Six Questions to Ask Your Web Developer About Technology

My morning’s reading started with a brief discussion on Reddit about the relative capabilities of two website content management systems, WordPress and Drupal.

There is no definite conclusion to that battle, but the prevailing sentiment is that WordPress is easier to learn and cheaper to build, and Drupal is more powerful. Excuse this oversimplification, since my topic today is a bit higher-level.

If you’re a business owner intending to build a new website, what should you first ask potential web developers about the choice of system that would power your website?

I’m only listing questions about the choice of technology package — not about the web developers’ business track record, design chops, cost, and familiarity with comparable clients.

The obvious first question, of course, is “Can the CMS do what we need it to do, now?”

Asking these additional questions about the technology will give you a better picture of the total lifecycle cost of your website, and the tradeoffs associated with each.

Six Questions

1. How extensibile is it? After you launch the new website with a given feature set, how easy will it be to add features later on? Examples would be discussion groups, a non-English language, user commenting, a blog, more social media integration, and photo slideshows. Most popular CMS’s have plugin code modules for these features which make future upgrades easy. But ask your developer to investigate how their choice of system will support of your future needs. This discussion would be most productive if you have a rough 24-month roadmap for your site.

2. How well does it support mobile users? Your website needs to look good on iPhones and iPads and Android devices. Does the CMS have a good reputation for supporting this kind of alternative display?

3. How much trouble will it be to migrate my data out of the system? Website CMS’s have a lifespan. What was cutting edge five years ago (e.g. Movable Type, PHPNuke, ColdFusion) is now functionally obsolete. At some point you will need to rebuild your site using a new system, and the portability of the data on your web pages has a nontrivial impact on the upgrade cost. The good news is that most of today’s popular CMS’s store website content in a database, which fundamentally supports data portability. “Flat” websites built by the likes of Dreamweaver are not as futureproof.

4. Will my marketing manager find it easy to make changes to the website? A well-designed editorial interface reduces the risk of mistakes, and reduces the incidence of support calls to your developer. Make a list of the content that you might need to modify on the website before asking this question. Note that if you intend to outsource all your website changes to the developer (or his delegate) then the editorial UI shouldn’t impact your decision much.

5. How big is the development community for a given CMS? Put another way, how many people are available to work on a given system? Your web developer may eventually disappoint you or get out of the business altogether, leaving you with a temporarily unmaintained system. If you have a popular CMS, then it’s more likely that you will find a solid replacement person to work on it. Success is a virtuous circle for software. WordPress is the leader on this score, since it built a broad developer base during its early years as a solid tool for basic blog sites. See this Google Trends chart for one measure of the relative popularity of CMS’s.

6. Does this CMS have a good reputation for security? No web developer will admit to offering an insecure CMS which allows your website to be compromised, but there is a question of degree. Generally speaking, the inherent security risk of a CMS decreases with its developer base. Linus’s Law says that, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” (Another benefit of success.) On the other hand, the most popular CMS’s are bigger targets and thus more inviting to the hacker community.

Bonus Issues

These topics are less critical to the choice of technology, but perhaps worth covering with your developer.

Cleanliness of code. The issue here is whether your CMS builds its pages with tidy code to save bandwidth and display quickly to the user. Drupal, as much as I like it, can produce giant hairballs of HTML & CSS on each page unless the developer is rigorous when building templates. On the other hand, throwing a little extra money per month at the problem (as I mentioned here) can alleviate the problem. I should add that rendering pages for mobile devices is an exception: you want those pages to be lightweight. A good modern CMS should be able to build mobile-ready pages with a more limited set of markup.

Search Engine Optimization. While SEO is obviously important for most websites, the differences between the major CMS’s in their SEO-friendliness are either marginal or overshadowed by factors like your domain name, the quality of your content, the number of inbound links, and site speed.

Accessibility for viewers with disabilities. This in practice usually means legally blind people with screen-readers. See here and here for more.

Don’t Get In the Weeds

Addressing all these issues will help you make a better choice of back-end system for your website, which reduces your total cost of ownership and makes customer acquisition more efficient. These technical questions may also sharpen your online marketing plan itself.

Yet the technology choice shouldn’t outweigh the business issues, as pointed out by the fellows at this web agency. Choose a web developer mostly based on trust, track record and cost.

Why have a website when you have Facebook?

cake2My English friend Frank makes cakes.

What begun as a hobby is now a day job. So he made blue polka-dotted business cards, and over coffee on a Sunday morning he handed one to me.

Under his email address was a URL. Was it Nope.

Did he have any intention of building a “regular” website?


Your Company, On the Web

Companies that need an online presence (meaning, um, all of them) can either:

  1. Build a standalone website.
  2. Build a standalone website AND make a Facebook page.
  3. Make a Facebook page.

Most people are at #1, and moving to #2.

Frank made me consider, is choice #3 viable? Can you run a business with just a Facebook page?

Since I’m a consultant, the answer to hard questions is nearly always the frustrating but honest “it depends.”

Yet we so enjoy breaking down the Pros and Cons, and it’s a good thought experiment.

Evaluating the Facebook-only Approach

Customers. It always has to start here. If his customers are already on Facebook, then he’s not shutting business out. (One has to sign up for Facebook to see the delicious confections.) Frank targets upmarket people who have a big social event, so there is a sociographic match there. Is a Facebook-only web approach making it harder for the customer to buy? No, it’s the same as if he had a regular website. Verdict: No Difference Here.

Frank's Cakes_1299624644400Social Proof
. Buyers want to see market validation. On regular websites, this takes the form of testimonials, client logos, awards, twitter followers and so on. On Facebook, the social proof is right there, with pictures of “friends” running along the left column. This is dynamic and believable, and a major plus for the Facebook-only business site. Verdict: Easier and more personal on Facebook.

Startup Cost. Custom websites cost in the thousands (your mileage may vary), and you ordinarily need to spend a nontrivial amount of time with the development team. DIY websites (e.g. WordPress, Weebly) can be free or have a nominal cost, and they take about the same amount of effort. Verdict: Facebook is free, but so are other options. Tie.

Maintenance Cost. Facebook shines here, since the system is so templated and they have hundreds of developers working on the interface. Frank has uploaded photo galleries of his cakes without worrying about FTP and HTML. You can make basic updates to a Facebook page from a phone, or from any computer. WordPress has maintenance easy. Verdict: Facebook in a narrow win.

Intangibles/Positioning: The entire Facebook ecosystem is built around 1:1 personal relationships, obviously. So using FB as your site makes the most sense if your business is in that mental space. Like career coaches, personal trainers, churches, PR people, and event planners. In these jobs, you’re selling yourself as much as the service, and Facebook works best when there is a personal voice behind the business message.

Here, however, we arrive at the first big elephant in the room with the Facebook-only approach. Doing so risks giving the perception that your company is too cheap to have their own website, are technically challenged, or are just too new. The best way to counteract this is to have a lushly designed, popular Facebook page with several engaging apps. Attaining this requires either talent or money, which means you’ve lost some of the cost advantage. Verdict: It Depends.

Lead Generation: Interestingly, Facebook may have an advantage here. Advertising within Facebook is obviously possible — with its excellent targeting options — and you can run AdWords on Google with the FB page as the landing page. So you get to advertise use the biggest PPC search network, and the biggest social media network, all with one “site”. As for SEO, with a Facebook page you probably give up some upside on very competitive terms. For narrow “long-tail” terms like Princeton NJ Wedding Cakes, however, a Facebook page could theoretically break into the top three. (Disclaimer: I am looking for more data on this.) Verdict: It’s a wash.

Conversion and Measurement: At this writing, Facebook pages have no ecommerce component, so you’d need to complete a sale offline or at a third-party website. Facebook’s Page statistics are improving but come up short next to the commercial stats platforms. Plus, measuring conversions is much easier when you have your own site. (That said, if optimizing page conversion is important to your bottom line, it’s time for your own site.) Verdict: Facebook loses here.

facebook-logo1Branding and Control: 
A company Facebook page is always in the Facebook wrapper, which dilutes your corporate image. We can expect Facebook to give Page editors greater visual control in the future, but that will naturally bump up against their desire to keep some consistency of experience. Similarly, even though Facebook’s Pages can accomodate more widgets and functional applications, you can always do more on your own site. Verdict: Better to have your own website.

Security: Another elephant. If your Facebook account is compromised, all sorts of mayhem can ensue. Recovering access is time-consuming and uncertain. True, there are single points of failure in the website world as well (your registrar account, your email account), but the authentication safeguards are better, and you usually have recourse to a staffed help desk at your website host. Verdict: Facebook loses here. Use complex passwords everywhere.

Copyright and Ownership: Last elephant. Facebook owns the content on its site, not you. Even though their usage policies are not likely to affect you in the short term, this fact carries obvious business risk of the “unknown unknowns” variety.

What About Frank?

The choice is not really whether to build a standalone website or a Facebook page; most companies eventually grow into needing both.

For entrepreneurs like Frank, the real question is, “which is better to begin with?” The best candidates for the Facebook-only approach are small, young, local, businesses whose sales rely on a strong personal connection. Other than that, small companies are better off beginning with a WordPress site.