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I know we need to do a number of things, I'm just not sure of the order of importance...
-get a professional design/layout with a number of templates that we can update and maintain from home
-relaunch on .com - the .com dropped after we launched and our site is built on other tld - currently the .com is directed to our site
-redirect redesigned pages properly so as not to lose google rankings
-really ramp up the content and the frequency to which I add it. Currently I've been a bit lazy due to not knowing if it was worth adding if I was going to change design...
-add a few features such as an online store and blog
Any help/input would be very much appreciated. Also, any tips on how to find reliable and honest designers/developers? The large firms I've contacted haven't returned my calls/emails and individuals have forwarded me their portfolios that are filled with spelling mistakes. Unfortunately no one in my circle of friends has been able to recommend someone.
Thanks so much!
Once you have clear ideas about this, you will likely have a variety of options as to how to re-implement the site, from free open source software you can install and manage yourself, to the right questions to ask a developer.
Addressing the fundamentals now really will pay dividends. What you don't want to do is look at the site in a few months time and think "I wish I'd done it this way...".
Once you're all set, the easiest and most stable way possible to increase visitor numbers is to keep adding content that visitors will like. If you get to saturation point (as if!), think about new features.
Personally, I think the visual design is not necessarily a key factor (look at this site, for instance ;)), but of course this depends on what your site is trying to do. A site that's built with future-proofing in mind can switch design without redevelopment and at any time (via CSS), with zero impact on performance.
My site is functional, it just looks 'homemade' to me and I want to expand it once it looks better. It's my own belief that a more professional-looking site would be more attractive to advertisers as well.
Does it count as a total domain name change if you're going from www.example.net to www.example.com if you own both names? We launched on the .net since the .com at the time was unavailable, but since we now have the .com. I thought it would be better for the future to have the whole site on the .com and have the .net redirected to it?
Does it count as a total domain name change if you're going from www.example.net to www.example.com
Yes - but you can migrate from one domain to another via permanent (i.e. with a 301 status code) redirects. Migrations may not work perfectly, so it's much better to do that before any additional content.
As for .com vs .net, my preference would be for .com, since this is probably what most users expect, but there's no particular reason why .net wouldn't work (as long as the .com redirects appropriately). YMMV, of course ;)
a more professional-looking site would be more attractive to advertisers as well
That's likely true, but it's perhaps a question of degree. You won't get many complaints about a site that doesn't look great but performs extremely well ;)
As for order, I'd say do it like this:
(1) Decide what new features you'll want to introduce.
(2) Get a new design (that means site structure as well as appearance) that incorporates them.
(3) Have the design coded (for use with a CMS, I'd say), not necessarily by the same people as did the design.
(4) Relaunch the site on the new url and have the redirects from the old to the new set up.
(5) Ramp up the content.
There's no point having a design drawn up and then changing your mind about what you want on the site. There's also no point relaunching on a new domain (and setting up redirects) and then redesigning (and setting up more redirects). And there's no point having a promotional push on your current domain only to move your site somewhere else. So the natural order is Decisions > Design > Relocation.