Small Business Web Design: How to find and evaluate a web design firm

by Jeremy Powers on April 14, 2011

Web design

You have decided you are ready to have a new website built for your business.  Congratulations.  Web marketing is an efficient and effective way to add sales to your business.

2 Web design questions to ask yourself

Your website will be the first impression of your business for many potential customers.  The two questions you should be able to answer before meeting with any web design firm are:

1. Who is my website for?

Your website has two primary audiences:  prospective customers and search engines.  Yes, other parties should be kept in mind:  investors, creditors, and current customers are just some of the other folks that will be looking at your website.

However, the primary goal of your website should be to convert prospects into customers.  Knowing who your ideal clients are is critical to a good website design.

A word about search engines:  A good web design shop will help you optimize your website for the major search engines.  There may be conflicts between what you want and what your designer recommends.  Balance the pros and cons of each method carefully.

2. What do I want my website to achieve?

For most small businesses, the goal of a website is to help prospective customers find the business (similar to the yellow pages) and to convince those prospective customers to take the next step toward becoming customers.

You need to know what that next step for your prospective customers should be.  Do you want the visitors of your website to subscribe to your email newsletter, call you, email you, “like” you on Facebook, or fill-out an online quote form?  Tell prospects what you want them to do, and make that action as clear and simple for them as possible.

How to find a web designer or web design shop

For starters, web design and optimization is one of the three main services of Winding Staircase.  I encourage you to consider our web design packages.  Assuming for a minute, however, that you are unsure of our team, there are several ways to identify a good web design firm.

3 Ways to identify a good web design company

Finding a good web design company is like finding a good accountant.  Who you should work with depends on your budget, the complexity of your needs, and the firms in your market.

1. Ask your network – Ask other business owners who they used, and why.  Please be sure to ask if they are related to or are “good buddies” with the designer they used.  Look at their sites while they talk to you.  Do you like what you see?

2. Look at competitor websites – Take a look at your competitors’ websites.  If you find one you like, see if you can tell who built the site.  Often a web design firm, if the client is happy with them, will be allowed to include a link to their website in the footer of a client website.  Look for a small “web design by” link in the small text at the bottom of the page.

3. Google it – When all else fails, search engines can help solve the riddle.  If you live in Cincinnati, for example, search for “web design Cincinnati” or “website designer Cincinnati,” the search engine will return several local listings, organic listings, and advertised listings.  Review the website of as many of the firms as you can.  Unlike Winding Staircase, most web design firms will not publish pricing on their websites.  You will need to make calls and meet sales reps from different firms to get an idea of the cost.

Before you meet with any of the firms you are choosing from, keep in mind you will likely be working with your web marketing partner for more than just this “one and done” new website project.

7 Things to ask your potential web design partner

Unfortunately, web design and web marketing are similar to other business services.  You don’t know what to ask when choosing a partner, and you wouldn’t know a good answer from a bad answer anyway.  Think about other professional services you have hired for your business.  How many people are still working with that accountant you fired years ago?  That guy is costing his clients money and aggravation, and they don’t know enough to know how much better working with a good accountant can be.

Here are a few aspects of web design to ask about.

Elements of great web design

Web designer question #1:  How will you determine the structure and content of my website?

Your web designer is not in your business.  He is not a plumber, painter, architect, or financial planner.  How is he going to know the best keywords, layout, and content for your audience?  At Winding Staircase, we call this Discovery.  Other firms use other names, but essentially, you need to know how much time is going to be spent getting to know your business, industry, and competition before the design process is started.

Web designer question #2:  What code languages will be used?  Will my site have an admin panel or other moderating/updating functionality?

Will the designer be using HTML, CSS, PHP, SQL, or Flash?  Some combination is likely.  Don’t worry if you don’t know what any of these things are.  You own a successful business, and you can tell when somebody is faking knowledge.  Does this guy know what he is talking about?  RUN, not walk, RUN from any designer that wants to build your site using a lot of flash animation.

I recommend all business owners use a framework that includes a content management system (CMS).  You might never use it, but it should be made available to you, even in limited function.  You will want a CMS if you plan to blog, add pages, or update content on your site.  (If you publish pricing on your website, you will need to update that pricing eventually.)

Web designer question #3: Who will be creating the content for my website?

The text and pictures on your website are referred to as your website’s content.  Most programmers are poor copywriters.  The designer might be expecting you to provide the content, and you need to decide if you have the writing and layout skills to do so.  If the web design firm is going to write the content, ask about the qualifications of the writers they will be using.  Do you have images and photographs, or will you need to hire a photographer or buy stock photos?  Are the photography and writing charges included in the web design estimate?

Web designer question #4: Who is going to provide graphical design?

Many small businesses do not have a comprehensive brand stylebook.  A website, however, needs more than just a two-color logo.  Your website should have a complete (yet defined) color palette.  If you have a brand identity with defined colors – the web design firm should have a graphic designer that can apply those colors appropriately.

Often a website is the most interactive branding element of a small business.  Make sure you are not letting a salesman or programmer make these decisions.

Web designer question #5: How will we measure success?

Thumbs up - We have success!Most firms charge to install analytics packages on your website.  It might be that you decide to simply measure impact by the number of phone calls your business gets after the new website is launched.

Whatever you decide, you are investing your marketing dollars into this project.  You should ask your web designer how they recommend you measure the results.

Web designer question #6: Will my website include any search engine optimization (SEO)?

Your web designer should be including basic “on-site” optimization as part of the design.  Some items to ask about include:  title tags, meta tags, and load speed.  You can pay your designer or an SEO firm to determine the best keywords and phrases to target.

Do not be surprised if your web designer charges extra for improved on-site SEO work.  You need this done, however, so you should be sure you are comparing apples to apples when comparing web design services and prices.

For a quick SEO review, read my article “The 10 Simple Rules for Solid SEO.”

Web designer question #7: Who pays for implementation and hosting?

I have yet to meet a web design firm that did not sell domain and hosting services.  Do you want to manage these aspects on your own (and save a little money), or do you want the web firm to handle this?

Often a web design firm will include some period of hosting as part of your web design price.  Find out what the costs will be after that first year.  Know that if you change hosts to another service, you will need to pay the web designer, or someone capable, to move the site to the new host and point the domain to the new server.

Final thoughts

Your business needs a website built to help you sell.  Your website is not a defensive investment, but rather you should expect your website to help you generate sales.

If you have additional tips for business owners searching for a web designer, or if you have a question about finding a web designer, please let me know in the comments.

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Wow, Jeremy, this is really useful and complete. You really are an all-around small business marketing resource!

Jeremy Powers

Hey Sandy! I haven’t had as much time to chat on twitter lately, and I am glad to see you are still checking in on me.

We do our best to provide the core of marketing expertise and applications for small businesses. I appreciate the vote of confidence.

Lewis Poretz


Great questions for business and consumers to understand before choosing a design firm. I especially like #5 – Thanks for sharing…. Lewis

Jeremy Powers

Lewis – Thanks for the feedback. I do think some web analytics are not necessary for business owners to understand, but you should always measure the return on investment of any marketing activity.

Renee Malove

Excellent start for someone just getting their toes wet looking for a web design firm. I like the focus on understanding who you’re designing for before you start to build. There are so many websites out there obviously created for other industry professionals instead of customers, and it makes me sad. Excessive jargon, complicated navigation and overly technical format all make for a poor website experience.

The other thing I would add here is, what tools is your website designer going to use to find his way around your industry? Many design firms I’ve worked with in the past are happy to spend time getting to know your business, but they drag their feet when the time comes to do the industry research BECAUSE of the time involved. I strongly suggest to all business owners going in that they know:

a) Who their key competition is.
b) What keywords they want to focus on.
c) What impact they want to make, and how they want to make it.

Yours may be the exception, but the bottom line is that you should NOT expect your web design firm to be your market research team. They’re not researchers, they’re programmers. Their skill set is pretty stable regardless of whether they’re designing a website for their local church or a Fortune 500 company. A market researcher’s is not.

If you’re not comfortable handing that information over to your designer, you need to team up with a good researcher first. Agreed? And is that something you’re able to offer on a consistent basis to your customer base, or would you suggest they work with a reputable researcher first?

Jeremy Powers

Renee – I think industry and demographic research is alway a good idea before any major innovation or advertising expense. Hopefully a business already has some research for the web design team to review, and a review of competitive positioning is always worthwhile.

Keyword research, specifically, is something I recommend for any business that wants to really “make the phone ring” from web traffic. Basic research is not expensive, and the ROI on is usually immediate.

I don’t consider Winding Staircase to be in the market research industry. After 10 years in branding at Fortune 500 companies, though, I know a few things. 😉

Thanks for the comment.

Chase Adams

Even more useful for Web Developers who want to work backwards into what their clients should be looking for. 🙂

Great post Jeremy.

Jeremy Powers

Chase – I really hadn’t thought of it that way, but you are correct! Feel free to point the article out to other designers/developers.


I’m in the process of helping a friend in selecting THE RIGHT company to design his site for THE RIGHT price. I work as a technical project manager/business analyst for a software dev team and although i dont know much about the web design process i was hope to help my friend by nailing down the requirements/web site goal before we start talking to any vendors. My friend has content for the site since he’s been in the business he needs a site for for 20yrs so i think thats a huge plus…and Your article is just what i needed and i will use it as a guide especially when screening vendors. do you think it would help cut cost if i could mock up screens of what we want the site to look like for the vendors prior to any meetings…?

Jeremy Powers

Jane – I wouldn’t start with mocked-up designs. A good firm is going to insist on starting by asking on “who are you trying to reach?”

If your friend has been in business for more than 20 years, he should know who his ideal customer is. In the hands of an experienced designer, that knowledge is all that is really needed.

I would advise caution regarding content. Copy and imagery varies by platform. Any content you have will likely need to be modified, at least slightly, to optimize for search engine key phrases. It is likely, for example, your friend will need to add some geographic terms to his copy, to help optimize for local searches.

Feel free to email me or call me if you have specific concerns. (I offer an hour of free consulting to any business that is serious about improving their marketing efforts.)


Really enjoyed the article! Keep them coming!

Jeremy Powers

Thanks Andrew. We have slowed our article publishing to about 2 articles per month. (On this site, at least.) The slower publishing calendar lets us put out longer (and hopefully more helpful) articles such as this one.

Thanks for stopping by!


Who is the old thumbs up man on step 5?

Jeremy Powers

Dave – That is a stock image, but it is meant to be a happy business owner upon seeing his success measured. 😉

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