Outsource Your Website Design and Web Development Needs (Safely)

If you’re like most business owners you know that you need to have an internet presence in order to reach a more expansive audience. The problem is that you probably don’t have an unlimited budget with which to build your internet presence through avenues such as having a custom website designed, hiring a search engine marketing / optimization (SEM / SEO) expert, and paying for pay per click (PPC), blogging, article posting or banner ad marketing.

Well, the good news is that needing more services than one can afford in the general market is a very common issue. And like most common challenges in the business world, there are at least a few ways to get around this problem.

First, before you even begin searching for a web development or marketing firm you need to take the time to think through your precise needs. When looking to promote your business, information or services online some crucial questions you must ask yourself are:

1) What exactly will the main purpose of my website be (deliver information, increase local on-site sales, generate internet based sales, sell advertising, save money by enhancing the efficiency of your current site).
2) What size budget are you working with? Later in the article we will suggest a range of reputable providers who’s services range from very inexpensive to relatively costly. We’ll also note some of the differences in quality you can expect based on what you pay.
3) Have you thought through your service needs well enough to explain them to a competent designer or developer? Clearly understanding what you are looking will significantly increase the odds that you actually receive it. If you want a website developed, take the time to actually find similar sample sites you can send your web team to so they have an idea of what you want.

Because this holds true for just about any graphic design or website development services an employer (you) would need, most professional website design firms should actually provide you with a questionnaire or “creative brief” that will help you think through and then clearly state what you are looking for. Such briefs should ask you about your company, other designs you like, color schemes you prefer etc.

Secondly, now that you’ve thought through the services you require, it’s time to start looking for a suitable provider.

The good news is that there are literally thousands upon thousands of website design, graphic design, search engine marketing and SEO companies out there for you to choose from. Oh wait, maybe that’s the bad new… With so many providers in the market you might need some help finding the best web service provider for you.

Here are a few suggestions that will help you identify a company to start your design project with:

1) Check out Craigslist.org. Craigslist is the most active internet based classified ads website in existence. Because this site is free to use, and it receives literally billions of page views each month, a good number of national and local service provider advertise their services on it. Website design, graphic design and web development service providers can generally be found in the “Creative Services” or “Computer Services” sections on Craigslist.
2) Run a search for “XYZ directory” and you find websites that maintain extensive lists of whatever service providers you require. Note: replace the “XYZ” with the type of service you need. For example, you might search for “Website Designer Directory.”
3) If you’re not in the mood to do the research for yourself here are some reputable, and national, web development providers:

Logoworks.com : This firm is a well respected website and logo design firm. Their prices are on the high side but if you’re not too budget conscious you’ll find that they produce quality work. I’d probably go with them for medium scale jobs in the range of $5,000 to $10,000.

InkBlotDesignStudios.com : Ink Blot Design Studios is a national web development company that established itself by providing premium quality website and logo designs at wholesale prices. If you’re budget is between $39 and $5,000 then they are a great choice.

Volusion.com : These guys are for the big boys. Their logo designs alone cost around $600 (vs. $39 Logos from Ink Blot Design Studios and $299 Logos from Logoworks) and their template based websites can cost $3,000 (vs. $400 from other companies). However, if you are looking for prestige (a perfectly reasonable desire) and you’re willing to pay for it then this might be a no-brainer.

Of course, there are other options for outsourcing your design projects (guru.com, odesk.com etc) but we didn’t include a review of them here because of the frequency of complaints they receive from past clients who tried to hire really cheap workers from overseas and ended up getting burned out of their money. That’s not to say that you can’t find great service providers on sites like those; you can. You’ll just have to be extra cautious so that you don’t end up losing your money and/or being disappointed with the product you receive.

Final note, I didn’t talk specifically about SEO services much in this articles because you can find those same services from via the means suggested for finding website developers and logo designers. You can also check with the companies I mentioned above because some of them provide SEO and SEM services as well.

Good luck with your new website and/or graphic designs!

Web Development – Make it Yours From the Beginning

One of the cardinal sins of web development is, “Though shalt not steal.”

A significant site in 2004 was caught lifting entire web pages from other sites and placing their logos and information on those pages.

In essence the company found a site they liked and wanted one built that looked just like it. This falls under the rule of intellectual property. You see, unless it is a template design that allows you to develop a page that looks very similar to another then the lifting of elements from another website is using the creative talent of others to achieve a personal and financial goal. If you have not reached an agreement with the web designer or company who created the work then you should not use the element.

You can develop something with a similar feel to it perhaps, but in some cases companies have simply mirrored existing work and claimed it as their own.

If you do this you will likely receive a cease and desist order and perhaps find yourself in court over the matter.

The use of templates in web design can help you avoid this problem simply because the work was designed to be used by the masses. Perhaps the most compelling feature of template web development is that even within a template there is significant room for customization.

You can alter pictures, colors and general layout. You will be given ample opportunity to create the page to meet your own expectations. Perhaps the best part is you will not be placing yourself in jeopardy of litigation.

Web development should be about personal creativity and expression. It can be easy to look at another website and conclude that it is so well done it makes sense to use it, but chances are if it’s really good the owner of the site spent significant sums of money on the development of the idea. They will not view your use of their material as flattery. Imitating their work constitutes stealing.

With template rich web builder technology you will have an extremely large number of templates to choose from and adapt to suite your needs. Perhaps the best part of using this is both the freedom to use the template in any way that seems fit and the incredible cost savings available to those who use this technology.

I know of a man who spent thousands of dollars developing a site that used flash technology and had daily updated information and features. Someone liked the site so much they created an exact mirror site with their own domain name. Visitors were led to believe the site owner provided a wealth of information when all that was accomplished was the complete theft of thousands of dollars worth of work. The mirror site was forced to close shop. My friend did not press charges, but has become careful about making sure visitors understand the work is copyrighted material and cannot be used for purposes other than the singular enjoyment of visiting his site.

By all means find elements you think would be useful to your design, but make sure those elements are not duplicates of something that already exists. You want your web site to be around for a long time. Make it all yours from the beginning.

Choosing a Web Development Framework

I recently had the opportunity to develop a small online booking system. This time round I was determined to make use of some development framework. Not for me the slow slog of writing all my code from scratch – surely we have moved beyond that now in web development?

The big question was – which framework to use? Since the advent of Ruby on Rails, development frameworks have become quite the flavour d’jour and there are now, well, maybe not thousands of them, but quite a few! The last time I heard there are about 80 development frameworks out there. I am not 100% user of this number, it could be a bit higher, it could be a bit more conservative (on the phpwact site you can find about 40 PHP frameworks listed). The point is, the web developer is now really spoilt for choice. Which is a problem in itself, since having too much choice can leave you dithering between different options.

This article is therefore about how I made my choice, which was CakePHP, and which factors I took into consideration.

Obviously, and certainly, I will get bombarded with “Why don’t you try X framework, it is really much simpler to use…” type responses. That is quite OK, to each his own! But this is the choice I made and I am sticking to it. Frankly, the idea of going through another learning curve gives me the heeby-jeeby’s….

I found that the selection criteria were not independent. In other words, once I have ruled out some frameworks due to some specific criteria, other factors came into play. It was therefore more a process of elimination than judging all the frameworks off a predefined set of criteria.

The first major selection point was: Ruby on Rails or not.

Obviously there is the attraction of using a brand new, hip, buzz-word hyped framework. You can’t go wrong with something that is getting so much attention… or can you?

Let’s look at some of the selection criteria that filtered out Ruby on Rails

1. Ease of installation and ability to run on shared hosting The problem is that most of my clients make use of a shared hosting environment. Can Ruby on Rails run on common-or garden variety type shared hosting? The answer was, I soon discovered – no. One needs to either have access your own private servers or run on a shared hosting environment that has Ruby on Rails preinstalled. Admittedly, there are a couple of them now starting up.

2. Minimize the learning curve Even though I knew that any new framework will involve a steep learning curve, I really did not have the guts to go through TWO learning curves – one for the language itself and one for the framework. I might still have been prepared to go through the learning curve though if it wasn’t for the fact that RoR requires special hosting.

So basically the decision was: Not RoR. And based on criterion 2, I decided to stick to a PHP framework, and not go for something else based on Perl or something else since I’ve been developing in PHP for the past two, almost three years. Having said this, it is all very well to say that CakePHP allows you to use your PHP skills – because it is an object oriented framework/MVC based framework it has its own rich language infrastructure. You still need to learn the CakePHP terminology and the learning curve is pretty steep!

3. Ability to run on PHP 4 Although PHP 5 offers more object oriented features, once again, not all shared hosts offer PHP 5 out of the box. I decided that I wanted to stick to a framework that will offer backwards compatibility and enable me to run on most of the servers that I, as well as my clients, host on.

My further criteria came down to:
4. Must have good documentation Under good documentation I count the following:

– User manual

– Examples and code snippets

– Screen casts and videos – although I do not see these as essential

5. Good support by the user community This, in combination with formal documentation is absolutely essential. All of these frameworks are pretty young and the documentation is also constantly evolving. Some documentation might be patchy in details. This is where the user support in terms of the community comes in. How active are the forums? Is there a bug tracker? Any other informal tutorials, write-ups, comments, blogs and other support?

6. Regular upgrades and bug fixes..but not so close to each other that the software becomes unstable and unusable. Backward compatibility is also important.

Version number of the software can be used to indicate maturity.

The following frameworks are quite popular (2007):

  • CakePHP
  • Seagull Framework
  • WACT – since ‘disqualified’ since the latest version now requires PHP 5
  • Zoop
  • CodeIgniter

The next step was a bit less scientific – but still fitted in with point 5 – how well is this Framework regarded? How much support does it generate in the ‘community’.

I scouted through forums and followed links and surfed the net and tried to get a general feel – and overall, CakePHP did seem to come out tops. A similar check that one can do is the following – do a Google search for each of the frameworks and see how many results are returned. This will give you a good idea of the general support, number of tutorials, number of forum posts and general ‘talked about’ factor for the specific framework. The results for this exercise can be seen here: http://www.tm4y.co.za/cakephp/ruby-on-rails-popularity-for-web-development.html

In summary therefore, the support for Ruby on Rails and the amount of information available for it is astounding and you will probably not go wrong if you decide to go this route. But if you want to stick with a PHP framework – CakePHP seems to be the route to go!