Top 10 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Web Developer

Photo adapted from “Who’s that?” by Andy Morffew (Flickr, Creative Commons).

In this article, I’ll cover many of the top questions that I recommend business clients ask of potential web developers. I welcome being asked these and any other questions, as well, of course!

  1. How long have you been involved with your chosen CMSs? This is a tricky one because additional factors also come into play. For example, if he or she knows PHP, MySQL, CSS, and HTML very well, then less familiarity with a chosen CMS is probably permissible. If the aforementioned web development skill set was in place when the person began working withe their CMS, then I’d say a few months of serious CMS work is likely a minimum — preferably 6–9 months, though. On the other hand, if the person doesn’t have the additional web skills, you may want to seek someone with a year or two experience in their chosen CMS. (So, ask both questions — CMS development and general web development.) As I’ve argued before, the CMS is less important than the person’s ability to execute. I’ll link to an article below explaining this.
  2. How many CMS web sites have you done? Again, this one’s tricky, for reasons stated above. Also, some sites are larger or more sophisticated than others. But, in general, look for someone who’s done a good handful of different ones — maybe 3 or 4 at a bare minimum. (Of course, if (1) you’ve got a *simple* web site planned, (2) you have found someone who’s willing to “learn” on your site, and (3) you’ve got faith in that person — then I’d say go for it! The world’s business community needs more who are willing to work with beginning developers, anyway. And, you’ll likely get a bit of a price break, too. But, if it’s a more serious site, I’d recommend going with someone more experienced.
  3. Are you good at customizing templates? A few points here… First, know that, no matter who you select, the more you deviate from a given design template, the more time it’s going to take your developer to bring your desires to life. That’s not to recommend against customizations (as I’m a big believer in them). But, customizing templates does take a bit of skill and (IMHO) it should really be done “right” in terms of various technical perspectives. So, the more you’re wanting to customize a template, the more I’d recommend finding someone with considerable experience in this area.
  4. What’s your capability in terms of the server environment? Thankfully, this does not come up too often with Wordpress or Joomla installs — especially if you’re fortunate enough to be developing on a server hosted by a company specializing in major CMS web sites. BUT… those inexperienced in larger CMSs often make the mistake of seeing hosting as a commodity, and then wind up on servers that aren’t CMS friendly. This often translates into considerable wasted time (both for you and for the developer) in solving issues that shouldn’t be present to begin with. At my company, we host client sites on our own server space. So, not only do we rarely run into server issues, but we also have specialized tools on our servers to address common server settings for functionality.
  5. How well do you know PHP and MySQL? Again, this may not be critical for everyone, but once you start customizing the system, it becomes important. Major CMSs like Joomla and Wordpress are written in PHP, so this is a vital piece of the puzzle. They can run from several data sources (MySQL being the most common). If your developer has decent experience in thee two areas (PHP and MySQL), extending and customizing the CMS becomes significantly less time consuming (translating into $$$ savings for you, most likely).
  6. What SEO services do you offer? While Joomla and Wordpress come with some nice SEO settings, and can be extended with some outstanding SEO extensions, personal SEO experience can really pay off for a business. Not everyone wants or needs to be found in the organic search listings, but this is quite a common request — and, it really helps if your developer can do this, as opposed to having a developer do the site and then farming out the SEO to another. At my company, we get requests from time to time to retrofit SEO best practices into sites set up by others, and we do come across situations in which the site could have been set up dramatically better if the original web development company had marketing/SEO knowledge as well as tech capabilities.
  7. What kind of marketing background do you have? This is related to the previous item, but extends beyond SEO and into the fields of (more broadly) internet marketing and (more broadly again) traditional marketing. One glaring example I see routinely is when sites host their own videos, for example. I think this is (almost always) a tragic missed SEO opportunity because, if you were to post them on Youtube and then embed them, you could link back to your site from Youtube, include a description and keywords there, and enjoy other similar benefits. (Bandwidth is another reason to host them off-site, btw. Why push the limits of your own bandwidth when you can let Youtube carry that load for free?)
  8. How well do you know CSS? This one’s huge. For a developer, CSS mastery (or, at least, near-mastery) is like having a whole additional set of tools for customizing a web site. Plus, it allows you to really tweak a template to your exact liking rather than just accepting 100% of what a given template has to offer. On the content side, it translates into cleaner HTML code — styled according to present standards instead of a whole bunch of inline spaghetti code (which, arguably, is worse for SEO). Fortunately, CSS is an internet-wide skill — not just a Joomla or Wordpress thing. So, many developers already know it very well.
  9. What’s your process for developing a web site? Each developer will have his or her own answer to this (or, possibly, NO answer to this). But, I think it’s worth asking, as it’ll give you a feel for the process.
  10. What complimentary skills do you bring to the table? SEO, marketing, writing, editing, communications, PR, graphic design / Photoshop, Illustrator, Adobe Creative Suite stuff, coding, video production, Javascript… The list is seemingly endless, but again this is worth asking as well.
  11. BONUS QUESTION — Security: These days, with hackers and hacking stories topping headlines, security is an ongoing concern. Ask your developer about plans for security. Does he/she use a software firewall, for example? Have they fixed any hacked sites? Are they aware of best coding practices to prevent SQL injection attacks? What are their backup plans and recommendations? All of these are becoming increasingly vital.

Final note: I really didn’t cover “price” in any of the above-recommended questions, as I’ve written on this before, and it’s somewhat complex. In general, you get what you pay for. That’s as true on the web as anywhere. I would advise not to be scared off by seemingly high rates. While there are surely overpriced developers out there, it’s also (generally) true that a $120/hour developer probably has deeper skills and is likely much more efficient than an $80/hour one. I’ve personally seen many cases in which a company’s bottom line cost (and not to mention ROI) would have been much improved had they selected a higher-priced developer!

Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at]