Commissioning a website - be really careful

Getting a website online

This article is not a guide to getting a website online per se. The intention is to give you, as a customer, the chance to think a bit more about who the company will be to implement your website. I wrote this, because, more than ever - there is a never ending supply of people willing to provide a website dirt cheap which will never do what you need. Ultimately, the concept of a website being the right solution to drive a business is flawed in many situations.

Why do people want websites?

I don’t know many people who will read a website cover to cover. Indeed, it seems to be more of a brochure affair, where the right combination of pictures, text and calls to action hooks the customer in.

There are website applications, which users interact with, and this is more where my skills lie.

Typically, people want a website presence which allows other people to find out more about their offerings and interests. Often, it is just because they feel compelled to , “Everybody has a website these days”.

Commercially, websites are a major way to market products and services. Customers can find out as much about you as they need to. Websites can reduce paid man hours because customers are already prepped on your offerings.

Websites permit interactions and transactions. Many companies never have to speak to customers, but still have what feels like a close connection with their customer base.

Am I even the right person to talk about websites?

As a slight detour, one of the most divisive experiences I have encountered is people’s opinions on websites. Almost every website will always have a certain proportion of people vehemently opposed to a specific website’s look and feel.

One personal dislike I have is mystery Meat navigational menus, yet, many people love the memory test of huge confusing menus. Over animations on sites are another dislike, yet again, many people love them.

What qualifies me as somebody who can comment on websites is my background in developing websites, software, and reports for users. Just because you don’t like how a website looks, doesn’t mean they can’t develop.

Finding a website development company

This, is where we start to near the crux of this article. Ostensibly, a website is simply a collection of pages, pictures, tables, designs, and text. Yet, they are turned into a humungous complex mush, which never delivered what the website deserved.

The chicken and the egg

The chicken and the egg

Knowing where and how this began, is a mystery. Was it Indian development companies offering websites for $100, was it clients driving the price ever lower, or miracle applications claiming to let anybody develop their own website - WordPress?

Wherever it started, if you are a website developer, you can be competing with somebody prepared to accept 1/20th you could. You have clients who pull funny faces when you say £1000, because they can apparently do it themselves on Wix for £200. Some of these sites at £1000 would not cover the minimum wage.

The LinkedIn effect

Eric Frohm’s a man for himself optimised the challenge mankind faces in a corporate world. We have to fit in, we cannot be unique, because that invites risk. Frohm called this the “Marketing Orientation”. In many ways, it was the point at which mankind subjugated himself and he never recovered.

Once a person identifies with a group, their individuality is surrendered. This is why we need to strive to be different, and really thinking about what we need from a website is paramount.

With web development, we have this ever increasing number of enthusiasts who follow the herd - talking about SEO, Agile, Responsive without ever thinking for themselves.

LinkedIn presents faceless nobodies in suits, trying to be unique and be different at the same time - but always being the commodity.

With websites, the following is typical;

  • We will build you the best website sir.
  • Our website will be search engine optimised, yet you couldn’t find our website on Google.
  • Your website’s markup (code) must be compliant.
  • Our websites are beautiful, forgetting no website can appeal to all.
  • Our software for building websites is out of the box, needs no technical ability, and will be number one on Google.

Most promises are pointless once you dig deeper. Often, these promises are never achievable. Maybe your website can become number one on Google, but perhaps your target audience are on Pinterest or Bing. Maybe your website gets good traffic but cannot convince people to buy your products.

Spam and getting the right attention

I would say - 85% of my traffic to my website is automatically released junk, but increasingly, quite a bit is people directly trying to sell something which is personally directed. Some contact is on LinkedIn for example. What stands out time immemorial for the following reasons;

  • Often, the seller is selling a new website design. I build websites myself, and whilst design is subjective - it is a little rude to contact a website developer offering them a website without even looking at it.
  • When selling a website design - they make no reference to what my company does, the technology, how they see synergy between us.
  • Often they are offering a completely different website technology to what I use. On what planet, would I relinquish control of the major advantage I have - understanding the technology?
  • They offer to get my website to the top of Google search rankings - more on that later.
  • Spammers sell business database catalogues - probably hacked or scraped catalogues.
  • Other spammers are selling all kinds of things my company does not need.

You don’t find web design companies - they find you

I imagine there are millions of website design companies, caged in, waiting to be released onto unsuspecting people who may or may not need a website. Their pace is relentless, and I can see how many people will fall victim to these guys.

Never build a website yourself if you are not a software developer

This is the most important part of the article.

What You See is What You Get / No-code should be used by developers only

A software developer can create a website and not be a designer, but a designer cannot develop software. Software developers are used to evolving with the process. We think about scalability, how to reduce rework, how to back up code, and how to monitor a website. If you only want a 2-3 page website, a WISYWIG (No-code) may be okay.

My sole reason for not simply choosing something like Wix, or WordPress is not because these may not be a good platform for your specific business, it is because if the website needs extra features in the future - self-service tools may not be compatible.

That is right, by trying to do it cheap, it will end up being really expensive.

Most developers are not designers

I am not a designer. The difference is obvious, but I am happy to engage a designer as part of the process if the solution requires it.

You won’t have the experience to know what you are looking for

A typical occurrence. Recently, I had some back and forth with a client who - “Only wanted a simple website”. They felt a provider of WordPress would be ideal for them. It would only cost £400. This is what non-technical people never consider;

  • Any software has a learning curve.
  • If that software isn’t well documented or doesn’t have experts developing with it, this adds to the timeframe.
  • WYSIWIG software always has a limitation, sometimes what seems like a simple feature is not possible.
  • How are mail accounts managed?
  • How is form data managed and stored?
  • Does initial flashy layouts work in the long term?

What should you be looking for, when getting a website

Have a Vision and Product Road Map

A website has to have a purpose, and must fit into any commercial strategy you may have for your business. If you simply get a website online, let companies who don’t understand your business - your website will be awful.

Own the process

You must be driving the development company and not the other way around. It does not mean, you continually keep changing the requirements and ideas, but by owning the website - you keep the development provider aligned to your vision.

Absolutely, there should be fairly regular interaction between the client and supplier. If your website is scheduled to take a month, I would recommend contact every 3-5 days, with contact increasing to every two days as the project gets closer.

Good providers keep asking the client the right questions - they know it is expensive to change the website later on in the process.

Understand that most development companies are not software engineers

I was recently asked to review a website implementation for a London based Agency. The site was not live, and it was clear that the website had been built on WordPress. Nothing wrong with that, because an Agency is not going to be a high traffic website. Another great feature of WordPress is the huge number of plugins available to build a site - but that can be a double-edged sword.

The main observation of the supplier company, was that they were not developers. Everything about their offering smacked of a management top-heavy solutions web design agency with little technical ability.

As a developer who uses no-code technologies, there is always a point at which no-code needs code. If your developers can’t program, get under the hood, you are left with a substandard solution. Such a shame as the guys at the agency are a great bunch.

Recognise that collating content takes time

When a supplier asks a client for content, the client assumes putting content into a website is straightforward. I explain it like creating an advanced PowerPoint presentation - it takes time. Then there is back and forth between supplier and client. For a small 5-8 page website, without new component development - 80% of the time taken is setting up content. Even when using a content management system.

Find website agencies who understand data

Virtually all website developers have zero ability when it comes to building databases. They have zero understanding of reporting solutions, business intelligence, data modelling, and data warehousing. The outcome is, any screens where users access data, the experience will be awful. Here are some simple examples on why;

  • It is likely the data will be pulled directly from the database every time.
  • The data will be sourced from lots of tables, making the reporting slower.
  • Screens are presented where users are asked to type in a name of something, where they cannot know what they are looking for.
  • Search screens don’t provide multiselect options. This results in increased round-trips to the web server or elaborate and complicated code on the server.
  • The agency won’t understand compliance with data protection and privacy laws.

Consider outsourcing different tasks to different teams

It is true that “too many cooks can spoil the broth”.

Info Rhino Limited does not do logo design. Websites will almost definitely have some attempt to match a logo into the website. This would mean, in many situations, a client should have a logo and set of colour ideas early on in the project.

Similarly, branding and images. For my Limited Company website - Info Rhino, I used and am fairly happy with my choices - but, paying for good quality images, which are less common may be preferable. Again, a marketing agency may be worth consulting for larger projects.

The myth of search engine optimisation

Being nihilistic in a lot of my thinking, I tend to look at the ultimate outcome and work back to whether it could be true or not. A slight detour is left versus right politically. If we plot, over time, the purchasing power of a currency - we see it has dropped. If we look at most countries, there has been a mixture of left-wing and right-wing governments, yet nothing has stopped the slide in purchasing power of a fiat currency. The conclusion here is - arguing over left versus right is irrelevant, but it consumes an entire nation constantly.

This is what I mean by thinking nihilistically - most things are a diversion.

It is the same with Google - the fabled search engine provider which everybody uses. If I type in “database development companies UK”, I will get around 40 companies across ten pages of adverts. Only 8 companies will be non-adverts. If I use DuckDuckGo instead, I get sixty companies across six pages and those 40 companies are within it. Google reached saturation point, I think, quite a few years ago now, where paying doesn’t increase your chances that much. Not paying for advertising pretty much obliterates your chances.

Then there is LinkedIn, Facebook, Bing, Pinterest, Quora, Twitter. Don’t forget all the directories, also promising to feature your offering to potential customers.

The single binding connection between all of the many ways companies promise to enhance your business’s online presence is - none of them has to find you a customer. You could pay tens of thousands of pounds a year, and never get a customer. Take a look at Seth Godin and some of the interesting things he talks about on this.

The reason I bring up SEO, is not to bash Google. SEO is another example where it is very rare that a company can promise on what it says it will deliver to their client.

Concrete search terms

If I am thinking of going on holiday, these are some of the things I may type in;

  • Devon holiday cottage.

  • Adventure holiday Europe.

  • Ski chalet

  • France

  • Austria

  • Spain.

  • Skyscanner

These are all things which should bring up relevant hits.

Opaque searches

These are what I think are the hardest services to sell. If you are a legal firm - easy. If you are a brand awareness provider, not so easy. Software development companies have a very hard time of connecting with their customers. A customer may want a business intelligence solution, but will type “sales analysis restaurant report”. Customers won’t have the means to express what they are looking for.

When using search engines, they don’t give you what you want, and often give you results which will make them money. Their customers are paying to get access to you. You are the product - it is the same on Facebook, Twitter. Your interests, your data, your desires are what these guys are selling.

How could we expect search engines to operate for free? There has to be some way for them to make money but it seems skewed too far now.

The big sell - how do we know paying for advertising works?

I get called so many times now, by companies. Offering to increase traffic to my website, to give me leads to customers.

I want somebody to connect customers with the service I am offering. Not only that, fees should only be paid once we connect and agree. This commission based model isn’t new, but right now, we seem to have too many companies offering services which guarantees nothing.

I just typed this into google “increased seo traffic or your money back” - no decent results.

Other companies ask you to pay a fee, which, they say they connect you with genuine prospects. Why not pay the money once the deal is done? Once we look deeper, we find what is being sold is ineffective.

The only thing that tells you your advertising is working, is to analyse traffic and the customer journey through your site. Does your website development company provide this as a service?

Closing thoughts on getting a website online

It is your responsibility to not simply sign up to overseas website development companies - who, by the way, are not that cheap any more. I wrote this article to highlight that creating a website is not a straightforward affair. The idea, that you can pay £200 and happily get an amazing website online is a joke.

Paying, £5k - £30k to a company who doesn’t get your business is a waste of time too.

Similarly, search engine optimisation. Whenever I engage clients, and on my website, I state - Info Rhino does not do Search Engine Optimisation. We create the potential for websites to get found, like Google Webmaster Search Console, Sitemaps etc - but we will not make claims which are false.

As a solutions provider, we will only take on the following two kinds of websites;

  • Companies who are getting started but may be looking to add to their online presence in the future.
  • Companies who have a bigger product road map, requiring more advanced features in the future.
  • Personal friends - that is right. We forget how important it is to help each other.

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