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Pick the Best Web Designer

First check credentials, gauge experience, and examine previous work. Then make sure the contract contains a few important elements

I'm looking for a Web designer but don't know what criteria I should use to evaluate candidates. Can you offer some advice? —M.E., Henderson, Nev. The relatively young marketplace for Web design services can be difficult to navigate, particularly for small business owners who aren't sure exactly what they need in website development. "We found that a lot of companies are not very truthful. It's like the Wild West out there. Anyone can work out of their grandparents' house and say they design websites," says Gabriel Shaoolian, founder and chief executive of Blue Fountain Media, a Web design and online marketing business based in New York City. Personal referrals are always a good start for professional services, but once you get a few, do background research on your own. Search on typical keywords and see where—or whether—the recommended companies come up: If they can't get their own sites optimized for search engines, they probably won't do a good job on yours, either. Inquire about designers' credentials and ask whether they belong to a professional association with membership standards. Investigate their Dun & Bradstreet (DNB) and Better Business Bureau ratings and ask whether they follow W3C international standards for computer coding. If they have done government contracts, those lend additional credibility; public agencies typically vet contractors thoroughly. Don't Rely on References

You want original, custom content (not templates or cut-and-paste copy) from professionals, so make sure that all staffers on your project have at least five years' experience. Take references with a grain of salt: "What's stopping them from giving you the names of their friends? Better to check out whether they are industry leaders who do speaking and are actively engaged in the community," Shaoolian says. Once you have some good candidates, ask what specific results they have provided for their clients. You want a site that enhances brand loyalty (which means that customers return frequently) and that increases sales leads and lead conversion rates. "The beautiful thing about this industry is that you can directly measure the results through Google Analytics," Shaoolian says. "Designers should give you many case studies that show the positive results their clients have experienced." Read any contract thoroughly before you sign it and do not rely on verbal promises. If an aspect of your project does not appear specifically in the contract's "scope of work" section, make sure the contract is rewritten so it does. "If you have negotiated special payment terms, make sure those are spelled out in the contract rather than verbally agreed upon," says Scott Sanfilippo, co-founder of Solid Cactus, an e-commerce website developer in Shavertown, Pa. The same goes for copyrights, particularly to photographs, images, and licensed content. "Make sure the contract spells out who retains the ownership of those images and if ownership transfers to you once the site is finished and paid in full," Sanfilippo says. The contract should also guarantee that you get official ownership of your site design and copies of the original computer files used to create your site. "These files are often needed down the road when you want to make changes to your site," he says. Have them in your possession, because "you never know when you will need them."

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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