Freelance Bebop: Things I Wish I Could Teach Potential Clients

freelancer_bebop_small.jpgI’m not ashamed to admit it, even with a full time job I do freelance web design and development. It’s a great motivator to learn new techniques and increase my portfolio. Not to mention, the extra funds never hurt either, particularly when life’s numerous unexpected surprises come up. There are, however, a couple frustrating points that seem to permeate the freelance client community. Common misunderstandings, conventions or complications that can make a good, solid web design job into a living nightmare for a developer, not to mention make it hard for the client to get their Internet present up in a timely, efficient and economic manner. One just has to take a quick spin around the “gigs” section of Craigslist to see what I mean.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Everyone wants their business to be the number one listing in every search engine on the planet. Here’s the big secret… the only totally legitimate SEO technique is good web design, solid content and prolific links/affiliations with other sites. Everything else that a SEO service sells you is a “hack”. Not only that, but its probably not going to keep your ranking high for long because someone else out there is selling the very same thing. Also, it’s not a one time deal. Your site will need to be constantly tweaked and massaged to keep its ranking as other sites employ those “hacks” and the search engine companies are often seeking to eliminate various optimization techniques. SEO services that promise amazing results charge amazing prices… each month. Some can actually deliver those results, but be aware that your ranking will plummet back to legitimate levels very quickly if you cancel the service. Also, they WILL use your site to help promote their other clients using a variety of hidden pages, redirects and other dubious techniques. Finally, in some cases using these gray techniques runs you the risk of being banned from a search engine or having your ranking manually reduced to dead last… just ask BMW and Rich (both of which were banned by Google at some point for SEO). šŸ™

What a good web developer as part of their design services will offer you in the way of SEO is basic but should get you going. They will design a site that a search engine can “read” it. Remember that Flash you love? Well, it’s all but invisible to search engines for purposes of ranking and indexing your web site. That means your site might as well be offline as far as many search engines are concerned. What can you do? Use Flash sparingly if you want search engine priority. Flash is a great enhancement to a site in the form of introduction, multimedia plugged in, menus, games and what not. Keep the rest of your site in as much live html as possible though, if you want maximize your site’s presence in search engines. A good web developer will do the following to make your site search engine friendly.

  • Encourage good meta tagging (they are still used to a degree)
  • Submit your site directly to the various search engines
  • Set up or recommend a good robots.txt file (special onsite directions to search engine “spiders”)
  • Set up a sitemap and submit it to Google
  • Encourage the site OWNER to form relationships with linking partners, reviewers and otherwise expose the site on other, preferably high traffic, web pages

Bottom line though, Search Engine Optimization is a separate industry from web design, in the same way manufacturing is different from advertising. If a client has special or demanding SEO needs, they should be prepared to hire a specialized SEO service. Don’t expect to get the plumber to fix your car.

Graphic Designers

So many clients assume that the graphic elements of their web site magically coalesce out of thin air. Well, they don’t. Your logos, pictures, graphics, icons and everything else must either be created using photography and graphic design or purchased from a stock provider. Yes, a good web designer should be versed in the basics of graphic design, but high end Graphic Art is a career in itself. If a client does not have pre-existing art & graphics or is not willing to hire a Graphic Designer, the client should be prepared to either make due with simpler elements, royalty free sources or templates. This is particularly true of the client’s logo. Logo design can command a tidy price since the GD is essentially creating a one time creation that she will never be able to reincorporate or use elsewhere.

A special note on graphic art files for clients. Ask for and keep the design files. These will generally be in Photoshop, Illustrator, Quark or some other graphic format. These are invaluable for future revisions, new creations, printing and what not. Without them, you may find yourself having to start all over artistically as you update, edit or expand your company.

Content Writer

While attention to detail and basic overview is part of web design, do not expect your web designer to be your Copy Writer, Editor and Proof Reader. Very rarely will they have the intimate product and industry knowledge of their client’s business. Aspects of the business that a client deals with day in and day out may be completely alien to them. Generally, I ask that clients provide the content they want on their website and I make layout and organizational suggestions based on my knowledge of the general publics’ browsing habits. If the client is focusing on a specific type of usages (sales, reference, testimonial), of course, that presentation can change greatly.

Bottom line though, do not expect your web designer to be your Marketing department. Just as in the case with graphic elements, content is a deliverable from the client.

Application Development

The most basic elements of a web page are just that, pages. These pages present information that a web browser interprets and visitors experience. Functionality is the aspect of a web site that does something. This can be as simple as contact forms which allow a visitor to send information to the site owners and search functions which help visitors find information on the site. It can be as complex as interactive system, community managed content, eCommerce systems and more.

The point is that programming of this sort is far more intensive than simply designing a “web presence”. Expect for this level of web design to command a higher prices and more design time depending on the complexity involved. A frugal client can employ many free or inexpensive pre-developed solutions but they must be chosen carefully to make sure they meet your needs and can incorporate with your site design. Also, many of these solutions are limited on just how much customization can be done (from a licensing or technological point of view).

I like to explain this division of design as “front end” and “back end” although there is often a bit of gray space between the two. Clients should be prepared to expect premium prices for extensive and novel “back end” development, especially if they are purchasing an exclusive license to the technologies being created for them.


Ah eCommerce, the functionality of the Internet that will make us all billionaires. Well, sort of. Being able to sell directly online isn’t essential to some businesses, but it’s the core piece of functionality to others. I’m often surprised at how many clients that have carried on extensive brick and mortar sales make gross assumptions about online sales. Most of the requirements for brick and mortar sales are also necessary for online sales. You will need some security, you will need sales tracking, you will need credit card processing and you will need a bank account. Oftentimes, your existing physical sales resources will not be sufficient to support online sales unless you are processing those online sales offline or physically. A client should be prepared to have to invest in online sales processing services. Depending on your volume and needs, this can be comparable to the same brick and mortar services or significantly more.

Furthermore, your web designer cannot magically make the Internet play nice with your bank without the client’s bank account (for very good reasons). The client will have to be closely involved in setting up these financial relationships. Not all web designers dabble in eCommerce because it can be very bureaucratically demanding, but a web designer that does should be able to walk the client through this process, assessing their needs and match them up with eCommerce services and software that fits their financial and technological needs.

Source Code / Flash

As sort of a subtopic of Application Development, I’m taking another opportunity to comment on heavy Flash usage. Clients rarely understand that the Flash they see on a site is not directly editable. The Flash that appears on your web site is “published” into a closed form. To update it the “source” files are needed. Each time you update a Flash element, your designer will need to edit these sources files and then republish the version of the files that will appear on your website. This is vital to understand because many clients purchase a wiz-bang Flash site but never receive the source files, making future updates very difficult or impossible.

Again, I believe Flash should be used minimally on a web site. Although, it has a high “gee wiz” factor, I feel it can ultimately works against the client, visitors and the developer in the long term. Yes, I know many people will vehemently disagree, but I stand by that assessment. Additionally, many of the effects that clients want can be reproduced in cleaner, more efficient methods. Also, never forget that what the client may thinks looks great may actually be highly annoying and tedious to the visitor who is, ultimately, who the site needs to be most appealing to for an effective Internet presence.

Domain Name

You have to purchase and own the name for your web site. Just because you are Joe Johnson industries of Michigan, doesn’t mean you automatically have waiting for you online. Consider it the online equivalent of your online P.O. Box. In the growing world of domain name speculation and “squatting” be prepared to run into some frustration with the most basic domain names already being taken. Regardless, do try to get a domain name that is memorable, easy to spell and catchy. If you have not secured a domain name already, your average web designer should be able to help you through this process.

Keeping the domain name registered, paid and contact information up to date should be the client’s responsibility as it is an administrative/financial task. Do NOT allow domain name registration to lapse as you may permanently loose that domain name. I cannot count the number of clients who lost their domain name to spammers, link sites and other business that capitalize in taking over their hard earned traffic and web presence. Getting that domain name back can be a lengthy and expense process if it’s even feasible at all. Best to avoid losing it in the first place.

Hosting / Hardware

Web sites need a place to live. More often than not, your home/business desktop is not going to be up to this task for commercial purposes. If the client has an in-house web server the details of those resources need to be made clear to the web designer up front. With so many web development technologies in existence, it’s inevitable that they do not all coexist well and that web designers often specialize in only a handful of them.

In the case of small to midsize clients, I often recommend commercial remote hosting. There are several excellent Web Hosts out there for extremely reasonable prices. Because these hosts are managing large numbers of web servers, they can often offer prices far, far below the cost of in-house hardware, bandwidth and maintenance, not to mention such vital services as upgrading back end services, performing regular backups and proving technical support for some aspect of your web presence.

Clients, always coordinate with your web designer early. They can often help you choose a web hosting service that meets your needs technologically and economically.

The Freelancer Themselves

Freelancers are often an excellent way to quickly fill a skill or resources need for your company when a full time hire or even long term contract isn’t a good fit. It is important to remember, however, that they are offering a service that encompasses a specific project. Unless you’ve made provision otherwise, they are not your on-call employee. Most are perfectly willing to make sure the project is wrapped up and properly delivered, but creating a never-ending and uncompensated development process is unfair and bound to lead to a bad split between client and freelancer. This is particularly unfortunate if a client should find themselves needing new updates to old projects or new projects that the previous freelancer could provide. Remember, many freelancers are full time employees elsewhere trying to make ends meet, students looking for some extra income while building a portfolio or developers currently seeking full time placement elsewhere.

Copyright & Legality

There are oceans of gray space online when it comes to legal issues. Your web designer is not a lawyer. As a matter of fact, if they do anything more than point out the basic best practices they may be violating the law by giving legal advice. If you have a serious legal question about your web presence or practice, you need to contact a lawyer skilled in this specialized field. Be prepared for some complexities, the online world is still very unsettled and the details are not yet set in stone.

Similarly, while web sites often aggressively leap frog, reference and capitalize competing ideas (just like physical business) do not ask your web designer to violate the law by doing things like stealing information from a competitor, performing online attacks, violating spamming regulations and the like. It’s no different than asking the employees in your store to go rob your rivals, threaten customers or destroy others’ places of business.

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4 Responses

  1. rfbjames says:

    Interesting read!

    (and I love the cowboy bebop image)

  2. Spot on. This is the kind of stuff that clients should be forced to read before signing a design contract. The only comment I would make is that under the Application Development section, we often refer to the database component as the backend.

    After over 20 years in the industry, it’s alway amazing to me that the clients never seem to get educated, and the developers never seem to get better at informing them. šŸ™‚

  3. Joie says:

    Is it possible to include the writeup you just posted in your contract? That’s pretty much what I do with costume commissioners, since a lot of people don’t understand the basic concepts behind that as well.

  4. Mystech says:

    I think a cleaned up and stream lined version of this would make a great contract or disclaimer for clients. In it’s current form, it’s more a rant than anything else though. šŸ™‚

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