I have been in the web business for about 10 years now. Over that time I have spent a lot of time looking at competitors' sites. Anytime a site, good or bad, has a link on it to who developed/designed it I will follow. Curious by nature, I usually just want to see who did the work and what kind of work they do. Some of the shops I have worked for have had some really good sites and some have had some pretty bad sites. The stock excuse for a bad site is "We're so busy working on clients' sites that we don't have time to work on our own." That's an excuse, but it wouldn't fly if I were running things.
Any web-based business, and especially a web agency, is judged by their web site. If I were looking for a web agency to do work for me I would visit the sites of those I was interested in or had been referred to. Without even so much as talking to someone from any of those places I would whittle down to a short list based only on their sites. What's that you say? How shallow of me? Well, I'd be looking for a few things in any agency I'd consider. I want a company with good design chops, experience with web standards and accessibility, a good grasp on usability (or has at least read Don't Make Me Think), an understanding of community, and an apparent attention to detail. I would learn everything I need to know about those things by spending a couple of minutes on their site.
I have a few tips on how to make sure that your web site does not turn away potential clients. Or, in other words, if I were running things these are the things that I would make sure were implemented on my web shop's site.
1. Make it easy for me to consider you. You probably have brochures, flyers, cards and all sorts of other material that you leave with prospects or send via mail. Make that available on your site in digital form. Below is a good example - this company would earn bonus points from me for going the extra mile.
2. Create an RSS feed for your news and press releases and post regularly. You don't know what an RSS feed is? Get to the back of the line.
The first thing your developers will ask, though maybe not to your face, is "Who the hell wants to subscribe to our news?!?". Potential clients do, that's who. I would subscribe to the feeds of every agency on my short list. If you don't have an RSS feed you probably will not make it to my short list. I'd watch those feeds for a couple of things. How often do you announce the release of a site? What types/size of sites have you doing recently? These two things will help me judge the size and scope of your company. Maybe more importantly, I'll be judging your writing. Your copy does not have to be professionally produced, but it should still be good.
This company above offers an RSS feed for their news and projects, they might make it to my short list.
This company seems to update their news frequently enough, but I see no indication of a feed available.
3. Have some job postings on your "Careers" page. This one may involve a little trickery, so look away if you are squeamish. Whether you are hiring or not have some job postings on your careers page. As a potential customer I want to know that you are in good shape. One indication of that is growth. If you're currently hiring then you're probably currently financially sound. Updated: After reading this a second time I realized that it may come off a little unethical, which I truly am not. All companies are always looking for someone good, whether actively or not. Make sure that everyone knows you are looking for that right person by having a job posting or two on your careers page. Potential customers will of course see that, too.
4. Use quality images in your online portfolio. There are times to optimize images as much as possible and there are times when you shouldn't. Your online portfolio is one of those places where you shouldn't. I want to see big, clear, colorful screen captures. I'll understand if the page takes a little longer to download than most. Don't show me a crappy image, I'll think you do crappy work. Wow me!
5. Refrain from gimmicks. I know that usage of Flash is pretty standard these days and other technologies (like WPF/E) are on the brink. If you want to use Flash for a banner or some type of rotating image, that's fine. But don't build your site completely in Flash, unless of course that is what you do. That wouldn't be what my company does, but to each his/her own.
6. Tell me who your biggest/best clients are up front. Don't make me dig through your site or call you to find out. Your client list is one of the most important factors in my decision making process. That doesn't mean that I'm not going to consider you if your biggest client to date is Bill's Pet Shop. If you do good work I may give you a chance. Or hell, I might only have Bill's Pet Shop type money to spend on my current project. I want to know what ballpark you are playing in. Please tell me.
7. Know where your referrals are coming from. From a potential customer standpoint this has no bearing, but as a web agency this is very important for you. Make sure that you know how people are getting to your site. My example below demonstrates using a source code passed in the querystring. That is one route to take, especially if you have some sort of affiliate arrangement, but the alternative is paying a lot of attention to your site's stats. Get a good site statistics package, sign up for Google Analytics (even better - do both) or if you have the budget opt for a more expensive package.
The above tips are some things I came up with after visiting a site today that I was thoroughly impressed with. I started comparing that site with sites of places where I have worked and began thinking about how I would do things if I were in charge. Hopefully this provides some insight and a kick-in-the-pants for web agencies looking for potential clients. It may also serve as a useful tool and checklist for someone looking for a web agency. Feel free to comment on my tips or leave some of your own.