Regardless of whom you choose to build your website you need to have, at the very least, a defined set of goals or objectives for your website. In other words, you need to figure out what you want your website to do.
Forget about PHP, ASP, CMS or any other acronyms you've heard; the right web designer will figure all that out for you. It's your job to create the wish líst from the perspective of your business. Do you want the website to help sell your products or services? Recruit new employees? Stay in touch with clients? You define the problem and we'll let the web designer propose the best solution.
(If your project is quite large you may want to write a more formal Request for Proposal document (RFP). But for the purposes of this article you're part of a small business, so let's not get mired down in RFP-land, OK?)
Armed with your high level requirements, here's how to identify the right web designer for you:
1) Decide on Geography.
A local designer/company will have more invested in ensuring that you're a happy customer. If things go poorly you can actually walk down the street and yell at them. That said, a web designer who has a good reputation or comes to you through a referral shouldn't be overlooked if they're not located where you are. Technology can greatly enhance communication and keep things running smoothly. Make a decision based on your comfort level.
2) Locate Candidates.
This is easy thanks to the nature of web design and Google. Do a search for 'web design city' where 'city' is your city. Pay attention to two different areas of the search results:
a) the first three to five listings in the natural or 'organic' results, and
b) the top three to five paid advertisers. Create a líst of between five and ten possible candidates.
3) Go Surfing.
Visit each candidate's website and look for the following:
Quality content. Are they interested in solving problems? Does the writing make sense to you as a consumer rather than a geek? If yes, good. Do they provide their services in 'packages' based on number of web pages and whether you want fries or a side salad? If yes, bad. The right web designer will be someone who understands your unique issues rather than trying to jam your business into a bronze, silver or gold package.
Presentation. This is not only the design of their website, but the organization. Does it make sense to you? Do you like it? Would your customers like it? The design and layout of a web designer's website is typically indicative of their 'style'.
Happy clients. Look for testimonials, a portfolio and case studies. Do they show an aptitude at being flexible enough to work with different industries? Ideally their testimonials include full names, which means they're not trying to hide anything. Web designers without some sort of portfolio or client líst are either bad or lazy; either way, they're not for you.
Contact info. Are you forced to fill out an online form to get in contact? Is there a phone number listed? A physical address (other than a PO Box)? You'll need to speak to someone before moving forward, so be sure you can actually call and get a hold of a human being. Companies without phone numbers or addresses are typically located in a basement.
4) Revise Your List.
Based on your surfing adventure, choose your top three candidates.
Call. Ideally, don't email or fill out an online form; pick up the phone. You want to ensure that you're dealing with a professional, so call them up and see how they respond. A good web designer will get you talking about your business. They will listen to your problem, try to assess whether or not you're a good client for them, and take things to the next step, which is:
Meet. Assuming your candidates are all local, meet with them. Sometimes this is referred to as a Needs Analysis meeting. The goal is to give the web designer enough information to prepare a proposal for you. You'll also want to ensure that you're comfortable dealing with them, and a face-to-face meeting is the best way.
Proposals. Get three of them. Any fewer and you're not exploring your options, any more and you're wasting your time. Three is the magic number. Ensure that the web designer gives you the proposal within a week of your meeting.
Assess. Here's how to assess the proposal:
Problem solving. They need to have proposed a solution to your problem that makes sense to you and is relatively free of geek-speak.
Comprehensiveness. Did they cover off all of your issues?
Follow up. What happens when the project is over? Will they help you market it? Train you? What about on-going maintenance? Do they guarantee their work? For how long?
Ideas. A good web design company might have some really good ideas that you had not considered. These can demonstrate creative, out-of-the-box thinking.
Timeline. Ensure that they tell you how long the project will take, and that you can live with that timeframe.
Budget. You don't have unlímited funds, so be sure you can live with the costs.
Your ultimate goal is to get quotes from a few web designers that you feel good about. You want to compare apples to apples, and only by going through the above process can you weed out the oranges.