By Matthew Wade (Matthew.Wade@itp.com)
A quick search online will confirm that there are numerous website developers just waiting to battle it out for your precious dollar, but don’t rush in and choose the first company that talks the talk to you, or indeed that which offers the lowest price. As with inkjet printers, the cheapest off the shelf could end up costing you the most in the long run, if for instance you have to revisit your partner and pay them each time you need to update a couple of web pages.
Start by short listing three or four web design firms based in your area (because, as always when working with partners, their accessibility is a plus). Consider companies your friends and colleagues recommend, but not only in terms of the price charged; ask about the level of service they offer, how friendly and educationally they are (who wants to deal with a firm that delights in bamboozling you with technical coding talk?), and check out the look, useability and search engine ranking of your friends’ websites. It’s also worth examining your competitor’s sites - should one of these stand out as being an effective shop-front with a useable feel and effective ‘call to action’, check to see who developed it (this info is usually at the very bottom of the homepage).
Define your aims
Then arrange an initial meeting with each firm. At this stage, you’re not looking to sign contracts, more to find out how they work, educate them about your firm, and have them go away to work on a pitch for your business. Do be prepared for this first meeting yourself though.
E-ingtech.com’s manager, Mohammad Assim, expects clients to have a fair idea of what they need from the off. “The first thing we want to know is, what type and size of website are you looking for? You might have some particular technologies your are looking for, or maybe know how many pages you need. Next, is this content available or will you need help creating this?”
Windows’ straw poll of UAE site developers found this approach atypical however, in that most agencies now prefer to ask questions, gather data about your company, and then advise you what you need and why.
Yousef Tuqan Tuqan, account director at Flip Media, says, “So many people rush headlong into making a website, but we want to understand what a client’s objectives are. A business needs mainly to understand what it wants the website to do: do they want to use it to acquire customers or to add value to their existing customer relationships? Do they want to use it just to make themselves look good? A lot of second-generation local businesses in this region are now being taken over by the younger generation, so they’re looking to modernise their firm’s image. They’re trying to make that 21st century step online.”
Cyber Gear’s CEO Sharad Agarwal agrees that setting objectives is key. “Some people just think it’s nice to have that address on their business card. We’ve had people tell us that, or “My competitor has a website, so I need one.” Those aren’t the best reasons. We help clients come up with an objective. This could be as simple as building an online community of people interested in doing business with you, or it could be bottom-line driven; starting to sell online.”
Once you have heard a number of pitches, weight up each firm’s offer from a pricing perspective (after all, only you know and understand your firm’s cash flow situation), but also consider: whether the firm will host your site (or will you pay for this and organise it separately through your national telco for instance); will your partner help you get your site listed on search engines? (Most partners also now offer what’s referred to as SEO - ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ - see next issue), and crucially, how easy your site will be to update.
“Unlike traditional agencies that charge by the hour or man day, we charge by the product; a modular approach,” explains Flip’s Tuqan Tuqan. “For example, our content management system Chameleon - which will cost anywhere from 20-30,000 Dirhams (US $5449 - $8174). This is a bulletproof, home-made system that clients can use to update their sites themselves, without needing technical knowledge. It enables clients to make their site better, every day.”
Update as you go
The offer of a simple-to-use, client-side content management system (CMS) is by no means specific to Flip however. “The CMS is deployed with 95% of our sites these days,” says Cactimedia’s Nathan Clayton. “It's roughly the same underlying system for each, but we’re trying to get to the stage where we offer clients an admin panel that perfectly resembles their real website - we’re nearly there.”
“We have over 200 pre-developed modules included with our content system, ranging from news management add-ins to carrier and e-commerce modules,” adds E-ing’s Assim. “It’s as easy as using Microsoft Word - clients can add content, more pages, change the navigation and so on. We give training on this, which is included in the price package.”
From this content management perspective, what your company needs depends of course on your own particular situation: could you and should you be updating the content on your site (with news, new products, events etc.)? If so, being able to do this easily - and freely - yourself will be a plus. On the flipside however, if you are unlikely to alter your site’s content more than once or twice a year (when staff come and go for instance), then there’s likely little point paying for a software system that you will rarely use.
Programming wise, Microsoft’s .NET development platform and the open-source php are the current top choices of the web firms we spoke to. Tuqan Tuqan’s firm prefers the latter open source route, however Cyber Gear’s Agarwal is very much a Microsoft devotee: “We use .NET because it is very powerful as a platform. We also use XML technology, which is strong in porting content from a website onto your mobile phone, because that really is the future.”
Agarwal makes a very valid point. Mobile phone penetration in the Middle East is one of the highest in the world, and with telcos here quickly rolling out internet-capable technology standards such as GPRS, EDGE and 3G there is a future-proofing advantage to be had from making your site handset-friendly.
The importance of this factor depends on the type of business you are running of course. It could be argued for example that with business users leading the pack in terms of PDA and smartphone ownership (and because technologies such as 3G are often first tested and offered at a corporate level), B2B website owners should bear this factor in mind most. Whether your web partner will automatically build you a phone-fitting site varies, so check this at the initial pitch stage. For instance, Flip builds all its client sites to work on multiple platforms, whereas Cyber Gear offers mobile device formatting as an option, due to its meaning “25% more” work.
Each web company we spoke to also offers hosting services, which for the business owner with little time to spend choosing a hosting package (either from overseas or a local provider such as eCompany in the UAE) is a viable buy-in.
Cactimedia’s hosting offer is - we found - pretty typical in that the firm effectively acts as a reseller for overseas hosting firms in North America, however Cyber Gear - like some other firms based in the region. It also offers a local country hosting option.
If your site is to be your company’s first, your web partner will be able to register a domain name for you. But which is for you? A .com domain or a country-specific suffix such as .ae or sa?
With no one consistent view on this being given by the firms we talked to it is - it seems - down to your preference. For firms that do business globally, dot com suffixes have the advantage of being the internet ‘default’, in that they are what Clayton terms “easily guessable” by potential customers. Dot com sites are also, arguably, picked up better by search engines. However, more useable accurate domain names are available with country suffixes, in that you're more likely to find www.timetotrade.ae free for instance, than you are www.timetotrade.com.
A remaining question to factor in when developing your site is whether to consider buying in e-commerce functionality. Of course online shopping has been the subject of serious hype in recent years, but it has yet to take off in the Middle East.
“The sites that are selling online here you can count on your fingers,” says Agarwal. Tuqal Tuqal concurs: “E-commerce’s take-up has been very limited so far, for the simple reason that for a lot of companies it doesn’t make financial sense. The start up costs are still quite high, so unless you can use it as a significant revenue generator, it’s of limited value.”
The availability of micro-payment systems, such as Paypal, is limited in this region, which means that users must buy directly with their credit card online, or not at all, and the local Arab population is still largely conservative, according to Agarwal. “That’s down to a lack of experience and it’s changing,” he says. “If you look at Amazon for instance, they have six million transactions and not one of these are fraudulent. Technology takes care of things. People just think it’s not secure, when it’s actually safer for me to give my card online than to give it to a waiter in a restaurant.”
The cost of setting up an e-commerce ready site is also relatively high, due to the number of banks on-board. Clayton explains the UAE’s situation: “The cost is most prohibitive for small firms,” he claims. “Mashreq Bank is the only bank offering a payment gateway in the UAE, but it devotes minimal staff to this so the process can be lengthy.” If end user sales aren’t key to your business then, e-commerce functionality might initially be a step too far.
Tuqan Tuqan: Flip Media
“For a very simple site, depending upon its size and whether a client uses our CMS or not, you’re talking anything from US $6800 to $27,000. But lots of clients find that they don’t need the content system because they’re going to update their site twice a year. Then it’s more sensible for them to pay us to update it.”
Sharad Agarwal: Cyber Gear
“Some customers come in with a budget, in which case we work backwards and tell them what they can get. Then others say, “You tell us what we should be doing” - not so price sensitive. In the early days we could do a site for $1400 - $2800, today the average is about $6800 - $9500.”
Mohammad Assim: E-ing Tech
“It depends on the company - we’ve seen people willing to pay between $800 and $1400, but some want it for only $350 too, but that’s probably a static site. We’re seeing the normal budget is around 2-3000 UAE Dirhams ($545-817) - for a firm with between four and ten staff for instance.”
Nathan Clayton: Cactimedia
“Three years ago, we might have done a site for 10,000 Dirhams ($3670), but these days they tend to start from $10,000. The design cost is actually pretty standard, but the programming is what fluctuates. The key thing for smaller firms is: how they can put their identity on the site?”
"Windows Middle East" electronic edition, 09 May 2006
This feature was printed from ITP.net
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