33 signs that you might need a better web designer.
I often get asked: “What’s the difference between a $500 website and one that costs $5,000?” My usual snarky response of “$4,500” no longer gets many laughs, so I came up with this list. If you’re not thrilled with your current website, this might help explain the price gap. It’s not complicated really. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. And sometimes it’s better to pay too much, than too little.
01. Button madness.
It’s real trendy these days to stuff as many “free consultation” buttons on to your home page as possible. You can thank the fans of a wildly popular branding program for this fad. According to them, your website visitors are clueless and have no idea of what they want to do. So you need to tell them — Every 200 pixels or so. These people are wrong. Real designers don’t follow trends, they focus on objectives.
02. Where’s the favicon?
A favicon (short for “favorite icon”) is that dinky symbol — usually a logo device of some sort — that appears in a browser tab to identify the website you’re visiting. If it’s absent, you’ll get a generic browser icon. This may seem trivial, but it can be a crucial usability factor when you’ve got 28 tabs open in Chrome. Little things matter.
03. You were charged by the page.
Inexperienced web designers do this because they know it makes intellectual sense. Apparently, it makes sense to a lot of clients too. But once a page template is created — and the copy’s been written — it takes all of 20 seconds to name a new page, add the content, and push publish. They’re gonna charge you extra every time they do that? Why not just charge you by the length of the page — Say, by the inch?
04. Your site is really slow.
Page load speed is all about perception — If it seems slow, it is slow. And just so you know, cheap designers use cheap website hosting. And — by definition — cheap hosting is slow. Bang-your-head-on-the-desk slow. To confirm your suspicions, visit Google’s PageSpeed Insights and enter your website’s URL. If your site racks up scores in the 40s or 50s on mobile, you’ve got a serious problem.
05. High praise from Marge W. of Orlando.
Or from Larry B. of Omaha. Incomplete identities from imprecise places. Reviews and testimonials have been so fraudulently abused that it’s almost pointless to include them on a website. But if you do, they need to be complete and believable. And it’s a designer’s job to explain that to you.
06. Boring 404 page.
Nothing screams “basic” louder than a standard 404 (file not found) error page. At the very least, it should clarify why you’re looking at it, and have a link to your home page. Maybe add a bit of humor. You don’t need to be Rodney Dangerfield, just try to be helpful. The better error pages have a search box; some even include a site map.
07. Connection not secure.
When viewing your website, if you see “http” in your browser’s address bar instead of “https,” it means your website isn’t secure. Web page requests and responses that are sent over an unsecure connection can be intercepted, read, redirected, and modified. Or much worse. This is essential stuff, and Google Search will penalize you for being irresponsible. So will your visitors.
08. Your designer is certified.
Unless you perform surgery on humans, manufacture devices that run on alternating current, or work on BMWs, I couldn’t care less if you’re “certified.” Take a look at your designer’s website. Anybody can put an official-looking badge or seal in their website footer and claim that they’re preferred, approved, certified, verified, award-winning, or whatever. Nobody cares.
09. Overly cute navigation.
This refers to the flaky navigation elements we’ve all seen on poorly designed websites. You know, links with dopey names like “My Journey,” “Getting Real,” “Experience Me,” “Believing,” and “Up Level.” Or, our three favorites: “Happy Places,” “Secret Sauce,” and “Learnings.” If this was your idea, stop it. If not, chat with your designer.
10. No legal pages.
11. Your content is dreadful.
A good designer won’t let you fill your website with crappy content. Bad designers don’t care — They figure content is your responsibility, not theirs. I’ve actually heard web designers proclaim “We don’t do content.” Really? That’s like Ferrari saying “We don’t do engines.” I’ve got some news for you: A cool design is nice, but folks show up for the content. And the best designers will help you create it.
12. Exposed code.
Have you ever come across a web page with some cryptic looking gibberish at the top? Or maybe a block of almost-intelligible text and symbols? How about a word or phrase wrapped in square brackets? If so, that’s probably raw code exposed on the front-end of your website for the whole world to see. It shouldn’t be there — Something broke and nobody cares.
13. Your designer is also a brand strategist.
I’m still a little hazy on when the initial flood occurred, but at some point in the recent past, every mediocre web designer became a “brand strategist.” Likely because it’s a vague enough term, sounds impressive, and the barrier to entry is low. Pass on this service. Skip the “brand storytelling” nonsense too. You don’t need more bad advice.
14. AWOL forms.
If you want a website to generate leads, this is one of the biggest problems you can face. Are you receiving all contact form email notifications from your website? How would you even know? Is this data also stored on your server? Do you regularly test your form processor? Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? Online forms look simple, but they’re immensely complicated. Screw this up and you’re toast.
15. Sloppy design.
Okay, I know this is mostly a matter of opinion, but it’s not that subjective. I’m not a formally trained designer (not by a long shot), but even I know the seven golden rules of layout design (yes, I know the Gestalt principles too):
- Negative space
- Focal points
Bottom line: If you show your website to your neighbor and her response is: “Oh, wow … umm … yeah, that’s awesome,” it probably needs work.
16. No site-wide search.
I can’t think of anything more fundamental than being able to find stuff on a website. Admittedly, most website search widgets aren’t weapons-grade, but they usually return reasonable results and are easy enough to implement on most modern websites. At the very least, have some sort of public site map (archive) page.
“Good information architecture enables people to find and do what they came for. Great information architecture takes ‘find’ out of the equation: the site behaves as the visitor expects. Poor information architecture neuters content, design, and programming — And devalues the site. It’s like a film with no director.”
17. Undated blog posts.
Everybody’s in a rush to share permanent “authoritative” content. Blog publishers and internet marketers like to call this “evergreen” content, because they think that their wisdom is timeless. That’s rubbish. There’s nothing worse than wading through a lengthy technical article just to discover that it was written 12 years ago and is now totally irrelevant. Undated website articles are a clear sign of a misinformed amateur. If your designer suggested that you omit publication dates, fire them.
18. Looks funky on mobile.
Responsive design is a methodology for creating websites that will provide a useful user experience, regardless of the viewing device. Your website should be as usable on a smartphone as it is on a desktop computer. This technology has been around for over 10 years, and is pretty much a standard feature of any new website. If you find yourself working with a designer who disagrees, find another designer.
19. Revolving sliders and carousels.
Ugh. These are the marching blocks of text or pictures that move/rotate/slide/fade so unpredictably that you couldn’t possibly engage with them. If used properly they can work well for art and photography portfolios, but that’s about it. They’re mostly implemented by lazy ex-Flash designers who are unaware of dinky screens.
20. No FAQ page.
Visitors like them. Google loves them. They’re easy to build and manage. There’s no reason not to have a page of frequently asked questions. This is simply the who, what, why, when, where, and how of your business. Just put all the answers in a list and stick it on a page called FAQ. Pretty basic stuff.
21. Crummy website host.
If your “affordable” web designer included hosting in your deal, she’s likely charging you $20 a month for a white label service (see #28) that she pays $2 for. A nice profit for her, an unreliable mess for you. Talented designers understand that building a website isn’t the end — It’s just the beginning. Scalable and dependable online marketing tools require robust hosting.
22. DNS errors.
The internet’s domain name system (DNS) is a vast distributed directory that translates human-friendly domain names (like ernberck.com) into arcane network address locations (like 220.127.116.11).
DNS used to be pretty easy to manage and configure, but now it’s mostly Voodoo. You may not think that this stuff falls within the purview of a web designer, but it does. If all versions of your root domain don’t converge on a single point of truth (your “canonical” name), somebody screwed up.
23. Your web designer used a page builder.
A “page builder” is a plugin or component of a website theme (typically WordPress) that lets you layout pages with minimal effort and time. Page builders are very powerful, but an over-reliance on them can make you lazy. It’s too easy to “design” stuff without really knowing what you’re doing.
They’ve also drastically lowered the barrier to entry in the web design field. Anybody can drag and drop, but few can diagnose and fix. Consider yourself forewarned: Page builders can be evil.
24. Zero documentation.
Good web developers understand that someone else may need to interpret their work later. So they take a lot of notes. I’m not talking about scribbles on a Post-it Note. I’m talking about clear, concise, thorough comments that document their code and design decisions. They do this out of habit — And respect for the client.
25. Too many plugins.
A “plugin” is a helper application that supplies additional features to the core software. Most content management systems, such as WordPress, depend on them for advanced functionality. Conventional wisdom suggests that you should keep the number of plugins to 10 or fewer, but never more than 20. I’ve seen WordPress installations with over 100 active plugins — A disaster that already happened.
26. Three eggs. One basket.
One of the biggest mistakes business owners make is having their web hosting, domain registration, and email service all provided by one source (frequently the web designer). Why is this such a bad idea? If your relationship with the designer goes south (and it will), it’ll be painful to extract all three critical services and move them someplace else. However, if you’re using three different providers and one goes bad, no problem: Fire the cranky part and go elsewhere.
27. Your designer’s website sucks.
This should be self-evident. If you visit a sign shop and they’ve got an ugly broken sign out front, or drive by a gardener’s house and all the plants are dead … Well, you get the drift. If you don’t, slow down and get help — You’ve got some learning to do.
28. White labeling.
This is a little complicated, so bear with me. A “white label” product or service is a commodity created by one company, that sells it to other companies, who in turn rebrand it to make it appear as if they had made it themselves. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice as long as it’s divulged to the client. Unfortunately, it rarely is.
Some web design agencies outsource everything: Hosting, code, design, copywriting, SEO, and support. You wonder what they actually do themselves. These people don’t create anything of value, and they don’t know how to fix anything. They’re just assemblers. Steer clear of them.
29. Gratuitous use of technology.
Novice web designers love shiny technology — Products with cool names like Cloudflare, NitroPack, Oxygen, LiteSpeed, and Vultr. Sadly, most of these amateurs have no clue how to properly configure or leverage this machinery. They just sign you up on the free plan and click a few buttons.
A few months later the head-scratching starts when images disappear, content revisions won’t load, pages redirect, and your email stops. Most small businesses have no need for content delivery networks, reverse proxies, edge caching, or CNAME flattening. What they do need is a solid and reliable website host.
30. Bloated or borrowed images.
Big beautiful images can make or break a website. It’s almost cheating. But if they’re too big your site will slow to a crawl, and if you “borrowed” the images from someplace else, you could wind up in hot water. Just make sure your designer knows how to properly optimize your legally-obtained images and you’ll be fine.
31. Annoying popup boxes.
There are few things more irritating than when you land on a web page, scan the content to get your bearings, just start to read, and … Wham! … a godawful message box pops up in your face. Why on earth would anyone want to subscribe to your newsletter on their first visit to your website? They wouldn’t. Google understands that, and will impose a mobile popup penalty if you abuse the technique. There are much friendlier ways of getting a visitor’s attention. A good designer knows how.
32. Wrong or missing Open Graph tags.
Open Graph “tags” are snippets of code that control how URLs (website addresses) and featured images are displayed when your web pages are shared on social media. They’re part of Facebook’s Open Graph protocol, and are also used by other social media sites, including Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
If you’ve ever seen a shared web page with an incorrect image (or no image), that’s usually because of a missing OG tag. There’s a lot of nuance to using these tags effectively, and if they’re not implemented properly, your social media marketing could suffer.
33. You hate your website.
This is the granddaddy. Forget all the other stuff. Compared to this, the first 32 signs pale in comparison. I know a business owner who is so ashamed of his current website that he removed the web address from his business cards. Seriously.
This is by no means an exhaustive inventory of website flaws, nor is it an indictment of all inexpensive websites and those who sell them. Just think of it as a peek under the hood of a mediocre small-business website. What you’ll often discover is part design, part technology, part greed, part ignorance — And part disaster waiting to happen. If you’d like an unvarnished opinion about your own website, just let us know.