Custom Designed WordPress Theme vs. Purchased Theme

Wordpress templates

I do a lot of custom WordPress themes, in recent years most of the websites I design are WordPress, I recommend it because it allows my clients to easily update their own websites. Nowadays many companies are choosing to purchase premium themes that are sold online, this is a good idea if you are trying to launch a website on the cheap, but there are some serious shortcomings to a purchased theme.

Why a Custom Designed WordPress Theme from iLab New Media is Superior to a Premium Purchased WordPress Theme

  1. Customizations: When you need help customizing your template, implementing a plugin or any other common theme customization will the theme developer help you out? Are they available for a phone call to help you understand how it is supposed to work?
  2. Bugs: When you find a bug in the template or a plugin incompatibility, will the theme developer be there to fix it at a minutes notice? Can you call or email the developer of your theme to ask about any issues that arise? Will the theme developer stand behind and support his work for perpetuity?
  3. Maintenance: Will maintaining your WordPress theme website be easy or will you have to go to great lengths to figure out how to do what you want to do. If you get stuck can you call the theme developer and have him take a look or make the updates himself?
  4. Updating: To keep WordPress secure it is recommended that you install all updates and keep your software up to date. However WordPress updates can break things in plugins and themes. Will your theme developer be there for you down the road if something breaks or will he require you to buy the latest theme to get any updates? Can you give the developer a call and ask questions about this?
  5. Peace of mind: Knowing that the person who developed your WordPress theme and knows its workings inside and out, is just a phone call or email away. Knowing that no matter what might go wrong with your site (being hacked, data corruption, server fail, plugin incompatibility or anything else), that your theme developer is available to help, cares about your situation and will fix many items without cost to you.

When buying a WordPress theme, remember that these companies are doing it to make money. Not that I am not also in business to make money, but I have a relationship with my customers, I know and care deeply about their online success, we are a team and I am invested in their website. A theme developer cannot care about each, individual customer, they sell hundreds of themes and don’t even talk to most of them. This is the difference between craftsmanship and assembly line manufacturing.

Google: “Make Sure Your Website Doesn’t Suck”

Google's Matt Cutts

Every day small businesses struggle to compete online and every day that struggle gets harder and more complicated. Partially because companies like Google are tying to make it harder on web spammers and partially because small, local businesses are running up against competition from big business. Small businesses often just don’t have the time or resources that big business has to promote themselves online, posting to their blog weekly, checking the competition’s website, checking their search rankings and analytics, posting to social media sites every day, sending out email newsletters, refreshing the content of their websites every month, redesigning every couple of years, etc, etc.

This issue was address by Google’s own Matt Cutts recently in a video post where he answers the following question

“Ranking being so valuable, how does a true biz owner that offers a legitimate business and has a vast number of customers supposed to gain the traffic “deserved” over those that specialize in creating traffic? Is it supposed to be this hard for us?”

Matt’s primary advice to website owners trying to compete online was

  • Make sure your website doesn’t suck
  • Make your website easy for mobile users to use
  • Have good navigation

At iLab New Media we are living this advice, we guarantee that any website we create will not suck, our mobile sites are fantastic examples of mobile ease of use and we always ensure that all sites we create have good, clear, easy to use navigation. So take Google’s advice now and about working on your website so we can make sure it doesn’t suck.

Below is the full video if you are interested in watching it.

What advice would you give a small business to compete with the big boys online? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Why should I pay for custom design when there are cheaper alternatives?

Why pay for custom design?

A custom designed website is not for everyone. A person would want a custom designed website for the same reasons you might buy an expensive suit for business meetings or for the same reasons you might work hard to make your office clean and presentable, because you want to present a professional, successful business image.

Template based websites always tend to look like templates and are often rough around the edges. For a small business just starting out, or when marketing budgets are extremely tight or nonexistent, one of these free or low cost websites is probably the best solution.

For the growing business looking to make a good impression on potential customers, a custom designed website is among the best, and certainly among the cheapest, marketing investments you can make.

Set your website on fire

5 Tips to Increase Web Traffic

All too often businesses get their new websites designed and then forget about them and expect them to do the rest. Business people sometimes assume that if a website doesn’t take off, that the web designer hasn’t done his job correctly, that may be true in some cases, but for a website to really excel it needs to be treated like a high maintenance girlfriend. Here is my list of the top 5 things you can do to set your website on fire and increase web traffic.

  • Blog – This brings us back to the old cliche about content being the ruling monarch or some other such drivel, the point is that your content is everything. Good wordy content drives search engine ranking up, it also encourages people to spend time on your site and it motivates visitors to return to your site again and again. Blogging is the best way for a website owner to add content to a website regularly and tools like RSS help disseminate that information and increase web traffic too. Set a schedule and stick to it, one new entry a week, or a day or whatever works with your schedule.
  • Inbound links – Probably as important to website ranking as good text content is inbound links, that is links on other sites that point to your website. There are a myriad places online where one can get linked. Online directories related to your local area or your particular industry, reciprocal links, blog comments and discussion forums. It takes more time and patience than anything else to find these places and get linked, but your efforts will be rewarded as your search engine ranking rises. Search engines aside, inbound links are good for the traffic they naturally generate too.
  • Social networking – Another great way to increase web traffic is to get your business on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and other social networking websites. Be aware though that simply creating a presence on these sites is not enough, you need to contribute to these communities by connecting to others and posting relevant information. There are tools available now that will connect many blog systems to your social networking account, so for example, when I post this article to my blog it will also appear automatically on my Facebook and LinkedIn account. This saves time posting to a lot of different sources and makes short work of keeping all your online marketing efforts up to date. Other tools of use in this area are sites like hootsuite that can post to various social networking sites at once.
  • Email newsletter – Implementing an email newsletter is another good way to increase traffic. This is fairly inexpensive to add to your website and can bring great returns because once you are set up it costs you nothing to send out as many of these as you have names in your database. If you are going to set an email newsletter up on your website take the time to schedule a time each month (or whatever schedule you want to keep) to write and send out your newsletter, a newsletter system that doesn’t get used is money wasted.
  • Mix things up – A static site does not encourage repeat visitors, update your website frequently. This is especially true of your home page, at least once a year you should change the look of your home page. This gives the impression that your company is active and will encourage people who have been to your site before to spend some time digging deeper to see what else has changed often times reading information that has been there for a long time.

A well designed, well thought out website can do a great deal on its own, but to really excel it needs care and nurturing. This doesn’t need to be expensive, in fact all of the above suggestions you can do yourself, you just have to make the time. The time spent will pay off when you see an increase in your web traffic.

Any other ideas? What have you done to make your website take off? Leave comments below.

The Lost Art of Home Page Design

The secrets of successful home page design

Without a doubt the most critical single element of a website, and yet the most neglected, is the home page design. First impression mean a lot, your website’s home page has to accomplish several different tasks and do them well in a short period of time or your visitors will leave. These tasks are:

  • Capture visitor’s attention: Your home page is like the cover of a book, it has to grab attention and encourage people to explore deeper. Your usual “Welcome to our site” copy is not enough, you have a very brief period of time to make this impression, it must be made graphically or lots of people will leave before they have time to read anything. Balance is required in the area of home page graphics, balance between eye-catching images and download time since a fast loading home page design is also important. This does not mean that your home page should be all images and no text, it needs to have both, images to catch people’s eyes, text to explain what you’re all about and for the search engines to index since they can’t read images.
  • Direct visitors to the content they want: The home page is not just the cover of the book, it also needs to be the table of content. The best way I know of to get web visitors to leave your site is to make it difficult for them to find what they are looking for. The days of the Flash intro page are long gone, visitors expect to see the global site navigation on the first page of your site. The site navigation should be obvious, simple and intuitive, give them that and they may stay around long enough for you to tell your story.
  • Establish the credentials of your business or organization: While grabbing visitor’s attention and helping them find what they are looking for is important, it all means very little if your website leaves the impression that your teenager made it during summer vacation. The professional image of your home page design is as important as the professional image of your office and your dress. Visitors form opinions about your company based on the image portrayed by your website, make sure that it is as polished and professional an image as you can offer.

Creating a successful home page design requires a delicate balance of eye-catching design, ease of use and professionalism. If your website’s home page is able to grab peoples attention, make the content of your website easily accessible while portraying a professional image you are sure to reap the benefits.

If you have any doubts about your current website’s home page, we would be glad to talk with you about it to offer our professional advice or a bid on what it would cost to improve.

A really great web design must…

A great web design takes strategy

Creating a great web design is a balancing act between many varied and sometime contradictory elements. A website needs to please different groups of people and accomplish several functions at the same time. It combines left-brain, logical thinking and right-brain, artistic thinking. The average user or even owners of websites have little knowledge of what all goes into a truly great website, therefore I have compiled a list of the different things a website must accomplish to be considered great. Compare this list to your website to see where it might need improvement.

  • Look good – This goes without saying and is the part you probably already knew. A good looking website portrays a positive image for the business it represents.
  • Work on a wide variety of screens – Every web browser will render a page slightly different, so will different operating systems, there are also mobile phones, tablets and other odd platforms to think about.
  • Be easy to navigate – The end user must find the site easy to get around in and not confusing or they will go to the competition.
  • Achieve it’s goals – Whatever the site was intended to do, be that getting potential clients to call or producing online sales, the site needs to be designed to naturally engage visitors and funnel them towards that goal.
  • Play nice with search engines – Almost any site will benefit by better search engine ranking. So another thing the website must do is make it easy for the search engine spiders to index the content of that site.
  • Be easily maintainable – At some point every site will need updates, a well put together site will be created with updates in mind using includes, comments in the code and clean, easily readable HTML.
  • Load quickly – Obviously, yet it is often not made a priority in web design. With the rise in mobile web browsing this element is more important than ever, yet still often neglected.

There are many other things a website needs to do, but these are the big ones. These are the items that separate the men from the boys in web design, the lowest bidder is most likely not going to nail these points. Likewise a person trained in traditional graphic design will not have all the skills necessary to create a great web design, it takes someone who understands the intricacy of website design, someone who understands things like:

  • graphic design
  • cross-browser and cross-platform website compatibility
  • information architecture and web usability principles
  • search engine optimization techniques
  • W3C HTML and CSS standards
  • server side scripting languages
  • image optimization

A really great web design has to look good, work across all browsers and platforms, be easy to navigate, achieve it’s goals, be fully indexable by search engines, be easy to maintain and load quickly, among other things. Creating a website that can do all these things requires a wide variety of skills that you won’t find at every business offering web design services. So how does your website stack up?

Getting from Click to Cha-Ching

Turning web visitors into paying customers

I’ll let you in on a little secret, search engine optimization does not necessarily produce a successful website, better expressed as SEO ≠ $. While it’s true that search engine optimization (SEO) is very important to a website’s success it is by no means the only element of it’s success.

The goals of individual websites may differ quite a bit, for one the goal may be to get a visitor to buy a product, while another may be to get a visitor to call, or fill out a form to request further information. Whatever the end goal is, reaching that objective is called a conversion, in web design we refer to the ratio of conversions to visitors as your conversion rate. The nice thing about web marketing is that everything is measurable, we can know how many people viewed each specific page, how long they spent looking at it and where they clicked when they left so we can use these figures to analyze how a website is performing.

If you are interested in improving your conversion rate, here are the top 5 ways to do that.

  1. An attractive, professional looking website. It is well known that the look of your website effects peoples opinions of your company, but studies have shown that lasting impressions are made very quickly, a visitor to your website will form a first impression in just a 20th of a second.
  2. Well written copy. The most under-appreciated ingredient of a great website is copy-writing. People read differently on the web than on paper, they scan more and read less. Copy-writing for the web is a topic for another article but suffice it to say that well written copy will significantly boost your conversion rate. If you are serious about it think of paying a professional copy-writer.
  3. Keep content fresh. Nothing can turn off website visitors faster than stale content. Make sure you keep up with dated content like event calendars or company news pages, when these kinds of things become outdated it looks as though your website is not kept up and visitors will move on. You will find that changing around your home page or any other “landing pages” every few months will generate renewed interest as returning visitors notice the changes and take a closer look.
  4. Eliminate hurdles. Whatever the goal of your website is, make it real easy to do. If you are selling a product, put it on the home page. If you are collecting leads, put the contact form on the side of every page. If you want people to call you, put your phone number at the top of every page. Whatever it is,make sure your visitors have to perform as few steps as possible to accomplish it. For contact forms you will get the best results by requiring the fewest fields possible.
  5. Keep download times to a minimum. Believe it or not, some people are still using dial-up internet access, add to that the increasing number of mobile internet users on slow connections and with bandwidth limits, and you can see that download times still matter. The best way to lose a visitor is to make them wait too long for the web page to load, and when I say “too long” I mean around 4 seconds!

What good is search engine optimization if you abuse your visitors once they get to your website? Give your web visitors a quality experience on your site, make things easy for them and they will repay you by trusting you with their business.

10 Things Your Web Designer Should Have Told You

Your web designer needs to tell you something...

It’s been my experience that most clients enter into a web design contract knowing no more about what they’re doing than they do about molecular biology. I wouldn’t hire a carpenter to build onto my house without some knowledge about what he was doing so I could know what I was paying for. Furthermore I wouldn’t go into surgery without reading up a little on the procedure first. It is generally true that an educated client is a happy client, and for every happy web design client there is a happy web designer. Therefore I present my list of 10 things you should know about web design.

  1. You get what you pay for
    Your nephew said he can design your website for you. No doubt he can design that website, but it will most likely be like the Rolex that you buy from a guy on the street, it looks nice but later you find out it doesn’t work. The same goes for web design firms or freelance web designers with bargain basement prices. If they are offering to do it cheap, chances are they are not giving it the necessary time and attention to create a quality product, which leads me to my next point.
  2. Designing a good website takes a lot of time
    A reasonably decent website today must do many things well. A website needs to work on all browsers and platforms, download quickly, perform well on search engines, meet current web standards, look great and be easy to navigate among other things. Getting all these items right will take any web designer a great deal of time. In addition a really good website won’t be done quickly partly because of the next point.
  3. There’s a lot of code behind a website
    When you look at a website you are just seeing the end result of a whole lot of code that the web designer has written, try viewing a website’s source code sometime to see what I mean. And that is just the HTML portion, there may also be many additional files included in a web page such as scripts, style sheets and images. The point is, don’t judge a book by its cover, a web page has much more to do than just look pretty and chances are some web designer has spent many hours getting it all right.
  4. Your web designer has trouble with mind-reading
    It’s helpful if you approach your web designer with some idea of what you would like in your website. Look at your competitors websites and make notes about what you like or don’t like. Some brief notes about features you would like to see, colors you would like to use and things you hate about other websites would be a big help. Your web designer will find it much easier to be creative with some initial ideas to work with.
  5. Every browser will render your website differently
    There are more different web browsers available now then ever and each handles things a little bit differently. What your site looks like on your browser is not what it looks like on everybody’s browsers. There is no way your web designer can make your website render identically on every web browser. The goal is to make it look great on all browsers, not to make it look the same on all browsers.
  6. Every screen resolution, monitor and device will make your website look different
    This is related to the previous point. Depending on the screen being used to view your website, the screen resolution, and a variety of other settings like color depth, your website will look very different from one device to another. It is often a game of compromises to make it look as good as possible on all and the best on the most screens.
  7. Fonts will look different on different computers
    Windows and Macs handle fonts very differently, furthermore the individual fonts on a computer vary widely. So this is yet another example of what may look one way on your computer may look different on another. Your web designer looks for a compromise that looks the best on most computers.
  8. You need to play by Google’s rules
    Google has about 65% of the web search market, its nearest competitor Bing has a mere 15%. This means that any website hoping to be at least mildly successful online needs to do well on Google which means playing by their rules for search engine optimization. The guidelines that Google offers provide some limitations to what you can do with your website, but the benefits of following these rules are many.
  9. Visitors will not flock to your site when it’s done
    The road to internet success is littered with the remains of websites that have failed to make an impression in the market. The key thing to remember is that a successful website does not just happen. People need to be able to find your website on the search engines when searching for relevant keywords, for this to happen you will need at least some basic SEO services. You will need to promote your website to current and prospective clients, put your web address on all your marketing materials. And one other thing is required to make it successful, our next point.
  10. Your website will need to change… often
    People will return to a website that changes often, but not to a brochure website. The most successful websites are those that are more than just static information about your company, consider incorporating a business blog, discussion forum, RSS news feeds, photo gallery or at the very least have the ability to go in and change things around occasionally.

Now that you’ve completed your crash course in web design basics you are ready to go out there and hire a web designer. You will be a better educated consumer and your web designer will be happy that you have done your homework and can carry on an intelligent conversation on the subject of website design.

6 Considerations When Choosing a Web Designer

Choosing the wrong web designer can be costly

Web designers are more like mechanics than doctors although it should be the other way round. Let me explain this statement and how it will help you when choosing a web designer.

Everyone knows somebody who has been ripped off by a mechanic, you know, that slick talking mechanic who really sounded knowledgeable when he told your wife she needed blinker fluid. That’s not to say all mechanics are bad, but there are enough dishonest ones around to make you cautious about where you bring your car. Doctors on the other hand, are mostly reliable. You may hear the story of the person who went in for a tonsillectomy and ended up with a vasectomy instead, and about malpractice lawsuits, but usually these are stories you read about in the newspaper or see on television, they don’t generally happen to people you know because they just don’t happen that often.

The difference is that doctors are licensed, not just anyone can go out and start practicing medicine, mechanics are not, they may be certified but there is generally no government agency or other authority regulating mechanics, anyone could open a shop if they wanted to.

Web designers are like mechanics in this way, anyone can buy “Web Design for Dummies” and Adobe Dreamweaver and start churning out websites, but that doesn’t make them knowledgeable or good at what they do. Web designers are not in demand as much as doctors or mechanics therefore you don’t hear as many stories circulating about the bad web designer, but believe me, they are out there in abundance. You might not have heard about them, but you have no doubt seen their work, and there are many unhappy customers around too. Because some people have been taken advantage of by disreputable web designers or know someone who has, they think the web is not an effective place to promote their business or that the internet has little to offer a business like theirs. The truth is that there are very few businesses that can not profit from the web, if done correctly. Therefore, in an attempt to keep my occupation from sliding into the morass of shady auto mechanics and used car dealers, I offer the following 6 considerations when choosing a web designer.

  1. Design ability: This goes without saying, but you would be surprised how many people choose a web designer without really looking at much of their previous work. You don’t have to be a design expert yourself to judge this, use your intuition and gut feeling about the design. When looking at previous work by this designer what is your impression of the design, is the information easy to read, does it have a professional feel to it, do the colors work well together?
  2. Programming skills: Most designers are not programmers and most programmers are not designers, but any web design firm worth its salt will have programmers they work with and if you are looking at a freelance designer, he should either be able to do programming or work with someone who does. Not all websites need programming, a static, brochure type site does not need any, but are you positive that’s what your business needs. The point to keep in mind when choosing a web designer is, a web designer who can get programming done is going to be able to give you an honest evaluation of your needs, while one who can’t is going to steer you away from anything requiring programming skills.
  3. Satisfied customers: A good indicator for obvious reasons. If you’re in the same city as the web designer in question, ask around, has anyone you know heard any good or bad stories about this designer? Look up some of the websites they have produced, can you email or call to ask about whether they were satisfied with their website? Remember that a satisfied customer does not necessarily indicate a good web designer as the following story illustrates. I was once approached by a man who was interested in getting me to make some minor changes to his website. The site was a circus of colors and movement, it had an annoying music loop that played and took forever to load, it was really terrible. The thing was, the man was very satisfied with his website. Now the case could be made that this was a successful website and the web designer had done his job as long as the customer was satisfied, but I would disagree. The web design must meet not only the needs of the business owner, but also the needs of his customers, if they are not happy with it they may not return, and in time the lack of response from his website may cause him to conclude that the web is not profitable for his business and in turn to shut it down. It was initially successful, that is the business owner was happy, but the long term goals of any website has to be satisfying the customers of the business owner, only in that way will a website be profitable and successful.
  4. Reasonable load times: One of the primary objectives of any web design project needs to be keeping file sizes as small as possible. Of course there are media rich sites that have very long load times, but is the load time reasonable given the amount of pictures, animations, music or whatever? There is a great deal to learn about image optimization for the web and an inexperienced web designer is likely to not know all of the tricks, so unreasonably long load times may be a good indication that a designer is not very knowledgeable.
  5. Crisp graphics: This is the other side of the previous point, image optimization for the web is a tricky subject and ones ability as a web designer shows in the quality of their graphics. When choosing a web designer, remember this tip; an image that is not optimized enough may have an excessive file size and long load time, on the other hand, if it is overly optimized, it will load quickly but the images will be blurry or unclear. A good web designer will be able to create crisp graphics of relatively small file size.
  6. Intuitive navigation: Who hasn’t been lost or confused in a badly designed website? Confusing, inadequate or nonexistent navigation is the hallmark of poor web design. Good design will feature intuitive navigation, think of this like getting into a vehicle you’re not familiar with, you don’t have to think about where the gas peddle is, you just put your foot down where it’s supposed to be and it’s there.

When you take your car to the shop you no doubt make sure the garage is reputable, no less care should be exercised when choosing a web designer. Even if you are satisfied with your website, if it does not do what it was meant to do, that is bring in business and leave satisfied, happy customers, then it’s not a successful website.

Why A Business Needs a Website

discover the reasons why a business needs a website

A web site is one of those things that a business often puts off until the last, and then only after pondering whether they would rather have a website or a second fax machine. Yet some of these same companies will spend the price of a website on marketing every month, all the while doing without the most powerful marketing tool they could have, a website. I’m here to tell you that a truly profitable and successful website is within your grasp. Does your business need a website? Any business can profit from a well thought out, professional website, some types of businesses more than others, but all can profit from a good website.

Set your skepticism aside for a moment as we lay out 10 reasons why a business needs a website.

  1. It will promote your business to new prospects 24 hours a day.
  2. It present a professional business image.
  3. It allows you to quickly and inexpensively communicate with customers and business prospects.
  4. It can provide 24/7 customer service and support.
  5. It will allow your business to reach out to customers around the world.
  6. It will help build your brand.
  7. It can provide product information to interested ones anywhere, anytime.
  8. It can sell product or services for you while you’re asleep, or playing golf or whatever.
  9. It will save you time and money; no printing and mailing out information, instead direct them to your website, fewer phone calls for orders or trivial information when these things are available on your website.
  10. It will give you and edge on your competition.

These are just the basics though, the possibilities are endless, what could your business do with online collaboration, event management or online data management applications? Think about showcasing your best work on your website, or having an email newsletter to keep customers and prospects informed on your latest sales and services offered.

So why does a business need a website? Well, does a business need more customers, does a business need happier customers, does a business need to save money on marketing materials and mailings?