A good web developer can be the difference between having a great online presence and a counterintuitive, ugly website. But finding the right person for your needs can be harder than you might think. That's especially true for business owners who aren't tech savvy. Your company's online presence is an important marketing tool. Oftentimes, it's a customer or client's first experience with your business or product. Having a website that reflects your company culture, values and practices

Since your company's online presence is an important marketing tool, it's key to get it right. Afterall, it may be a customer or client's first experience with your business or product. 

What you need to know

Before diving into exactly how to hire a web developer, where to find them or what to look for in candidates, it's important to understand a few marquee distinctions about the industry.

Web developers vs. web designers

While these terms may seem interchangeable, there is a difference between web designers and developers. Designers are more focused on the aesthetic and visual aspects of your website. These people are usually well versed in using Adobe Creative Suite to create graphics, edit photos or draft company logos. Many web designers also have coding knowledge, but if you're looking to build a site from the ground up, it's important to understand their background.

Web developers, which are usually hired on a freelance or in-house basis, know many programming languages and can build the online infrastructure needed to support your website. Developers will oftentimes build a website and apply the design of a web designer.

Ian McClarty, CEO of Phoenix NAP Global IT Services, recently hired a web developer and said that knowing the difference between the roles is very important. "A web developer is not a web designer," McClarty said. "Many developers are not great web designers. If you expect the developer to redesign your website and work on graphics, make sure to cover that during the interview process." 

Assessing your project needs

Before pursuing a web developer, take the time to understand your website needs. If you're looking to create your website from scratch, do some brainstorming to get an idea of what you want. A good way to do this can be browsing the websites of your competition for examples. Or check out thebestdesigns.com. It's a good place to view types of websites to get an idea of what you want yours to look like.

If you're looking to make a small addition, add mobile components or update your site with the latest trends, it's important to have clear ideas so the developer you hire has a clear sense of scope. Roman Zrazhevskiy is the founder of Ready To Go Survival, a retail brand that specializes in personalized emergency preparedness, and has been through four website redesigns. Zrazhevskiy said that it is imperative to have a clear understanding of what you need to be done to your website before you start looking for web developers.

"Write out detailed requirements, mock up all pages and have all the copy ready to go before contracting a web developer," he said. "The clearer the instructions, the happier you'll be with the final product, and the less money you'll need to spend."

While assessing your project's needs, it's also be a good idea to explore some of the technical aspects of your website. This will give you a good foothold when interviewing candidates to determine who you want to hire. UpWork is an example of a good resource for web interface and design information. Even if you have no background in website creation, doing a quick search for key concepts can be a great way to familiarize yourself with what your project could need.

Besides having some knowledge going into interviews, knowing what you need will also help you get an idea of exactly how much your project will cost.

In-house vs. freelance developers

The choice between bringing someone in full time and contracting out work to a freelancer can depend on a lot of different variables. There are some great freelance developers out there, but if you're a business owner who needs someone who can constantly update and adjust your website, it may be beneficial to hire someone instead of contracting out the work.

Bill McLaughlin has worked in IT development for 30 years and is currently the chief technology officer for Whizz Education, an online math tutoring service based in the United Kingdom. For McLaughlin, the difference between freelancers and in-house developers is all about flexibility. If a business needs to quickly add or update a site, a freelancer may be a better option than bringing someone on full time.

"Hiring a freelancer gives you flexibility on the cost and length of engagement. There are times when a business has a discrete set of goals for its web development (a new section, a refresh of the look and feel, or even a complete rebuild) and this can be done within a set timeframe," McLaughlin said. "However, for some businesses, like ecommerce or community-based sites, their website requires constant investment and, in this case, an in-house developer is best."

Tips for hiring

Even once you get an idea of what you want, it can be hard to wade through information on hiring web developers and make the right decision. These tips will help with discovering a great web developer.

Be hands on with past work

Look through a candidate's past projects. This will give you a good idea of where their talents lie, what their work is like and how their style aligns with your business needs.

Make sure the developer provides you with live work as well. That way you can use the website and assess the functionality of it. Scott Marquart, founder of Stringjoy, said that this was vital when deciding who to hire to help develop the website for his guitar strings business.

"The No. 1 mistake businesses make when hiring a web developer is hiring someone who is knowledgeable at development but knows very little about user experience or conversion optimization," Marquart said. "Looking good is only a small piece of what makes a website excellent, it also needs to function intuitively and be easily navigable, so that any prospect who lands on your site knows exactly how to do what you want them to do."

Follow up with references

Make sure you get a list of references, then actually follow up with them. While the developer's work is important, their work habits, organization and ability to meet deadlines is as crucial to you and your business. Past employers will be able to speak to how dependable – or unreliable – a web developer is. 

Lilly Ghahremani, founder of Lucky 13 Strategies, said you should "feel comfortable asking for references. The most successful web project will happen with a team that is responsive," Ghahremani said. "Don't just rely on Yelp ... speak to someone. A great designer will be able to provide references easily, because their past clients are happy to take a few moments to rave about them."

Be realistic about cost

The cost of your project will vary depending on whom you hire, how much work needs to be done and other added features you may need on your website. UpWork provides some ballpark price ranges for different projects. Overall, general costs can range between $15 and $150 per hour, depending on how complex the work is. In addition to per-hour payment, some developers charge per project.

The cost of a good web developer should be viewed as a company investment – you are investing in a website that will draw users to your business. This service, when done right, can be invaluable.

Akiva Leyton, a marketing manager for Falcon Marketing, said that there are a lot of types of web developers out there, but a business owner should be wary of putting cost before pure talent.

"When it comes to development work, you truly get what you pay for," Leyton said. "Those cheaper developers usually don't have much experience, are slow to deliver work or more often than not are simply a scam. Try to find a developer looking for a midrange salary, if you truly can't afford the best."

Don't obsess on education

Some businesses that have hired successful web designers have put more emphasis on prior work when hiring as opposed to resume details or education information. There are some great developers who may lack education in a formal collegiate setting. In the end, it's all about you and your business's needs.

Daniela Arango, an HR and creative manager for imagetoner.com, said that when her company hires developers, they place more of an emphasis on life skills. "We stopped vetting tech candidates based on lack of experience or formal education a while ago. We also stopped looking too much at resumes because we could not find in them the right information to make the best decision for our company," Arango said. "What we look for now are references of tech professionals that have great resilience in life, and a natural ability and predilection for learning."

Overall, a great web developer will have a body of work that showcases the necessary experience to be able to build your website in the way that you want it. That is why following up with references and viewing previous projects are two essential practices when hiring a developer.

Where to find web developers

There are different networks with freelance developers for hire. Upwork offers a service that pairs businesses with web developers and even provides an option to view who is available and determine their skill level before contacting them. Besides Upwork, Freelancer.com and PeoplePerHour.com are two other good resources for finding freelance web developers.

In addition to freelancers, there are web design and development agencies. The best way to find an agency, which will likely offer more services that complement design, development and project management, is to first search your local area for businesses that specialize in web development. Once you find a few options, narrow them down in the same way you would a freelancer – understand the skills they offer versus what you need, and then make a decision.

Bottom line

Hiring the right web developer can be a big task. Deciding what you need from your website is an important first step, and choosing the right candidate requires a certain level of research and hands-on experience with their past work. In the end, hiring a great web developer is like hiring any employee – you can find a great worker if you put the time in to do the research and understand what a candidate can bring to your business.

Original article on Business.com.