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Many businesses pay a lot of money for someone to make a website for them. Yet from the huge number of poorly designed websites out there, it doesn’t look like a good return on investment for the most part.

Not counting incompetence and outright fraud, there are still too many bad websites out there which were supposedly designed by professionals. In this age of free technology and even freer information, how can this be? As I venture into offering website design as a Small Business server, I’ve thought about this and came to the following conclusion:

Many businesses, especially Small Businesses, spend lots of money on two things which, while both useful, are not website design.

The first and more common is web hosting. These business owners or representatives will meet with someone who ideally should report to sales, who claims to assist in “site design“. What they actually end up focusing on, however, are low-level technical concerns, like bandwidth, storage, and the programs available for the client building their own site.

web-designThese are all useful things, but they don’t make a website. They are the components of a website — good enough, if you can build your own website, which most Small Business owners and operators cannot.

The next common mistake is hiring a graphic designer as web builder. These guys are usually very helpful at creating logos, banners and a website’s overall visual design. They may even create basic functions, like login, with a database back-end if you’re really lucky.

But, again, this is not a website — this is a collection of nicely designed web pages. Today’s “standard” website should be more than pretty pages, sitting there. Successful websites must have function, and be as advanced as the space shuttle is from the original Wright Brothers’ motor-powered glider. Pretty pages and a clever Flash menu simply won’t cut it.

An effective modern website, without being fancy or complex, should

  • Have fresh content, lots of it, and be easy to update
  • Include all mediasound, images and videos — with no expert assistance needed
  • Include the ability to create user profiles, login, post comments, upload media and create relevant content
  • Allow website users to interact without outside intervention to “discuss among themselves”, and create the premium content that will add real value
  • Enable users and content to be categorized so that the right people get the right information

Neither web hosting services nor graphic designers masquerading as website designers can provide this level of basic functionality without the old-fashioned, 20th Century attempt to lock you down with customized code which is difficult to update and keeps you held hostage by the original programmers.

This is where Open Source stops being a geek buzzword and becomes relevant to Small Business owners and operators. Content Management Systems — tech-jargon for “website building applications” — like Drupal, Joomla! and WordPress are free to download and are provided by most major web hosting services. Their value to the Small Business owner is not simply because they’re free.

Because they are Open Source, it means the knowledge of configuring them, and building working websites is widespread, and standardized. Built on a modular model, functions are easily added not by hiring another programming specialist, but simply by plugging in and configuring the appropriate module for the required feature.

Features once the work of high-priced consultants are now easiliy and affordably provided. Provided, of course, that you hire the services of an actual website designer — someone who will consult with you, get to understand your business, your workflow and your needs, and create a website that doesn’t just display pages and pictures, but one that is the ideal online resource to serve you customers, and represent the best efforts of Your Small Business.