Commissioning your e-commerce website (part one)

If you’re just starting out in e-commerce, then choosing a web designer to turn your business concept into reality can be one of the biggest and hardest decisions you will face. Before you go trawling through the Yellow Pages, there are a number of questions that any business owner needs to answer.What are your goals?It’s absolutely critical that you understand the goals and ambitions for your site before you even approach a designer.What are you trying to achieve with your site — is it for selling or a marketing driven portal?What is the proposition and image you are offering to your customers?It’s important to define your goals and objectives. However, be careful not to shackle your designer with too rigid a set of requests up front. If you are hiring a good designer, they will take your requirements and work creatively with them. Don’t try to do their job, or you will diminish their value.Who are you hiring?Web design is a fairly ad-hoc business. There is no common acceptance of any pre-requisite qualifications and anyone can set up as a designer. As an example, I was a little shocked to discover that my dentist has a side business in web design. I spent a pleasurable 30 minutes in the dentist chair grunting at his comments about CSS. So it’s important you understand who you are hiring!Getting references and checking out the websites that designers have produced is always a good idea. But remember these are the sites that your designer wants you to see, so do your own research. It can be very beneficial to talk to a designer’s previous clients.It’s even a good idea to try buying a few items from previous e-commerce stores that the designer has worked on. That way, you can get some first-hand experience of being their customer’s customer.How will people find your site?Once you have chosen your website designer, don't be tempted to jump straight in at the deep end. It’s easy to let enthusiasm run away by discussing site aesthetics before giving any thought to how people are going to find your website in the first place.Discuss Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and ensure that your site is designed to maximise its visibility with search engines. It's vital that SEO is part of the creation and deployment process from the start. Many sites look great but fail the basic test of attracting visitors, and often retro-fitting SEO features can be an expensive addition.If you are planning to use Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising such as Google AdWords, discuss this with your designer. Larger design agencies may even have a dedicated Internet marketing consultant who can help determine how your new site fits into your overall marketing strategy. Again, the key is to make sure you get this up front and not as an expensive add-on.What solution is being implemented?It’s more than likely that a designer will implement an off-the-shelf package. It could be a dedicated e-commerce package or a free CMS (Content Management System) with an e-commerce plug-in.Choosing a boxed solution brings many advantages — it should keep costs down and ultimately save time. It will also mean you should be able to look after the site yourself, and if the designer moves on, your site still has a future.Don’t be afraid to ask what it is you are paying for — the answer you are looking for is a specific product and vendor name.I am always amazed when people opt for bespoke or badly-maintained open source solutions. If your business is a success, this software will become mission critical. Unless you have a substantial long-term budget or a real desire to reinvent the wheel these approaches are best avoided.