Imperial Software Systems

How to Contract a Web Developer

Part I of II

Overview: The initial client-developer discussion is an integral part of the Web design process. This article will take a look at both the client side of the development procedure, as well as the best practice methods for Web developers to employ when speaking to their potential business partners.

Are you ready for a Web site?

Your business is ready for a Web site...

Or so you think. Before you take any further steps, let’s take a quick look at the simple reasons why you may want to invest in a Web site in the first place.

  • Sell products over a greater range than you currently do
  • Offer your services over the internet
  • Consolidate or begin advertising through the internet
  • Get your brick-and-mortar location out to the masses

All of these reasons can really be lumped into the super-category titled Increasing Business - the prime goal of any worthwhile advertising campaign. Generating authentic business and receiving solid leads is virtually money in your pocket; and in this day and age, the internet is the best domain for advertising your products and services. People turn to the internet to look for information like no other. In fact, it seems as though the internet is even replacing God in today’s search for answers.

Do some research on a few of the longer queried Google keyword-phrases. Chances are you’ll come across some gems like What do I do if my boyfriend is cheating on me? Or how do I get my children to enjoy Vegetable X?

For driving traffic to your soon-to-be Web site, you need to give users the potential to stumble upon your domain with their search engine queries. After all, what good is your Web site if nobody can find it?

Forget everything you know about Web development.

To achieve the seemingly simple goal stated above, you need to look for a Web designer who stays on the cutting edge of the technological market while being up to date in their development practices. You want them to employ certain Search Engine Optimization tactics, and if they don’t offer such services, you at least want them to make sure your new Web site is SEO ready. Further down the road, you might want to contract an exclusive SEO company to do your internet marketing or even do it yourself; but if your new Web site is not configured properly at its nuts and bolts, you’re going to need a comprehensive ground-up redesign. And let’s not try to waste any money in this endeavor.

First thing’s first: After you browse the internet for local developers or even check the regional phone directories; you must get to know your developer. And when I say get-to-know them; I mean get to know the quality of their work. At this point in the game you shouldn’t even have made a phone call or sent an email inquiry. It is imperative that you take a close look at their Web sites and portfolio (if available). If what you see is visually appealing, consider it an added bonus, because, chances are, you’re looking in the wrong places to measure their worth.

Key Point

Know what you’re looking for. The face of the site is actually not that important. Don’t be influenced by sites constructed solely upon Flash, or sites using a little too much dynamic Javascript. This after all, can only hurt you in trying to get your Web site indexed by the major search engines. Your best bet is to right click on the page and check out their source code. And when you’re done with that, if you’re using Firefox (which you should be using), go to View on the top toolbar and choose to view the page without style. This is a close representation of what search engines are seeing. Try running a spider simulator on the page to really see through the search-bots’ eyes.

When viewing the source code, if you don’t see a DocType Declaration in the first line, let that be your only red flag and move onto the next developer. Another item of interest for you is standards compliancy. To check for this, run the page through the W3C’s Page Validator Tool. While search engines don’t necessarily see valid XHTML as a requirement, the closer the page comes to standards compliancy, the easier it will be read by search engines. It’s a correlation-not-causation type of relationship. Also worth noting is that if Web pages are produced by a company, check and see who your developer is and their relationship to the pages that you were viewing. For example, if you like Page X in their portfolio and it was developed by Designer Y, don’t settle on having Designer Z do it in the same way unless they work on the same team or were trained in the same vein. One more thing to scan for is a comment which may or may not exactly be <! -- InstanceBeginEditable -- >. Remember, you’re paying a good chunk of money for a custom page, don’t settle for a recycled template. You want a unique design for your unique service proposition. If you specifically want your designer to use a template, make sure they design using the same conventions that appear throughout the template.

Next Up

Say no to Flash, nested tables, and all dynamic content other than CSS and basic Javascript. Checking for nested tables in design is really just keeping an eye out for a few too many tags that start with <tr>, <td>, etc. If they start nesting within each other in a recursive cycle - steer clear. This is an old convention for design that mimics the printed page, yet it is still a popular development practice. While developers still get away with such design, mainly because it has the capability to construct beautifully looking pages, sites built with these conventions will ultimately fail and break down as browsers and search engines move toward a more standards compliant approach. So, unless you are displaying tabular data, don’t use tables or ask for them in your Web design. Whatever tables can accomplish can also be done with CSS.

Enter Cascading Style Sheets

An in-depth knowledge of CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets, should be the one qualification you look for in a Web developer. CSS can provide powerful, accessible, and aesthetically beautiful design in the right hands whilst replacing messy and bloated code. If you do require some dynamic or user-behavior delegated content, make sure your designer is comfortable with Javascript as well (this is mostly used for form validation, calculators, or complex image galleries).

Now that you know the criteria for choosing a Web developer based upon principles of design; let’s move onto extended and comprehensive service. While it’s not a traditional component of a single Web designer; maybe you’d like to hire a developer or development team that offers a complete Web hosting package including domain registration and email setup. While they’re at it; wouldn’t you like a few guaranteed site modifications and some technical support, to boot. Be wary of designers who design-and-drop. What happens when the next version of IE comes out (certainly guaranteed to break more than a few Web sites)? Or when you no longer offer Product X or you change your address, phone or fax. Do you really want to hire a new developer or draft one of your administrative assistants to decipher somebody else’s code?

In so far we have taken a look at what to look for when contracting a Web developer. Say no to nested tables, Flash and messy markup. Say yes to standards compliant CSS and XHTML.

In the next installment of this article we will further discuss the interlocution between contractor and client in Search Engine Optimized Corporate Web Development.


Jeffrey Olchovy (http://www.imperialsoftwaresystems.com) is a front-end Web developer and certified SEO.

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