Saturday, January 19, 2008

Business Owners: Here's the Truth About Building Your Web Site

It's Time for a Rant

Business Owners and Web Site Developers Throughout my career, I've been involved in tens of Web projects -- many of which started before my involvement, but not all. The vast majority of them have fallen far short of their initial vision. Many were all-out train wrecks.

Business Owners, read this before you decide to create a Web presence, "update" your Web site or start taking orders online.

What I am writing here about the professionals you will work with isn't true. But, it is exactly what you will experience if you decide to manage the Web development process yourself.

The Low Barrier to Entry Trap

Software seems very malleable. It looks at first glance (and second and third) like something that’s cheap to produce and easy to change. That’s the trap.

If you buy into the thought that there is a low barrier to entry in software – and Web sites especially – you’ll also buy this little gem:

It’s more cost-effective to build an application and release it to the public than it is to research your audience to tell you what to build.

The people who write software have seen high-profile stories of this strategy at work. It general will NOT work for your business, and you shouldn’t have to depend on such a strategy, because, over time, it's very expensive.

This is the first major disconnect between Web developer and business owner.

The Disconnect Between Business Owner and Web Developer

The business owner sees a Web site as a brochure that takes orders. To them, a Web site is a convincing collection of words and pictures with the added bonus that people can actually buy stuff. Right there. In the brochure.

The Web developer sees it as a puzzle in which the pieces don’t have to fit perfectly. To them a Web site is an imperfect, growing and self-evolving organism. Developers are patient people. It’s just software.

Meanwhile the business owners fortunes are dependent on the site. As development stretches on and on, he sees his fortunes going down the toilet. The business owner really doesn’t understand why a brochure that sells stuff is so hard to get finished.

Working with Developers Sucks

You will never find a person less able to communicate, worse at time management, more limited in planning ability and more truly autistic in his professional relationships than you will in a Web developer.

If they're busy, you’re really hosed.

My mind boggles at how few exceptions I’ve seen in the innumerable Web development projects I’ve been involved in. And, as a developer, I was not an exception.

Web developers are sometimes brilliant, but they're rarely effective.

A talented project manager may know how to accommodate such an animal. A business owner, with other matters to consider is going to crash and burn.

And it doesn't stop with the Web developers.

Designers Design for Themselves

Great designers don’t compromise. Unfortunately, bush league designers don’t either.

Designers are doing art. No matter what they tell you, they can rarely prevent themselves from injecting some part of their soul into your logo design. Once that happens, asking them to change something is like asking them to remove one of the legs from their newborn baby. They will do it if you insist, but you know things will never be the same between you.

Three Comps and Your Out

Rather than doing the hard work of understanding your customer, they revert to the "three comps" method of design research. Once they've created a spectrum of creative design comps, guess who picks the winner. The business owner. The one person least qualified to make design decisions.

Inevitably, he or she will prefer one of the two “throw away” comps instead of the one that has the designer has embedded his soul into.

Needless to say the relationship starts off on a bad footing.

The poor business owner is in a quandary. He is completely unqualified to select a design, yet it is his duty to choose well. He must live with the decision for a long time.

If he’s lucky, he’ll be brow-beaten into agreeing with the designer. If not, nothing the designers do will be quite right. Designers inevitably will prove that you should have listened to them.

SEO? SEM? Google?

The Shaman comes in, dressed in animal furs, waving his chicken foot, chanting to the Search Spirits, asking that they may grant the business the blessings of high search rankings, more traffic and much bounty.

Search is a very cost-effective way to advertise. There really are just a few things you need to do to effectively tell a search engine what you’re Web site is about.

The search engines want to know what you’re about.

So, how does something as straight forward as telling a search engine who you are produce such a mind-numbing assortment of schemes and tactics? How is it that there are 1000 small SEO consulting shops none of which use the same strategy? It’s because everyone is guessing.

SEO experts know for certain that their belly button moves up and down when they breathe. They just don’t know why. However, it's obvious they need to breathe in more and avoid breathing out if they want higher a belly button position.

SEO is important, and the business owner doesn’t have any frame of reference for where to put his money. He’s guessing too.

What if the Shaman brings his medicine, but the patient still dies? Well, the SEO expert can’t be responsible for a Web site that doesn’t convert. That’s a marketing or creative issue.

Copywriters and PTSD

Like designers, copywriters believe what they do is art. They are really writers who have added "copy" to their title because it pays better.

However, designers use complex tools with names like "Photoshop" to maintain gatekeeper status over their work.

Copywriters have no such protection.

The Blood of Their Children

The red ink that a business owner pours over their work looks to them like blood. There's little they can do, and then PTSD sets in -- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Most are beaten into submission, delivering mind-numbing copy with the flavor of Styrofoam.

You see it every day. Incoherent chains of adverbs and multi-syllabic words designed only to make the business look smarter or bigger than it really is.

Good copywriters are story tellers. Business owners want manifestos to what they've built.

Unfortunately, business owners don't often meet their copywriters. The design firm often hides these poor vulnerable creatures away to minimize their pain.

Business Owners On Their Own

The business owner has his years of experience working with his customers. He has this vision for his business that he can’t get out of his head. He has a product that he’s thought about non-stop for years. The developers and designers and consultants and writers all tell him that it’s important to understand his market.

Then they make the mistake of asking him “so who are you selling to.”

Inevitably, the business owner will tell them about everyone he’s ever sold to all mashed into one über-human.

The über-human is an entity that doesn’t exist in the real world.

Marketers may even try to demographically segment the über-human into über-children, none of whom exist in the real world, either.

Then, they all go off and develop for, design for, optimize for and write for their own individual image of the client’s customer.

It's a mess.

My Advice for the Business Owner

Pay for the Process

My advice to the business owner is to hire professionals that have a discovery process, a process that intimately involves you. Processes feel expensive because you buy a great deal of a professional's time before anything actually appears on the Web.

You'll get every penny of it back and more.

Pick a Good Process

If you don't say "Ah HA" many times during this discovery process, you have bought into a poor process. If you are not learning new things about your business through the eyes of these other professionals, then they are not learning much either.

Have Someone in Your Camp

Make sure you have a project manager or marketer that works for you to manage the project. They must understand your business and advocate for you.

When what is being produced by these vendors no longer reflects your business's interests, all will be lost.

Watch the Results

Make sure that everything results in a measurable payoff that can be examined at least once a month -- sales, leads or traffic. When these measures aren't growing, stop whatever it is your consultants are doing and start asking questions.

Trust the Process

Once you feel that your Web development team has been informed by a strong discovery process, and they know that you'll know if things go awry, you can let these broken but talented professionals spread their wings.

Let the designers be artful.

Let the writers tell their stories.

Let the developers go off to their caves until the next deadline.

You don't have to know what they do as long as they really know what you do.

Brian Massey has at some point in his career been a Web developer, designer, writer and SEO consultant.

Photo courtesy mikekorn.


  1. Are you TRYING to start a fight? Well, good job, then. :-)

    Seriously, though, you're right about the web designers and most of the SEO companies. It's nearly impossible to 100% please a business owner, his staff, his customers, AND the designer. It just doesn't happen.

    There's nothing like bringing in a knowledgeable consultant get everyone thinking about profitability rather than just aesthetics.

    One thing about SEO. If we do SEO on 50 websites and they all move into the top 10 in Google...are we still guessing on the 51st one or have we figured out a pretty good system that works for our clients?

    PS. Chicken parts are sooo 2007. Matt Cutts posted about that like 3 months ago. Most "white hat" SEOs have switched to crystals and tarot although you can still find a back alley entrails guy if you really need one.

  2. I guess I was trying to start a fight. SEO is the most cost effective way to market your Web site. Everyone needs an SEO expert. I'm just trying to gird business owners for the wide variety of strategies and promises.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Brian,

    You have summed up the past 9 years of my life in this post and I have to thank you for it. I really thought there was something personally wrong with me, that I was somehow genetically predisposed to choosing autistic web developers. I now know I am not alone or going crazy.

    I am going to forward this post to every Internet entrepreneur I know.


  4. Deborah, this is exactly why I wrote the post. My job is to put people into buckets, and sometimes that means generalizing too much, which I have done here.

    But it's an effective process.

  5. Hi Brian--

    Very solid advice, and a good move to be controversial in your post...there are a lot of shamans doing search marketing. As you said, people are flawed, and in the marketing trades, they are flawed predictably. Unfortunately, business owners tend to DIY, meaning they are navigating these waters for the first time, or at least infrequently. Having a pro at marketing manage the process makes SO much sense.

  6. Truth about building your website, first
    1. Plan
    2. Choose the hosting and domain name
    3. Design and build

  7. This was really interesting. I just opened my own telemarketing company and have a basic $75 5 page site. Where do I go from here???

    Phil Higgins

  8. Anonymous2:43 PM


    Submit your site for a Key Page review and I'll review it this month on a ConversionCast.

    If you can tell me the following, it would be helpful:
    1. What does your business need the Web site to accomplish?
    2. Who would be an ideal visitor to your site?
    3. What is your one-sentence value proposition? What makes you the right choice for telemarketing?



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