I doubt that I am completely wrong when I say web development companies in South Africa have missed the Web 2.0 boat and are watching us steam away as we break out the caviar on deck. Can someone please show me where this caviar is exactly, when I’m done writing this?

Caviar or not, there is something going on in the Web 2.0 space that is both exciting and fundamental to the way websites are constructed and used. That is why my jaw almost fell off and ate its way through three levels of corporate flooring in an ooze of acid blood when a top person at a local web development house looked me straight in the eye and said: “We need to own the customer and to do that we need to block off all points of exit from this website.”

There are two objections that come to mind immediately: firstly, doh, and secondly, dude, unless your web site is a virus you can’t stop people using the back button. These are the standard objections.

More worrying, though, is the total lack of awareness that the way we talk about the web and how it is used has changed since 1995, several times. Gone are the days when linking to some else’s website is seen as a potential way to “lose” a customer. Gone are the days when linking to your competitor is the 15th-century equivalent of suggesting that the Earth is not a fixed point in the universe. What has changed, fundamentally, is that users and being given the rightful credit they deserve as thinking people who can actually form an opinion and know more about you than what you present to them at face value.

Another thing that bloggers have discovered works really well for public relations is admitting you’re wrong when you are, instead of blaming someone or something else.

There are also other examples, like the recent spate of websites built exclusively in Flash. Someone should really have pointed out that a Flash-only website is seen as a single page by Google and so any search-engine traffic will cut down to a fraction.

On the one hand, web development companies tend to build designer or programmer-centric sites. By this I mean they build the kind of sites that only designers or programmers will think are easy to use. On the other hand, web development companies build sites that are so user-centric that they forget about how the rest of the web works and how traffic flows. Both of these are cardinal sins these days and have been since the very beginning.

The real question, I think, is how well web development agencies understand three issues: content, user interaction and positioning.

If a company is focused on development, it tends to have little interaction with the site in full working order and populated with content. That is why, so often, content production teams find themselves frustrated months afterwards because of glaring holes in systems that were supposedly tested. Indicative of this problem is the way a site concept is presented — it needs to be designed, visually, to be full of content and all planning needs to start from this point, not the structure of the database.

Similarly, the people who visit the site, normally referred to by development companies as “those $&%@! users”, are actually people who deserve respect and are the most important factor in whether a site is successful. Ignoring them and not learning from them is often the beginning of the end. With the advent of Web 2.0 this has become even more important because any user could have a blog and the time to write a very negative diatribe about your company.

Getting the bigger picture is also important, as is and understanding search-engine optimisation and the various ways that traffic will come to a site. The positioning of a website within an organisation’s total offering and the understanding that it is not the only public facet of a company is a good thing of which to remain constantly aware.

I suspect the trend is going to be the following: companies extending their web presence will begin contracting consultants for Web 2.0 and social media strategy and this, in turn, will be filtered down to the development company. This model works because it separates competing interests — it’s always better to have a set of eyes that aren’t invested in finishing the project as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, one can’t really blame the developers; they have had their heads down trying to survive through the dotcom crash and might not have been paying that much attention to trends. If corporates were willing to spend proper money on web consulting and intellectual capital instead of expecting it to be buried in project management fees, the situation might be different.


Vincent Maher

Vincent Maher

Vincent Maher was the Mail & Guardian Online's digital strategist. He has worked in the web industry for 12 years, was the head of the New Media Lab at the Rhodes University School of Journalism and...

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