Preparing to Launch
Are you planning to launch a new website soon? Many companies held off on building new websites through the recession and are now looking at quite a bit of “tech debt” on their old sites. Regardless of which platform you choose or which consulting firm you hire to build your new site, there are plenty of ways to do it wrong. As somebody who has been around the block a few times with website rebuilds (and has the grey hair to prove it), let me offer some words of advice.
Tip #1: Be Specific
Determine the true reasons the current site is not suiting your needs. Avoid broad strokes such as the site “just doesn’t look modern” or “needs to work on mobile.” Unless you want to be in the same position with your site again in a couple of years, you need to get to the root “pain points” of the site.
Tip #2: Aim for Efficiency
Make the back end efficiencies of the site just as important as the outside look and feel. Take a look at how data and content are updated on the site and how painful that currently is to do. Do the administration screens and procedures make sense? How much time could be saved if they were different? Do you have the ability to enter content with consistent formatting and solid search engine optimization nuts and bolts, or is content addition and editing like the Wild West?
Tip #3: Allow for Flexibility
Stick with a platform/content management system (CMS) that does not tie you to one vendor. There are plenty of consulting firms out there that use their own homegrown Web platforms/CMS for their clients. While these platforms may have a bright spot or two, they will tie you to that one vendor for updates, security and enhancements. This also can be a liability if the firm goes under or has major staffing changes. An open-source CMS like Drupal or WordPress will give you long-term choices for support, and the community will provide updates.
Tip #4: Stay Streamlined
Avoid unnecessary “feature creep” by thinking through potential features thoroughly. Don’t chase bright and shiny features and ideas “just because” or you’ll end up with features that may look cool but do not actually resonate with site visitors. Empty user forums, abandoned blogs, unused social media features and outdated videos are all examples of this. For every new feature, think of how it will be used, who will update it and how often it will be updated.
Tip #5: Loosen the Purse Strings
Understand that Web development is not cheap, and those who are good at it offer tremendous value over those who are not. For whatever reason, many clients I have talked to over the years do not assign the same value to good Web development as they do to other high-profile, highly skilled trades. If your website budget is $5,000, you had better re-evaluate the long-term importance of your website to your business. Make sure you pick a consulting firm that asks the right questions and builds the right site for you, and make that your No. 1 priority. This may not be the cheapest firm out there — certainly more expensive than hiring your 14-year-old nephew — but it will ensure that your investment lasts years and the site is done correctly the first time.
Tip #6: Reorganize
Think about how your data will migrate to the new site. Your new site will, in theory, be a nicely organized, correctly structured container for your incoming data. How you decide to map your data from the old site to the new site is critical, and now is the time to break up bulky data fields and mashed up data so that they can be more useful for you on the new site. If your site has a bulky category/taxonomy system, now is the time to re-think it — and if the site has no taxonomy structure, now is the time to add one. Think of this as the time you went through the junk drawer in your kitchen and organized it with that nice plastic tray. Each piece of content needs to be looked at this way.
Tip #7: Designate a Point Person
Select a project manager on your team as a single point of contact for the site build. Disparate responsibility means disparate results for new site builds, so create a “point to the spear” and make sure everyone involved in the project knows who that is.
Tip #8: Ensure Everyone Can Find You
Make sure your redirects are in place on the new site. Your old site may have hundreds of links that have been crawled, indexed, shared and back-linked over the years. Your new site may have a totally new link scheme, so your old links need to redirect to the new links or you will be ripping a hole in the Internet with your new site. For example, your old site may have had a page at the path /pages/contact-us.html. On the new site that may have to be redirected to /contact-us.
Tip #9: Consider Contracts
Think about how the site work will be scoped, bid out and billed. You could be presented with a fixed-bid contract, an hourly time and materials contract, or a mix of both. Fixed-bid contracts can be wildly inaccurate, because they assume the full scope of the project has been determined before the contract even begins, and that is rarely the case. You can either pay too much, because the site seemed easier than expected to build, or be slammed with scope change orders and extra charges. Full hourly/time and materials contracts actually penalize the consultants for being competent and efficient, which is not right either. Consider a hybrid, such as a fixed-bid requirement scoping phase and a time and materials basis for the rest of the project, or opt for an hourly charge for the scoping phase and a fixed bid based on the scoping plan.
Tip #10: Try Before You Buy
Bring vendors in before creating a request for proposal (RFP). You are not doing yourself any favors by creating a standard written RFP first and looking for the cheapest bid. Asking to simply “rebuild” the current site is not going to give you lasting value, either. Interview potential vendors and get a feel for them and what they offer before you get formal with your bidding process. A race to the bottom on pricing is not what you want, and by bringing firms in first, you may learn more about what is out there and what your options are before you put anything together.