What Is BigCommerce?

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Essential Guide To Choosing A Website Designer

This post originally appeared at Essential Guide To Choosing A Website Designer via ShivarWeb

Essential Guide To Choosing A Website Designer

So you need to know how to choose a website designer.

But here’s the problem.

“It depends” is both the most correct and the most unhelpful answer.

There have never been more choices in the website design industry than now. But paradoxically, all those choices make actually choosing more difficult than ever.

The secret to choosing wisely is to understand exactly what you need rather than attempting to sort & filter all the choices on offer.

Like any other large purchase… a house, car, appliance, etc – ditch the idea of a “best” – and instead, write out your exact needs, requirements, and goals. The best option for you will usually self-select itself.

In other words, choose a website designer through elimination based your goals rather than searching out the one right fit.

With that concept in mind, here’s how to walk through the process of elimination to choose the right website designer for your project.

1. Define Your Technology Needs

How do you need your website to function?

Are you looking to build a “brochure site” – a place with your basic information and contact information?

Or are you looking to build something with certain functionality?

This step is critical because it decides what type of web designer or developer or agency you’ll need to hire.

A pure-play web designer usually does not actually work with HTML / CSS, much less traditional web languages like Javascript, PHP, etc. Pure-play web designers usually work in Photoshop and focus on branding, color palettes, imagery, feel, and user experience.

A pure-play web designer will often work with a front-end web developer to implement a design. The front-end of a website is what the user sees & navigates. A front-end developer will know HTML / CSS and Javascript – and will be comfortable with “back-end” technologies.

Back-end technology involves databases, scripts, and APIs – and generally making sure the computers are all talking to each other correctly.

Now – you’ll likely hire someone who is an expert in one, is knowledgeable in another, and is familiar with the third. If you hire an agency, then they’ll have all three.

Additionally, many designers / developers / agencies will work with certain platforms that already have core functionality built-in. When they work with these platforms, it will speed up the process and lower the costs…but also means that the client (you) needs to have some familiarity with what tools they are using.

But the main thing you need to think about is how much functionality does your site need? This will determine what type of website designer you’ll need, and how to discuss their process.

What To Consider

  • What functionality do you want now?
  • How do you want your website to grow?
  • Do you need to edit & manage your site content?
  • Do your visitors need to work with the site at all?

What To Avoid

  • Avoid using vague concepts or ideas.
  • Avoid accidental technology lock-in.

Example Scenarios

Think about a new fashion brand. Are you more focused on developing content or retailing clothes? Do you need to manage inventory? Do you want to build a community? How do you want to integrate your social presence?

A web designer could build a self-hosted WordPress website to handle the content and then add-in ecommerce with an ecommerce plugin, but it might be harder to manage inventory & social integration. They could also build an online store with Shopify to focus on ecommerce & social, but might hamstring your big content plans.

Think about a new non-profit website. Do you have expertise to manage & maintain the website? Do you need donation abilities or portal logins? Do you need to integrate with certain profiles?

A web designer could build a self-hosted WordPress website that could easily integrate donations and would be cheap upfront, but it would be harder to maintain long-term without someone who can train on the platform. They could also use a hosted website builder like Wix or WordPress.com that might have fewer upfront capabilities, but would be much easier to maintain in-house over the long-term.

Now – the designer that you choose should be flexible but also knowledgeable. It’s better to trust someone that you trust…but also verify that they deeply understand your needs.

2. Define Your Design Needs

How do you want your website to look and feel?

Unless you’ve had to design something for a client, it’s hard to understand how difficult it is to translate a vague idea in someone else’s brain into a tangible creation.

Sure, there are bad designers out there, but usually, the more specific you are about your design needs, the better product you’ll get.

Draw out something – anything – to show even the most basic direction you’d like to go.

Collect websites that you like – and note what you like about them. Here’s a bunch of example round-ups that I’ve written.

  • Wix Website Examples
  • WordPress Website Examples
  • Professional Personal Website Examples
  • Online Portfolio Examples
  • Weebly Website Examples
  • GoDaddy Website Examples
  • Restaurant Website Examples
  • Church Website Examples
  • Shopify Website Examples

Write out your frustrations with existing designs.

Additionally, keep in mind that it’s possible to develop some design assets yourself and let a web designer translate those existing assets into a website design.

For example, I’ve had clients use a photographer and bring in a web designer to build a site layout around their amazing professional images. I’ve built sites around a 99designs logo that clients have already made. Some clients even use automated design generators like Tailor Brands to create a look that a web developer can plug & play into a theme or template.

Once you have all your specifics down – you can use it to choose the right web designer.

What To Consider

  • The right web designer will be able to tell you how achievable certain features, looks, etc are.
  • Think about what process you’d like to work with. Do you want choices at every stage? How do you like to give and receive feedback? What are the most important parts of the design? When budget inevitably comes up, what are you willing to cut or prioritize?

What To Avoid

  • Avoid designers who can’t tell you how they’ll approach a design problem. Look for designers who do not have a stated process.
  • A written design process is best for you and them. Feedback stages can go on forever and make everyone frustrated.
  • Avoid vague wishes – even with emotions, be as specific and as concrete as possible.

Example Scenarios

Think about a restaurant website. An established restaurant will likely already have quite a bit of design assets in its physical location. Between logos, fonts, colors, ambience, etc – a web designer should already have a good bit to work off. Hiring a designer will be less about getting the design right and more about the layout, navigation, and design asset conversion right.

Think about a brand-new yoga studio. A startup might need a website design that can translate offline and throughout social media. Here, the owner will need to make a choice about developing a logo & brand feel separately (via a specialist graphic designer or logo contractor or AI brand software) or letting the website designer drive the look of the business.

3. Define Your Business Needs

What role does your website serve in your business?

Some of this will go back to your design and technology needs, but it’s especially pressing to consider before you define your budget & scope.

Think about how your business gets customers and how you do your marketing.

How will/does your website drive leads/sales? Is it something that your referrals & salespeople will offer as a brochure…or will your website need to drive new leads from online visitors?

Will it need to integrate with any business processes such as inventory or bookkeeping or order-taking? Do you want to move your business processes to the website via marketing/sales automation?

Are there any existing software providers that you want to integrate with your website now or in the future?

What To Consider

  • Think about both the near and medium term needs of your business.
  • Think about your domain names – and how you want to setup your email and online services.
  • Think about the incremental value of your website – what number of leads could it drive? What is a new lead worth?

What To Avoid

  • Avoid too much complexity – integrations and versatility make your website last.
  • Avoid thinking of your website as a cost – it’s an investment.
  • Avoid designers who do not work with integrations or cannot build out features that you need.
  • Avoid designers who cannot make a business case for changing your existing business processes.
  • Avoid designers who cannot explain how & why their approach will work through the medium term.
  • Avoid quick, “duct-tape” solutions.

Example Scenarios

Think about a local property management. An accounting firm could do well with a “brochure website” that simply funnels people to the phone and in-person consults. A nice brochure website (i.e., a website that simple provides information) might do fine. But what if the firm wants to add in client tools, secure portals, content marketing, direct listings, etc? Those features would require a website that can expand and develop over time. It might be worth developing a self-hosted website with a designer on retainer.

Think about a new jewelry business. A jewelry business might do business exclusively on Etsy, and want a blog to connect with customers. It might be easy to get a custom theme on a hosted platform like WordPress.com. However, it also might be a better choice to go a different direction at the beginning to integrate Etsy or lay the foundation for a non-Etsy online store.

4. Define Your Budget & Scope

How much money and time do you have to spend right now?

And “as cheap as possible” is not an answer – if this is your thinking, you should not be looking for a custom website designer. You should look for alternative options.

Your website is an investment, not a cost. If you approach it the same way you’d approach bulk-buying office pens…then you’re not going to get the result you want.

Now – I understand the desire to get the biggest return for your investment. But remember that it’s usually better to maximize your return rather than minimize your investment.

What To Consider

  • Think about your existing cashflow situation. Write out what a single new lead is worth.
  • Write out existing costs of having a poor or non-existent website.
  • Write out features, functionality, and design choices that you’d prioritize.
  • Think about payoff period and amortize your budget. In other words, if you budget $10,000 – and you expect the site to last 50 months, then that is $200/mo. Does that match your expected value?

What To Avoid

  • Avoid thinking about your budget in a silo – always tie it to scope or value.
  • Avoid thinking that you can have everything. Think about keeping your options open.
  • Avoid thinking about having a one and done project. Think about ongoing costs to either you, your staff or your designer.

5. Define Your Sources & Alternative Options

What type of designer do you want? And how do you find them?

The bad news is that most good website designers are not super-easy to find.

The good news is that your competitors don’t know that. If you put in a bit of work to find the right website designers – you’ll have a much better range of choices.

What To Consider

  • Good website designers have plenty of work. If someone is spending a lot of money on advertising & acquisition, then they are probably a giant agency with a churn and burn process.
  • Good website designers want to work with good clients. I used to work with web design clients, and I would take a great client for half-pay over a bad client. In fact, at a certain point, there’s not enough money in the world to take on a bad client.
  • Conversations and back and forths are not billable. That is not good for you or the designer. The more specific you are, the better.

What To Avoid

  • Googling what everyone else is googling.
  • Expecting more from a person or platform than is reasonable given how much effort you’ve put in.

Where To Look

Now – you could always do a Google Search. But I promise that you will likely be disappointed. Here are some better places to look.

For local designer / developer

Local web designers are usually horrendous at marketing their services. But many clients want a local designer that they can talk to in person.

Your approach will depend on your metro area, of course, but here’s where I’d look.

  1. Look for meetups to stalk. Web designers are always looking to upgrade skills and you can usually find some at a local workshop, class or meetup.
  2. Do a really specific Google search – one with search operators. Like this.
  3. Ask your favorite local businesses for referrals.
  4. Use city specific directories – this works especially well in smaller metros.

For a WordPress designer / developer

WordPress is an incredibly versatile content management system. It’s not ideal for every site, but it’s like 4 door SUV / Sedan of the Internet. It’ll probably do the job for you.

Now – the issue is that basically anybody can call themselves a “WordPress developer” – even if they really don’t know how the software works at its core.

It’s important to do #1 and #2 – because you’ll need to know if you are hiring a designer / developer who works with WordPress as their software of choice vs. someone who actually develops websites with WordPress.

Here’s where I’d look –

  1. Stalk local WordPress meetups.
  2. Stalk the attendees of WordCamps – big gatherings of designers who use WordPress.
  3. Stalk the community support forums of WordPress.org
  4. Do an incredibly specific Google search with something like intext:”Work with me”
WordCamp Attendees

One side note about WordPress designers – since they’ll likely use certain themes/theme frameworks – you’ll be able to negotiate a bit more on scope and do more with DIY.

For [other platform] designer / developer

Now there are plenty of other software options out there – especially “hosted options” like Squarespace, Weebly, Shopify, Wix, Bigcommerce, etc.

The key here is to understand the technology and what exactly you are buying (ie, you are paying more for a custom design over functionality since the hosted option bundles lots of functionality in with your hosting).

Lean heavily on the services’ support forums and Experts Exchange to find prospective designers.

For a general designer / developer

The great thing about web design is that you can work with a global talent pool if you want. There are challenges to working remotely but a lot of upside if you can do it well.

Again, for this search, I’d recommend relying more on internal platforms over random searches. Here’s a few examples.

99designs is a good option for contest-run design only competitions. I’ve implemented designs that my clients have bought through them. Here’s my general review.

Dribbble is the big hangout for designers doing cutting edge work.

Most developers will have a profile on Github or StackExchange or HackerNews. Look for ones who have good answers.

Fiverr is a surprisingly good platform if you are willing to try a few gigs before committing to a single designer. I’ve used them for several side projects.

Upwork is also good if you are willing to do a test project with several designers before choosing.

Tailor Brands is an AI-powered self-service platform that will develop a logo and entire branding setup for less than $100.

You’ll also find that vendors on ThemeForest will do custom work in addition to other marketplaces like CreativeMarket.

The point here is that a bit more effort into searching for good designers will give you much better options than general googling.

Alternatives to a Custom Website Designer

Now if you’re thinking “ok – I just need a simple, straightforward website, not a roundabout search” – then you’ll want to look into some Alternative Options.

Skip down to some alternate ways to get a website without having to choose a website designer.

6. Ask for Proposals

Now that you have a few website designers to choose from, the next step is to send out a proposal.

The better your proposal, the better your options will be.

Think about how you would like to be approached if you were a web designer.

Would you prefer a vague email asking how much a website costs? Or would you prefer a detailed description of a the project along with a ballpark budget range?

What To Consider

  • Providing a ballpark budget is the fastest, simplest & most accurate way to get on the same page as a website designer. Your budget does not determine your end cost – but it does determine who you even talk to. As an analogy – it’s how website designers know whether you are shopping for a used Toyota Corolla or a brand-new Ferrari.
  • Make your project easy to say yes to. Keep the next step & primary ask simple and straightforward (ie, “are you interested in the project?”, “if interested, what additional details do you need?”)

What To Avoid

  • Avoid sending lots of feeler emails with no intention of hiring.
  • Avoid sending an email with too much information or too many asks.

7. Follow up with Questions & Request for References & Portfolio

However the designer communicates upfront is how the project will progress. Communication never improves over a project – it only degrades. Look for a high benchmark to start.

What To Consider

  • You are using your requirements, questions, and details to get prospective web designers to rule themselves out.
  • Think about your priorities – sending too many questions is just as bad as too few.

What To Avoid

  • Avoid dictating the entire process. Remember that the designer’s questions for you can tell you as much as your questions for them.
  • Avoid making the designer do too much back and forth. If you think a call will be necessary during the design process, do this entire step via a phone call.

8. Request Contract & Project Plan (and declines)

Tangible expectations in writing help everyone in every engagement.

At this point, you should be able to choose a website designer.

The next step is to request a contract and a project plan from the designer that you want to work with.

A written contract helps *everyone* in the project. The contract should spell out “deliverables”, costs, responsibilities, intellectual property rights, and an adjudicating body.

A project plan helps *everyone* understand expectations, responsibilities, and timelines. This does not have to be complicated. It should communicate clearly though who is responsible for what and when.

Lastly, for the designers that you did not choose, be sure to send a polite decline. Even if it’s as simple as “Thank you for providing this information. We have decided to work with another company. We will keep your company in mind for future project & referrals.” You’ll save the everyone needless follow-ups.

9. Follow up & Communicate Clearly

A good website designer cannot help a bad client.

What To Consider

  • The website is going to be *yours* so you need to make sure you have all the information you need to make decisions.
  • Make sure you have all the technical documentation in your control.
  • Remember that a lot of design work depends on fast, accurate feedback.
  • Budget for not only time but also money for incidentals (ie, photography) and technical issues.

What To Avoid

  • Interrupting the project plan and micromanaging.
  • Providing the wrong feedback at the wrong stage.
  • Avoid verbal conversations without follow-up written documentation. Phone call notes are essential.

Conclusion & Next Steps

Choosing a website designer does not have to be a daunting process full of frustration and unknowns.

It does require that you clearly understand what you want, when you want it, and to clearly communicate your expectations.

If you are trying to find a good website designer – follow the process and you’ll be set!

Alternate Conclusion & Next Steps

Now – if you have read this post and found it useful…but…

You’re thinking “I just need a website! It’s 2020 – I just need a simple, affordable, quick standard website – not a complicated purchase with contracts and whatnot”

I hear you. I have friends who have been there. And there are options out there – but it’s not a quality custom website designer.

Here’s some options –

#0 – DIY w/ Automated Branding & Design

Many design options (including the ones below) require you to coordinate your branding, even if you are able to purchase assets like a logo or social media photos. But that leaves a lot up to you.

There is one company that focuses on completely automated branding – Tailor Brands. I’ve begun using them for my side projects. They AI and machine learning to create a whole range of design assets & guidelines.

They also have a bundled website builder or you can use them to complement #1 through #3. Check out Tailor Brands here. Read my review here.

Other website builders also bundle a logo designer with their software. Wix has a template driven logo designer as does Shopify.

#1 – DIY with a Website Builder

There are companies that specialize in businesses with a budget and no design or technical expertise. They provide hosting and pre-made templates all for a single monthly subscription. You might not get all the functionality that you want…but you will get a secure, fast, good looking website.

To find the right website one, take my website builder quiz or see my recommendations here.

I also have an online store builder quiz with recommendations here if you need ecommerce.

#2 – DIY with self-hosted WordPress

WordPress is a the most popular, most supported, and most versatile “content management system” on the Internet. It’s free community supported software that you install on a hosting account (ie, you rent part of a server from a hosting company). The software has a learning curve, but you’ll have 100% control and 100% of your options open. You’ll also be able to call in specific experts on specific problems. Or install do-it-all themes / templates.

I wrote a WordPress Website Setup Guide here.

#3 – Purchase Website Design from a Hosting Company

This option is a blend of #1 and #2 – if you want full control over your site with unlimited options for the future…but don’t want the learning curve of setting up a design yourself, then you can sometimes purchase website design services from a hosting company. They are usually able to provide these services much cheaper than an independent website designer since you’re also using their hosting services.

For these projects, I recommend InMotion Hosting – they have great support and are the hosting company for this website. See their design services here.

Other resources include –

  • How To Try WordPress Before Purchasing
  • Choosing Your Website Color Palette
  • Features Customer Want in a Local Website
  • Building Different Types of Websites with Templates

For any specific questions, see my contact page.

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Is Your Business Ready For A Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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Top 10 eCommerce Trends For Small Businesses In 2020

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Salon Survival Guide: Coronavirus Edition

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What The Coronavirus Means For eCommerce & What Your Business Can Do About It

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Why Point Of Sale Data Is The Secret To Understanding Your Business And Making More Sales

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How To Start A Subscription Box: 7 Steps To Launch A Thriving Business

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Mailchimp Website Builder: Pros, Cons, and Alternatives

This post originally appeared at Mailchimp Website Builder: Pros, Cons, and Alternatives via ShivarWeb

MailChimp Website Builder

MailChimp has been one of the fastest growing email marketing providers for years now. They’ve built an huge base of customers ranging from tiny personal accounts to some of the most prestigious enterprise brands in the world.

In 2019, they added a ton of functionality, including postcards & remarketing as they grow their positioning into a marketing platform. And as part of their growth, they’ve introduced a free website builder.

See MailChimp’s Current Plans & Pricing

I’ve been using Mailchimp for years, and was super curious when they announced the beta version of their website builder (FYI, beta just means it’s their first, trial run version. They’re looking for feedback from users to improve the product).

So I gave Mailchimp’s beta builder a try for a full Mailchimp Website Builder review. But before I get into the pros and cons of my review, let’s dive into an overview about tools to build a website.

There are so many considerations to take into account when choosing a website builder — and really, there are a thousand ways to get what you want in the end in terms of functionality, convenience, pricing, etc. The thing to remember is: whether you’re building a simple personal website or running a business, the way you build your site has a lot of consequences.

In the long-term, it affects your versatility, functionality, and, of course, your brand. In the short-term, it can certainly add/take away a lot of headaches. That said, just like choosing a physical house or office, there is no such thing as an absolute “best” or “top” choice. There’s only the right choice relative to your goals, experience, and circumstances.

What Is Mailchimp Website Builder?

On the wide spectrum of website building solutions, Mailchimp’s website builder lives on the end that is all-inclusive and provides everything you need to get started and grow your website. It contrasts with solutions where you buy, install, and manage all the “pieces” of your website separately.

Using Mailchimp is sort of like leasing and customizing an apartment in a really classy development instead of buying and owning your own house. You’re still in control of decor, cleaning, and everything living-wise – but you leave the construction, plumbing, security, and infrastructure to the property owner. That point is key because there’s usually a direct tradeoff between convenience and control.

Everything may fit together just right with a website builder like Mailchimp, but that may or may not be what you’re looking for.

As far as competition, Mailchimp competes with all-inclusive website builders like GoDaddy, Wix, Squarespace, Jimdo, Yahoo!, and WordPress.com  (and Shopify for online stores).

Compared to their direct competition, they focus on ease of use and their platform providing everything you need to market online — from their opt-in pages to their email software to their website builder.

Pros of Using Mailchimp Website Builder

Here’s what I found to be the pros of using Mailchimp’s website builder — not just in comparison to direct competitors like GoDaddy and Wix, but as an overall website solution.

Straightforward Sign Up Process

If you already have a Mailchimp account, using their free website builder is just a matter of navigating to it in the main menu and getting started. If you don’t have a Mailchimp account, it’s still incredibly easy to sign up. All you have to do is create an account with your business information + pick your payment plan to get started.

mailchimp sign up process

This is great for DIYers who want to get up and running as quickly as possible without an extensive sign up process.

Ease of Use

Another pro of Mailchimp’s website builder is that it’s incredible easy to use. When you first get started with the platform, Mailchimp actually creates a homepage for you to use as a starting point.

Mailchimp Homepage

Once you get into the platform, you can “drag” and “drop” additional elements onto the page, remove elements from the premade page, add new pages to your site with the click of a button.

The whole setup is like painting by numbers. You just add in your content, add additional elements if you want them / need them, add your branding colors and fonts, and click publish.

There are obvious drawbacks to this setup, which I will cover in the disadvantages, but it is a real advantage to having an easy and quick way to get your site up and making sure it still looks decent.

It makes Mailchimp a great option for entrepreneurs / DIY-ers who want a website that gets the job done, looks clean, and doesn’t require hiring a professional to put it all together (and don’t want to worry about “messing it up”).

Completely Free

Another benefit Mailchimp’s website builder is that it’s completely free.

There’s no upsells, no limited access based on your payment plan, no restrictions. You can use the website builder with your free Mailchimp plan if you have under 2000 subscribers and don’t need additional email functionality, or you can use it with your paid plan for no additional charge.

While there are some limitations with the platform (more on that in a minute), it’s a great option for test projects or those who need a simple, functional website and don’t want to spend money on a platform.

Cons

Of course, no review would be complete without looking at the downsides. Every piece of software will have complaints. And for Mailchimp, there’s two big cons that stand out: limited design and functionality features.

Limited Feature Set – Design

With any technology product, there is almost always a trade-off between convenience and control (think Android vs. iOS).

And you can really see this trade-off with the Mailchimp website builder. The convenience of their design setup is great. It’s straightforward and fast, and puts your focus on getting your content into a premade template. You can add pages and a few elements based on your specific needs, but for the most part, it’s got everything you need.

However, if you want to go anywhere beyond the basics of design, you are limited with the builder.

You can’t add anything aside from the few drag and drop elements available to you, and the elements you can change on the overall template are fairly limited (AKA essentially just font and color).

If your website is growing, or becoming a bigger part of your business, the design limitations can be crippling. And unlike other website builders that attempt to solve this issue through apps, extensions, or access to the website code or HTML, there is no outlet for a Mailchimp website builder website.

Limited Feature Set – Technical

The limitations on design also bleed over into technical limitations.

Technical limitations are features that you don’t know that you want until you want them, and then you find out you can’t have them.

These are things like integrations with Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Google Ads, social sharing options, blogging, and a whole host of every intermediate to advanced marketing tools on the internet.

In their beta from, Mailchimp has extremely limited integrations (social sharing, social following, file downloads, etc.), but there are a ton of technical features that Mailchimp currently doesn’t provide or that are extremely limited.

There also aren’t add-ons or additional integrations to use with the platform, which makes it even more difficult to do anything besides the very basics on your site.

Ultimately, Mailchimp leaves much to be desired when it comes to product integrations and additional technical features that can help you better use and market your website.

Mailchimp Review Conclusion

Mailchimp makes getting your website up and running simple and fast, which makes it a great choice for DIYers who want a quick and easy way to build a website without the hassle of getting into the code or having something custom made.

Get started with Mailchimp here.

However, like most all-inclusive website builders, there does come a point where there’s a tradeoff between convenience and control. Mailchimp leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to design customization and functionality. If you’re looking for something that offers more control and scalability, you’re better off elsewhere.

Not sure Mailchimp fits your needs? Check out my quiz to find what the best website builder is for you based on your preferences.

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20+ Considerations on The Future of Web Hosting, Website Builders & Digital Marketing Beyond 2020

This post originally appeared at 20+ Considerations on The Future of Web Hosting, Website Builders & Digital Marketing Beyond 2020 via ShivarWeb

Considerations on The Future of Web Hosting, Website Builders & Digital Marketing

There has never been a time when running a website has been more accessible, convenient, and profitable than now.

But there has also never been a time when running a website has been so confusing, frustrating, and winner-take-all than now.

And that contradiction comes because some of the major computing & networking innovations from the 2010s are finally coming to the everyday Internet.

And as the 2010s close out and the 2020s begin, here are some of my considerations (in no specific order) that I think would be useful for DIYers, freelancers, small online business owners, and anyone planning an online presence.

Nobody Fully Knows What Is Going On

This post is deliberately a listicle because I don’t have a grand unified idea about the future of running a website on the Internet. And I’m skeptical of anyone who does.

Cloud computing, machine learning, APIs, high-quality open-source software, free toolkits, mobile devices, streaming, and the lumbering giant behavior of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft all point to continuing massive disruption of entire industries that no one can predict or prepare for.

The Website + Marketing Tool Model Is Gone

For years, people built a website on a multi-purpose host with a custom domain. And then they used 3rd party tools & distribution channels to promote content, products & services that lived on the website.

But now, the website on a domain is simply one tool in a toolkit. In fact, you can build a model where your website is a backend for your other marketing tools…or you can use a marketing tool to build & run your website.

This shift is clearest with online stores. Between Buyable Pins, Checkout on Instagram, Amazon integration, dropshipping APIs, offline pop-up shops, etc – the website is just another piece in the business puzzle.

Now, websites are still critical because they remain the only piece of that puzzle that you can control & own as an asset. But…I do think they are losing their relative importance. And their importance depends massively on what industry you are in.

Platform Choice > Tool Choice

The demise of the website + marketing tool model will mean that website owners will choose their platform of choice rather than their tools of choice based on what business they have.

Online retail is in this place already. Very few successful retailers have a collection of tools. It’s all about integrations and platform. But increasingly, every business sector will move to this model.

Local small businesses will look at platforms that do their primary function plus whatever integrates well with that platform. For example, a website builder will not compete with other website builders. Instead, the website builder will compete with the CRM platform and the email marketing platform…because all three will have a website builder, CRM, and email marketing tool bundled in a single platform

In other words, a website builder like Wix no longer competes with Squarespace. Instead, Wix competes with MailChimp and HubSpot and Google.

In online retail, Shopify and WooCommerce and BigCommerce don’t really compete with each other. They all compete, as a group, against Amazon, Instagram, Depop, MailChimp, Square, Salesforce, and eBay.

In hosting, hosting companies no longer compete with each other as much as they compete against Google Business Suite, Hubspot, hosted website builders, etc.

Now, there will still be incredible power & opportunity for website owners who have the resources & wherewithal to mix & match services to get the best of all worlds. Those website owners will be able to maintain costs and control where others will cede more power to their platform of choice.

Convenience Killed Cost & Control

The big reason why DIYers are a declining & disrupted market is that when consumers distill down what they truly care about – convenience always wins.

The same reasons driving the growth of takeout, restaurant, delivery, and meal kits at the expense of cooking are also driving the growth of online platforms at the expense of websites + tools.

If you are a DIYer, it will pay to be hyper-aware of what your true wants, needs and goals are – and what tradeoffs you are willing to make. Platforms are great in many ways, but beyond 2020, the most successful DIYers will be able to manage the tradeoffs of platforms.

If you are a freelancer, it will lead to bigger rewards to both specialize in a platform and maintain familiarity with how adjacent choices work. Even if your clients do not know about or understand platform choices, you can still use them to streamline your business and add value without adding extra work.

Spam, Security & Speed Killed What Could Have Been

I am a huge fan of the Open Web. Regardless of the short-term rewards of the platform of the day, it’s still worth investing in a website for the long-term.

But in 2020, even the most die-hard prophets preaching against Google, social media companies, cloud computing, hosted builders, and big corporations will have to admit that the vulnerabilities in the Open Web & running / managing your own website are pushing people to big platforms as much as those big platforms are pulling people.

For example, Google might be pulling people & businesses to hand over their personal email & confidential documents. But hackers, spammers, and human impatience are doing plenty of pushing as well.

For example, I would *love* to run conversations via blog comments instead of using Twitter. But my blog comments are like an absolute honeypot for the worst of the Internet.

Another example, I would love to avoid ecommerce transaction fees and SSL fees but hackers only need one shot. Security is difficult and, honestly, much more effective to do at scale across thousands of websites.

Most of my clients gain a lot from controlling their own hosting rather than using a hosted website solution. But I have to set expectations to prep clients for the amount of time & money it takes to keep the site secure & speedy beyond using a solid hosting company. Web visitors will absolutely ditch a website in a heartbeat over a millisecond. That’s why so many publishers with massive brands are blindly handing control over to Google’s AMP initiative. Even the biggest brands in the world can’t compete with human impatience.

Traffic Sources Are Consolidated & Fragmented

Facebook’s properties & Google’s properties will continue to become bigger. But they’ll also become more winner-take-all. But also, a much longer tail of random completely unpredictable traffic sources will continue to fragment.

Even more traffic will be “dark” or untrackable. Planning a marketing strategy will increasingly rely solely on your target audience rather than your target traffic source.

Organic Traffic Is A Bonus

Treat any organic traffic from Google, Facebook, Pinterest, etc like a bonus. You can’t project or plan long-term around organic traffic. Agencies, freelancers, etc will have to adjust pricing and clients will have to adjust expectations.

Digital marketers spent years making fun of John Wanamaker old-fashioned quote that “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

Online attribution was supposed to solve that problem. But now, no matter how creepy your tracking and attribution is…consumer & traffic behavior is so unpredictable that you won’t be able to truly plan long-term…unless you pay.

Marketers Growth Demands Killed What Could Have Been

More and more platforms & websites will be “walled gardens”* due to pressure to grow…and grow…and grow some more. The Web could have been a world of accessible, free-flowing information where many businesses and types of businesses made a living. But platforms have to be more closed to make more money off users. And as valuable traffic has declined, website owners have become more desperate and more annoying to drive up ad rates.

*Even previously open platforms like Reddit, Pinterest and Twitter are closing in.

For example – see basically every recipe website ever. As Google and Pinterest strive to keep more users on their sites, serving their ads…recipe content websites have become more desperate to monetize what little traffic they do have…leading to horrendous car salesman-like levels of unusability.

Users Killed What Could Have Been

Users want convenience above all. For all the pulling that Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Amazon, etc are doing…users are also pushing attention there…because it’s convenient.

For example, I have no idea what to say to website owners about voice search. And anyone who does have a “strategy” for voice search – I call B*S* on. Users want it. I want it. It’s amazing, but you can’t build a publishing business or profitable content marketing strategy around it.

1,000 True Fans Is Still True

That said, the future will always have a small, tough, but sustainable spot for Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans.

On balance, there has never been a better time to run a website or online presence than right now. If you have a good product, service, or concepts, there are likely 1000 True Fans that can & will support your work. Sure, there were “Golden Ages” of organic Facebook traffic, organic Google traffic, etc…but those eras had serious issues and limitations as well.

There Is No Magic Bullet

There is no sure-fire way to build a successful website. I’ve been working in digital marketing for years now. I know that in SEO, there used to always be a sure-fire tactic that was working. Now, there are tactics that work marginally better than others. There are things that you can focus more or less on…but the magic secrets are gone.

Same goes with Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, etc. The only real magic bullet now is hard creative work, constant research, careful planning, constant learning…and a whole lot of luck.

Opportunity Costs Are Very Real

When you choose to do Action A instead of Action B, there is the cost of doing Action A plus the cost of *not* doing Action B.

In a world of limited marketing resources, choosing to create social media posts means that you are also missing out on *not* creating blog posts.

Back in the world where everything online was growing, you could afford to miss one big opportunity for another…because most every opportunity was growing.

Now, mobile devices are ubiquitous. Desktop traffic is actually declining. And many social networks have reached maturity. Choosing one over another or bouncing around chasing “shiny objects” has real costs above whatever you are paying for your main investment.

Even with aspects of running your website, many website features are standardized and predictable. There are opportunity costs to choosing what part of your site to improve or leave alone.

Lookalikes Killed Privacy

I wrote a guide to tracking marketing data on your website. I actively use any & all data to help clients & aid my own research. But on this website & my personal website, I’ve deliberately removed all tracking tags except for Google’s. Why?

Well, sure, there’s the token virtue and hand-washing hypocrisy part of it.

But also, I found that my own retargeting & tracking did not matter in comparison to the massive opportunity presented by lookalike audiences and the data gathered by the big platforms.

Because here’s the thing about “big data” that people miss. It’s that individuals do not matter. All that matters is the sample size.

Every single person has a lookalike about some part of themselves. No matter how special or unique you think you are; no matter how carefully you avoid trackers or cookies or online ads, you can be personally marketed without any kind of tracking to due to lookalike audiences.

Here’s an analogy. Think about the world of DNA testing & genealogy. There are real fears & real consequences to having your DNA in a database. But protecting your own DNA is near-pointless. If a company (or government) knows the DNA from a couple cousins or aunts or uncles or grandparents or a sibling…then they know yours as well.

Lookalikes are the same. Even if Nate Shivar avoids all retargeting trackers, there are still enough people out there similar to me that will allow marketers to reach me if they want.

So – what does this mean? It means that whether you have a large audience data set or not, you can still think creatively about how to profile & reach your audience.*

*that is – until privacy can get solved in a meaningful way. Be sure to tell your political leaders that this needs to be solved at the national / international level. Individual choice & freedom in this issue is a moot point.

Alternative Channels Matter

In investing, modern portfolio theory says that diversification pays for itself because it maximizes expected return even if it fails to maximize actual returns.

In other words, you may know that Investment A is your best bet. But you should still make Investment B as well, because you can’t be sure that Investment A will be amazing.

Same with traffic sources and alternative channels and even website tools.

You may be pretty sure that your priority is the right one. But in a world of uncertainty, alternatives are good to have.

Now – going back to Opportunity Costs Are Real – you have to be honest with the tradeoffs. If you spend time on YouTube in addition to Google Search, you might lose some in Google. But you also won’t lose it all if you have some investment in YouTube.

Web Hosting Is a Utility

Amazon made the technology of hosting files a commodity service. Web hosting companies no longer compete on technology. In fact, they don’t want to compete on technology…because Amazon / Microsoft / Google win on that. Web hosting companies make money on what they provide in addition to basic hosting.

That can include support, onboarding, graphical server management tools, bundled 3rd party services, etc. But the main point is that if hosting is a utility – then anybody can offer it as a feature…not just web hosting companies.

There will be even more plugin makers, software makers, theme designers, tool makers, etc that will simply bundle & resell hosting as a feature.

Website Builders Are a Feature

I remember when I used my first drag & drop builder in the early 2000s with Homestead. It was a “WYSIWYG” builder. And it was terrible. Actually, every WYSIWYG builder was terrible…until just a few years ago.

Now…developer and marketer snobs will turn their nose up at drag & drop…but the software is actually pretty good….and it’s only getting better.

If drag & drop were microwavable pizzas in the 2000s, they became Domino’s in the 2010s…and now they are more like Mellow Mushroom pizza. Nothing like your local sit-down Italian haunt…but consistent and really solid.

All this means is that the core website building software can be a feature bundled with everything else rather than a stand-alone business. That’s why Google, MailChimp, Shopify, HostGator, InMotion, GoDaddy, and a dozen other non-website builder companies are bundling free website builders that otherwise compete directly with Wix, Squarespace, Weebly, etc.

SEO Is a Tactic

For years, the “contract” between publishers and Google was that Google gets to copy & analyze copyrighted content in exchange for free organic traffic.

If publishers made their content easier for Google to copy & analyze (i.e., “search engine optimization“), then Google would reward them with even more free organic traffic.

It created a virtuous cycle that worked for everyone. Sure, Google had to deal with publishers who took advantage of loopholes. And publishers had to waste some time dealing changing guidelines and features (remember Author markup?).

But on whole, the deal worked for everyone.

In fact, you could build an entire marketing strategy around the deal. That’s how entire businesses got built. Help Google and they’ll help you.

But, that deal has broken down. As Google focuses more on users and advertisers – publishers will get left out more and more. And as SEO as a strategy goes away, it will really only remain as a tactic in a broader strategy of organic traffic from all the places.

IRL Original Content Is Underestimated

The Internet makes copying & sharing more convenient than ever. In fact, it’s so convenient that we often forget that there are other sources of information in the real world.

But even more so, we forget that information in the real world is the source for information on the Internet.

In fact, this instinct is true not just among social media users but also among serious website owners and professional journalists.

Because of this instinct for convenient & copyable information – there is a growing premium on original information gathered from the real world.

Anyone can get a screengrab from Google Earth. But not many people will take a picture of a location. And which is more useful & unique?

Anyone can get a screengrab from social media…but not many people will go an compose a proper photo in context. And which is more useful & unique?

Anyone can make a drawing or an illustration…but not many people will make an IRL video or photo sequence. And which is more useful & unique?

On my websites & my clients’ websites – I am continually amazed at how often original, IRL images get copied, cited & linked-to. It’s amazing.

It’s no magic bullet, but it’s the most magical of all bullets that SEO’s & website owners have.

IRL Data Is Underestimated

On a related note, data copying and analyzing is easy. IRL data gathered from real people is harder and harder to gather and share.

That’s what makes the US Census so invaluable. But that’s also what makes companies’ internal data so valuable and why some companies use it for incredible link building & PR efforts.

Above & Beyond Pays Off Even More

Regardless of hosting platform, marketing toolset, marketing strategy or collection of tactics – going above and beyond the competition will provide winner-take-all dividends.

Onward!

The Internet & globalization continually push towards sharper and sharper winner-take-all markets for money & attention. And they also increase the long-tail of choice. And technology is continually disrupting itself. Until those core forces are fully understood, you have to play the game.

Focus on using products that you understand and match your goals. Focus on marketing strategies based on audiences that you understand and match your financial goals.

Onward!

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