Why the websites I’ve built have failed

I’ve built a lot of websites over the last 8 years of running a web design firm and working for other firms before that. The first professional website project I worked on was in 1995 — so let’s call it 75 sites since then, but it might be nearer a hundred. Most have been small and medium sites for small creative business and non-profits.

And when I look back at them and check out the ones that are still up, it’s clear that most of them have failed. They look fine (or better), the client’s have been satisfied (or happy), and there’s been no catastrophic disasters leading to law suits or even anything but a tiny amount of downtime.

But even though a lot more than half the work I do on the website side of things now is repeat business with long-standing clients it’s clear to me (if not always to the satisfied clients) that nearly all of the sites I’ve built could have done a lot more, and delivered more to justify the money and effort that went into them.

Not a technology challenge

Years ago, I was an early employee at the Dublin-based internet consultants iQ Content. Morgan McKeagney the boss would tell clients that building a successful website is not a technology problem as much as it’s a people and process problem. He was right then, and he’s even more right now. Setup a Squarespace account, or go for a one-click WordPress install with an off the shelf template and you’ve just launched a site that’s more robust, easy to use and attractive than 90% of websites out there.

It’s what’s happened before and what happens after that launch that will define whether or not your site actually ends up working for you. Solid technology won’t count for much when there’s not been an update for five months, or prospective clients can’t find what they’re looking for because management decided they would only put up sales fluff not detailed specifications.

So here are the biggest reasons the sites I’ve worked on have failed:

1) No clear audience or objectives

‘I want my site to appeal to everyone,’ says the client. If I’d had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that, I could buy a case for the iPhone 5 I can’t afford. Not knowing who your site is for is going to make it very hard to choose the content and features that will engage that audience.

And if you don’t knowing what the organisation’s detailed objectives are, it will be hard to plot a route to get you there. Most business want their site ultimately to generate more sales, for example, but exactly how will it do that? And non-profits want to raise awareness and increase engagement and donations and other similarly nice ideas, but unless you can stand over every piece of content on the site and explain why it’s there, who it’s for and what you want to get out of it, then you don’t have a good enough plan.

2) No buy-in or engagement from management

If the company at large doesn’t care about communicating online (through the website and other channels), then even if there’s a budget and it’s someone’s job to get a site up, the long-term prognosis is not good. Especially as the current demands for transparency and sharing mean that organisations with a defensive and closed culture need to change — if everything that goes out has to be approved by senior management, a website will struggle.

The lack of commitment sounds like a problem that would only beset larger organisations, but I’ve seen it even in a one-person business. The owner told me he knew he needed a website, and was OK paying for one, but he had no intention of keeping it updated or carrying out any of the other suggestions I came up with to help him. Any guesses as to how well the site’s done for him?

3) Groupthink — the site is all planned out before the client’s talked to people who know about websites

This is why I don’t respond to RFPs for site work (I did it once, against my better judgement, got the job and then had a miserable time for nearly a year). The problem of RFPs is that it makes organisations think they know what should be on the website and what it should look like before they’ve spoken to any experts. They’ve drawn up the specification (they’re the architects, so to speak) and it’s the job of the web developers just to build it (to act as the contractor).

Clients might think they know what they want — especially since they’ve looked at the prettiest sites they can find from similar organisations — but unless they’re asking themselves hard questions and have a lot of web development experience in-house, the chances are they’ll miss some crucial things or are just heading in the wrong direction entirely. And when I arrive and tell them they should really start the strategy and planning again, they’re both already wedded to the ideas they came up with themselves, and don’t see why they need to spend money on a process they think they’ve successfully completed themselves.

Everybody seems to build their site based on what other people’s look like. Benchmarking is OK, but the problems with comparing your imagined site with other people’s finished sites are manifold:

  • you don’t know their budget, constraints or resources (chances are if it’s a brilliant site, you can’t afford it)
  • you don’t know exactly what they were trying to do with the site (their objectives are likely different from yours)
  • you don’t know if they think it’s succeeded (you might like it, but they might hate it)

People tell me they want videos and still photography of the same quality as charity:water’s, but they don’t want to hear that charity:water have a whole in-house multimedia production team plus a pool of talented contractors they’ll send all over the world, and they don’t.

It’s much better to get someone in when you’re first thinking about a new site, so you can be realistic about your expectations, and precise in your objectives — it will save lots of time and result in a better end result.

4) Poor quality content

This is the biggest long-term reason for the long-term failure of most of the sites I’ve worked on. Most clients have no problem paying for graphic design and technical work on their site. They recognise the infrastructure and look and feel as crucial elements in their project, and see why professionals should be involved in this work. But very many clients completely fail to see the importance of paying professionals to work on the site’s actual content — even though the content is the reason people are coming to the site in the first place.

Part of this is a misunderstanding of their own abilities. Clients know their own work for sure, but that doesn’t make them qualified to write about it, or take photographs for the website. Writing internal documentation is completely different from producing work that connects with an audience, drives them towards particular actions and eloquently communicates key ideas about a project or plan. Similarly, having a good camera doesn’t make you qualified to take high-quality photographs or video that can move and persuade people, any more than having an excellent set of pans makes you a Michelin-starred chef.

These content creations skills may seem ‘softer’ than the more technical skills needed on a web project, but they are more difficult for people to master, and honestly more important to the overall success of the website. I wholeheartedly believe you should spend as much on the content for your site as on the infrastructure and design. And almost every time I say that, the clients nod and then ignore me even though it means they’ll have a solid and attractive site containing bad content that doesn’t do what it needs to do.

5) No regular content updating

Of course, good content when the site launches is only the start. The ongoing success of the site depends on high quality regular content and you want your site to work for you across several years not just for the first two weeks after launch. Your site will do nothing for you if you don’t keep it regularly updated: Google will abandon you, visitors will come once and never return, and you’ll lock yourself out of your car in the rain (OK, one of those isn’t true).

Potential donors, clients or partners want to know about you and what you’re doing. They want an insight into what you think, how you approach things, what you’re working on. They want to see that other people like them have decided to work with you, and they want to see that you know what you’re talking about. All of these things are accomplished online with a regular supply of good content. All they see from a stale site is that you once put up a half-decent website, but now don’t care enough about what you do to keep it current.

Yes, it’s a huge pain to do, and nobody has the time even if they have the skills. I’m a professional photographer and former journalist for a national newspaper and even for me keeping my sites up to date is about the hardest thing I have to do each week. It’s so easy not to let it slide — ‘real’ work comes up, and you think it won’t make much difference if you miss a scheduled blog post (always assuming you have a schedule), but each time you don’t update your site is another opportunity missed to reach someone or deepen a relationship.

Increasingly, organisations are expected to produce what’s essentially a long-term mixed-media documentary project about themselves, in addition to whatever it is they’re actually supposed to be doing. No wonder they should call in professional help. As well as a budget and plan to get the site built and launched, you need a budget and plan for running it. Sounds obvious, but it’s very hard to make clients do this.

6) No social media plan

If the documentary project we should all be embarking on is based around the website, it needs satellite offices in other social media areas. Your audience (or the people you’d like to have as your audience) spend way more time on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or wherever than they will on your site, so you need to meet them there. Not so you can constantly sell at them with promotions or deals, but so you can share a little about yourselves, and more about the broader community you’re in — passing on useful resources, helping people out.

And when you’re creating content for the site, you should have an eye on what life it will lead across the social media platforms — is it something that people will pass around to their friends, and if they do, how will you help that, measure it and build on that publicity?

These days a website without a social media plan and the resources to implement it is a little like building a great new store in the middle of a wilderness. It might be amazing, but everyone’s doing stuff somewhere else.

Build it and it will be built

Many of these reasons for failure sound obvious, and they are. But it’s also obvious that we should all exercise more, eat better food and call our parents more often. Just building a site of some sort just means you’ve built a site — it won’t make it successful.

André Gide pointed out that ‘Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.’ I’m outlining the failings in the sites I’ve worked on myself partly to help other people, but just as much as a reminder to myself to try and make people listen.

If you’ve got suggestions for any other failings you repeatedly see, please let me know in the comments.