Is it time to think about outsourcing some (or all) of your company's Web site?
If you're not king of the Web kingdom, maybe it's time to find someone who is
Does your boss want the company's Web site to be the most astonishing presence on the Internet? Web site design and development is becoming an increasingly sophisticated and time-consuming task. Does Joe Webmaster have the hours and staffing resources needed to stay on top? If not, it may be time to do the unthinkable: Outsource your Web site creation. (2,000 words)
n the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I've always liked this saying, because it fits so well with information technology in general and the Web in particular. It's impossible to know everything about the Web, but you're safe as long as you know more than the next guy -- or at least your boss.
But it's getting harder and harder to be the king of the Web kingdom these days. An increasing number of people are being exposed to cutting-edge Web technology in their day-to-day lives. How can you hope to stay on top of the world when your boss connects to some fancy Web site at home, sees the latest in streaming video, Java, or e-commerce, and comes to work wanting to know why you can't do the same thing?
It's getting to the point where more and more Webmasters are crossing a line they never thought they would. They're considering outsourcing their Web site: turning to someone with far greater skills to take over its design, development, and even day-to-day management.
Three years ago, when the most difficult thing one might have to do was create a form and lay it out with a table, who would have thought of turning elsewhere for help? Nowadays, faced with e-commerce, dynamic sites, database-driven back-ends, and sophisticated content creation tools, the thought of getting help is a big relief.
This month and next, we'll take a look at the process of outsourcing: from deciding whether it's right for you, to selecting a vendor, to managing your outsourced site. It's time to swallow hard, think the unthinkable, and take a close look at outsourcing.
Are you in or out?
The decision to outsource hinges on a simple question: Which is worth more -- time or money?
Given enough time, you could learn everything you need to know to make your site the coolest spot on the Web. You may need to stop sleeping, of course, or hire a staff to help you, but the important thing is that it is possible to stay current with Web technology and keep your site top-notch.
At the other extreme, you can buy the best talent you can find and have them do all the hard work. Keeping up with all this stuff is hard; you might find it easier to hire someone who knows what you need than to learn it all yourself. Moreover, you can have all those fancy new features much more quickly, since you won't spend time on the learning curve. The downside is that Web talent isn't cheap. You may find yourself wanting a champagne site on a beer budget.
Most of us fall somewhere in the middle: We don't want every last whiz-bang feature, but we do want something that is attractive and effective. We have some time to learn new things, but not enough to learn everything. And we don't have all the money in the world, but we can probably convince management to spring for a few bucks to spruce up the site.
As a quick check, here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine whether or not outsourcing is right for you:
If you answer yes to two or more of these questions, you may want to consider outsourcing as a viable way of managing your Web site.
Often, the biggest issue is time to market: How quickly can you make the changes required for your site? Learning takes time, and if you're in a competitive market, you simply may not have the time to spare.
Outsourcing is not an all or nothing affair. In fact, you can outsource just a piece of your site, retaining control over those things that you know and do well. In general, outsourcing is an option for every phase of a site's design, development, and maintenance.
Site design is often a big stumbling block for Webmasters. Let's face it: Few of us are talented graphic designers. Modern sites have such sophisticated designs and artistic themes that it's hard to conjure up a site that will attract and retain visitors. To help out, you can retain the services of a site design firm, using a designer's creative skills to turn your concept into reality. Keep in mind that you retain creative control; the design firm may make suggestions and enhance the design, but you have the final say over what the site will look like.
Site development is the next big hurdle. Perhaps you're blessed with an internal design staff that has created a beautiful site concept, but can't even spell HTML. If you lack the skills to bring their design to life (and be honest here; the goal is a great site, not a bigger ego), you can contract with a firm to create and deliver the whole thing. This is especially true when the site involves heavy programming, e-commerce, database connections, and other high-tech features. It may even make sense to have the development firm deliver the hardware the site will run on, providing a solution that you simply plug in and turn on.
Site maintenance is often harder than site creation. As we all know, sites require constant care and feeding -- pruning out Web rot, updating pages, adding and tweaking content. Much of this maintenance is low-level, tedious stuff that can really take a lot of your time. As a Webmaster, you might need to be thinking at a more strategic level for your site, instead of spending time checking for broken links. It may make sense to engage contract labor to perform site maintenance. Under your direction, these folks would take over the day-to-day drudge work of your site, freeing you up for more important tasks.
None of these choices are mutually exclusive. Depending on your skills and budget, you can outsource any or all of these aspects of your site. Regardless of your choice, your job is to stay involved in the outsourced components so that you retain ownership and control while letting someone else do the hard work.
Know what you need
Outsourcing isn't as simple as calling a Web design firm and asking them to deliver up a site. A good firm will have a long list of questions it will need answered before it can build the site that's right for you. The first step in outsourcing is to do all your homework before you pick up the phone.
Often, Web sites grow incrementally as you add a new feature here and a new page there. This is an easy habit to fall into as you learn how to build your site. HTML is almost the ultimate instant-feedback technology, providing immediate gratification as you change the site and view your handiwork on your browser. When you engage someone else to do the work, you'll need to get all the design requirements on the table up front. To get the site you want, make sure you tell the design firm everything you can think of.
Here are some initial questions to ponder: What kind of site are you creating? Is it filled with dynamic content, drawn from your company's internal databases? Does it serve your intranet or the Internet? Will you be selling products? Is most of the content static, or will you require lots of changes on a regular basis? Are you targeting certain audiences? Will you carry advertising? Do you have browser constraints?
These questions should only get you started on thinking about how you want your site to work. If you can't answer them, you have no right asking an outsourcer to build anything. Make sure you take the time to think these questions through, arrive at the right answers, and get buy-in from everyone in your company who might have an opinion on the site. Nothing is worse than having to answer to a boss who just shelled out big bucks on your recommendation and was presented with a site he or she can't stand.
Once you define the site, you'll need to define the world in which it lives. What kind of servers are you partial to? What kind of connection do you have to the Internet? Are you a 24-by-7 shop, with appropriate staff to maintain your systems? What sort of environment do your other systems run in? Do you have existing hardware that will host the site? How do you handle backups? What's your disaster recovery and business continuity plan, if any? Do you use particular site development tools that will be used on the new site? What sort of statistics reporting will you need?
Again, we're only scratching the surface here. The bottom line is that you have to explore every aspect of your site, so that you can describe this to the potential outsourcing firm. Trust me, a good firm will ask all of these questions, and you'll need answers.
Keep in mind that it's acceptable to answer some of these questions with "I don't care" or "it doesn't matter." You might want to let the outsourcer make some of these decisions for you, relying on its expertise where yours falls short. Again, the goal is to blend your skills with the firm's know-how, letting its designers fill in where you're weak on talent or short on time.
If you've done all your homework, you'll end up with a concise definition of what you need done, including the scope of the work and the environment in which it must reside. Your work doesn't end there, though. As we'll see next month, you need to shop that system definition to a number of firms, select the one that's right for you, and manage the outsourcing process to everyone's satisfaction. Think about how you might take advantage of outsourcing in your shop today, and we'll see how far we can take that next month.
About the author
Chuck Musciano has been running various Web sites, including the HTML Guru Home Page, since early 1994, serving up HTML tips and tricks to hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. He's been a beta tester and contributor to the NCSA httpd project and speaks regularly on the Internet, World Wide Web, and related topics. Chuck is currently CIO at the American Kennel Club. Reach Chuck at email@example.com.
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