When you made the momentous decision to become a website designer, you probably never expected it was going to be a diplomatic assignment. Yet that's exactly how things have turned out for most of us who develop websites for public clients. Your clients want things one way, Google wants them another, and you get stuck in the middle trying to find a compromise that will work.
When push comes to shove, most tender-hearted designers will let their clients have their way, but is that the best decision? It depends whether you have an on-going relationship with the client and whether you actually care about their success or not.
If you don't care about their fate, then you can give them all the flying toaster cats they want on their site and not give it a second thought. But if your success is in any way linked to theirs, you may have to bite the bullet and just be honest: nobody but themselves likes flying toaster cats.
Some clients won't take kindly to that, so you can't just blurt it out. You need to be able to explain things in a way that helps the client understand the difficulties presented by what they're trying to achieve and help them identify the correct priorities.
The nature of the problem: Customers don't really know what they want!
When your customer first arrives in your office, they won't always have a really clear picture of how their website should look or function. In fact it's a sure sign of trouble ahead when customers arrive in this state of unpreparedness, but it also represents about 90% of typical website customers, especially those from small business.
Things change the moment you present them with a prototype. From that moment on, a sense of ownership takes over the customer, and the website becomes an extension of themselves. These are not the kind of people who are happy to just rattle around in BDUs. They want full dress blues, with all the shiny medals, buttons and badges. What they're forgetting is that nobody actually goes to war in a dress uniform. In battle, function definitely takes precedence over image. When your site is on the front lines, you want it dressed in BDUs, and that's Google's position too, but remember, the customers want gold lace and bling.
In a way, many designers in the past have contributed to this problem by showing off too much. Trying to impress the client with an over-dressed website has resulted in a widespread wrong impression of what a website is supposed to be.
So you are in the position of either having to convince the client that being less dressed up is a better way to ensure survival, or convince Google that your client will be just fine running around with a chest full of medals.
Why does Google actually care? Well, in truth, like all large corporations, they're not personally concerned with the well-being of your client. If your client wants to make an embarrassingly inefficient website, Google really won't get in their way.
But when it comes to indexing and ranking websites, that is Google's business. And because Google is the owner of Android OS, which has Google installed as the default search engine, they really want ensure that the sites recommended first by Google are truly delivering a great experience for Android OS users.
What Google wants
Google's aim is that websites that rank highly are:
If you want to remember that, it spells “MEOG”. The marketing industry did a lot of unconscionable (and frankly stupid) things with websites in the early 1990s to try and exploit search engine rankings in their favor, to the point that this behavior became out of control, with millions of “no content” and duplicate sites created.
Today we're seeing something similar, which is a slew of websites that faithfully replicate Wikipedia, adding their own brand and a bunch of ads for monetization. This is possible because Wikipedia doesn't claim any copyright over the content. It's an easy way for lazy people to make money, but Google doesn't like it because it creates frustration for users by crowding out search results with duplicate content.
What makes most clients happy
Once in a blue moon, you may joyously encounter the rare individual who understands the importance of MEOG principles, and who will allow you to create a truly well designed website (well designed, as you hopefully already know, means a site that is highly functional and also looks attractive; definitely in that order as well). But most of the time the people you're going to be dealing with will be painfully stupid.
When the client is aware of this, it's no big deal, because they'll listen to you and respect what you say, even if they don't completely understand. Unfortunately the other kind, who are so stupid they don't even know they're stupid, are far more common. Those who belong to this group not only won't listen to you, they're utterly convinced that everything you say is wrong.
These people are, by their own estimation, the ultimate authority on every topic. They're the sort of person who owns a fish shop but prefers the title “CEO of Ichthyoid Vending.” Changing this person's mind about anything will require all your skills in negotiating, diplomacy, and strategic humility (“When you are strong, feign weakness” – Sun Tzu). This is a battle of wills you can potentially win, if you remain clever, patient, and humble.
Rather than attacking the problem head-on, the secret to victory lies in using an oblique maneuver. While never directly disagreeing with an arrogant customer about anything they propose, conversationally mention the positive attributes of websites that rank well, attract visitors, and earn money.
Plant the seeds of correct thought, and then when the penny drops, let them believe it was all their own idea. In the end, they will make their own decision. It may not go the way you hoped, but just roll with it, because really it is the customer's problem. Of course you can be sure they will blame you when their website fails, but that is just par for the course.
The main things non-savvy customers will demand to include in the site design even when they're not necessary are:
- Animated backgrounds
- Autoplay video
- Nag dialogs
- Big images
- Rows of 3 items
- Black Hat SEO, and
- Unethical scripting
How the customer's mistakes affect you
Being a website developer is one of the more difficult trades to be in. Customers rarely are content to let you do things your own way, and will make all kinds of demand and requests that will strongly influence the end result of what you produce.
These customers will blame you for anything that goes wrong, including things that aren't actually wrong but which the customer perceives as wrong. A particular favorite is: “Why isn't my site [which was built less than a week ago] on the first page of Google?”
The main problem here is your customer's bad decisions affect you. A key part of attracting new customers is to have a solid portfolio of past achievements. But if your portfolio is full of big laggy sites that don't rank well, you will only attract more of the same type of customer. This is exactly the opposite of what you should want, because they're the worst kind of customer to work for.
So ignoring your customer's follies just because “it's their problem,” can be a mistake because it will affect you one way or another. You'll have to evaluate whether it is more costly to correct the problem (possibly irritating the client) or to ignore it (site can't be added to portfolio, reputation could be negatively impacted if customer blames you for their failure), and act accordingly.
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