You might think this title is a bit provocative but time and time again we are brought in to help when a new website performs woefully and/or the relationship between the client and development company has reached a point of distrust, frustration and anger.

It doesn’t need to be like that.

If you are one of those businesses who have been fortunate enough to find and work with a development company that delivers and is a pleasure to work with, then bravo. Well done. Hold on to those guys. And to be clear, we work with some awesome developers – people who communicate well, who do great technical and design work and who value you as a client and do everything they can to deliver on what they proposed.

However, if you are in the other category and you have had one, two or more disappointing and frustrating experiences that have cost you a lot of money for little return then this is for you.

At HPE, we have had several conversations about how we could possibly stop people making a bad choice before they make it and this is tough as we only usually find out once the damage has been done.

So, the purpose of this post is to arm you and your friends, colleagues or business connections with a few insights gained from 8 years of picking up the pieces and running rigorous audits.

I will share some real life experiences of casual, reckless, incompetent, arrogant or ill-informed behaviour with the hope that you can use these disasters to filter out the cowboys , the gougers and the pretenders.

1. It’s all about communication

This is a hard one to filter. Some of the larger companies have Business Development Managers. Their role is to guide you into the sales funnel and close the deal. They will be responsive, helpful and will do anything they can to help you. The largest company models are driven by this model. Unfortunately, once you have signed on the dotted line, their attention seems to wane.

Your problems are almost always forwarded to “development” who in some cases state “they do not speak to clients” or who may come back with “we will review this issue and may add it to our next upgrade” or “development are adding this to our next sprint” or “this is currently not available within your current back end”.

Or of course, the most common response – “this is outside of your scope so we will need to quote for this”.

I am all for companies charging for their time and any additional work must be charged for. However, this response seems to happen way too often when it is the platform or website that is broken. It is not an improvement or an additional feature but is simply fixing a problem. That should not be additional revenue.

Communication. How quickly do they respond to your questions? If they say they are going to do something do you have to ask a couple of weeks later whether it has been done? If they offer to find something out, is this the last you hear on the topic? Are their communications sharp or even stroppy at times?

Do you feel like answering your questions is an imposition?

Developer Tip 1: If communication is slow, emails or phone calls are not returned while they are courting you then things are likely to get a whole lot worse. Especially if you are being handed on to another team member once you have signed the contract.

2. A surprising level of technical incompetence

Most developers really get code. The live it. They usually love the platform they use and will defend it to the death if anyone suggests using anything else. And this is all well and good.

However, websites are built to go on the web. And Google is by a long shot the biggest supplier of web traffic to any web site. Or it should be.

So, a developer without a comprehensive understanding of what Google requires and how to optimise for Google without falling into any risky areas should be a no brainer. Unfortunately, for many development companies, SEO is an add-on that can add to residual income and because most people don’t really understand it, the development company can pass off sloppy, out of date or worthless work as having value. Or in some cases the add-on has meant no work at all.

Building websites is not just about code and design. They must have a strategy and a purpose. They must be optimised for the biggest supplier of business on the web. I will share some horror stories later in this post.

Developer Tip 2: If their SEO page on their website is a couple of paragraphs of generic, could be copied from Wikipedia content, then you will need external assistance with this important element.

3. Unfriendly website CMS and interface

I have really seen some shockers. Content Management Systems that are so complicated that clients need to ask their developer any time they want to change something on the website. Or, even, worse, every time the client needs something done, they are referred to a “knowledge base” which is supposed to help.

Apart from design or coding, you should be able to do almost anything with content on your website.

Can you change menus, compress and optimise images, add categories, add new pages and posts easily with templated layouts, add metadata for search and Open Graph Tags for social media?

This is just the beginning.

Simple features missing in many systems:

  • Ability to add alt tags to images
  • Letter or pixel counter for adding metadata
  • Ability to customise Open Graph Tags
  • A range of social sharing options
  • Featured images and images in content that are easy to position
  • A decent font – contemporary and a good size
  • URLs that don’t have special characters

There are many more but you get the point.

An additional problem is where a development company has their own proprietary system. This means that if you ever fall out and want to move on you have to walk away from your website and start again. If you use Open Source then you can at least move all your work to another developer. You own it.

Developer Tip 3: Look very closely at the CMS before you say yes. What can it do? What can’t it do? Is it Open Source or will you be locked in for the life of the website.

4. Badly managed website launches

This can be incredibly disappointing. The months of work, the investment, the build up of excitement all lead up to Go Live day. Boom!

A week or two later and something doesn’t feel right. The phone doesn’t seem to be as busy. Leads have slowed down. Sales seem to have dropped not improved as per the promise when you signed up. Maybe it will take a little while to settle down.

A couple of months later things have not got better. You are not getting any answers from your developer. Maybe you are being fobbed off with answers like “your new user experience and targeted conversion optimisation means that you are only getting the very highest quality visitors now. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.”

Seriously, that was a real response when a website client asked about the drop in business and asked why visitors from Google Organic had halved. And this was from one of the biggest website providers in the country.

I have seen websites launched with tags still in place to block search engines, websites that had incorrect SSL certificates meaning no one could view them, websites without any metadata, websites with multiple duplicate versions and many times I have seen sites launched with no redirects from old site pages.

Developer Tip 4: Ask to see their website launch checklist – look for 301 redirects, noindex tag removal, analytics code addition, content checks, metadata completion and other signs they know what they are doing.

5. In scope or out of scope

This is another one that I see way too often and it invariably leads to a breakdown in trust and damages relationships.

Sometimes developers are so keen on getting the project that they trim back site features in order to deliver cost-effectiveness. Then, in many cases their client will see the site in progress and will ask where a particular standard website feature is. This is often met with the “sorry this is out of scope so we will have to charge extra” response.

When this is repeated over and over the affordable initial budget becomes a joke as the project balloons out to an expensive exercise. I some of the worst cases I have experienced, broken layouts, menus that are unable to be read, slow page load time or images not working have all come into the “out of scope” bucket.

Every development project should be scoped out comprehensively and every possible feature, bell or whistle should be discussed and should be included or excluded. There should also be a contingency budget as there are always surprises, additions or changes required in any project.

Development Tip 5: How comprehensive is your scope of work? Is there a budget for contingencies?

6. Who is working on your project?

So, you have gone through a robust due diligence process. You have worked through the development company’s capabilities, their CMS, the scope and budget and you have decided whether to use their SEO people or to use an external SEO consultant. You have been very happy with every communication and meeting with the company Director, the head developer, the marketing lead and the business development person who you spoke with initially.

Ready to go. Sign the contract. “Team member A will be looking after your project. They have a lot of experience and have produced some of our finest work. If you ever have any questions or problems please feel free to reach out and I will help where I can”.

The problem is that Team member A is pretty new to the organisation, communication is not their strong suit and they seem to be stamping out fires or referring everything into some kind of “developer cave”. Out of frustration you reach out to the Director when things start going wrong. You get an autoresponder saying that the Director is on leave and will respond on her return from Monaco and the Maldives. The business development manager makes a whole lot of promises but still nothing gets done. The development head doesn’t deal directly with clients and refers you back to Team member A.

Apart from the Monaco and Maldives part, this is a real scenario that created a completely frustrating 8 month website project that resulted in a poorly performing website.

Developer Tip 6: Ask up front who will be working on your website day to day. Make sure you meet them and are comfortable about their experience and expertise.

Stories from the website House of Horrors

Have to start with this extraordinary tale of incompetence. Doing their own thing.

We supplied developers with a spreadsheet of current URLs and new website URLs so they could take care of the critical task of adding 301 redirects. A week later we started to see a large number of Not Found errors appearing in Search Console. I tested the URLs and none had been redirected. My question was answered with “Oh, we don’t add spreadsheets like that, we just redirect what we find on the first page of Google. The rest don’t matter.” Except that this huge mistake cost their client 35% of their organic traffic within a month which was a net loss of more than 2,000 visitors.

Or not thinking about doing the basics.

Client was rebranding and went to a branding agency. They came up with a smart new name that described what the client did. They designed all the business collateral and built a new website. Unfortunately, they didn’t think it might be a good idea to put the new name into Google to see if there might be any competition. A few weeks later the client was concerned that their business name wasn’t showing up when they put it into search. And the sad part is, it never will. If the branding agency had done their job, they would have found that the same name was already in use by one of the biggest companies in the world for a specialist division that had a huge amount of media coverage. No chance of ever ranking for that name. Client had to start again.

How about one of these awesome scrolling sites? Cool huh?

One page scrolling sites. I’m surprised they are allowed to sell templates for these things. Once favoured by creative agencies because you slid down the page when you chose the menu item and they looked good. Cool. But completely hopeless for Google. One page of content means that you will barely rank for you own name and you will will not have any branded search sitelinks to give you more results pages real estate. Terrible idea.

Or using an unnamed developer SEO expert:

Everything about this experience was wrong. The guy who did the SEO on the site didn’t have a name, had a generic email and was uncontactable. He also broke every rule in the book – keyword stuffing, hidden links to other websites, high risk inbound links from dubious websites and a plethora of outdated and dangerous SEO practices. This took a lot of work to clean up. Know who you are dealing with.