Since the Internet is quickly becoming the Yellow Pages of the 21st century, it may be time to invest some serious dollars in your Web site. Instead of hiring your cousin's friend's 14-year-old who does some Web work on weekends, you may want to hire a professional Web site designer. But how do you choose the person who will create this all-important Web presence? And what should the site look like?

Research First

"Most importantly," says Jill Nebeker, Web editor at Athletic Business Publications in Madison, Wis. (AQUA's parent company), "make a list of answers to this question: What do your customers want to find on your Web site." Do they want to see your line of hot tubs. Should you describe your technical services in detail. If you don't know what they want to see, ask them. Perhaps offer a coupon for $5 off their next purchase of chemicals if they fill out a survey.

"Also, take some time to think about what you want the site to accomplish," says Jon Kavanaugh, associate director, Web content at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. "Will this be primarily a simple information site (online brochure plus contact information) or a place to get information and make purchases or order services?"

Next, says Nebeker, "Find three Web sites in your industry that you like and write down why you like them." Be specific about why you like the site. Do the colors work well? Does it have a good sense of balance and unity? Are there a limited number of easy-to-read fonts. As you identify the elements of site design you like and those you think will appeal to your clientele, think about how those elements could be used in a site for your company, Nebeker says.

You may also want to learn more about the Web in general. "Educate yourself about the pieces of a Web site; do a Web search for definitions of 'domain name,' 'Web site hosting,' 'HTML,'" says Nebeker. In addition, go to directnic.com and find out if the domain name you want is available.

Choosing A Designer

After some initial research, you'll need to hire a Web-page designer. Pedro Sostre, principal at Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, believes that designers should have expertise in areas beyond design. "A good Web designer should also have an understanding of branding, marketing and technology for the Internet. He doesn't make things look pretty just for the sake of looking pretty. He understands that your Web site serves a particular business purpose and must appeal to a specific target market."

Kavanaugh also believes a good designer possesses a variety of skills: "Building or redesigning a Web site requires several kinds of design: graphic design (the look and feel of the pages); technical design (site structure, navigation scheme, feedback mechanisms and forms) and information design (strategy for presenting content that keeps in mind how your customers will use the site). The best Web designers have skills in all three areas. It is critical, however, that the designer you choose has at least the first two."

In terms of how much experience your designer should have, the experts have mixed opinions. "A designer should have at least three years of Web design experience and be capable not only of visually designing the site, but also of producing and posting it online," says Kavanaugh.

"Some visual designers work with technical production designers as a team. It is not critical that this is their full-time job, as long as they can commit to working within your time frames and are accessible via phone and e-mail."

Janet Jaffke, associate director, Web and Electronic Communications, Illinois Institute of Technology, adds: "Make sure the designer is in the business for the long haul and will be available after the site is launched either to make updates or adjust proprietary graphics as needed. In the hiring contract, specify that the designer should provide all site files and master graphic documents on CD or DVD. That way, if the designer is inaccessible, another source won't have to recreate graphic elements from scratch in order to make adjustments."

Sostre agrees that experience is important, but says it should not be measured in years. "I have seen designers with less than one year in the business and they have more experience than designers that have been doing it for years. I think passion is more important. Ask how many URLs they have. An experienced designer can show you 10 to 15 good URLs relatively easily."

Nebeker also suggests looking through the online portfolios of a few Web designers. "If you don't see what you like, choose a different designer," she says. She also believes it's important the designer is available in person as well as by phone and e-mail. Others do not feel an in-person meeting is absolutely necessary. Ultimately, the required level of accessibility depends on the comfort level of the client — if you need to be able to see your designer in person, then hire someone local.

Once you've narrowed down the field of candidates, call at least three Web designers and set up a free Web site assessment consultation.

"Gather and bring any and all marketing material with you so the designer can get a good idea of what you might want," says Nebeker. "Bring business cards, Yellow Page ads, print ad material, postcards, supplier brochures, etc."

Before you meet, e-mail the designers the addresses of the Web sites you like and tell them why you like them.

Then, during the consultation, Nebeker suggests you ask these questions: • How much do you charge each year for a domain name.

  • How much do you charge to host a Web site each month?
  • How much do you charge for an email address?
  • Can you give me the names and numbers of three current clients?

"Next, tell them what your customers want or need to find on your Web site and then ask them what they envision as a home page for your Web site," says Nebeker. "Ask each company for an itemized assessment with a quote, a description of the project, how many hours each part will take, domain name and hosting costs and a deadline.

"Make them sell not only their design skills to you but also their project management skills. Weed out the designers who can't answer cost questions with hard numbers or project questions with firm deadlines," says Nebeker.

If you're wondering what those hard numbers are going to be, Sostre says, "Web design costs vary widely. There are a lot of kids out there that will make a Web site for a couple hundred bucks. I don't typically suggest that route because with Web design, as with most things, you get what you pay for. For a good 10-page HTML Web site, you should expect to pay between $1,000 and $3,000. If you need something much larger or you need more-advanced technologies, you could easily spend $10,000 to $25,000, or more."

One advanced technology you may be considering is selling products online, but Nebeker warns, "Be prepared: It's expensive, takes a while to set up, and will require you to have all product information and images on hand and usable. And don't be a guinea pig. Make sure your designer has already done this for other clients. If the designer does not have experience with setting up shopping carts and other e-commerce features, go with someone else."

Evaluate The Mockup

Once you've chosen a designer, it's time to get the site together — and there are definitely steps you can take to move the process along. "The sooner you get photos, logos, hours, staff information, product information and copy to the designer, the quicker your Web site will be completed," says Nebeker. If you don't write the copy yourself, be prepared to pay the designer extra to do this, she adds.

For those who do write their own copy, Kavanaugh says, "If the goal of the site is primarily to provide product and service information and contacts, keep the copy straightforward, short and informative. List features and benefits by bullet points following short introductory paragraphs (which may use more emotional copy). People who use the Internet want information quickly, so keep it short and to the point. Interested customers will follow up if they need more information. If you have a retail store, be sure to include store hours, locations, directions and maps or map links plus phone and e-mail contacts.

"Essentially, you want customers to know who you are, what you do, how to interact or visit you and why you are better than your competitors (largest showroom, incredible selection, superb customer service, money-back guarantees, etc.) Whatever they are, focus on your best features, but keep it short and simple. Also, because spas and pools reflect lifestyle choices, it is good to have a page or two devoted to showing consumers using the product in various settings."

Once the designer has all the necessary materials, he or she should put together one or more sample mockups before developing the site. If you want changes, ask after seeing the mockup, but try to make final decisions at this point. "Making changes later is difficult for the designer," says Nebeker.

In terms of layout, what you want to see in the mockup are pages with distinct focal points, and they should be easy to navigate, says Sostre. "The layout should be professional and fit with the image you want for your company. The standard areas for navigation are on the top or left areas. The navigation should be noticeable, but it should not be the focal point of the site. Navigation is something people should look at only after they have determined that whatever is on the page is not what they're looking for. Also, if you have existing collateral (flyers, business cards, signage, etc.), you may want to match the look and feel of those."

Kavanaugh suggests looking for consistency across the pages in terms of typography and the placement of visual elements. "There should also be an easy way for consumers to go backward in a complex site without getting lost ('bread crumbs')."

In general, says Kavanaugh, "Less is more. A simple grid of content areas or simple column format that is consistent across pages is easier to read and follow than complex page layouts with many different elements jumping out at the reader randomly. Make sure the most important elements appear in the browser window without scrolling. Also, make sure your store/dealer name/logo is prominently positioned in the upper left of the site. Pages can be flush left or centered in the browser window."

All the experts agree that a limited number of simple, block-letter fonts (like Verdana, Arial or Helvetica) should be used, and that decorative fonts, animation and other attentiongrabbing graphic devices should be used sparingly. Kavanaugh suggests limiting the number of colors used for navigation, rules and backgrounds to a palette of three to four. "This helps in achieving a consistent look and feel." And, although some color contrast is good, too much use of bright or neon colors can be irritating and distract from the content.

Will I Get Hits?

Yet another element to consider when creating a Web site is how it will get ranked with search engines. After all, what's the point of having a top-notch site if people can't find it easily. Manipulating your search-engine ranking is a fairly complex process, but your designer should be able to build your site using proper search engine optimization techniques. Says Sostre, "Some examples include: Using the <H1> tag as the main subject of the page, using appropriate page titles, and adding 'alt' text to all images. These are standard Web development techniques that should be done and they will help your pages get ranked well. For heavy-duty search-engine optimization, you may need to hire a search-engine optimization company, since they will be more aware of the latest industry trends."

Kavanaugh notes that most major search companies offer paid ranking to ensure your sight is returned in search results among the top 100 or 50. "The designer can also assign meta-tags and keywords to the pages (not seen by the public) which helps the search engines key in on your site when their 'spiders' routinely scan the Internet for content and updated content."

Finally, before signing off on any design, you'll want to determine how updates will be done. "A good designer can build in a content management system, which makes it very simple for you to make the updates yourself," says Sostre. "This might be a little more expensive upfront, but you'll save in update costs. The alternative is the designer can do it and charge on an hourly basis. Most designers can give you pricing for both situations. This is really up to the Web site owners and what they are comfortable with."

If you choose to do the updates yourself, have the designer include a few hours of training in their proposal.

Once you've launched your brandnew or revamped site, don't miss an opportunity to tell people about it: Put it on your bags, business cards and all advertisements. Let everyone know where to find your polished and professional storefront on the Web.