I had a very interesting conversation the other day with a good friend of ours here at Net Island. Gill is an IT professional and an accomplished business trainer. One of the services she offers to her clients is website training using, amongst other things, Google’s web tools. This is coupled with Google’s current initiative to get UK businesses online. In teaching IT, Gill shows her clients how to build a first website on a tight (or in some cases zero) budget.

We got talking about this and Gill suggested that, with the plethora of freebie tools at their disposal, why would a small business pay a professional web designer to create their online presence?

To be honest, my initial thoughts were that the differences are surely obvious. But probably more so to me, because I’m a website designer anyway.

On reflection though, it’s an interesting question. I did later wonder how many others thought as she did. I suspect, possibly quite a few. I mean, absolutely, I can understand why a small or new business, with a pile of other costs and a list a mile long of other things that they need to pay for, would look at doing this themselves. Particularly if it was their first website.

So, let’s look at the pros and cons.

At first glance I can see the appeal of a DIY website, I really can. It does allow you to do many, if not all, of the basics. It empowers the user with many easy to use tools, and results can be immediate. You can create pages with information. You can add products and services, and in terms of written content, well the truth is you really couldn’t knock the DIY services. You can even upload images, embed video,etc.

Look and feel isn’t quite as diverse. It depends on what you are looking for. Google’s system, for example, comes with a number of predefined templates. They are fairly basic, but as Gill was telling me, scratch the surface and you actually can reveal a fairly large number of options that are right there and freely available to you. If you don’t have the knowledge or experience though, you can still use one of the predefined templates, and tweak as you go. In theory, you could be up and running in hardly any time at all.

The DIY site can also give you a chance to update your website easily and usually comes with free hosting, for a limited period at any rate.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? So, why the heck would you need a professional designer?

I would like to think it’s for all of the following reasons. Pedigree. Talent. Skills. And fully understanding the complexities of the platform.

Let’s start with pedigree. And a story…

I recently replaced my garden fence. Well, I didn’t erect it personally you understand. Mind you, at first I did think about doing it myself. I mean, a few planks of wood, a little sand, cement and water. Add in a few nails and a saw, that’s it right? How hard could it be? And then, my idea to do it myself gets better. One walk around B&Q and I was to find a plethora of colours and finishes too. I was in fence-building-heaven. Cheap too. Like the DIY website debate, the same question was posed here. Why pay all that money to have a ‘professional’ come in and do it when I have all the tools I need and at a fraction of the cost, all at my finger tips?

I could have done it too. I was sure I could.

Until I looked at my neighbours fence.

Let’s be clear about the first thing that struck me. It looks great. Never mind how it was built, or by who, my next door neighbour’s fence just looks the business. It’s got a double gate that opens in the middle and the pillars are tall and proud. The finish is even and smooth and I’m sure it would withstand a hurricane. Would mine look like that? Perhaps, eventually, it could. Would it last the winter, let alone the years ahead? Now, that’s a little more debatable.

Gill’s argument about the DIY website was pretty much the same one I had at first glance, when considering my new fence. If you can get all the tools you need, and you have the inclination, why not? Why even consider paying more?

 Let’s look at it this way.

You want to go from A to B, and the choice of travel is between a home made kit car or a brand new Audi Quattro. Before you get in the car at point A and after you get out at point B, the environment is identical. The kit car will get you there. Right? Well, yes, why not? But wait a minute. The Audi will do it smoother, more comfortably, more effectively and quicker. After all, those guys at Audi have been building top class motors for decades, The chances that a novice building his or her own car to that standard is completely unlikely. Departure point A and arrival point B, they don’t change. It’s the journey that does. Starting out is identical for everyone, but choosing how you arrive at your destination is the key.

Point A for your business online is where your site visitor starts. Point B is the part where those visitors become your customers. They’ve arrived. And if site visitors are given the level choice, and your website represents ‘the kit car’ or ‘the Audi’, I wonder how many will choose to arrive at point B in the kit car?.

It’s all to do with pedigree and talent. Yes, I could have built that fence myself. But in my heart, I know it would never have looked as ‘proper’, or been able to withstand the essential rigors any where near as well as my neighbours professionally built one.

 And there lies the crux of it. Especially when it comes to showing off your business. And the journey you want to embark your customers on is a very important one. Leave them with a good impression, a happy memory or using your website and the are more likely to return. It’s about image and how you are perceived. Do not underestimate that.

 Then there are skills and experience.

There is no substitute for these. Skill sets, evolving experience, things that have been learned and polished up by a professional designer over the years.

Most of the DIY site templates are static designs. There is little or no ‘bespoke’ element to them and you could find many, sometimes hundreds, of other sites just like yours already on the Internet. So the innovative and unique graphic design of the professional website certainly makes it much more attractive.

And then there is you and your designer’s understanding of your needs and your ability to tap into his vast experience, skills even, to create what it is that will make you stand out. .

A professional website will have been built around a variety of technologies – PHP, XHTML, HTML5, SQL, Coldfusion, etc– creating your unique site without limiting it to the predefined technologies of the DIY sites. Also, there are no limitations of design, layout, content, size, etc. A good designer will never say ‘I can’t do that’. The DIY site will have limits. This could be anything from integrating newsletter sign-up areas, payment processing on e-commerce solutions, to social networking features. All things that need to be considered when creating a website for which you expect visitors to interact with, or buy from.

A professional website will also be built for purpose. It will be tested in all environments before it is handed over to the client.

A professional designer may appear to be an expensive proposition in comparison to the DIY solutions (but I’m betting not as expensive as you might suspect), but the end result will almost always be greater in look, functionality and customer appeal. It may consume considerable time and effort by your designer to get there. It might take a couple of weeks or even months to design, code and complete a site. The upside is, you will have a website that looks and performs different to most – and usually considerably better than your competitors – and be supported by a team who share your passion in what your website is trying to achieve.

And there’s more too. The internet is a complex network. A professional designer will understand the platform and will ensure the pitfalls are avoided from day one.

Understanding images, compression, page sizes and speed loading, all this is considered when your professional designer creates your website. The DIY site might let you upload a background, but it could be as large in physical size as an MP3 music file. Imagine your visitors having to wait 2 minutes or more just to see an image. Believe me, it happens.

A DIY website typically suffers when it comes to ranking highly in search engine results. Most professional web designers will be able to build a keyword optimised website to help it rise in the Search Engine rankings of Google and the like. If attracting Search Engine Traffic to your website is important to you, and it most definitely should be nowadays, you should not even consider the DIY option unless you are familiar with SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) yourself.

And this is important. With the Internet now the foremost place for searching for businesses and services, if your website doesn’t even come close to being found, you are most definitely losing custom. SEO above all, is a means to meet your website’s main goal – be that to generate leads, email sign-ups, sales etc.

DIY systems are set up for the masses. As I touched on earlier, a professional web designer will want to know about you, your business and your particular needs. Whilst a DIY site may well be enough to satisfy your initial needs, you may find support for making changes that you do not understand, or when something technical actually goes wrong, is in short supply. Checking the FAQ’s isn’t much use when your site is blank, or offline, and your customers are being driven to your nearest competitors.

Even when support is offered, it will almost certainly never be as quick to get as it will be with a reputable web design company. A good professional design company like ours will offer one on one around the clock support.

I recently had a support call from a client (hello Nathan at Stream Radio) the other evening. Within 10 minutes we had the entire issue resolved. Yes, this was in the evening. This wasn’t at midday, but actually at 11.30 at night.

 With a reputable design company, you will never be left alone. And, as your needs change, your designer will work with you in order to ensure your website continues to grow with you.

Above all else, there is another reason why a DIY site is highly unlikely to match that of a professional. And that is simply this – it is not created by a professional. The overall demeanor, the way it feels and performs will almost certainly lack that all important overall competitive appeal and could leave you at a disadvantage. A professional site should, in most cases, reach head and shoulders above a DIY. And, if you’re in a crowded marketplace, that could mean all the difference in this ever image conscious world.

If you truly believe in your business, and if you clearly offer a better service than your competitor, why should their far sleeker pro-website hold you back, and in doing so, impress his or her customers first?

 Are there exceptions to this rule? Can a DIY site ever be as good as a professional site? The truth is, yes, of course. But that does not necessarily depend so much on the limitations of the software you use to build the site, but moreover on the skills, talent and understanding of the platform by the person creating it.

And if cost is your main reason for going DIY, then talk to a designer first. Speak to me if you would like. Seriously. I’m here, now, call me or email me. The very best web design companies, like Net Island, will always give you a little free time and free advice. At the very least, when your business does outgrow your DIY site, you’ll have a point of contact for moving forward.

Gill’s question is certainly an interesting one. I do suspect though that she is mixing IT with creativity. That’s where a professionally designed website should always beat the DIY site hands down.

 Thank you Gill. Food for thought, and inspiration for my latest blog.

Peter Graham