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So I’ve written a lot about needing to have a website, regardless of the size of your small business, in this day and age. As a company, we’ve been preaching it since our earliest days as Epiphany Marketing. It was important and necessary even before the pandemic struck. Now I don’t know how any business can operate and survive without a web presence. It is a business essential just as much as having sales and a business plan.

And yet… how many companies still try to make it without it?

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. Our favorite and always recommended platform is WordPress. This is true whether you hire a third party to design and build your site or take it on as a DIY project. It’s just as free as SquareSpace and Wix, but far more powerful, manageable and high indexing on Google and other search engines right out of the gate. In fact, after I finish this article, I’ll be popping over to work on a site that I’m launching, all built on WordPress. And I’ve been working on websites and online design since I trained at Microsoft to help launch the local side of MSNBC in 1995/6.

So whatever you do, start with WordPress – even if it’s just the content blog component of your website plugged into a larger third party design.

Now that we’ve established that, let’s look at the larger picture – if you hire a third party to help create your website, is it better to hire an architect, a construction tradesman or a building company?

What Does It Look Like

A web designer or design firm is like an architect. These are your Frank Lloyd Wrights, Frank Gehrys and Mies Van der Rohes. They design the look and feel of your website -how cool it is, what fancy styles it exhibits, and, ostensibly, the functionality of the site. There are multiple components to functionality, but the designer is mostly concerned with just that – designing how it will function, but not always why.

Designers as a whole rarely get “their fingers dirty,” as it were. As an example, Antoni Gaudí designed the world-famous La Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Spain. But he didn’t get in there and start laying the mortar or nailing the beams up. And nearly 100 years after his death, that cathedral is still under construction. It’s even a plot point in the latest Dan Brown Robert Langdon novel.

And that’s the difference between the how of website functionality and the why. The why is much more hands-on, or rather code-dependent. And most designers don’t look at or worry about code too much – they rely on developers to handle that work.

 Where Do All the Ones and Zeros Go

Web developers on the other hand are like geeky mathematicians – they definitely gets hands-on. They are fluent in several computer languages, from HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. And they have a handle on lesser used “lingos” like Python, SQL, PHP, Swift, Unity, Scala, Go and Rust. Maybe even “dead” website languages like Pascal, C, C++, F# and COBOL.

And yes, I know much of that seems like gobbledygook if you’re not one of those programming linguists. As someone in nearly every episode of CSI or NCIS says, “English please.” The most, ahem, binary explanation is that the developers speak in the ones and zeros of code and can make the designs of the architects actually function in the real online world.

Further, while architects handle every visual aspect of the building, and usually know enough about structuring things to create useable blueprints, developers can be broken out into specific trades. Just like a carpenter doesn’t lay stone or pour a foundation, and a mason doesn’t run electrical conduit, website developers have more specific tasks.

Laying the Foundation

Back-end developers work behind the scenes to make everything work and play together on your website. They’re the ones setting up and formatting the databases and making sure the servers are addressed right and can talk to one another properly. Back end developers are like the stage crew that make sure the play goes off without a hitch – changing lights, curtains, props, furniture, etc. Most of their work is unseen. You only notice their work when it isn’t working.

Back end developers are also the “bones” of the house website. The structure, foundation and electrical work in the walls, under the floors and above the ceilings. Again, their primary purpose is to function unseen, but without them, your site can’t function.

Lipstick on the Pig

Front-end developers are the folks who worry about the user interface of your website. They’re painting the walls, prepping the trim, and even landscaping the front yard. Anything that is visible to people visiting your site is their bailiwick. This includes what YOU see when you look at your dashboard. When you’re adding a post or updating numbers or graphics, you’re also utilizing the work of the front-end developer.

The front end developer is responsible for making sure the site works the way the designer planned. Tweaking the look and feel of the site to get the best possible and error free version of your website for your customers.

Front-end developers still know code, just more specific user code, and they work with the back-end developers to make sure everything sings together.

Stacking the Deck

There’s a third “designation” for website developers that’s a bit of a misnomer, but needs to be addressed. A full stack web developer is defined as a person who can develop both client and server software. Now my software engineer friends are gonna call me out on that. As a software developer, you, by definition, are handling both sides of the coin. They don’t like the separation of powers, as it were, and find the term “full stack” to be insulting.

Even developers who tend to focus on one side or the other of website software solutions should still know how to do the other side. In fact, this is where it gets really complicated, because if a front end developer has a problem, they need to at least know enough to be able to troubleshoot why the back end isn’t responding properly. And the same goes for the back end developer. They need to be able to speak the language of the client interface to understand where the problem lies.

So while you may hear the term full-stack web developer, just know that these are full-fledged software developers who can handle the ins and outs of the code that runs your site.

Soup to Nuts

Your third option for constructing your website is to hire a building company. Instead of finding a web designer to make your site look awesome, then a software developer or two to try and make the cool design work, you can get a package deal. Essentially, you hire a construction foreman who starts at the design phase and truly builds a form follows function website.

A full-service website provider not only provides design and functionality – if they’re truly serving their clients, like Grow the Dream does – they’re providing strategy, marketing, and true search engine optimization.

True SEO isn’t stacking keywords and embedding sales phrases into the pages. It’s creating content that routinely brings potential clients to your site. Google prefers this type of SEO because it is useful and valuable to the people that use their search. Long tail, educational, interesting and worthwhile content targeted at a specific type of customer means that Google’s algorithm is “confident” sending people to your site…and bumping it to the top of the search results page.

Your business succeeds because everything is strategized and synchronized. The message, voice, brand of your product or service is consistent across the board, not pieced together like a marketing Frankenstein monster.

Developing the Dark Side

Unfortunately, thanks to an overabundance of minor knowledge, lack of budgets and unearned confidence, the foreman for many businesses is themselves. The multitude of do it yourself, plug in the standard, cookie cutter pieces is overwhelming in its apparent simplicity, yet boringly ubiquitous. And if there’s a problem, or you try to do something new and it breaks, you’re S.O.L. Tech support for those free sites is often more sales-oriented than user-friendly. And because they’re wired to say yes without knowing what is truly possible, will often make promises they can’t keep.

A personal example – one of the non-profit clients I worked for years ago had a leadership change, and the new hierarchy opted to cancel my 5 year running contract to “hire” a free provider. Their first mistake was not understanding that free meant third party advertisements baked into their non-profit site. The salesman promised they would be removed. 7 years later, they’re still there.

The salesman happily promised that all the functionality of their current site, that I had built from the ground up, to the non-profit’s specifications, would be transferable. I’d say he lied, except he just didn’t have a clue what he was promising. Carefully constructed and coded interactive pages didn’t mesh with the new provider’s template system. And even though I took the time to give them the full code – so they could paste it into an empty page’s HTML structure – they didn’t have access to the page code or servers.

Months of work I had done that they had paid for was now worthless to them. They weren’t upset at me. I bent over backwards to help the new provider get on track, despite taking my business. But the non-profit ultimately lost their “free” bet. You get what you pay for.

No Missed Opportunities

One of the other big issues with spreading out your website creation is ongoing maintenance. Working with a full-service website provider, it’s easier to make updates and changes, even full redesigns, without losing momentum or suffering website downtime.

When major changes need to be made, especially through a WordPress-based site, a full-service provider can set up a staging site. First they duplicate your entire existing infrastructure and content. Then they begin the alterations, checking each page and post for consistency and unbroken links, connections and emails. All behind the scenes while your existing site remains up and active.

Then once everything is transformed, checked and double checked, a full-service provider simply shifts the network designations. Your old site becomes inactive and the new redesigned site goes live – within seconds. No loss of service or risk of customer FOMO.

And because you’ve got a full-service provider on board, your emails stay connected. Your links stay relevant, and there’s little risk of 301 redirects, sending customers away. All of those errors can cause loss of search engine ranking and visibility. What’s more, when done right, launching a complete redesign retains visibility and momentum on Google and Bing.

And if that’s not enough incentive, there’s no overlap between servers, hosting and IP providers. That’s saving your business money by not paying for the same service multiple times, or missing a recurring charge for services no longer being used falling through the cracks.

Survey Says…

So as you can probably gather, I’m much more inclined to recommend a full-service website provider – like what Grow the Dream does. Not just because I work for the company. Our services are not right for everyone. We are too small for some companies, too costly for others. Outside of finances, we have specific client profiles that we target our services and information for. We’re not going to try to help you if we can’t, or make promises we know we can’t keep.

But GTD aside, a really good full-service website provider is worth the extra investment to make sure everything runs smoothly. Just like your small business employees need to be on the same page, your website works better when you have a single point of contact to work with.

That’s not to say I don’t reach out and communicate with some of our clients one-on-one. But the message is always aligned. And we’re always striving to make everything – website, emails, offline marketing and more – speak with a consistent voice to a specific group of people – the target customer profiles of our client’s best customers.

Ultimately, it’s your business, and you need to do what’s best for it. Which is why I recommend WordPress. I know some people reading this need a fast, affordable DIY solution. WordPress is the best bang for that buck, period. It’s an elegant solution that looks great inside and out, and rarely has issues. I can’t say the same for all those website builders that advertise on podcasts and YouTube channels.

If you’d like help making your decision, please reach out. Even if you don’t hire us, we’ll give you 25 minutes of our time without charge to get you started. We’ve built our business helping small businesses succeed. Let’s Grow the Dream together!