It's common knowledge that if we look back 10 years or more, there were a lot of really ugly websites around. The industry was in its infancy; techniques were being developed and learned. We've moved on a long way since those dark days.
Well, we may have moved on, but many thousands of businesses across the UK have not. The horrors of poor coding, inconsistent design (I use that word loosely) and rambling, starchy content are still on show. The screenshot to the left is the homepage of a real website, taken on March 2 2016.
Take a moment to look at this web page. Clearly, there is not a single person on this Earth that will think it looks good and I can tell you that the code is just as ugly. There is little value in this website and it's almost certainly costing the company business.
So why does it stay this way? If the company felt they didn't need a website, why do they have one at all? Let's dig deeper...
The digital marketing industry is still relatively young and, as such, still has many problems to face and lessons to learn. However, one problem in particular is leaving many SME businesses in a really poor position - trust. A lack of trust on one hand and too much, misplaced trust on the other. The problem lies in past experiences, often with website designers being inexperienced or unprofessional. To illustrate the problem I want to describe a couple of scenarios that will be familiar to many businesses and even more freelancers. Unlike the screenshot above, these are fictional.
Firstly, from the client's perspective:
ABC Engineering (no connection to any real company) have a website, it was created for them by James, someone the operations manager knows. He knew about the web and so he set up the website and it works ok and looks quite nice. That was a few years ago and not much has changed except they needed to change some contact details and luckily James was able to help. ABC have been contacted again and again about things like SEO, responsive design and email marketing but these are from cold callers. On each occasion, they haven't felt they are ready to commit budget in these areas, it feels too complicated and they're not convinced they need it. It's easier to leave it for now.
Now, the same situation from a professional's point of view:
ABC Engineering look like a dinosaur online. The website is fresh out of the 90's, built with tables in an old copy of Dreamweaver. It has a pointless welcome message with a potted history about the company and a news item that is over a year old. There's little thought gone into the design and even less into the UX. Its only value is that there is contact information but in truth, a single, clear contact page would be far better. The business of ABC is not in immediate danger because their long standing customers conduct their business by phone and the website is not a touch point, but it is highly likely to lose new customers and will make the job of sales and marketing far harder.
Here's the second scenario; again it will ring bells for many.
ABC Engineering have a website, created for them by James, a freelance web designer. He is a young, enthusiastic, talented designer with a keen eye for usability and engaging interfaces. ABC are lucky to have found James - the operations manager's son knows him. In fact, he did such a good job, they've asked James to do some more work. They need SEO - to get their website to do better in Google. It's not really his thing but James knows a bit about SEO and doesn't want to let them down; they are a good client and he needs to keep the money coming in. So, he takes on the challenge of optimising the website for SEO. After a few months he can see in Google Analytics that visitors have gone up by 2% and searching for a couple of specific phrases shows them on page 1 of Google. Not bad, after all the brief was quite vague and James has learnt quite a bit in that time and can probably improve it some more in the coming months. Well, he would have done, but now ABC need a landing page for their new campaign so he'll concentrate on that for now.
James is talented website designer but he's quite new to freelancing. He wants to do a great job for his small handful of local clients and so he's not keen on turning down work even if it isn't really his thing. He can't refer an SEO specialist because he doesn't personally know one and knows he could risk losing the client completely.
Now, I don't mean to suggest that all manufacturing companies have no idea about the value of their website, SEO, responsive design or marketing automation. In fact, the situation we find ourselves in is largely down to the digital marketing industry as a whole, not the clients. Companies like ABC Engineering have been burned many times in the past, with promises not matching the end result. When companies come to look at their marketing they are faced with a bewlidering noise about services they know little or nothing about, and combined with these past bad experiences, it's no wonder they revert to individuals they trust or simply do nothing at all.
If a freelancer is worth their salt, they will not be a jack of all trades; they will specialise in one or two closely related disciplines. For example, a good web designer will not be an SEO guru, a designer is not likely to be a great web developer. There are always exceptions of course but on the whole, as with any career, people tend to become more specialist as they progress. It also doesn't mean individuals can't be multi-skilled, but even those that are long in the tooth and have experience across many disciplines will still focus on one or two of them.
However, it seems that, in the world of web, creative media and digital marketing, it's common practice for freelancers to be asked to work on projects that clearly go beyond their core skills, and it's just as common for freelancers to accept this work. It could be argued that the speed of change in the industry means we are constantly learning, and there is truth in that, but clients should always be treated with respect and any lack of experience should be disclosed. That doesn't mean you won't produce good results and it's likely your honesty will be rewarded with a far more comfortable relationship.