Web Design

Why are there so many bad websites?

Tom Garfield

Co-founder & MD, brand new notebook

The first publicly accessible website was launched in 1993. We’ve had nearly 30 years to get good at websites. So why are there still so many bad ones out there?

I’m not just talking about what makes a website bad. Things like slow loading speed or poor mobile experience are certainly features of a bad site, but I’m most interested in why we end up with these poor features. Surely no one sets out to make a bad website… or do they?

Defining a “bad” website

You must know what I mean. I think we all know what a bad website is when we use one. By bad, I mean not effective. Not good at its job. All websites have a job, and if they don’t do it well, they’re bad.

bad.

really really bad.

Ok so here is my definition for the purposes of this post:

A bad website is one that isn’t effective at helping its users achieve their objectives, either at all, or as smoothly and as comprehensively as they would like.

What other people thought

I asked people on Twitter and LinkedIn why they thought there were so many bad websites.

On Twitter:

And on LinkedIn:

See the comments on LinkedIn

It was a question that prompted some strong opinions. There were a lot of comments from fellow website professionals (designers, developers, copywriters), but all sorts of peeps joined in the discussion.

What was interesting was that there were clearly some common themes. I’ve grouped them into five main reasons and included the relevant comments from my social posts.

The five main reasons there are bad websites

1. All the gear, no idea.

Right at the top of the list, and the most common reason offered is a lack of ability. Producing a really effective website takes experience and skill across quite a range of areas including design, copywriting, data analysis, user experience, software development and marketing strategy.

Small business websites don’t need a huge team, but they still need an experienced and capable expert or two. Larger websites will definitely need at least one specialist from each of the core disciplines that go into effective websites.

Ian Johnson of digital agency Kootoo said:

There’s too many people who call themselves web designers/developers who really aren’t. Yes, they can put together a quick WP build and make it look half decent, but do they really know what they’re doing? Do they understand the psychology/science/data etc. behind WHY a site is designed that way? Do they just look at the site in isolation and not consider how it fits into a wider strategy? Do they just consider what it looks like on the front end and leave the back end looking like a bag of spanners – difficult to use, poorly maintained and so on? There’s so much more here, obviously.

Ian Johnson, Kootoo

I’ve seen many more terrible websites from so called web designers than I have from people who self-build their websites. The worst culprits are ugly, unfit for purpose WordPress themes, produced by “designers” who just put bad content into a bad theme that’s bloated, overdesigned, full of cheesy stock photos, bad grammar and horrendous UX. WordPress can be picked up and worked on without too much of a learning curve, but it’s a lot more complex than it might seem, and no tool can make up for a lack of skill and expertise.

Tools like Squarespace and Wix have definitely made building websites more accessible and more straightforward than ever. They have gone some way in preventing bad design with smart looking templates and limits on what you can and can’t do. It’s basically web design with stabilisers on. But it has led to a lot of people who really don’t have the skills trying their hand, and in consequence, producing websites that miss so much of what makes a great site effective.

It’s the fault of the self-build platforms’ marketing too. If you take a look at the Squarespace homepage, they make it seem so easy. But it’s just not.

Giving people a false impression of ease is leading to bad websites that don’t achieve much at all. There’s just way too much involved in making a website great. It’s impossible to reduce it down to this level of simplicity.

Squarespace have condensed “create a website” down to one short paragraph, making it seem oh so easy. Nah mate.

Chris Bayles, Brand & Web Designer, and Co-founder of design agency Mint Sauce Media said:

From the ‘service providers’ point of view – I think a lot of people pass themselves off as professional web designers/developers because they know how to build a website in WordPress and other platforms. That’s obviously important, but then you need to think about the design, the UX and UI, the flow/strategy, copywriters, professional photography etc…which in my experience, a lot don’t have knowledge of. We get quite a few businesses coming to us because their websites are under-performing and we can see why straightaway!

Chris Bayles, Mint Sauce Media

I think a lot of good web designers have experienced the situation Chris has described in his last line. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had a client come to me fairly recently after their website was launched, tell me their website isn’t performing well and they don’t know why. They trusted that the designer they chose had the skills to produce a high quality website.

2. Beauty over brains

This is about as common a reason for a bad website as it gets. I even would go so far as to say as it’s the default approach that a lot of even professional designers take.

Too many website designers focus on making something pretty, and completely ignore the more important bits that make a website effective. A good looking website is definitely important for lots of reasons, but it’s not going to achieve very much for your business if it’s the only thing going for it.

If your content is poor, or your website is hard to navigate, or you’ve not appropriately considered your strategy when building your website, then you’re going to have a site that doesn’t perform well.

There’s also so much that goes on behind the scenes with a website, beyond what you can see. The technology needs to work, the site needs to be fast loading, secure and if SEO is important, there are tons of things that need to be set up and done well.

Ayo Abbas, a Marketing Consultant at Abbas Marketing said:

People don’t know what good looks like. They tend to focus on the fun stuff which is the look and feel. And the things that truly make it work as a website aren’t really considered or are an after thought.

Focusing on the user experience, making sure the back end is set up correctly and maintained etc then making sure it continually fuelled with great content aren’t necessarily a business owners key priorities.

Ayo Abbas, Abbas Marketing

Good website copy is not easy to produce, but a lot of people mistakenly take a “how hard can it be” view, and opt to write it themselves, or have someone internally be responsible for it.

Copywriter Rowan Martin said:

In my experience, people pay more attention to the design than the copy so you get thousands spent on a great design, and then it’s populated with unreadable rubbish, or generic boring filler copy. Design and text should be worked on together, hand in hand, and compliment each other. I see MANY awful websites in terms of copy. I can’t comment on design, but I bet it’s just as bad.

Rowan Martin, rowanmartincopywriting.com

Businesses would do well to invest around 50% of their budget in the copywriting. Sometimes even more! A website is nothing without great content. It does all the heavy lifting; it helps, informs, delights and persuades your visitors to take the action you want them to take. Underinvesting in your copy is a big mistake! That includes photography, video, and graphics too. Underinvesting in these areas can make an otherwise fabulous website terrible.

3. Trying to do it on the cheap

Would you rather spend £500 on a website that does absolutely nothing for you, or £10,000 on a website that helps you generate £1million in revenue over a year?

If you’re trying to do it cheaply, you’re probably just wasting your money.

SEO Copywriter, Alice Rowan said:

Investment is a big part of it. I think too many companies (especially when you’re early stages and have little to no funding) don’t see a website as that important. Or they’ll ask their mate (who has very little if any web experience) to do it on the cheap. But that costs so much in the long run.

Literally the only reason I did my own website when I started was because I have worked on websites for years. But when it comes to updating it (probs in 2023), you bet I’m gunna be outsourcing to the experts. My forte is copy, not web design.

Alice Rowan, SEO Content Writer

There is a difference between a high quality simple website, and a cheap attempt at a complicated one.

If your business is new and you genuinely don’t have the money to invest, then you should focus on producing a simple and straightforward website, rather than trying to find a steal from a poor designer. Focus on quality content in a simple, straightforward design, and don’t try to replicate really great sites you see. If you build your website yourself, focus on clarity, consistency and simplicity. At this stage you should be more focused on the messaging, and producing helpful content, rather than design or any sophisticated features.

But if you’re serious about your business, you should have “get a high quality, professional website” on your to do list for as soon as you’re able to make the investment.

Sarah Pascaru of Social Jooce said:

I think when you’re starting out you don’t always have the budget so you DIY it and it’s not going to be the best looking/best user experience website. So once businesses have the funds I think they NEED to invest! Having a great website is key!

Sarah Pascaru, Social Jooce

Of course, I agree Sarah!

In a very honest Tweet, Copywriter Bonnie Harrington described a situation that’s perfectly acceptable when you don’t have much budget. But you’ll see she’s taking steps to get a new, great site real soon.

4. Unscrupulous ne’er do wells

This one breaks my heart. It happens too often, and leaves clients ripped off with a complete disaster of a website.

There’s a broad spectrum of negligent behaviour, ranging from well meaning but ignorant all the way up to lying swindling con-man, and none of it is ok.

Mike Cottam said:

I believe it’s a double-edged sword Tom. On one side, you have the client who doesn’t know what they don’t know, so they are heavily influenced by the agency.

On the other side, you have the agency who either have uneducated developers, or they manipulate the fact that the client is relying on their influence and use ‘creative license’ to build a website that’s nether fit for purpose or manageable post-launch.

It’s a difficult situation to resolve…

Mike Cottam, cottamweb.com

Difficult indeed! How do we prevent clients from choosing providers who say all the right things, but can’t deliver a good end result? I know it happens across all industries. In some, like healthcare and financial services there are much stricter qualifications, standards and regulatory bodies. Do we need one for web design?

5. Poor process & approach

There are a few different reasons that fall into this category. Designing by committee, pretty over performance, forgetting a key part of the process (research or site planning anyone?), and not focusing on great content first are a few. But the most important one, is not considering the users’ needs above your own.

When you focus on what you want from your website, instead of what your users are looking for, you’ll almost certainly get it wrong.

Piccia Neri, A UX and Accessibility Designer said:

In my opinion as well as experience, many businesses have not shifted their mindset to the users. Owners still think in terms of their own personal tastes or business needs, cutting out the most important thing: helping out the people that actually use the site.

Piccia Neri, piccianeri.com

You are not your audience

This is so important. You need to build your website with your users in mind, not your own preferences or what you think business needs.

When speaking again to Ian Johnson about this post, he said something really important that I want to include here:

You don’t have to love or, at times, even really like your own site. You are not your audience.

How often do we default to evaluating a website according to our own tastes instead of prioritising what is in our users’ best interest, what is going to help them, what kind of design, content and experience might work best for them. The best designers will push back on feedback that’s clearly more about personal taste than doing what’s right for your users.

Taking a user-first approach isn’t all that common. It should be. It really really should be, but learning and implementing what your users need from your website is more difficult, time consuming and therefore usually means a higher investment. But remember – higher investment means higher quality outcome and greater revenue.

The mindset you need for a good website

If your website isn’t performing as you want it to, if you’re not getting the number or quality of leads and enquiries you need, ask yourself if any of these reasons might have something to do with it.

The first thing you need to know is this: Your website has HUGE potential. But, you need to shift your mindset. Do you see your website as a cost to be minimised, or an opportunity to be maximised? If you’re simply not able to invest anything yet, do you have a plan to be able to as soon as possible?

And, of course, some businesses do perfectly well with a bad website. But ask yourself if you could be doing better with a website that brought you a regular stream of new customers or clients.

Websites that make you serious money, take time, effort and financial investment to produce. There are no true shortcuts.

Go and seize the opportunity and uncover the hidden gold in your website! And, if you’re interested, you might want to take a look at my web design service too.