Website development 101 for small businesses

8 min read
Alan Zeichick

Thanks to a small business website, prospective customers can find you, learn about your products and services, see your office hours or retail locations, get your email address and phone number, download menus and prices… and in some cases, buy products that you deliver electronically or through the mail. To build that website, you’ll need to find experts in website development, such as a freelance web developer or even a larger web design company.

Before looking for someone to build your website, take a few minutes to learn the basics of website development.

How do websites work? What should you look for in a freelance developer or website development company? Let’s tackle those questions.

Website DeveloperHow do web pages work?

Having a web presence requires that you have a web server, which is the software that provides content – and that your customer has a web browser, which is the software that retrieves that content and makes it easy to view and interact with. Those two are connected via network connections, that is, the Internet. We’re not going to talk about the Internet connection itself; frankly, that’s not really relevant to small business owners. Let’s dive into your business’s server, and then talk briefly about the end user’s browser and its role.

A typical website transaction

A web service receives queries from the end user (via his or her web browser) and satisfies those requests by providing content. The browser’s query to a web server is called a request. The web server replies by sending pages.

There are two protocols that ensure that the server and browser understand each other. The first, called http, or Hypertext Transfer Protocol, establishes how the back-and-forth communication works between the two computers. The actual content of the browser requests and web pages is described in HTML, the Hypertext Markup Language.

In website development, web pages are coded in HTML.

Here’s an example:

When you type into your browser, the browser uses http to establish a connection with GoDaddy’s server, and sends an http request for the contents of the GoDaddy home page.

GoDaddy’s web server receives that request, and generates a rich, beautiful page using HTML. The HTML content describes the text on the page, formats, type sizes, color, background images, photos, videos, search boxes, drop-down menus — all the stuff that makes a website into a website. The web server transmits that HTML to your browser, again using http to handle the plumbing.

Your browser receives the HTML page — which looks like computer code — and figures out how to show it on your desktop, laptop or mobile device’s screen. That process is called rendering.

After you see the web page, you may choose to interact with it — click on a link, type something into a search box, choose a menu, tell a video to start playing. When you click or type, your browser sends that information as a new request to the web server, which then replies by streaming a video, let’s say, or by sending a new HTML page to be rendered.

The makings of a website solution

When you hire a company for website development (or maybe a freelancer for your web design), you are looking for expertise in making the website function correctly. The first stage is to come up with a functional architecture that’s right for your business, determining a look and feel, and start creating the content. That’s the text, the photos, the images, the product specifications, the pricing— all the stuff that you want on your site, because you believe it will appeal to potential customers, visitors, supporters, and so-on.

Coming up with the right website architecture is the first step in website development.

It’s clearly vital for you, as the business owner, to be intimately involved in determining every aspect of the web design and content, because after all, it’s your business, and you know your customers better than anyone.

Choosing a web developer

When choosing a web developer or web design firm, find someone who has great ideas about what makes a modern, effective website — but who will listen to you and make sure that they are building the right website for your business.

A website designer or developer also needs to help make fundamental decisions about specific approaches, tools, technologies and products used to build and host the website. Depending on your expertise and interest, you may want to trust the web developer completely and follow her/his guidance. With that said, it’s always a good idea to educate yourself so you have a basic understanding of the process.

Website hosting

One big question for your developer: Where will the site be hosted? It can run in physical servers in your offices, in the cloud, in your web developer’s facility. Make sure you understand the costs, pros and cons of whatever your pro recommends.

Content management systems & custom code

What will be the underpinning technology used by the web server to generate HTML pages? In the early days of the web, decades ago, HTML pages were little text files filled with HTML code stored on the server, just like you store word processing documents on your laptop. Websites built in that way were static, non-interactive and, well, boring by today’s standards.

Today, most websites generate HTML dynamically using a content management system (CMS).

WordPress Website Development

WordPress is one of the most popular content management systems for websites large and small, but there are many others, such as Drupal, Joomla! and Medium. Some web designs call for using an off-the-shelf system like those above; others are custom programmed from scratch using programming languages like JavaScript, Ruby, or Python.

Even if you go with a CMS, you may need custom programming to add the exact functionality you require.

When talking to a web designer, make sure that they listen to your requirements before rambling off a set of technical recommendations.

If the developer keeps pushing one solution or technology or architecture, that’s a good sign that they are mostly concerned about what they know, and not about what’s best for you.

One size definitely does not fit all!

Databases, shopping carts & more

Your developer probably will ask you a lot of questions so they can figure out the best website solution for your business. They’ll need to know stuff like:

Does your website need a database? If you have a lot of products, you probably do.

Will people need to purchase products or services from your site? For ecommerce, you’ll need a shopping cart and a safe way to process payments.

Will you be collecting information from visitors? If you are collecting and storing any information from people, you’ll need bulletproof security.

Who do you want to be able to update your website content? A big benefit of many CMS systems is that you can make many changes to the website yourself, without calling the web designer or web development company to assist you or do the job themselves. That may (or may not) be important to you.


A few thoughts to ponder:

Focus on speed and simplicity, especially for your home page. Make it fast, make it clean, make it responsive. You want your web pages to load fast on whatever device people will use to view them.

Don’t try to do too much for your first website. Stick to the basics — maybe even build out a single page.

Stay current. If you already have a website, and it’s old or out of date, it’s better to design and build a new one. They’re disposable. Stay on top of web design trends.

Quality is everything. The website has to work properly everywhere, including desktops, laptops and browsers. There shouldn’t be typos in your text. The pictures have to be clear. The web design shouldn’t be distracting. Things have to work.

As you ponder a new (or revamped) business website, taking a few minutes to understand how the technology works — from servers to browsers to design to development — will give you an edge in choosing the right web development company or website designer.

Want to learn more?

Check out these Garage articles:

  • What to look for in a web design company
  • Checklist: Avoid making 20 website design mistakes
  • Hiring a web designer? Consider these basics
  • How to make your web designer your business partner, Part 1 and Part 2
  • The worst things you can say to a web designer

Knowledge is power.