies from business to business. It’s best to take the AODA quiz before you take on the development of a website to have a full understanding of what you need from your web developer.

SEO

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and it’s an essential part of any business’s online presence. Especially when it comes to e-commerce websites. What does it all mean? The short of it is that SEO makes your website more trackable by search engines when people look up related keywords. So basically, if you’re a website that sells cat food in Toronto, you may want to show up near the top of the Google Search Results when someone types in “Best cat food in Toronto.” SEO helps you make your website rank higher when people search for keywords or phrases like that.

Unfortunately, a web developer can only do so much in helping you increase SEO for your site. Most of the work has to be done by you or a committed team of your employees. Companies that are great at SEO often have entire teams dedicated to PR and content development on their websites to increase the searchability of their business for particular keywords. That requires significant investments in Google Ad Words, A/B Testing of landing pages, content development related to keywords, constant PR to acquire more links from other websites to your own on a particular subject or keyword you want to rank for and so many other things. As a small business just starting out this may not be your #1 priority. However, it doesn’t mean that your web developer should not follow best practices for SEO when building your website. Make sure to ask for some of the minimum best practices that will help increase SEO.

One classic example I come across all the time is websites that have beautiful typography, all in image-form. In other words, websites where all they did was upload an image of a logo with their company name. A search engine robot looking for matching keywords will not read images and so your name may go completely undetected. This goes for screen readers as well so this counts as a terrible practice for accessibility also.

There are simple things that can be easily added to a website in the code to avoid these issues. For starters, clean code will prevent a lot of these problems. Otherwise, I find this Web Developer’s SEO Cheat Sheet by MOZ pretty great. Make sure your developer follows some of these guidelines when developing your website. You may not have the time or money for a very serious SEO strategy but your website can at least accomplish the bare minimum and get you part of the way there.

A Great CMS

Clean code may sound pretty nice but it’s still code and still pretty hard to handle if you’re not a coder. Thankfully developers can build websites on top of Content Management Systems that enable you to easily manage and update content on your site without touching any of the code. Having a great CMS will be well worth your while if you plan to update your content a lot. And at first you may think you won’t want to update your content but trust me, you will.

Things change all the time. As your business grows you may want to be able to add pages to your website, write blog stories, share news, add social media feeds, etc… These are all things that your developer can set-up for you to do very easily through a CMS. You may not need many things today but you need to think long-term when you’re spending your precious funds on an investment like a website. Paying a little bit more now to have a website built on a CMS that you can use to self-manage your website will save you time, energy, headaches and money in the long-term when your business blooms and your needs change.

The wonderful thing about a CMS is that if a developer sets it up well for you, you could pretty well manage your website on your own without the recurring costs of needing a developer to constantly tweak little things here and there on a site that does not have a CMS. There’s no need! Ask to be empowered to have control yourself!

What CMS should you choose? The three most popular are Wordpress, Joomla and Drupal. Wordpress is the most popular these days and offers a very simple to use interface for you to manage your content. Drupal is also a very powerful framework especially adept for very large websites. 17% of the web is on Wordpress and about 2% on Drupal. Both numbers are sizable when one thinks of the size of the web.

You may decide which CMS to go with based on what your developer recommends. The key is that you ensure your developer will include training on whatever CMS you go with. Understanding exactly how you change the content of your website, specifically, is the key to being empowered to have full control over it. A good web developer will train you or provide you with a screencast of the CMS that you can always watch and refer back to. Make sure to request this when embarking on this digital adventure.

The bottom line is that you should cut your costs by stopping the unnecessary overhead of having someone else do for you what you can do yourself — get a great CMS set up behind your beautifully designed custom site.

Security

And finally we come to the tricky subject of security. You’ve probably heard about websites getting “hacked” and broken. It happens often. In fact there are robots constantly attempting to hack your website. This is normal. That is why you need to ask your developer to take every precaution to keep your website as safe as possible. Much of that has to do with the CMS that you build your site on, as each CMS has different solutions to keep your website secure. Be sure to inquire about this. The simplest and most basic precaution to take is having very difficult to crack passwords and always having a backup of your website. Your developer can give you the tools to backup your website through your CMS or do it themselves. They will probably also keep their own copy safely in case something happens with yours. And if your website gets compromised — don’t stress! If you and your developer took the right precautions, it can be fixed.

Final Thoughts

You have many options out there when it comes to getting a website built for your business. On the most affordable side of the spectrum you may find someone by looking on Craigslist or a similar forum. On the most expensive side of the spectrum you’ll hire a full-fledged agency that offers many services beyond web development. If you’re just starting out you may want to consider finding a good freelancer that can provide you with all the needs stated above and the personalized care you need. Good freelancers can provide you top-notch code while saving you the overhead of a big agency. Your budget and the size of your website will determine that. Just remember to ask for:

  1. Clean Code
  2. Responsive Design
  3. Accessibility
  4. SEO best practices
  5. A CMS
  6. Security

Happy adventures in web development!