How to Choose a Web Designer

A more thorough, up to date guide is now available here: How to Choose a Web Designer 2016

There are a plethora of options out there for people who are interested in getting a new website.

You can build one yourself, using free templates and resources all around the web. If you’re just creating a hobby website, these are completely fine and certainly make the web more accessible to everyone. The main problem with pre-built templates is simply that they are developed for everyone, so they don’t do any one job particularly well. And when it comes to performance and where you’ll stand with Google, well pre-built themes just aren’t there. They are coded to work in many situations, and therefore don’t work perfectly in any situation.

If you’re running a business and realize the need to have something custom, you’ll no doubt start searching around Google. Here are a few tips to help making the selection process a bit easier:

Visual Cues

This is what most people will look to immediately. Does the company’s website look great? Do the most recent items in their portfolio look good, too?

When I Google “pittsburgh web design”, of the ten companies that show up on the first page of results (organically, either in the results or the map results, but I’m not including any paid ads here), only seven of them are even meeting this requirement for their own sites.

So you can begin to narrow things down that way, but while a good looking website is essential, it’s only the beginning.

Web Development Standards

Sites should not only look great, they should be built to the standards that we as an industry have created to ensure the web is easy to use, fast and just works whether you’re on an expensive desktop computer or a small mobile device.

A great tool to run a company’s website through is the HTML Validation service from W3C. Just paste the address of the web design company you’re thinking of using into the Address field there and see how many errors come up.

W3C HTML validation results showing many errors
I’ve hidden the company’s actual website, but these are the real results from one of the top 10 Google results for Pittsburgh web design.

If you run every one of the companies that show up on the first page through this service, only one of those companies passes without any errors One! On average, the “top companies” in the city have 8 to 30 errors (one even has 258 errors, more than most pages will even have lines of code!)

Guess who the one company is that has no errors? passes the W3C HTML validator tool with no errors is the only web design and development company on the first page of Google’s results to pass W3C HTML validation.

It’s true: errors are not the end of the world. Many websites have them and run just fine. But if a company who is building the internet doesn’t put this kind of attention to detail to their own website’s home page, what will they do for yours?

Speed and Performance Matter

Google has not only come right out and said it plainly, “Faster sites will stand a better chance with doing well with our results”, they’ve built a great tool to allow web developers to make sure they’re doing all they can to keep their sites running well. Again, you can use this tool to vet the company you’re thinking of working with.

Just go to Google’s Pagespeed tool and paste in the website address of the company.

A 90 or better score for both mobile and desktop is what you want to see here. Right now, most companies at the top of Google’s results for our query are ranking in the 50s or 60s for mobile, and only slightly better for desktop. Aside from ClickNathan, only one other company gets a score of 90 or better on desktop, and then proceeds to completely fail on mobile.

ClickNathan scores a 97 with Pagespeed scores a 97 with Google’s Pagespeed tool for desktop, a 90 for mobile.

So why are so many companies completely dropping the ball here? And am I just flagrantly tooting my own horn?

To the second question, yes and no. When I began freelancing full-time in 2004, web standards was not a “burgeoning new approach to web design”, but there were literally no other companies in Pittsburgh building to standards, at least none that showed up high in the search results. People were years behind, new websites for large companies were being built with tables and other outdated practices.

In 2007, I straight up went through all of the companies who were ranking well with Google and listed out who, ahem, sucked. Of the seven of us that were making the front page of Google at the time, only two of us were using modern techniques. The rest of the professional companies there literally were using five to ten year old technologies to represent their own sites, and those in their portfolios as well. That’s like going to a car dealership, being sold a 1996 Chevy Van and the dealer tells you it’s brand new. It’s unethical, and it’s bad for the web in general.

Within three years, most of those companies had gone out of business or were nowhere to be found on Google. In their stead came a new wave of companies, some of which were doing a little better…progress seemed on the rise.

Here we are now another five years later, 2015. None of those companies from either of the previous two lists are still showing up on the first page of Google for Pittsburgh web design, with the exception of myself and Blue Archer. You’ll note that I’m not ripping on any companies, I wasn’t specifically trying to do so in the past and aside from that quick mention in the previous sentence, I have decided not to include the names of my competitors who are failing us from a web standards and pagespeed perspective, and in many cases are just creating downright horribly designed websites.

I continue to look into this every few years because I don’t believe companies should be fooled into working with other companies who are going to create sub-par products. These guys will not be in business for long with this methodology, the web and Google have now proven that over the past ten years or so. Remember, aside from my little web site design endeavor here, not a single other company who was doing well with relevant searches on Google in 2004 is still showing up, or even in business, today.

I have no doubt that there are web developers and designers in Pittsburgh who are doing things right from a Pagespeed and web standards perspective, but they’re still somehow being beaten out by companies who aren’t. The small businesses, non-profits and individuals shelling out thousands of dollars for sub-par sites is simply not right, and if there’s any chance that a post like this might help consumers do better research or even get these companies to step up there game, well I think it is well worth the effort.

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