A Quick Guide to the Services that Make Up the Web Industry


If you’ve got a new web project, you may not know where to start. What does it take to get a web project off the ground? Who do you need to hire? Should you hire just one person, or will you need a small fleet of professionals working together?

The web industry is ever-changing, and full of complex and interlinked services.

These are all reasonable questions. The web industry is ever-changing, and full of complex and interlinked services, and it’s probably safe to say that it only makes some semblance of sense to the people inside it.

What follows below is a very brief guide to the main types of web services, and what to think about when you consider hiring each.

Internet Infrastructure Services

These are the services you’ll need to get online.

These are the services you’ll need to get online. Broadly, you’ll need a server to host the files that make up your website, plus a domain name where people can find the site. As you’d expect, there’s a lot having to do with web architecture (SSL certificates, CDNs…) but those are the basics.

Web hosts are the agencies that provide server space for your website. There are many cheap web hosting options that will let you host your site for as little as $5 per month, but they’re subject to very erratic quality. More expensive hosting is usually faster and more reliable, but may also be more difficult to configure.

Although many web developers offer web hosting, you generally shouldn’t buy it unless they make a very compelling case.

In general—but with some exceptions— web hosts are not individuals but large companies. Hosting has a lot of economies of scale, so this is the way it should be for most projects. Although many web developers offer web hosting as part of the process of building your website, you generally shouldn’t buy it unless they make a very compelling case. An independent web developer is either hosting you on his or her own server or reselling other hosting. In the first case, the quality is likely to be very poor: odd security settings that prevent you from doing sensible things, no interface you can use, your site crashes when your developer’s power goes out, technical support only when your developer is at work, etc. The second case makes slightly more sense, but your client is largely a middleman for hosting you could purchase yourself.

A quick sidenote about email: some hosts will bundle email accounts with their hosting, and some will not. If not, your domain registrar should make it possible to use domain-specific email accounts that you forward to another email address (such as a Gmail account).

Domain name registrars are different from web hosts, although many hosts are also registrars and vice versa. Registrars are simply companies that are able to help you purchase a domain name (“mysitename.com”) so you can use that domain on your site. Registering a domain should be inexpensive, between $10 and $50 per year.

Web Developers

Web developers make things work from a technical standpoint on your site.

Broadly, web developers are “people who write code for web projects.” (To get technical, “code” here could mean both actual programming code, like PHP, and markup and styling, like HTML/CSS.) They’re the people who turn visual designs into reality, and who make things work from a technical standpoint on your site.

Front-end web developers work with your site as it appears in a web browser. They use languages like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to control the appearance and interactivity of your website.

Front-end developers’ abilities often (but not always) overlap significantly with those of web designers.

Back-end web developers control how your site works behind the scenes. They work in languages like PHP, MySQL, and a lot of others to make sure your site is secure, runs smoothly, and properly put together. They’re also the people who will build the features your site needs; for example, making a page that lists all your site’s users would be a job for a back-end developer (although a front-end developer would need to make the list look good on the page).

Many developers have both front-end and back-end expertise, but most lean in one direction or another.

Network administrators control the entire infrastructure of your site: how the servers handle incoming traffic, what IP addresses are blocked from loading the site, etc. If you have a relatively small site and simple third-party hosting, you won’t need a dedicated network administrator for your project.

In general, don’t get a mobile app built unless you have a very good reason for it.

Mobile app developers build native apps for iPhones, Android phones, and other platforms (Windows, etc.). Each of these platforms requires knowledge of a separate language and development environment, making app development a challenge. In general, don’t get a mobile app built unless you have a very good reason for it. A family restaurant, for example, should not have either a “mobile app” or a “mobile site” that is different from the main site; instead, it should just have a website designed according to responsive design best practices.

Technical support people fix your site when something goes wrong. Your original site developer may enter an ongoing support agreement with you, or you may work with a separate developer, or even a company that does only technical support. For many issues, your web hosting provider can be a good source of technical support—particularly for problems (like restoring a backup of your site, or figuring out why your site seems to be down) that involve your hosting itself.

Web Designers

Designers do need to be visually talented, but above all they need to give your site the right design for its users and mission.

Perhaps surprisingly, “web designer” is a bit hard to define. Much of web design often centers around a site’s visual appearance, but “design” has a wide-ranging definition, and many designers will bristle at the tendency to reduce design to “how it looks.” Designers do need to be visually talented, but above all they need to give your site the right design for its users and mission—not just make something pretty for the sake of prettiness. At any rate, for small project it’s not the worst thing in the world to think of a designer as “someone who can come up with high-quality visuals for how my site should look.”

Web designers may or may not also be developers. If not, they’ll provide some sort of mockup (wireframes, Photoshop page mockups, etc.) for you to have developed separately.

Graphic designers tend to do highly custom work, like logo designs. They may or may not be interested in designing full websites (that is, working as web designers).

UI/UX professionals specialize in planning out the user interface and user experience of your site: is the page clearly laid out? Do users clearly understand their options, and how to choose each option? Is it easy to flow from one page to the next? These professionals are mostly appropriate for large projects, and for projects that are more like web apps (e.g., Facebook or AirBNB) than simple blogs or company sites.

Online Marketers

Online marketers are a broad class of professionals who work to help improve your site’s visibility, traffic, and sales. Marketers may or may not have strong technical backgrounds.

SEOs (“search engine optimization” agencies) are people who work to help you rank in search results. Good SEOs can get substantial results over weeks and months, but SEO as an industry is saturated with low-quality agencies getting by on aggressive and deceptive marketing. SEO is such a jungle because Google’s private and constantly-changing algorithm invites superstition and obsolete practices, and because results are quite hard to measure except over months.

PPC agencies are not to be confused with SEOs. Rather, these firms help you run online PPC (“pay per click”) advertising campaigns, primarily through Google AdWords. Since you pay for every visit to your site, PPC professionals shouldn’t brag about traffic, but about conversions, the proportion of visitors to your site that end up taking the desired action (such as buying your product).

Often marketing agencies will sell a bundle that combines PPC and SEO services. This is great—but make sure to be critical about the rapid increase in site traffic you’ll receive. How many of those visits were simply from paid traffic, and is the PPC side of the arrangement paying for itself in actual conversions?

Social media marketers help you engage with people and grow your business through social networks. Hiring them generally probably makes sense for large projects with defined financial returns (like trying to sell a new energy drink), but you may find they’re right in other cases as well.

Especially for small projects, you’ll probably want to be your own content marketer.

Content marketers use free content (for example, blog posts and informational newsletters) to drive site traffic and engagement with your service. Especially for small projects, you’ll probably want to be your own content marketer. (We wrote a free e-book on how to do this, and there are many other great free and paid content marketing resources on the web.) If you do elect to hire someone for this—for example, someone to write blog posts for your site—keep a close eye on the content itself, as third-party content is often low-quality.

Web strategy consultants are people who work to offer intelligence about how to take a web project forward. Your developer should fill this role to some extent—as we’ve said repeatedly, every decision a developer makes should be based on meeting your core needs, so it’s impossible to do good development without engaging in a project at a strategic level.

If you’d like professional help thinking through your idea, it’s probably best to engage it toward the beginning of the project.

However, there are some professionals (who may or may not be technically skilled) who will help you plan out your web project, answering questions like, “Who is your potential market?” “What is the product?” “How do you stand out in the space you occupy?” These questions inform every other decision you make—from choosing a web host to making design decisions to executing a social media strategy—so if you’d like professional help thinking through your idea, it’s probably best to engage it toward the beginning of the project.

General Notes on Overlapping Roles

A lot of the time, web agencies offer many or even all of these services.

A lot of the time, web agencies offer many or even all of these services. This is especially true if you hire a large “full-service” agency to implement your web project; this kind of agency will have in-house developers, SEO specialists, front- and back-end designers, etc.

Smaller projects can also employ a small range of professionals: You might just hire a web developer who’s good enough visually to also work as your web designer, and you might be your own marketing team. In that case, you’re likely just paying for hosting, a domain name, and the developer—which is a quite common project profile, especially for small business sites.

In Conclusion…

Well, that’s a start! Did we miss anything important? (“Web ninja” and “web rockstar” don’t count, and we recommend you steer clear of both.) We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Image Credits: Dean Johnson

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