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Web design: what are your options?

Web design basicsThere are few things more crucial to the success of an online business than its website. All forms of online marketing – whether it’s email, banner advertisements, or search engine marketing – lead to the website, eventually.

Given the central role a site plays in the success of an online business, it makes sense that so much emphasis is placed on web design when it comes to apportioning startup budget. What stops many would-be entrepreneurs from even trying is the idea that a website has to be custom-built to meet the needs of the business.

The truth is that there are a number of ways to create a website – and you might be pleased to learn that the most common of them needn’t cost the earth.

1. Hosted design services

There are three potential avenues open to a small business looking to build a site. The first is hosted web design – services that carry all the tools required as an online service. The second is to build the site using a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, Magento, Joomla or Drupal. Finally, there’s the appealing but expensive option of having a site built for your business from scratch.

The first thing to investigate is whether or not a hosted web design service will work for your business. Platforms like Squarespace, Big Commerce, Big Cartel and Google Sites aim to help people with little or no web design experience create sites without having to hire a designer. Most offer an array of templates or ‘themes’ – basic site structures – that can then be modified with a drag-and-drop interface.

The real benefit with this approach to web design is twofold. Firstly, the cost pales in comparison with the rates that even the freshest web designer is likely to charge. If the platform doesn’t offer a basic free version, then it’s typically priced on an affordable monthly or yearly subscription basis.

The second major attraction of hosted services is that the learning barrier is very low. The systems and dashboards in place make it particularly easy for anyone to create a website.

The downside of choosing a hosted platform is that it matches the business to a pre-existing combination of web design elements, rather than the other way around. Most hosted services offer ‘blank slate’ options should you want to employ a web designer to customise certain parts of the site. Regardless, unless your needs are very basic, it’s best to treat these services as a stepping-stone to a more tailored site.

“They’re a really good option as a starting point,” says digital strategist Anna Spargo-Ryan. “But they need to be considered to be a starting point.”

2. Content management systems

The next step up from hosted web publishing is content management systems (CMS) like WordPress, Magento, Drupal or Joomla. These are all open source, meaning the basic coding behind the software can be interpreted and modified by anyone.  It also means they’re free to use. This openness has allowed communities of web designers to develop around each of the major platforms, creating custom add-ons and templates for businesses to use free or for a small fee.

Due to the popularity of CMSs like WordPress, many third party services aimed at small online businesses in Australia make it very easy to lay the foundations for a basic CMS site.

“You don’t have to be terribly tech-savvy to do that,” says Spargo-Ryan. “A lot of the shared hosting that you can sign up for in Australia has WordPress install options built into the control panel and then uploading a template is quite an easy process.”

The real benefit of choosing an open source CMS is the extent to which it can be customised. Because software like WordPress is so widely used, there’s a lot of information online about how to modify it to suit your needs. There’s also a wealth of templates and add-ons for sale that have been created by designers to sell to businesses like yours. Given the extent of the designer community already working on WordPress, it’s likely that your ideal template is already available to buy from sites like WooThemes or Theme Junkie.

While it is possible to create a site yourself using a CMS, it’s ideal to spend some money to have your chosen template professionally tailored by a web designer. This approach is a happy medium between having a custom site and a template-based hosted site. If you have a small amount of money to pay a designer, it’s best to take this path.

The only major downside of using a CMS as the basis for a website build is that, regardless of how careful you are when choosing a template, or how many modifications you add, it’s likely that your business isn’t the only one using it.

“The idea of a website is to showcase your business and to set it apart, and to demonstrate your points of difference,” says Spargo-Ryan. “If your website looks exactly the same as another website, then that’s not ideal for those things.”

3. Custom site design

Having a site designed for your business from scratch is the ideal option, but is also often the most expensive one. Much of the expense with this route has to do with expectations. If you’re unsure of what you need from a website, then it’s likely there will be more back and forth between the web designer and yourself than there needs to be. If you know what you want, and have a reasonably clear idea of how it should be done, then briefing a designer will be much easier, and you’ll spend less money on draft sites that aren’t right. The key is to research your options thoroughly, and be careful not to sign up for services that you don’t need.

Fleur Filmer started an online retail business called Lulu And I last year. Having conducted some research, she decided to go with a custom site built by a web design agency with a proprietary CMS.

The troubles stemmed largely from Filmer’s inability to modify the site without going through the agency she hired to build it. Although the site looked excellent, and the custom CMS made it very simple to modify product listings and content, any change to do with the look, feel and layout of the site had to be handled by the agency at a flat hourly rate. As the agency owned the CMS, finding a cheaper freelancer to make ad hoc changes was not an option.

“Because I was working with this proprietary company, anything within the wireframe that I wanted to change had to be done by them,” she says. “The products I sell are jewellery and accessories – the website operates in a world that’s moving every minute, and you do have to change the look and feel of it. Whenever I’m looking at doing a major change, I’m looking at between $600 and $2000.”

While there are significant potential drawbacks to being tethered to a design agency, the benefits of a site created specifically for the purpose of the business are compelling. If you can afford to have a site built for your business from scratch, then do the research and shop around developers to find the best fit.

At the end of the day, it comes down to finding a compromise between what your website needs to achieve and what your budget allows. Given the possibilities that hosted web design and CMS templates offer, don’t let anyone tell you that it can’t be done.

Image credit: Thinkstock

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Articles, ‘How To’ pieces, interviews and news, these small business web design ideas and advice will help ensure your company has a website to rival all others. From colour palettes to branding, right through to technical applications and coding, NETT offers mixtures of articles guiding and inspiring you through every step of web design for small business.