The case for a methodology
For small projects, many small web design firms will just roll up their sleeves and start building your website after little more than a brief conversation. This is not good practice as sites created in this way are likely to be hard to maintain or enhance. It may also be very difficult to transfer the work to a different developer should such a need arise. Sites created in this way are more likely to overrun and less likely to meet the clients requirements.
All of these issues can be overcome through the application of engineering principles to the web development project. A reasonably formal methodology will bring discipline, more reliable estimating, predictability, stability, compatibility, reliability and rigor to the development of your website.
How my methodology is different
Most formal methodologies are created for teams working on larger projects. This web design methodology is streamlined for smaller projects giving them the structure and discipline of much larger projects without the unnecessary overheads.
I have been developing websites since 1997 and before that I spent nearly twenty years as a programmer and systems analyst working for the Government and a number of large financial corporations, so I understand and have used a large range of formal programming, systems analysis, and web development methodologies. This has given me the experience and skills to gather the best from all of these techniques and remove any unnecessary clutter in order to come up with my own methodology that applies the best professional disciplines to the small business projects that I usually undertake.
If you’ve read this far and are still interested, you will probably have realised that this is going to be a long blog post. You may prefer to download the .pdf and read it offline at your leisure (.pdf file Route22 web development methodology for small business websites)
Working with other specialists
Due to my long and broad experience in the field of web development I have the skills and experience to cover all aspects of any project however, I am always happy to work with specialists in particular areas such as: graphic design, photography, marketing, search engine optimisation (SEO), programming, email campaign management, pay per click campaign management (PPC), etc. In fact I know and have experience of working with specialists in all of these fields so I will always be happy to recommend good people to add to the team.
Notes about this document
This document describes a full set of processes and deliverables that I may undertake and produce in the course of a website development. I will not complete all of these activities or produce all of these documents or website elements for every project. This will depend upon the complexity of the project and the budget available. I will however, consider every activity during the course of every project.
In most cases, a number of tasks, and even phases will run concurrently and multiple deliverables will be merged into one.
Throughout this document the terms “website owner” and “client” are interchangeable. They may refer to either the individual or the organisation.
Jargon and acronyms
I always try my best to avoid jargon but there are some occasions where there is little alternative and sometimes acronyms become more commonly understood than the phrases they represent so, in order to keep everyone happy, here are a few explained.
- SEO – search engine optimisation
Techniques for making websites easier to find using search engines
- PPC – Pay per click
A type of advertising on the web where the advertiser only pays when someone clicks on the advert to gain further information
- B2C – Business to Consumer
- B2B – Business to Business
- CMS – Content Management System
A style of website architecture that utilises program code to access a database and dynamically create web pages on the fly and deliver them to the browser device
- Responsive design
A style of web design that uses CSS to create different web pages for different devices. Eg a small mobile phone screen will be much more readable with a larger font size and smaller or less images.
- PHP – PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor (a recursive acronym)
PHP is a popular general-purpose scripting language that is especially suited to web development. It is generally used on a web server to connect a website to a database.
A product that allows users to share files “in the cloud”
Define the primary purpose of the website
It is a surprising fact that this is probably the most commonly overlooked part of web design projects. A very large proportion of website owners just feel they ought to have a site, often just because “everybody has one” without really considering why.
The variety of reasons is limitless but some common reasons are:-
- To sell products and services through e-commerce
- To show products and services in order to inform prospects and entice them to make contact in order to purchase
- To enhance the website owner’s status and reputation within a particular field
- To provide contacts with somewhere to go for further background information following a brief meeting or phone call
- To act as a customer service portal
- To spread the word about the website owner to a wider (preferably specified) market
- To meet a legislative requirement
- Surveys and audits of existing websites that are to be replaced
A clear definition of the site’s primary purpose will ensure focus, which will improve clarity of the site’s message, help with SEO and reduce unnecessary costs. It will also make it possible to measure the success or failure of the site.
Website information Content
The most important aspect of any website is the message it needs to put across. For most business websites, this comes primarily from the textual content. This will usually include something about the website owner, their products and services, their target market and why they are better than the competition.
This may be backed up with case studies, news, helpful tips and advice, and possibly a catalogue of products and services available online through e-commerce. Many sites include information about the site owner’s history and achievements. While this can be very useful for establishing quality and reliability, in my experience it is very often given too much prominence on websites. It is important secondary information that a visitor may require to confirm what has been learnt, but it should rarely be the first thing they read.
Gathering the information
Often, my clients have most of the information needed to start creating their website readily to hand. Possibly in an existing website that they want to replace, in a selection of printed brochures, catalogues and flyers, or maybe in their head. Often these existing documents or a simple Word document brain dump of thoughts will be adequate to get started. Occasionally, a series of interviews may be needed to gather all the information that is needed.
In some cases, information will not only be textual in nature, there will sometimes be pictures, videos and sounds that are integral to the website’s information content (this will not include logo’s or decoration). These will need to be gathered at this stage.
Existing Brand Identity
If there is an existing brand identity, a decision needs to be reached as to whether this should be carried through into the new website. The importance of consistency of brand identity cannot be stressed enough, however, in some cases the new website may be the initiation of a revised identity, or there may be specific reasons why this website should have an altogether different identity.
The client may have their own preferences regarding aspects of the look of the website. These need to be taken into consideration but they also need to be challenged. The website owner needs to understand the reasons behind their choice and be able to support their original preference or consider alternatives which may present different positive outcomes.
Interior designers make extensive use of mood boards to show samples of materials, colours and layouts in combination. I encourage Website owners to use DropBox to show me examples of what they might like to see on their website. These might be colours, snapshots of websites they like, detailed snapshots of particular features of a website or other picture, photographic styles, etc. These can be a great help to guide me towards a design that is to their liking.
Very often, a logo already exists and there is no intention to alter this. In these cases the logo will exert a very strong influence on all other aspects of the look of the site. A clear decision needs to be made about the continuing use of existing logos and whether they can be replace or modified in any way.
Photographs and videos
Frequently, the website owner will already have a collection of media files for use on the website. Where this is not the case, I can often provide stock photos for very little cost. However, for a really unique site that is truly focused on the website owner’s organisation, I will always recommend the use of a professional photographer and /or videographer.
Surveys of existing websites
Where an existing website is to be replaced, I will use a range of tools to analyse, audit and assess that site. Identifying its strengths and weaknesses will be very helpful in identifying particular areas for attention and prioritising activities during the development of the new site.
These will also provide a benchmark against which the effectiveness of the new site can be independently measured.
Possible deliverables from the discovery phase
- Statement of the site’s primary purpose
- Document and media files containing the raw intended content of the new website
- A statement on brand identity, including use of existing / new / modified logos
- A statement regarding any agreed design preferences
- Mood boards (provided by client)
- A statement about the use of external specialists such as photographers, videographers, graphic artists, etc.
Structuring the Information
Once all of the information and other material has been gathered it will need to be classified and structured. This will then be used to generate an overall structure for the website, in terms of menus, pages, headers, footers, sidebars, etc.
Special Data types
From the overall structuring of the data, special data structures such as products, users, members, etc. will be defined.
Possible deliverables from the architecture phase
- A brief description, possibly with diagrams, of the planned overall structure of the site and use of special data types, if applicable.
Look and Feel
The main message of a website comes from the content but there are some very important nuances that come from its look and feel.
If there is no existing brand identity to be followed, additional work will be needed to create the new identity. This may be an opportunity to bring in the skills of a graphic artist or branding specialist.
In cases where a completely new logo is needed I will usually advise the website owner to employ the services of a graphic designer to work with me on the logo in the context of the overall website.
Occasionally, an existing logo may require some modification to make it suitable for the web (e.g. The aspect ratio may make it difficult to accommodate within the required page layout, or some fine detail may be too small in comparison to the overall size of the logo).
Website owners are often reluctant to employ a specialist copywriter but, particularly for text heavy websites this is often a very worthwhile investment. Specialist copywriters are skilled at making text easy to read at the same time as putting the required message across very clearly and powerfully.
Whether or not a specialist copywriter is used, care will be needed to ensure that the website uses a consistent “tone of voice” and that this matches the personality of the website owner.
Good layout is crucial to an effective website. For modern websites, layout cannot be static. When defining the layout I will always consider the requirements of “responsive design” i.e. layout that automatically adjusts itself according to the device on which it is being used. I will produce simple wireframe diagrams to illustrate the intended layout for each of the main page types.
Typography and Colour
These two elements contribute a great deal to the overall tone of any website and can make the difference between an average website with a slightly home-made look and a truly professional looking website. Both of these elements need to be used with subtlety and moderation in order to give the site a classy and consistent look.
At this stage of the project I will provide a suggested set of fonts and sizes as well as a suggested colour palette. This will provide a set of parameters for building the website and there will need to be valid justifications for using other fonts or colours in the developed website.
Style tiles can be very useful on more complex projects, as they allow me to show specific facets of a website before the overall look and layout design is complete. A style tile might show a main body top level heading with some main body text in order to illustrate colour, font, and spacing. Or it might show an excerpt of side bar or menu.
Sometimes it will be necessary to mock up a whole web page, or possibly two or three variations of the same page, in order to reach agreement on look and feel.
At this stage of the project I will briefly describe any galleries or animations that I intend to use in the website and where I plan to use them. This might include: slide shows, button and hyperlink animation, photo-gallery tables, etc.
Any functionality that is required will be described here. This may include inter-active forms, e-commerce functions, calculators, GPS input, etc.
Possible deliverables from the design phase
- A short document describing the brand identity rules to be used for the website, including logo illustrations
- Finalised textual “copy” for the website
- Basic wireframe diagrams showing the layout of key pages of the website.
- A statement, possibly with diagrams, explaining specific responsive design considerations
- Examples of fonts to be used and general rules regarding their use
- A colour palette
- Mock ups of some pages and possibly some alternatives
- Description of special features such as galleries, buttons, etc.
- Description of functional elements
Building the Website (WordPress)
Choose the most appropriate technology
For most of my clients WordPress is the most suitable solution as it allows me to produce a bespoke, professional website within their budget where they can manage the content themselves and take full ownership of the website.
This section of this document concentrates specifically on WordPress website development.
Add content and structure to the website
In order to avoid the risk of cosmetic pressures impacting the information architecture of the website, the main textual content and any media that forms an integral part of the site’s information content will be added to a WordPress website with a very plain and basic theme. This may not include data that requires special data structures.
The website’s core structure and navigation will be tested at this point.
Choose a theme, or theme framework
Customize the theme (framework)
Whether a theme or a theme framework is used, there is usually still considerable scope to adjust most of the site’s elements to make it unique. The overall amount of freedom to achieve this will vary from theme to theme and framework to framework.
Select and add plugins
There are more than 30,000 plug-ins available for WordPress and almost every conceivable website function is catered for. Some are better than others and even ostensibly similar plug-ins will function in subtly different ways. I will use my experience and knowledge to select, install and configure the best and most appropriate plug-ins for the job in hand.
Initial User Training
I will spend some time with the website owners describing the site and how they can manage, maintain and use it.
Possible deliverables from the build phase
- A working website
- A training guide or manual
However beautiful, relevant and functional a website may be, it is only any good if people visit it.
Internal SEO refers to aspects of the site itself. During the initial building on the site I will give consideration to all aspects of internal SEO and do my best to incorporate them into the initial content of the site. Since WordPress is a content management system (CMS) it is likely that after the initial release, the site owner will update the content and so I will provide guidance and tools to improve the SEO of the site during content updates.
By far the most important aspect of any website is the information it provides. Google and all the other leading search engines realise this and the algorithms they use are intelligent enough to determine whether a site is providing relevant and useful information in a clear and helpful way. My first piece of advice to anyone who asks me what they should do to improve their search engine ranking is to review the website’s content and ensure that it is clearly written using good English (or whatever is the intended language), and that it is true to the purpose of the website’s aims and objectives.
A great deal has been said about keywords. In the past, website writers would stuff their websites with keywords and phrases that they felt would bring them the most traffic, regardless of their relevance to the site’s main content. This is no longer the case. Keywords and key phrases MUST be relevant to the content in which they are contained and must not be over used. Over use or the use of irrelevant keywords is more likely to bring penalties than more traffic.
It is certainly a worthwhile exercise to review a site’s content and see if there are subtle ways to enhance the content of any given page in order to try and improve its ranking for a particular search phrase.
There are many tools available that help us to identify which phrases are actually being used to search the web and we will collaborate with the website owner to try and identify which of these are most likely to bring visitors to the site who will actually want the products, services, or information that the web page is offering. Once the best phrase has been identified, the page’s content can be tuned to perform well for that particular phrase.
Long tail keywords are a type of keyword phrase that has at least three, and some times as many as five words in the phrase. Long tail keywords are used when the website wants to refine search terms to the web page, as well as when the searcher is looking for something rather specific. Like normal keywords, long tail keywords are used to define what is on the web page and what the publisher wants to be found under in search engines and on search engine results pages. These keywords are highly specific, and draw less traffic for the website, but tend to draw more quality traffic, which leads in more conversions than normal keywords.
HTML allows for a range of Meta tags in a web page. Many of these have no bearing on search engine optimisation but one or two do.
Perhaps the most controversial is the “keywords” Meta tag. This can contain a list of keywords or key phrases that the writer believes will be useful for the search engines to index their site. Due largely to its abuse in the past, this meta tag is completely ignored by Google and treated as almost completely insignificant by all of the other search engines. Its presence may even have a negative impact in some instances.
The “title” Meta tag is very important. It is not entirely clear how much influence this information has on search results ranking but it defines the information that appears in the tab at the top of the web browser chrome and the main title and link that appears in the search engine results entry. So, even if it doesn’t significantly affect the search engine ranking position, it certainly does affect the attractiveness of the results entry wherever it does appear.
Another very important Meta tag is the “description” Meta tag. This has no significance on Google’s search engine ranking but like the “title” Meta tag it defines what appears in the search results. In this case it is the short summary of the page that appears immediately below the site url. Clearly there is great scope here to entice the user to click on your site as opposed to all the other sites displaying in that page of the results listing.
According to Wikipedia Link bait, also known as clickbait, is any content or feature, within a website, designed specifically to gain attention or encourage others to link to the website. Matt Cutts defines link bait as anything “interesting enough to catch people’s attention.” Link bait can be an extremely powerful form of marketing as it is viral in nature.
This technique is not liked by some people but can be very effective in some circumstances. When building the initial content of the site I will give consideration to this technique and advise the website owner how they might use it later, in their blog.
Site maps take many forms but I will ensure that my sites include an XML sitemap that is registered with the leading search engines and an html sitemap page that can be used by humans to view a structured list of all the pages in the site.
External SEO refers to things outside of the site that may encourage visitors and / or help the search engines to index the site and give it an improved ranking in the search engine results. Although I will usually undertake some external SEO as part of a website development project, some aspects, such as link building, not my main field and I will always be quite happy to work with a specialist SEO Consultant employed directly by the website owner.
Link building is the encouragement of owners of other websites to create links to this site. This is only effective where there is a natural connection between the two sites and the nature of the link and its position within the other site make sense. Done badly, links from other sites that have no natural affiliation or are perceived to be trying to unnaturally boost the website’s ranking may be heavily penalised by Google, or even de-listed altogether.
Another method of link building is to register the website with relevant directory sites although here too, care is needed to ensure that they are genuine and relevant directories and not “link farms”, which are frowned upon by Google and most other search engines.
Although I may register the website with one or two directory sites, link building is not really within the scope of what I do and I will leave this task to the website owner, or their appointed specialist.
There are a range of social networks and different networks will be useful for different websites. I will help to identify the most appropriate social networks and, if required, set up the relevant accounts, pages etc.
I will also incorporate appropriate links and “badges” linking the website with the most relevant social networks.
Local search is a very powerful addition to the SEO arsenal and I will make the necessary registrations and create appropriate index entries for local search.
Webmaster tools and Search Engine Registration
A range of webmaster tools are available for promoting the website and for providing analytics about its effectiveness. I will build these features into the website as appropriate.
Although I will take on the management of pay-per-click if required, for a separate fee, I would always recommend that a specialist in this area should be employed as this can be an expensive task and, in order to be as cost effective as possible, it needs to be managed on a day to day basis by someone who is doing only this all of the time.
Possible deliverables from the SEO phase
- A brief statement about what internal SEO has been applied and Information about keywords
- Appropriate meta tags
- Suggested contacts for link building and PPC
- List of directories on which the website has been registered
- Statement about any work done with social networks
- Statement about local search registration
- Statement about use that has been made of webmaster tools and search engine registration
- Initial analytics reports
I provide a very cost effective business class hosting service including webhosting and email. Since I am using this service all of the time for a large number of my clients, I can provide the most efficient support for your website if I am also providing the hosting.
Supporting the website’s environment
A WordPress website requires ongoing support. Like Microsoft software, it requires the application of frequent patches to ensure that it remains secure and compatible with other software of the Internet. Regular backups should regularly be made to protect against threats such as hackers, mistakes make during updates, server failure, etc.
I can provide very cost effective support to meet all of these requirements.
Although WordPress is a CMS meaning that website owners are able to update content themselves, they often choose not to, in which case I will provide this service at a very reasonable cost.
Social Network activity
If required, I will assist the website owner with making effective use of their social network accounts.
SEO and Analytics
For a retainer fee, I will manage both of these services on an ongoing basis.
Possible deliverables from ongoing support
- A functioning hosting environment
- Email services
- Regularly updated WordPress and 3rd party plug-in software
- Site backups
- Updated content
- Ongoing analytics and SEO
- Social network activity
Which are appropriate
Not all social networks are appropriate for all types of website. I can provide advice on which are the best in particular circumstances and I can help you to build a presence on the ones that really count for you.
Great for regular calls to action, responding to contacts from other twitter users.
Great for B2C communication and a more informal marketplace.
Best for B2B. A little more serious than Facebook. Particularly good for sectors such as recruitment, logistics, supply chain, procurement, etc.
Technically probably the best of the networks but still has a bit of a geeky image. Great for media such as video and photography. This is a must for all website owners, if only for its importance to Google in terms of search engine ranking.
Great for more visual businesses such as photography and interior design.
Owned by Google the YouTube search engine is second only to Google itself, so it’s important for that reason. If you have any video content you should have a YouTube account. If you don’t already have some video content you should seriously consider creating some as this is very much the future of the web.
This is especially useful if you run our business from public premises such as a café or hotel.
Great where photography is core to the business.
Other Social Networks
There are many other social networks. I will be happy to advise on these with regard to a specific website requirement.
Possible deliverables from social networking
- Accounts created for social networks
- Profiles and or pages created
- Social network activity in support of the website
- Additional fans, friends and likes