Sandra Beckwith often advises other small business people on what to include in their websites, but when it came to creating the website of Beckwith Communications, the Fairport, N.Y., entrepreneur hired a consultant to build and maintain it. "It's just not a good use of my time to master this on my own," says Beckwith, who teaches authors and non-profits how to make use of publicity. "The second reason is that somebody who specializes in this will do a much better job than I will."

Many business owners feel the same way. Small businesses seeking help creating and maintaining their websites frequently turn to web consultants. And hiring one takes careful consideration of what your company needs. Think through your business reason for wanting a website. Will you do e-commerce? How soon do you want the website operational? How much can you afford to spend? Beckwith says small business sites can cost from $750 to $2,500.

Next, start looking for someone to execute your vision. Beckwith sent queries to an online networking site for people in her profession, asking members whom they had used to create their sites. "I got a lot of responses," she said.

After getting responses, Beckwith checked out consultants' online portfolios of websites they had designed to see whose work fit her own needs. "It was a question of whether I liked the sites from a visual standpoint and whether I thought they were functional," she says. Functionality for her included using readable typefaces and avoiding unnecessary animation.

When she found several she liked, she contacted the designers to find out more. She was looking for someone who understood small business needs, could work with her schedule and, importantly, who asked as many questions as she did. "A good website designer will have a list of questions that they automatically ask of clients," she says. Questions to expect from consultants include: What's the goal of your website? What do you want it to do for your business? What are some websites you like? What are some websites you don't like?

Whether you find the skills you need with a web consultant or even with your own web hosting firm, as web hosts frequently provide design, development and maintenance services, be sure to ask the same questions of all the resources you tap. Also, ask for and check references for the specific services you require. Beckwith says she focused on asking references whether developers responded quickly to questions and problems, and how rapid their turnaround was on development and maintenance tasks.

When you have narrowed your choices to the one you want, consider how to structure the relationship. Cathy Siciliano, senior director of marketing for the Mountain View, Calif.-based recommends starting with a small project to make sure you function well together. Then create a schedule including milestones for developing and maintaining the site to help you keep track of progress and let the consultant know what will be expected and when. Set yourself a task of communicating with your developer at least weekly. And consider funding an escrow account with the budgeted amount of the project with funds to be released only upon completion of milestones.

It's impossible to remove all uncertainty from hiring a consultant. But if you choose carefully and monitor your consultant's work well, chances are good you will get a much better website than you could build on your own, and be able to keep it looking and working well while you devote yourself to the business tasks you are better at.

Beckwith found her consultant three years ago, hiring him to do a general site for her business. When she decided to create two more specialized websites for her company, she decided there was no need to go through the process of searching for a consultant again. "He did such a nice job with my basic site," Beckwith says, "that I asked him to do the other sites as well."