So you need a website or a blog and haven't the faintest idea how to go about choosing the best one for you or your business? My best advice to you, speaking as a small business owner, a website and blog designer, and well, a human being is know what you want your website or blog to accomplish first and then start your search. Why? Well, it will cost you less in time and money. You won't have to do as much research for one. And second, the designer or firm you hire will spend less billable hours talking with you and redoing whatever it is you want undone or adding whatever it was you forgot to mention for your website or blog to meet your needs.
Ultimately, when you're looking to hire a designer, developer or firm to design your website or blog, know your needs and know your wants, then get a reality check. In writing school we were always told to "kill your babies". Meaning, get rid of the part of our story or article that we love too much, so much that everything else suffers or so much that we get stuck. My advice to you individuals and businesses who are looking to get a website or blog created, make a list of your needs first, your wants second. Keep those things that overlap, keep the rest of the needs, put the rest of the "wants" in your pocket for a rainy day...or until your budget expands to support these wants.
Your Basic Website or Blog Needs
You need a domain name and a web host first and foremost. You can either do a search at Yahoo or your preferred search engine for "domain name" or "web hosting", or checkout Webhostmagazine. Web Host Magazine breaks down how to choose the ideal web host for your needs. We use Hostgator and Lunarpages for some of our websites. Both are excellent. My suggestion for choosing a web host is get more space than you need, think about what technologies you might need (i.e., database) in the future and make sure your host has that option as an upgrade or with the package you've chosen. It's just better to have more than you need than less 'cause switching web hosts can be a pain in the *arse*. My suggestion for choosing a domain name is make it relevant, easy, and put at least one keyword in the name.
You need to determine how big or small your site needs to be currently and how much growth it will have in the next year or two. Be realistic in what you need now, but think ahead about what you'll need later.
You need a designer and a developer. You can higher one person to create the design and another to make the design into a website but it'll cost you more and your design may suffer for it if the designer and developer you hire don't see eye to eye. A designer often designs and a developer often develops. But, more so than ever these days, a website or blog designer does both design and development.
Decide how you'll be contacted by whomever visits your site and let your web designer/developer know. It's often the case that site owner's don't want to have to login to their web host's server (via the cpanel or whatever administration area is used) to check email with some generic email account like Horde or Squirrel. You'll maybe want the email address to have the suffix of your website (i.e, email@example.com). So, tell whomever you hire you want email forwarding which basically means you want to use firstname.lastname@example.org but want the emails sent to that address to be automatically forwarded to perhaps your Yahoo or Gmail address for convenience. If you plan on receiving lots of emails, you might want a contact form, too. So, decide that and let your designer/developer know. Also, if you decide on just having a link to your email address on your site, make sure you get spam protection otherwise you'll be inundated with promises of cures for impotence you don't have and offers to make you wealthy by becoming an envelope stuffer.
You need to decide on the purpose of your web presence. Is the purpose of your site to inform people about something? Sell to them? Create community? Promote you or your business? What is the raison d'etre of your site?
You need to decide on how you want you or your business to be perceived. Think of your online presence as clothing and accessories. You want to convey an image to your site visitors that represent who you are and what you're about. Are you or your business high-end, playful, humorous, low-cost, artsy, reliable, etc.? Ask yourself.
You need to decide on a budget and be reasonable and aware of how much labor is involved in having a website designed and developed. In the end you get what you pay for. A site or blog designed or developed for under $500 is very basic and often has no personality. A site under $800 is still basic and has maybe just a smidgen of personality. If you're in the service industry especially, you know that your labor is pretty much your service so don't take that for granted when hiring a website or blog designer. Projects defer in time, scale and money based on needs and wants. Remember that, accept that and you'll get the best services your money (your budget) can buy.
You need content. One of many mistakes that new site owners make is assuming whomever they hire to design or develop their website or blog (website especially) will automatically provide or edit their written content or supply images for them. Not so. The written content is the site owner's responsibility and is usually generated from marketing materials already in their possession. You can and should hire a web copywriter for your website or blog if you are not a good writer or don't have any marketing material. The written content is what "sells" your service, product or whatever your purpose to your site visitors. Don't skimp. As for the images on your site, outside of icons created specifically for your site, images such as photography and clipart you must purchase or find yourself. We love istockphoto. Most importantly, remember to clear copyright for images. It's not the designer/developer's responsibility to clear permission to use the image on your site. That's just standard policy among most, if not all, designers and firms.
You need to decide who and how often your site is going to be maintained. Will you maintain and update your site or will you hire your developer to do it for you for a monthly/yearly maintenance fee?
You need assistance with SEO and marketing if marketing is a priority. Your designer/developer may know SEO, or she may not. Ask. SEO is search engine optimization. It's basically a way to make sure search engines know that your website exists and is found when people search the search engines with relevant keywords. Also, it would be a good idea to hire search engine marketer or an online marketer. Some designer/developers know all about SEO and how to get your web pages ranked higher in search engines like Google, Yahoo and even vertical search engines like C/nets download.com or directories like Dmoz. Most don't. So, you should definitely hire an SEO or online marketing expert. It's an investment, not "another cost".
Your Typical Website or Blog Wants
You want dynamic interactivity for your users. Fine, you should. Your users deserve it and it keeps them engaged and not bored. But, be specific and give your designer/developer the specifics of how you'd like your site visitors to interact with your website and they can tell you how that can be achieved given your budget and time constraints.
You want a database to store information. Again, ask yourself why. Then ask yourself what type of content will be stored in this database. Articles? Images? Videos? And then ask yourself who'll be in charge of updating and backing up this database of information. You? Someone in your business? The web developer you hire (for a monthly maintenance fee)?
You want a kick-arse fancy, artsy design. Design is labor hours. It takes time to think about, come up with and implement a design that's customized for you or your business. Don't take this for granted and you won't be disappointment. Trust me, if you want a customized designed that will make your competition pay attention or your site visitors never want to leave, it's damn well worth the price. It's not as expensive as you think (depending on the designer) but not as cheap either. Regardless, just let your designer know your vision and trust that she can make it happen if you're willing to pay more than expected and not as much as you fear.
Of course, there are many, many other things you may want for your web presence. Write them down and separate them from your needs. Interview a few designer-developers and compare pricing and timelines.
Be a good client by doing a little research, asking your designer lots of questions, giving them room to create what you asked and taking into consideration that you are paying for a service, not a product so the cost is rarely streamlined.
If you need help trying to choose a domain name, try this article from site ground on how to choose a domain name.