A quick clarification before launching into this blog post, because this topic has often been misunderstood by many who have read my comments on it.
Web developers, the people who write and assemble the technology that you are using right now (web browsers, websites, web platforms, internet connectivity, etc), are a critical component of the online world we now inhabit.
Without them you would still be reading this in print, if you were able to access it at all.
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They also underpin the entire internet, providing the functionality without which the medium would exist.
If you have the budget to work with them, they can come up with brilliant technology solutions to make your organisation hum.
Websites are already ‘developed’
But when it comes to websites for smaller business, most developers are no longer required; at least not in the ‘custom build’ sense.
To explain, we need a quick history and/or technology lesson.
Websites are essentially software to which content and aesthetics have been added. In other words, it is a bunch of instructions written in such a way that our computers and overlying web browsers can read and assemble them in a way that we can read, operate and interact with them.
Software is available in two main forms – formulated into a package that less technical people can use and is mass distributed, or custom developed to meet the specific requirements of an organisation, again for less technical people to operate.
Off-the-shelf and affordable
Most of the software smaller business come across is the former – a package that they (usually) purchase either once off or ongoing, and use to help run their businesses.
Examples of this are software for bookkeeping, financial handling, word processing, presentation – pretty much any task that is done on your trusty computer.
The reason that most small business software is used in this way is because the alternative, having a developer create the software for you, is well beyond the means of most smaller businesses – especially when the ‘off-the-shelf’ option is so affordable.
For example, the cost of custom developing a comprehensive bookkeeping program for your small business would go well into five figures – even if you were using offshore labour.
But if you were prepared to learn how to use an off-the-shelf bookkeeping package, like most smaller business operators or their staff, you need only pay a matter of hundreds of dollars – a massive saving.
Now, websites have gone the same way.
Websites follow software’s lead
Early in the piece a web developer had to ‘build’ or code a website to the specifications of the business. Each page, each graphic and each programming task had to be coded in the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) the web uses as its language.
But like all other software before it, it didn’t take long for the more business-like developers to package website technology in a way that it would already contain all the functionality a website could offer.
So instead of hiring a developer to build features like self-editing, customer databases, email broadcast, secure shopping carts and functionality, survey builders and so on, small business operators could purchase website ‘softwares’ that had all these features built in and ready to go.
Now when I say ‘website solutions’ I don’t mean web design software like Dreamweaver, Front Page and so on, I mean fully-fledged website platforms that contain all the tools you’ll need to run a website or online business.
Even more savings and benefits
Better still, these features were integrated, which meant that all the different components spoke to one another and ensured that the one piece of data (for example, customer data) was shared among all pieces of the puzzle.
And because of the zero cost of duplication and, more recently, distribution, these website solutions were within easy reach of the limited budgets of smaller business.
What’s more, because the market for these solutions is very competitive, their vendors usually provide free upgrades and improvements – saving you even more over time and ensuring your website technology keeps up with the Jones’.
Of course other costs such as custom design, search engine optimisation and content preparation and integration are still required to get a professional result, but these too are affordable compared to the cost of hiring a developer to custom build the functionality component.
When to develop
The only time a smaller business requires a website to be developed is when their requirements are so specific that they don’t already exist as an off-the-shelf solution.
But this scenario only gets rarer as development companies realise that where there is smoke there’s fire, so make their web technology available to multiple customers for a fraction of the price of having it custom developed.
So when you are looking to either embark on or upgrade your website, assess the situation very carefully indeed before calling on a web ‘developer’ to do this for you.
It could well save you many thousands of dollars.
In addition to being a leading eBusiness educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team, which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs in Melbourne and beyond. www.theeteam.com.au.