Stage 2: Selecting a vendor and website host

by Emily Wilson
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In last month's Web Wise column, World Grain outlined a guide for launching and designing your own website. As the column noted, the key to developing an efficient, economical and successful site is to plan, plan, plan! The website strategy guide from March, however, is only the beginning of a long road to the end product.

After forming a development team, defining a mission, outlining your company's Internet objectives and establishing basic timelines and financial costs, you'll be ready for the next phase, "Pre-Production."

In this stage, there are two critical issue to resolve. First, who will design and develop the site? Second, where will the site be hosted?

In designing a website, each step seems like the most important — until you get to the next one. That is what happens in the pre-production phase. All the planning and potential generated in the first stage hinges on decisions made now.

"Pre-production is the tactical Web project stage that paves the way for all that is to come afterwards," said Laurie Windham, founder, president and c.e.o. of Cognitiative, Inc., a San Francisco, California, U.S.-based planning, operating and marketing consulting firm.

(Ms. Windham's book, "Dead Ahead: The Web Dilemma and the New Rules of Business," is described as a "survival manual" for coping with business in the Internet age and elaborates on all stages of website production and e-business.)

The pre-production phase, she said, links the planning stage to the development phase, when goals are finally translated into online features and content.

"The resource decisions made here set the project on course for either success or failure," Ms. Windham said. "Although some of the pre-production questions you will face will be specific to your company or industry, the most important issues — vendor selection and hosting — are relevant to every Web rollout."

SELECTING A VENDOR. Picking a firm or person to design your site can be a scary procedure. After all, if you don't know all the technicalities, how will you be able to tell if your vendor does?

By this point, a lot of effort has already been invested into making your company's new website a success. To help keep your efforts on track, Cognitiative has developed a set of recommendations and objectives for finding a vendor and host.

First, a company must recognize its limitations and opportunities. The talented person to design your website might be already under your employment — but it isn't likely.

"In almost every case, organizations are best served by bringing in a quality outside provider to perform this work," Ms. Windham said. "It is rare the company that carries on its payroll all the skills required to create a complete, fully-featured e-business Web site, or has available the time resources for such a project."

Second, consider your needs for both design — the navigation and the graphic identity, look and feel of the site — and development, the actual programming of the site.

Some vendors offer both services, but they most likely specialize in one or the other, Cognitiative warns. The best process to select a vendor, the company advises, is to get bids from many vendors. Then compare the proposals and prices of each.

Start by assembling a request for a proposal from a vendor. In Ms. Windham's book, she lists many things to include in a request for proposal (RFP). Start with a statement of the formalized goals for the site. Then, she said, discuss your current company operations, including a business overview of administration practices, company services, sales channels and back office operations that will require web integration and content development.

Next, Ms. Windham said, overview physical locations of company facilities, communication links already in place, current usage patterns and any plans for expansion. A list of Internet system requirements that you would like for your new site should be added also. Note whether you want e-commerce software; additional web servers; publishing software; document management; databases; a certain amount of web browser support; firewalls; speech recognition, video, or audio technology; network options; technical support; or system administration.

Finally, tackle the big issues: money and time. As for the budget, Ms. Windham suggests proposing that some of your current hardware and software investments be leveraged. Also, request estimated costs associated with site development, such as licensing, new technologies and products, labor, maintenance and support costs.

When requesting a timeline, remember to allow time for flaws. You need to have three launch dates — the first two serve as a means to work out the bugs and add the finishing touches. The first is the "Alpha test," second is the "Beta test" and finally a "go-live" date, she said.

Giving an in-depth request helps venders know what you want and expect from them as your website developer. It also helps to generate more realistic price estimates and other comments.

Get recommendations for vendors in your area and compile a list. Select a local vendor, if possible.

After narrowing the vendor options down to two or three, submit your written request for proposals. Ask for initial design ideas and a formal proposal, including budget and timeline.

The next step is critical: checking references. "Creating a website requires productive working relationships with the vendors you choose, so factors such as trustworthiness and accountability are important," Ms. Windham said. "Checking their customer references is a way to help you determine their credibility."

When selecting a vendor, get answers to the following questions:

• Are they willing to work as part of a team with other vendors?

• Does your current site development team know the software? If not, how can they become proficient with it?

• Are there trained professionals available who know the chosen software and stay aware of new products?

• Are the components involved compatible with your internal computer systems?

• Does the software run on an industry standard hardware platform?

• What is the assumed amount of site traffic the proposed site will handle? What will happen if the traffic doubles, triples or quadruples?

• Will you be dependent on a service provider to help maintain and grow the site? If so, what are the long-term budget implications and risks?"

After reviewing proposals and references, "pick the vendor that you get along with best and find most responsive," Ms. Windham said. "Watch out for companies that seem overcommitted or slow to respond. Make your selection based on the evaluations of your management and internal Web team."

FINDING A HOST. Web servers provide hosting so that a company or individual doesn't have to purchase and maintain their own Web server host with a line to the Internet.

"Typically, Web hosting vendors provide a customer with services such as domain name registration assistance, an allocation of file storage, and directory setup for the Web files, e-mail addresses and sometimes also offer Web site creation services," Ms. Windham said.

Hosting is essentially where you decide your new site is to "live," she added. "You have two options: in-house, where you run the site on your own server and take responsibility for maintaining uptime, and out-of-house, where your site is hosted by a service provider."

Before making your decision, consider the must-have requirements of hosting a website. These include site availability 24 hours a day, seven days a week; sufficient security features and access controls; ability to handle usage spikes; responsive and qualified hosting staff; and collecting Web reports.

Evaluate companies' service records by checking their customer references. Also check response times by accessing Web sites they host and find out their procedures for updating sites remotely. Try to do your own posting, to avoid ongoing expense and time lags.

"Cognitiative recommends that most small companies take the offsite hosting approach, avoiding the large equipment expenses and maze of technical tasks needed to maintain constant site uptime and security," Ms. Windham said.

Finding a vendor:

Picking a host:

1. Create a proposal request

1. Realize hosting demands

2. List potential vendors

2. Evaluate service records of potential host

3. Shop around

3. Check response times and updating procedures

4. Submit requests

4. Try to do your own Web posting potential host

5. Check references

6. Make a final selection