Websites? What are you really getting?

Even after close to 20 years of being a ‘norm’, websites for most people are still a bit of a dark art. While most businesses understand, and accept, the need for a good, effective website, most still do not have the slightest idea of what they are actually getting when they take delivery of their new, shiny, virtual ‘shopfront’. In a lot of cases, they might be a little shocked….

Back in the ‘old days’ (15 years ago!!), when a website was commissioned it was for the most part a very hands on affair. There might have been an out of the box backbone but the rest of the site, if done properly, was mostly build from the ground up. That meant lots of file editing, building, custom css and all that; that’s where the costs came in — sites took time to build. The end product was, for the most part, unique to the job.

Today though it can be a very different story. Through the almost ubiquitous employ of backbones such as WordPress (WordPress itself drives 30% odd of all websites today), a dearth of out of the box add-on solutions have sprung up that all but remove what were once laborious jobs. As a result, sites are now faster and cheaper to build, and any Tom Dick or Harry thinks they can build a site. The side effect is that many sites these days have been sloppily slapped together, using plug and play systems the party who built the site has little, if any, control over. Building a website for many out there has become nothing more than colouring by numbers.

From our side of the equation, these new tools allow us to offer more to clients for less. Features that once would have taken hours to do, hence may have not been considered, now can simply take a few minutes. And really, everyone’s a winner…

Except when they are not.

Themes (in the case of WordPress) are what holds a site together. Controlling all the styles, formatting, colours, features etc., themes for a long time have been big business in the WordPress world. In the earlier days, many ‘developers’ would buy a theme as a starting point for a project then, through custom alterations, make it ‘fit’ their specific project. It was a problematic way of doing things, even back then, because if the original developer of the theme decided to stop supporting it, or did something that broke it, the client would end up being left high and dry with no easy fix. Quite often that meant rebuilding the site.

Some years back ‘page builders’, PBs, started to come to the fore. Going one step beyond themes, PBs provided a toolbox of components, features and controls that could be used to build a site, all from within WordPress itself. Before anyone knew it, PBs allowed one to build advanced websites, mostly without the need for any coding from the ground up.

Then came combo themes that sat squarely the middle. Messy, bloated with useless features and more often than not incorporating a third party PB, these combo ‘themes’ offered a dizzying array of very pretty, out of the box tools people could use to destroy the usefulness of their site! We have encountered more than a few commercial projects where the agency simply, and lazily, employed these hybrid solutions to deliver projects to their client. I say lazily because this solution means the least amount of work for the agency, while looking like they did a lot. It’s a sloppy solution too, as the agency neither has any ownership, nor control, of the overall theme and often to achieve their design aims, overlay their own custom bits of code, making something that’s already a mess, messier. Ultimately what the client ends up with turns out to be a maintenance nightmare and if no documentation was provided, having someone else pick up the mess is often a risky proposition; we have opted to rebuild sites rather than try and ‘fix’ these sorts of sites.

While pure page builders have redefined working in the realm of WordPress, like anything, there are good and bad solutions. Finding one suitable for long term site development work requires more than simply finding the one with the most bells and whistles to make life easy; in fact, ones with the most bells and whistles are often ones to stay away from! What’s the license arrangement and who’s responsible? How reliable are they and do they have a history of falling apart every time you have to update them? Can the client manage it? How well supported is it and what’s the ‘community’ like? How do you, as a client, know what you are getting?

And then comes the cost.

PB’s, and their more dubious cousin, the combo theme save time. Saving time means making more money. On simple ‘brochure’ level sites, what are you getting for your money? Is it simply a site put together using a PB or combo theme and nothing else? Where the agency is using a PB, what other benefits are they providing, considering the PB is doing the heavy lifting for them? Enhanced security? Site speed? Metrics? The last site we encountered was put together with a not so great PB (a little shaky on the long term stability front, and difficult to edit), and while it looks nice, the client was charged what I consider to be a very healthy fee given the scope of work. Yet they received nothing more, not even optimised images or the most basic security measures. To me, they were taken for a ride, even more so when I think they were given not a scrap of documentation about what was driving their new website and then had to buy their own PB license so they could maintain the site themselves!

Today when it comes to the majority of SME sites, everyone’s playing on a more or less even playing field in terms of site construction; the days of someone sitting down and hand coding a site from the ground up, for all but the most specific applications, are well gone. As far as I am concerned, anyone simply thinking they can make a site that looks nice and leave it at that is dead thinking. Due diligence should now be part of the standard offering — making sure the site to be delivered has long term stability, as opposed to simply doing whatever’s easiest, will not cost the client any additional running costs (unless agreed to up front) and making sure that technically, it’s 200% robust, all should be standard fare.

If you are not receiving that, then you are being ripped off.


Originally posted on my *ahem* business website, where I am writing about running a SME online.

This is me