Website Planning Guide: 20 Steps for an Effective Website

19 min read
Sep 27, 2018

Website Planning Guide

Creating a website is a complex endeavor to embark on. Every change, every added functionality, every addition of content increases the workload, time and expense of a website, but all of that can be managed with a website planCreating a website plan saves you countless headaches down the road.

In this website planning guide, we walk you through planning, designing, and creating your first (or fifty-first!) website for success. Not only will this guide help you create the website you want, but it will also help build the website your customers desire.


Don't have time to read the whole guide right now? Download our 20 Step Website Planning Guide as a PDF checklist. Easily save it to your computer or print for reference for your next piece of content.

The process of developing a website migrates through many phases, from initial assessment, setting expectations, site launch, maintenance and follow-up (and testing - lots of testing).

Let's dive in...

20 Step Website Planning Guide

Having a clear and concise plan for the design, structure, and content of your website should be driven by the thought-leaders in the niche, marketing team, and lead strategist/communicator.

Your design team and IT department will execute the plan. We don't want to forget about those guys and gals.

Now on to ...

The website planning guide in action. 


1. Analyze Current Marketing and Branding 

A great place to start is with your current market analysis (either revamping your existing one or developing your first). The market analysis looks at the values and needs of your customers and any shift in trends or demographics.  

Ask yourself a few straight-forward questions...

What have you been doing?

How is it working for you?

You can start by evaluating your position in relation to your competition. We'll discuss brand auditing and competitive landscape further in this guide. 

Your research and analysis need to be implemented before any text or images are placed on your website. Customers do business with you because they connect with your brand emotionally, and how you deliver your message.


2. Discover Business Goals and Purpose


The purpose of your website should be established from the beginning. Begin by defining your unique value proposition and outlining SMART goals among other important items.

For the sake of time, first, answer simple questions about what you want your website to accomplish. Base your SMART goals around this purpose.

Are you attempting to build an online e-commerce website?

Are you building awareness about your brand or another cause?

Are you trying to create a website to make your business look more professional?

These are the types of questions that will help determine the main purpose of your website.

Creating SMART goals is an important part of the website planning process. In order to create a SMART goal, the goal must be all of the following:

S: Specific - Singular, focused and well-defined, answering the “5 W's.”

M: Measurable - States where you want to go in terms of numbers. How much? How many?

A: Attainable - Within reach and realistic for your industry and market conditions.

R: Relevant - Considers current business challenges and events that may affect progress.

T: Time-Based - Has a deadline that presents a sense of urgency to the plan.

The reason you want to have SMART goals is to have a way to determine the success of your website. By having a goal that is measurable and time-based, you will have more focus and create better results than if you set a general goal, for example, to "expand awareness," for your brand. This is an example of a broad goal that will likely have little success and is open to interpretation.

If, instead, your goal is to, "Increase search engine traffic by 10%," you have something you can measure and work with.

Jeff Proctor, Owner of DollarSprout, understands SMART goals. He took the above goal, "Increase search engine traffic by 10%" or "I want to focus on growing our online audience" to...

"During the next two months, I want to increase our search engine traffic by 10% by focusing on re-optimizing our existing content and making a concerted effort to earn 10 high-quality backlinks to that content."

The goal is...

  • Specific: increase organic traffic
  • Measurable: number of backlinks
  • attainable: the goal is realistic
  • Relevant: best way to increase traffic, leading to business success
  • Time-based: 2 months (60 days)

It is completely clear what Jeff is trying to accomplish, when and how.

FitSmallBusiness has a great resource that provides you with 20 of the Best SMART Goals examples for Small Businesses in 2018.

Your goals should have a strategic direction, consisting of 1-year/short term, 3-year, 5-year, and 10-year goals.

Purpose of Your Website

The purpose of your website should include:

A. Clear objective

B. Defined audience (whom the site is intended for)

C. Unique selling proposition (what makes you different?

Generally speaking, we know the main purpose is to drive sales, but we must figure out A, B, and C first.

Successful websites engage and educate the right audience, with the goal of converting leads into customers and repeat customers. 


3. Determine Your Budget

A serious, but surprisingly overlooked, part of the website creation process is budget. Most businesses are able to come up with a budget for the initial production of the website.

However, making changes after the fact can be expensive and is something many organizations are not prepared for. It is important to know, not only the initial budget but also what your organization can afford to spend on site development, maintenance, and marketing.

The price of your website is likely to depend on factors such as, the complexity and quantity of features, content and whatever other "fancy" tricks you would like on your website.


4. Choose a Domain Name


Image credit: Dot Com - Wikimedia Commons 

A portion of your determined budget should be designated for the purchase of a domain name and hosting. These fees are typically charged annually and don't typically amount to a large amount in the grand scheme of things. However, they are items you need to consider and include in your budget.

A domain name will vary in price, based on the popularity of the word you want to use, and extension. If being found on the web is a necessity, you will certainly want to have a ".com" extension. 

Here's why...

A study by Searchmetrics found only 11% of domains have relevant visibility in Google. They analyzed more than 100,000 domain names, and 75% go to .com domains, which are the most visible top-level domains in a keyword search.

And, .com is...

  • The most recognized by the public
  • Tend to be trusted by search engines 
  • Helps with branding because it looks authoritative 
  • It's memorable (let's face it, we've been wired to think "dot com")

As far as hosting goes...

Basic hosting fees can be as low as $42 a year, which is $3.49 a month but may not have the greatest site speed. A more realistic number, and better option for page speed would be around $60 a year. 


5. Determine Crucial Team Players 

Beyond creating a realistic budget, website planning and development requires teamwork. The resources needed are determined by what functionality, content and features need to be on the website. Roles that are needed for developing a website may include:

  • Web Designer
  • HTML Coder
  • Web Developer
  • Project Manager
  • Writer and Editor, Content Strategist
  • Stakeholders (The owner, for instance)

Marketing team members will be a key part of this process as well. Their efforts typically determine the success of the website, as they contribute to the coherent message and feel of your website, as well as your brand's social media presence.

Dividing the workload between essential roles will increase efficiency and effectiveness. A web designer is not likely to create the best content, just as a writer is unlikely to write the code necessary to make your website look professional and functional.

Each role has a skill set and talent with accountability. 


6. Research Competitive Sites

Before you launch your website, it's important to research what your competitors are doing. You can easily research their sites (visually) and see what you like or dislike.

Regardless of the niche you are in, monitoring your competitors can give you an inside look into their strategies. 

SEMrush is a competitive analysis tool that's great for monitoring a site's search engine marketing strategies. The software provides intelligence data, including website traffic from organic and paid search, keywords, position tracking, and backlinks to name a few.

Here's a quick look at the SEMrush dashboard:

semrush dashboard

When it comes to backlinks, another great tool for studying SEO strategies is Ahrefs.

You can analyze new, lost/broken backlinks, referring domains, and the number of backlinks from top-level domains such as .gov, .edu, .org and .net. Ahrefs, too, analyzes keyword research and more. 

ahrefs dashboard

There are many tools to help gather information on competitors. Understanding your competitors is essential to operate a successful business. 


7. Conduct Buyer Research

Buyer research is often overlooked at this point in the process but is a crucial step in learning the preferences and behaviors of your audience. This knowledge will help enhance your website efficiency and design.

In the beginning, it's important to create a buyer persona around what you know about your audience. To do this accurately, you'll need an understanding of how your buyers make purchasing decisions from start to finish.

One of the most important pieces of information you can discover in your research is the goal or challenge your audience faces. You can gather this information from your sales team, past customers, and prospects.

Conducting buyer research interviews will help gain this insightful information. Using their insight versus what you think or assume their insight is, is invaluable. 

Adele Revella, author of Buyer Personas, simply states, 

"You can capture what they're doing on your website and maybe the pages they visited but never the why. It's all about understanding what's really going on in their mind, what are their emotional points as they go through the decision buying process".

Targeted personas allow you to focus on the right buyers.

It allows you to deliver the right content that is the most relevant and useful to your audience. When you have awareness and knowledge of what your buyers are thinking, you have the ability to create the right messaging on your website.

Be sure not to miss or take this step for granted in the website design process!


8. Create a Value Proposition

Think of value proposition as something that makes your company, product or services more attractive to your customers.

It should explain how your product solves customer problems or improves their situation (relevancy is key). It should deliver specific benefits and a specific explanation of what you do or offer and why it is useful.  

Peep Laja, founder of CXL, suggests value proposition consists of:

  1. Headline: including the end benefit
  2. Sub-headline: or 2-3 sentence paragraph: explain why it's useful
  3. Three bullet points: Defining key benefits
  4. Visual: Reinforce the main message with an image

Laja also created a value proposition worksheet that details how to identify and express an effective value proposition.   


9. Create a Unique Selling Proposition (USP)


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

A Unique Selling proposition, or USP, focuses on the question, "What makes your business stand out?"

It’s what makes you different and earns you a special place in the minds of your potential customers. It answers the question “why should I buy from you?”

In simple terms and in a one-liner, it should explain to your ideal customer why they should buy from you and not from your competition.

"Its primary value is to create competitive differentiation."

Jill Konrath, speaker and author of four best-selling sales books, demonstrates the difference between USP and value proposition. She explains how their purpose and sales impact are very different:

Elevator Speech vs. Unique Selling Proposition vs. Value Proposition 


10. Consider Your Desired Site Features

In all of your research, ask yourself, "What is our website trying to accomplish?"

Do you need more of an e-commerce site?

If collecting leads is your priority, how will you collect leads?

Do you need social media integration?

Will you incorporate a blog in your navigation menu?

Website features can be quite exhaustive, and sometimes overwhelming. 

Douglas Karr (, founder of Mar Tech, says,

"For your business to succeed online you need to make sure that your website is feature-packed! There are many small details that can make all the difference – both in terms of giving customers trust and also giving them extra functions that aid conversions and improve the overall user experience of your site. It makes your business stand apart from the others, giving you a competitive edge."

He created this helpful website features checklist: 65 ultimate must-haves for your site.

Step-by-step from page header, footer, pages, blog, SEO and more, Karr outlines the necessity of each feature and how the site should work to drive sales.


11. Implement the Right CMS for Your Business

The needs of your business drive the selection of which CMS is right for you. A content management system will organize and manage the creation and adaptation of your digital content.

A popular CMS is Wordpress, which is utilized by some of the biggest brands. There are a few limitations with Wordpress (i.e. it's not feature-heavy) but should be considered depending on your company's needs.

Working in a CMS allows you to develop your site from within. As a business owner, you need the ability to update virtually everything on your site, from images, headers, content, etc.

As your business grows, you may require more from your content management system. It is more profitable to customize your company's customer experience. 

HubSpot CMS may be the right fit if you're looking for more features and customization. It combines website creation with CRM (customer relationship management) which allows companies to manage their relationships and the data that coincides. If you need to automate and track metrics such as lead generation and sales, HubSpot would be a good next step.

There are always enhancements and updates being made to any CMS platform. You can read more on Hubspot's recently updated products.


12. Be Keyword Savvy

Your website's foundation is built on keywords. 

Keyword analysis is a broad topic, but it is a task to be done early on in your website planning, and consistently revisited thereafter.

By researching and understanding what visitors are searching for can help you customize content to drive traffic and increase your overall conversion rates.

We gathered a few expert keyword research articles to assist you:

Keyword Research for SEO: The Definitive Guide

Beginners Guide to SEO - Keyword Research

Keyword Analysis: How to Analyze Your Keywords Effectively

127 Experts Reveal Best Tools for Keyword Research in 2018

Keyword analysis helps you uncover the words or phrases your potential customers are most likely searching

According to Moz,

"Search language shifts constantly, new keywords are being formed all the time, and your audience's needs develop and grow. As a result, keyword research is a job worth doing whenever you're looking to create new website content."


13. Dive Deep into Content Strategy


Image credit: Content Marketing Wikimedia Commons 

Content creation requires time. The more defined you can make your content strategy, the better off you'll be when it comes to laying out web pages with a unified feel. Content includes everything that a visitor can take in as information, which is more than just the copy on the page. Examples of the other types of content that exist on a webpage include:

  • Blog Posts
  • Documents
  • Videos
  • Images
  • Slideshows
  • Embedded Feeds

All of this content should be planned and compiled before any design work is started. Any changes to content after the design is completed may cause a massive overhaul of your website layout and development.

It is imperative not to discredit any of these additional forms of content. For example, featured image backgrounds are a growing trend (even for everyday businesses) that increase shares and likes on social media.

It's extremely helpful to keep an inventory of all the content you have and any images you can use. That way, you have a library of information that could be a good fit for your site.

When creating a website in 2018, keep in mind interactive visual content, chatbots, storytelling and increased personalization are starting to dominate the content marketing scene.

We've talked about setting goals, developing your brand's USP and identifying your audience's motivations. Now it's time to brainstorm topics that you know your audience cares about.

Create content that you know your audience is struggling with and answer their questions. Help them discover how you can fix their pain points.


Be more strategic in your thinking. Think bigger and decide if these topics are the same topics that will help get backlinks, shares etc. 

Here's what that means...

Rankings (first page Google results) and domain authority come into play for generating more sales and revenue. Often, the websites you want to link to yours aren't your customers; they are the influencer's of your niche with strong websites and authority.

When you can create content for your audience that also attracts those in your niche with strong domain authority...

It's a huge win!

Link building doesn't always happen as quickly as you'd like, but the long-term ROI can be much higher than you ever considered. 

In fact, in a case study conducted by Fractl (on their own internal work), the aggregate trends in link building have had a similar pattern over time. It looks like this...

"Roughly 50% of the total links acquired happened in the first month, and the other 50% were acquired in the following two to three years." source: The Long-Term Link Acquisition Value of Content Marketing.


14. Website Structure: SEO-Friendly URLs

Decide what pages your website needs and lay them out in a flow chart or another visual medium. We recommend no more than five or six options at the top level, for simplicity and user experience.

When laying out the sitemap, you will also create conversion paths to generate leads and close sales. Clean and simple direction, with one option on each page, is the best way to make this happen. However, focusing on the content of each page is what will determine the structure, not the design, that will come later.

Once you have determined the sitemap and the content that belongs on each page, the next step is creating wireframes and mockups for the site.

Structuring URLs to be SEO-Friendly

URL structure is important and is often overlooked on some websites. 

You want to keep it simple and consistent, organized and trustworthy.

Which do you think looks better? 


The second version is optimized for search engines with keywords. The keywords help search engines determine relevancy which can help land you on the first page of Google.


15. Focus on the Structure of the Pages Using Wireframes

wireframes for website planning

Image credit: Wireframes Mad Fish Digital 

Wireframes can be considered working prototypes that focus on the structure of the pages. Wireframes are essential because they lay out your website without the design elements such as color and images.

They are intended to provide layout and the website's functionality.

Orbit Media Studios does a great job explaining: 7 Reasons to Wireframe.


  1. Display site's architecture visually
  2. Allow for clarification of features
  3. Look at ease of use
  4. Identify ease of updates
  5. Make the design process interactive
  6. Save time
  7. Work!

16. Create a Professional Logo


Image credit: Color wheel - Phil DeGeorge 

Your business depends on a professionally designed logo with all the right elements. 

The right fonts that complement each other and the appropriate color palette come together to make a professional logo. A great logo tells a story about your brand. 

The colors chosen in the design can set your brand's mood and culture. The colors you choose should work together, so pick wisely. The color wheel will assist you in developing a color scheme and help identify harmonious color combinations.

Let's take a look at a few professional logos...


FedEx used complementary colors that are opposite to each other on the color wheel. This creates a strong contrast. It's simple and the company deliberately changes the color of the "Ex" to classify its type of 

Image credit: FedEx logo - Wikimedia Commons

Amazon is another example of a simple logo with two colors that uses just its name. They include the arrow from A to Z to emphasize they offer a wide variety of inventory online from A to Z that customers may be looking for. 

image credit: amazon - Wikimedia Commons


Your logo will distinguish you from your competitors, so try to be unique in your design. We combined modern technology + agile business to create our logo.

Blue creates a feeling of trust and security.

Both are important aspects when developing custom software solutions and growing businesses with inbound marketing. 


17. Design with Multiple Elements

The combining of content and structure will yield a design for your well-planned dream website. A well-designed website is composed of multiple elements, while a poorly-designed website can create mistrust and drive visitors away. 

Quality design is invaluable. It makes the best impression on your visitors. This positive impression should reduce bounce rate (that and the fact you're giving your visitors exactly what they came for). 

Answer and focus on three questions to streamline your site. 

What are you selling?

Why should your visitor care?

What should they do next?

Good design feels better for the user.

If their experience is better...

Conversions are more likely.

Websites with simple designs have higher conversion rates and, typically, faster loading times. Statistics show once your site hits the 8-second mark for loading time, the bounce rate jumps to 150%.

In this day and age, you must also optimize your website for mobile devices. 

Users expect the mobile site to load within seconds. 


18. Test Site Across All Devices & Browsers

Before launching a website, you need to test it. Testing includes how it renders across devices, whether mobile, tablet or desktop, as well as across browsers, such as Safari, Chrome, Internet Explorer or Firefox.

However, a website should also be tested for user experience. Making sure that the website is easy to use before launch is important. Have your colleagues or peers (that were not working on the website) take it for a test drive. Make sure they perceive your website in the way you intended.

From there, you can make the necessary revisions before giving the go-ahead to launch.

Set a target date for a soft launch.

The last two website planning strategies are based on after the launch of your site... 


19. Develop a Growth-Driven Design Based on Real Data

A growth driven design (GDD) website allows you to launch your website faster than a traditional web design.

Here's what that means...

With GDD, you continue to improve the website over time. Data is gathered and analyzed from visitors to teach us where we need to improve. In the older, traditional way you may not have touched the website for a year or two. This was a "set it and forget it" methodology.

Growth driven design allows you to see how users are engaging with your content. It lets you personalize for your visitors.

You focus strictly on improving results.

There are phases of GDD that touch on strategy (like setting SMART goals), getting your site launched early (knowing it's not the finished version) and continuous improvement.

It takes a deeper dive into an agile approach versus aesthetics.

According to the 2017 State of GDD, on average, agencies utilizing GDD reported 16.9% more leads after 6-months and a 14% increase in traffic for the same time.

The internet is dynamic and evolving constantly, so should your website. 


20. Create a Wishlist for Future Site Enhancements

Who doesn't want or doesn't have a wishlist?

A website wishlist consists of the elements you think you want on your site (before the launch). Data will help you decide which items are an integral part on the website (after the launch).

It should always come back to the needs and demands of the user, the audience it is intended for.

Having a wishlist in the beginning stages should address your buyer personas; who they are, and what their needs and wants are. Understanding their problem before offering a solution is key.

After you've launched your site, and data begins to build, you'll be able to make better assumptions and monitor your metrics.

Knowing your numbers...

  • Content consumption - page views, average time on-page, blog leads
  • Lead metrics - lead to customer conversion, landing page conversion rates, website traffic to lead ratios
  • Social engagement - likes, shares, comments
  • and more...

will have the power to change your website initiatives and become a data and wish list driven business.

Conclusion to the Website Planning Guide

This post has presented an overview of the process of website planning. With this guide, I hope that you know what to expect from the website planning process and have a glimpse at the complexity of building a website.

Enough can't be said of the importance of having a plan for your website.

The point is, creating a website without a plan in place for the budget, content, structure and design is a disaster waiting to happen.

Do yourself a favor that will increase your chances of success: pre-plan your website approach. 

That's it for this website planning guide.

And now I'd like to hear from you:

Do you have any questions about this guide?

Or maybe you have an approach that I didn't include.

Either way, let me know by leaving a comment below right now.

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