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.