Getting What you pay for: A (sort of) case study.
So the other day, the local paper came through my door and, being bored, I gave it a quick glance. On the front page, amidst a story of a brave tom cat being involved in some sort of gun based ordeal, I noticed a large full colour advert for a local web design company offering “professional” websites for small-medium businesses for as little as £200! I instantly jumped online and looked at the company’s site, websiteportfolio.co.uk and saw pretty much straight away why the prices were so low.
My initial thoughts were “Well, you get what you pay for I suppose..” but the more I dug around their site, the more I realised that you, in fact, were not getting what you pay for at all. In fact, based on their own site, a site which should be showcasing what a design company is capable of, £200 was a bit of a rip off. Let’s face it, even from a cheap product you have some basic expectations. You don’t want the cheap laptop to catch fire, you don’t want the cheap sweets to poison your kids. In spite of being cheap the product has to work to a certain degree. If you bought a cheap conservatory you wouldn’t be expecting the best heat reflecting glass or the most stylish door handles but you would expect the structure to be solid and not collapse five minutes after giving the builder his cheque. It’s this analogy that best describes my problem with this web design company. They certainly say all the right things and, who knows, they are probably very nice guys to do business with but I’m interested in what you get for your money… or what you don’t.
“WebDesignHelper.co.uk was set up in 2001 to provide professional websites for small to medium sized businesses who need professional web design solutions at sensible prices.”
– Excerpt from the WebDesignHelper site at websiteportfolio.co.uk
In web design, as with most businesses, time is money. You charge the most money for the bits that take up the most time. That’s why sites that are graphics heavy or employ a fully customised shopping cart are more expensive, that stuff is time consuming. That’s why if I were to build a budget website for someone, that’s the stuff that they wouldn’t get, or they’d get only a small amount of. You see, standards based modern code doesn’t take that long to write. They’re called standards for a reason… they are standard. Also, as semantic markup is a lot more modular than the tables based garbage of old so can be thrown together really quickly. Not only that, this faster method of coding is actually way better for SEO, accessibility and browser interoperability so there is, flat out, no excuse for a budget site to be coded like it’s 1997. Looking at the source of the homepage for websiteportfolio.co.uk There are several glaring, fundamental issues for which there are no excuse in modern web design, even in a budget site:
- There is no doctype defined. This basically means that browsers have to take their best guess as to what it is they’re actually reading. The Doctype should always be the first line of code on a web page (view the source of this very page…see?). Lack of a doctype will mean the site cannot pass validation and may well not display correctly across all browsers.
- The site makes zero use of CSS and as such is reliant on deprecated tags such as font. This is a very big deal for browser interoperability.
- None of the links offer any kind of hover state feedback such as a colour change or underline when rolled over with the mouse. This makes the site hard to operate for inexperienced users and/or users with learning disabilities. It is a fundamental accessibility requirement and extremely simple to implement with some basic CSS.
- It uses a number of non-breaking spaces to create empty space, adding unnecessary code where some simple, lightweight CSS could manage such problems site-wide with zero additional markup in the page itself.
- The whole layout of the site is achieved by manipulating HTML tables. As well as this being massively time consuming this is very much frowned upon in modern web design as it means pages are far larger than they need to be leading to longer loading times as well as having severe accessibility implications for screen readers which will not always be able to read the content as it appears to a human eye. It’s also pretty bad for SEO as it goes against the principals of semantic markup.
- A large proportion of the copy is actually an image (for example; the “introduction” text). This is a serious one. Not only can screen readers not read this in a lot of cases, but search engines can’t index it at all meaning any content that might help your site rank better in google is completely wasted. In addition, older browsers can’t scale the image properly leading to more accessibility issues for the visually impaired. Worse still, this block of “text” has no alt attribute defined so if you can’t see the image, you’re shit out of luck.
These problems can be almost exclusively attributed to one cause; the designer can’t be bothered or doesn’t know how to write code to modern web standards. No matter what the client is paying, sites should be coded to the same set of standards (unless the client explicitly requests otherwise). Think about it like buying a car. You can buy the base model or you can pay extra for nice extras like A/C and a trick stereo but the chassis on both of those cars is the same, made from the same quality materials. How gutted would you be if you bought the cheap one and found out the chassis was made of cheese? Obviously I say that in jest but my point is, you don’t expect the underlying frame of any product to be of a lower quality, regardless of how much you pay.
All this said, I have to mention that it’s not fair to judge a web design company by it’s own site alone. The most powerful advertising tool they have is their portfolio and to get the best idea of what they are selling to their customers you have to thumb through some of their work. I did this and, I have to say not to my surprise, I found that most of the sites suffered these same fundamental problems. Some were slightly better and some were worse but none were what i would expect to see from even a budget site, especially not from a company claiming to offer “Professional web design solutions”
Sadly, this kind of web design company is very common and the vast majority of clients don’t know enough to be able to tell the difference. While this is still the case, and it will continue to be the case, it is easy to offer a site that might look okay at a glance but is in actual fact falls down when it comes to fundamental and important standards, in essence not being worth the money that was paid for it.