Technology

Are you being ripped off on website development?

Engel Schmidl /

It’s a given these days that almost no business can survive without a website. Whether used to market products and services or as a transactional e-commerce site, the website is now the primary point of contact for the vast majority of Australian businesses.

But as the director of web services company The E-Team, Craig Reardon, wrote in one of his SmartCompany blog posts recently, many small business owners are still bewildered by the process of getting a website built or redeveloped and some are still plainly being taken for a ride by some web developers.

“Smaller business operators are especially vulnerable when it comes to technology and they rely on professionals to guide them as well as provide a service to them,” Reardon said.

“So we professionals in turn need to ensure that we outline what future alteration costs will look like with the technology we recommend and not just what might have been briefed.

“The only place these pros are guiding clients like this is down the garden path.”

Reardon recounted the story of one business owner who had been charged thousands of dollars – as opposed to what he says should have been at most hundreds – by her former website developer to do simple things such as add a blogging function.

Reardon said this was because the developer had not built in a content management system (CMS) as part of the website build and the website had not been made “extensible”, which would have allowed for functionality updates to be cheaply and easily installed.

The blog post opened up a can of worms in regard to the experiences of small business owners engaging website developers, as well as the perennial debate between the advocates of open source solutions such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and Magento to name a few and those who think proprietary, custom-built solutions are better.

Many of the comments indicated there is still a significant knowledge gap between business operators and service providers when it comes to website development, leaving businesses open to exploitation by some developers.

As SmartCompany reader Lindy Asimus’ comment on the blog points out:  

“Unfortunately your average small business owner doesn’t know what a CMS is or does nor anything else technical that separates one method of website setup to another. They lack the fundamental understanding they need to choose well, and have no useful way to know what they are comparing in a practical sense, one quote from another.”

‘Grand scale rip-off’

There’s no doubt James Farmer, founder and chief executive of WPMU Dev, believes many small businesses are being short-changed.

“I think we’ve essentially been going through and continue to be going through a grand scale rip-off of small business owners and individuals by essentially unscrupulous web developers who are applying a minimal amount of knowledge to make a maximum amount of cash at the expense of people who are not familiar with or comfortable with the technology and the software as it currently stands ­– and it’s a disgrace,” Farmer tells SmartCompany.

Farmer, whose company specialises in WordPress sites and plug-ins, is no fan of proprietary development solutions, calling them “pointless and a waste of time”. However, he acknowledges business owners need to apply the same scrutiny to what they are being offered whether it is open source or proprietary.

“You don’t have to go through more than a dozen people to find somebody who has given two, three, four or even five thousand dollars to a web developer who has essentially pulled a template off something like Theme Forest [WordPress template site], for example, paid $20 or even just reused an existing one, made a couple of tweaks, handed it back and said ‘here you are, hand over the cash’,” Farmer says.

“That’s left them high and dry in not knowing how to manage or customise stuff themselves, but also it’s put them in a position whereby they’ve just been ripped off, for want of a better word.”

He says the reason this may be happening more with open source is the majority of content management systems on the internet are built using open source platforms such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and, to a lesser degree, Magento.

He says, however, clients at least have the option with an open source solution to “extract or export the content into a better system or improve it or manipulate it yourself, whereas with your proprietary software platforms that’s almost always not the case because they don’t want you to leave, or they simply just don’t have the same level or standard”.

Know what you want and have a detailed brief

Ned Dwyer, the co-founder of curated web development marketplace Elto, says SME owners don’t always know what they want from a website, which makes it easier for suppliers to sell them on bells and whistles wrapped in jargon.

“I think that’s why business owners need to find reputable suppliers to help them make the right decision about what their needs are. That initial platform choice is incredibly important and generally you’re going to make that decision based on the recommendations of a supplier,” he tells SmartCompany

“The first thing to do is put together a brief: What exactly is it that you want? What sort of features do you want? Is there anything fancy you really need? Identify your competitors in the market, have a look at their websites, what features they have. You might even find out what technology it’s built in, which might make it easier to make a decision.”

Dwyer says once the homework has been done and the brief written, go and speak to a minimum of three different suppliers.

He says this will give business owners a breadth of opinion on the technology available, the specialties of each of the developers and some idea about costs.

Miles Burke, the managing director of digital agency Bam Creative, agrees that a detailed brief with an eye to future requirements will give developers the information they need to give clients a truer picture of what can be achieved and at what price: “The better that is fleshed out the better the responses from people submitting proposals.”

Burke, whose company specialises in proprietary software solutions, says businesses have to think hard about what they want their website to do for them.

“I have many times had the answer that ‘our competitor has a website’, and that’s not a good driver for undertaking a web development project. I always recommend they put a significant amount of time upfront into the strategy of it and I always recommend they think about what they are trying to achieve and how they are going to measure that,” Burke tells SmartCompany.

“The website is only the beginning and unfortunately people fall into the trap of thinking ‘I’m going to set aside a budget of $10,000 for digital marketing’ and then they throw all of it into a website and ask, ‘How come no one is visiting it?’”

He says part of what confuses clients is that the way a brief is communicated to different suppliers can yield quite varied responses.

“I don’t think there’s anyone out there being completely unreasonable when it comes to cost. However, we’re all offering slightly different services or products.”

He says talking in a transparent way with suppliers, establishing strong communication from the outset, is important because it helps to clear up misunderstandings and ambiguities about a project’s requirements.

Find a supplier you can trust, whether that’s open source or proprietary

Farmer says finding a reputable supplier, even with a detailed brief, can be a fraught process.

“You’ve got a whole world of stress ahead of you. Because you’ve got your choices between your big agencies, which will be looking for a five-figure contract minimum to do anything; the small web firms, which unfortunately more often than not are the people whacking on a $20 theme and charging you $3000 and leaving you high and dry; or increasingly these days the challenge of getting a freelancer on something like Freelancer.com or Elance-oDesk,” he says.

“That in itself is a challenge and a great opportunity to get stiffed unless you go through it with a methodical process that allows you to weed out the inordinate number of people trying to take you for a ride.”

Farmer says the advent of third party web development sites such as Wix, Webs and Squarespace have become a viable solution for smaller businesses that want to do it themselves at a minimal cost and with limited technical nous.

“We’re finally starting to get over this technological hump, which has allowed this exploitation of people who just want a website to get on with their business.”

For Burke, the website development industry’s dog-eat-dog nature has meant while competition is high, many clients are unsure of who they can go to and who they can trust with their website build.

He says some SMEs will go for the cheaper option of a freelancer fresh out of university – often more designer than developer – who promises big but lacks the skills or experience to back it up.

“They can certainly build something that’s aesthetically pleasing. However, when they’re asked to do something from a development perspective they start dropping the ball.

“Then the other end is very large firms, typical traditional marketing agencies, who now feel the  pressure in the digital space to have an offering there, so they end up offering digital marketing or development and they don’t really understand what they’re doing.

“It’s certainly improving, but in the last two or three years I’ve certainly noticed a lot of big-name agencies doing really quite substandard work for the client when it comes to the digital space.”

Even big businesses can get it wrong

Getting website development wrong is certainly not the sole domain of SMEs. Case in point, says Dwyer: department store giant David Jones.

He says DJs could have gone for an open source solution that would’ve cost them less, had more functions and features, and been more cost-effective to update.

“The problem with the fact they spent $1.5 million on this proprietary system is that it’s missing a whole heap of features, functionalities that come standard as part of these other open source solutions. Because it’s all proprietary, they need very expensive developers who are charging $1000 a day in development time and you need a team of developers, and that huge cost is a hamper on innovation.

“They might come up with some idea of how to improve their conversion rate, but to go and implement that is going to cost them $10,000 to $50,000 – the search functionality for instance is hopeless.”

He says the lesson for small business is to keep things lean and responsive when it comes to the initial build or redevelopment of a website.

Some final words of advice…

Undertaking a website build or redevelopment can be daunting for an SME operator. What should the site do? How should it look? What platform should it use? Who can be trusted to build, host and then help maintain the site?

Here are a few simple things to keep in mind:

  • Do your research. You don’t have to become a developer, but try to learn a little about the platform options you have.
  • Think about what you want your website to do for your business and then write a detailed brief. Factor into this brief what you might want in the medium to long-term as well, as this might affect ongoing costs.
  • Speak to a few suppliers and try to gauge if they can provide the level of support you might require in terms of fixes to the site and maintenance support.
  • Don’t throw all your money into a site and find you have nothing left to spend on marketing. The whole idea of a shiny new site is for people to visit it.
  • Whether you go with an open source or proprietary option, look for a developer who has a good reputation for communicating well with clients.
  • Have a look at the Australian Web Industry Association directory for digital agencies.

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