How Not To Buy a Website In 10 Steps

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Andy Crestodina

It happens to all of us. One day, we wake up and decide that it’s time for a new website. This feeling hits suddenly and urgently, like the need for a haircut. It looked good yesterday, but today I can’t wait for an overhaul.

What happens next tends to follow a pattern. It’s the process of finding and hiring a web design company. And there are big problems with the way most businesses approach the process. Bad choices lead to bad outcomes.

Lets take a look at the 10 steps most businesses take when buying a website:


Step 1. The business owner or marketing team decides it’s time for a new site.
Step 2. So they search the web or ask around for referrals…
Step 3. They browse the websites and portfolios of potential vendors. If they like what they see, they fill out the contact form or call.
Step 4. During the initial call, they get a sense for capabilities. If the company sounds good, they continue the conversation, usually with a meeting.
Step 5. Once they see the company can build it, the next question is “how much will it cost?” If it’s in the range, they ask for a proposal.
Step 6. If the proposal satisfies the remaining concerns (timing, ownership, hosting, payment schedule), they sign and start the project.
Step 7. Now, for the first time, we find out what kind of service this web company provides. If it didn’t come up before, it does now! Hopefully, service is good.
Step 8. And now, the web vendor either delivers or they don’t. It’s time to launch, time for endless rounds of revisions, or time to fire them.
Step 9. Now that the site is live, a few ideas and issues arise. Here, for the first time, we see how good their ongoing support is.
Step 10. A few months after launch, someone asks about marketing and analytics. …And for the first time, we find out if this web design company knows anything about web marketing.

What Went Wrong?

Here’s the problem: the process is backwards. The order in which questions were asked and concerns were addressed did not lead to the selection of the best company. As a result, the most important criteria were de-emphasized.

So flip the process and do these things up front.

  • Ask about service.
    Get a demo of their communication tools. Do they have dedicated project managers? Test drive the content management system.
  • Ask about ongoing support.
    Find out the process for support and who your main contact would be. How are support requests managed? What is the turnaround time for changes?
  • Look for marketing expertise.
    This is a biggie. Learn about their expertise in search marketing, social media, email marketing, and analytics. Listen for an emphasis on results: traffic and conversions.

Find a Partner, Not a Vendor

When you think of the web team as a long term partner, rather than a vendor, you’ll think differently about the selection process. You may find that some of the things aren’t as important as you thought.

Client service is more important than contract terms.

Support is more important than code ownership.

Marketing skills are more important than hosting details.

There you have it. If you have thoughts on the process, or a story about the end results, let’s talk about it in the comments below.

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Comments (13)
  • Great article! So true and forever relevant! Thx!

  • Step 5 is a toughie- how often does the client know what they want? How often have they actually thought about content strategy and use cases? I’d insert step 5.5. Client barrels forward with cocktail napkin drawings and big nebulous ideas, leading to a very tense and uncomfortable, budget-blowing step 8! Thus, I’d also ask what the requirements determination process is for a given vendor.

  • We are working on a process to help vet clients, in the same way clients would vet designers when starting a new project. This article nails it: designers are not vendors, we are partners, clients are not a paycheck, they are partners. Awesome. 
    I am reading “Design is a Job” by Mike Monteiro, co-founder of Mule Design. Loving it, and I bet lots of your readership would too! Thanks Andy, Lisa

  • Great point about the service!  I always cite Orbit’s process as one of your towering strengths.

    •  @ArgentumStrat This means a lot coming from you. Appreciated! Yes, service is everything. 

  • Great article, Andy. A lesson in here for all of us, both as consumers, and as business people/consultants—always start with the goals and desired outcomes. Specifically, for business people entertaining a new website/redesign, they must ask themselves, up front, “Why am I doing this?”, and “What do I want my new website to do for my business?” If the answer is, “I want more site traffic, more leads and to increase business”, than they need more than just a good creative firm, and more than just good service—they need an agency partner that truly understands content marketing, search, and analytics/metrics. Well done!

  • Most of us reading this are substituting our own product/service into your headline and nodding our heads in a agreement.  “How Not To Buy a _______ In 10 Steps.”  It’s amazing how approaching things right translates across most businesses.

    •  @JonathanBranca Absolutely, Jonathan. Overlay this thinking onto any transaction that involves consultation. I probably should have made that the conclusion! Thanks for putting it here into the comments.

  • Fantastic advice! It is definitely a partnership, success comes by working together and trusting your partners.

  • Couldn’t agree more. Nailing down whether the service provider knows even a lick about marketing is an oft-overlooked step in the process. That said, I was working with a client recently who had the foresight to hire a marketing consultant before choosing a development/design team, and they STILL ended up going with a design group that had limited marketing know-how. Even the marketing consultant didn’t know anything about on-page SEO, audience engagement via a blog, or a host of other content marketing 101 topics. It was kind of pathetic.
    It’s one thing to have a pretty site. It’s another thing to have a pretty site supported by a marketing-savvy third party that knows how to turn said site into a lead-generating machine.

  • Great article! Thanks Andy.

  • Great advice, but I must admit that my favorite part was the use of “nope” over “no”. Spot on as always Cresto.

  • Great advice!

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