The challenges of explaining web technologies

Web technology as a novelty is now a distant memory. You would be hard pressed to find someone that doesn’t have access to the internet, whether it be at home, work, through friends or simply through their phone.

It plays an increasingly important role in our daily lives – how often do you turn to Google to find information on a shop or service? Are you still using Yellow Pages, or does it go straight in the bin?

Online sales are currently increasing by “16% per annum, in spite of the recession” and “The UK is Europe’s leading e-retail economy, with sales estimated to have reached £68.2bn in 2011” (see here for more information on this).

But the fact is that web technologies are still relatively new. Twenty years ago online shopping was virtually non-existent (technologies existed, but nothing on the scale we know today – see online history), Google was a twinkle in its parents eyes, and creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was but a mere eight-year-old child programming prodigy.

The world of the web has come with a long list of rules, which are constantly broken, revised, re-instated and eventually implemented. Just look at the evolution of HTML, through to XHTML and then on to HTML5, it certainly takes an effort to keep up.

With all this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that for many the web remains a mystery. Like many website designers, I deal with customers that know they need a website to compete in the current marketplace, but they don’t really understand the technology, or the benefits and drawbacks of putting their services online.

So the challenge, as it appears to me, is do you educate your customers as to how the web works before embarking on a project, or fill them in as problems crop up, and things don’t quite perform as expected?

The way I see it, it has to be a bit of both. To fill someone in on a history of web technologies (imagining that there are no gaps in my knowledge!), would be far too time-consuming a task to be either practical, or cost-effective, and this presumes the customer is even receptive to such a lecture. But what I have found is those people that wish to start dipping their toes into the Internet for the first time, whether just to advertise their services, or sell them online, may benefit from being pre-warned about certain web-specific technologies that could otherwise catch them by surprise.

Web hosting and domain names are typically first on the agenda. If the client has neither, then I would explain how the name can have an effect on SEO, as they may blame you for not having done so when they regret their choice at a later point. If they just have a billboard-style site, which gives information, but doesn’t take any, then you can explain how security is a low-level priority, and there is no need to fork-out on hosting costs. If they are going to take and store information, or sell online, you will want to go through security risks with them, and how they will need to invest in a more secure hosting solution.

Because the very content and structure of a site affects SEO, an introduction to the subject would be recommended prior to starting the project, explaining how search engines read sites semantically, so they need to choose title, heading and paragraph text carefully.

Once clients have a better understanding of SEO, it becomes easier to convince them that they need to consider carefully what is niche about their product, and this in turn can influence key words used throughout their site. A customer of mine that owned a holiday villa wanted to perform better on the search engines, so we started to analyse what his service offered. One key factor was that his villa allowed dogs, so we created a page on his site about dog-friendly holidays, and he was pleased to see how it then performed when typing dog-friendly holidays and the location of his villa into Google.

Some clients don’t realize how popular technologies, despite their reputation amongst website designers, can be misused on websites. I am loath to use Flash at all, and even more now it is no longer supported on the Apple iPad, iPhone and has been abandoned in the face of new HTML5 related technologies. Recently a client came to me with an existing site that used a Flash intro, with an imbedded “click here” and wondered why it didn’t appear in the search engines. His new site, which I constructed Flash-free, has shown positive results after submission to the search engines under key words related to his business, and he can now see how this technology hindered, rather than boosted, his site’s performance on the web.

Many non-web-educated customers are surprised that their website does not immediately appear in the search engines. I have now taken to pre-warning my customers that I will have to submit their domain to Google, Bing, Yahoo etc. once the site is ready, and that it can take some time to appear, and this varies between the different search engines.

Educating customers is not an easy experience. Some have specific ideas in mind on the content and navigation of a site, even when it hinders its performance in the search engines and affects user-experience. All you can do is try to explain these things beforehand as clearly as possible, and hope to reach a compromise, to avoid disappointment later on. Try to keep copies of emails you sent explaining these pitfalls etc. as they may be needed to serve as a gentle reminder once their website doesn’t perform the way they hoped. If that’s the case, then you just hope that they reconsider taking on board those little pearls of wisdom you imparted at the start of the project.

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