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Are web development companies still the best place for web advice?

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 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 Media Studies and writes columns for Enjin and Intelligence magazines. He is a judge of the Telkom ICT Journalist of the Year Awards and the developer of His current area of focus is Web 2.0 and social media strategy for the traditional media.


  1. Jarred Cinman Jarred Cinman 29 August 2007

    Speaking on behalf of one of the development companies, I think you’re shooting from the hip a little:
    1. Web 2.0 sites have a completely different raison d’etre to the kind of sites and applications companies need.
    2. Corporate sites are client-driven, and not only in the tongue-in-cheek way you say. Businesses don’t have the same experimental latitude that media organisations do. Nor do they have the same target audiences.
    3. A lot of the same tech the caviar eaters are using is being applied feverishly and, arguably, even more impressively in back-end web applications for the corporate market. This is certainly true at least in SA. All credit to the pioneers of Web 2.0 such as yourself, but you guys would lose a coding (and innovative technology use) battle with the people working for me any day.
    4. Web 2.0 does and will have a big impact on corporate sites inasmuch as it impacts on consumer behaviour. But the ship you’re on is moving a lot slower than you realise as you sit on deck all day long. Out there in the real world, Web 2.0 is as foreign to most users as how to clear their page cache.

    At the risk of sounding arrogant, it’s the web development companies that are eating the caviar my friend — just ask the guys over at Aqua and Trigger who’ve just sold their businesses for telephone book numbers.

  2. Jarred Cinman Jarred Cinman 29 August 2007

    Cute. Maybe I should have said international numbers.

  3. Vincent Maher Vincent Maher Post author | 29 August 2007

    Jarred, I have a few objections to your four points but, before I say anything, keep in mind that I was a] asking the question and discussing my personal experiences and b] I’d be happy to be corrected because I think what I described is a sad state of affairs. That being said:

    Web 2.0 sites have a completely different raison d’etre to the kind of sites and applications companies need.

    Companies “need” what a long string of inexperienced people, both inside and outside, decide the companies need – the web is a publishing medium and yet how many decision-makers in the whole process, from the client to the developer, have any real experience in publishing?

    Corporate sites are client-driven, and not only in the tongue-in-cheek way you say. Businesses don’t have the same experimental latitude that media organisations do. Nor do they have the same target audiences.

    Again, this is a problem. Why should an audience not be able to interact and participate because the content is related to a corporate?

    A lot of the same tech the caviar eaters are using is being applied feverishly and, arguably, even more impressively in back-end web applications for the corporate market. This is certainly true at least in SA. All credit to the pioneers of Web 2.0 such as yourself, but you guys would lose a coding (and innovative technology use) battle with the people working for me any day.

    Web 2 is more than DHTML and some Ajax in a CMS. I am sure your developers can code me under the table but my point in this piece is that being a good coder doesn’t mean one understands usability and the way people use systems collaboratively. The programming is, in my opinion, less than half the determining factor in a successful web application.

    And as for Aqua and Trigger, the selling price of a company is not necessarily indicative of satisfied customers. As we know in this country companies can get away with all manner of bad service – Aqua and Trigger may be the notable exceptions.

    Maybe we should do a quick poll and ask who is happy with their web development company.

  4. Matthew Buckland Matthew Buckland 29 August 2007

    Jarred what’s Aqua’s telephone number, I’m punching a few numbers here on my excel spreadsheet and need to work it in.

  5. Jarred Cinman Jarred Cinman 29 August 2007

    Matt, have you ever used something, say a metaphor, which you really, really and quite immediately wish you hadn’t but then there’s no edit button so you can’t change it?

  6. Matthew Buckland Matthew Buckland 29 August 2007

    Do it all the time. Relieved that it was not me this time.

  7. Dale Imerman Dale Imerman 29 August 2007

    I think you guys both present very good arguements, the problem is I have yet to taste this caviar you’re all throwing around…. ja?

    I’ve always hated developers. Partly because I never had the patience to get into OOP and become one myself, and partly because they are developers – very few if any understand what users want.

    I’ve seen so many business owners’ eyes covered with digital wool by development companies it’s crazy! It’s so easy for them to say “most users can’t view flash” or “simpler is better”, when in fact the only thing going down is the expense for the development company and the results of the client.

    Vincent’s question is a very valid one, are web development companies still the best place for web advice? With a few exceptions, I don’t think they ever were.

    I have my own understanding of what Web 2.0 is, an ethos in a way I guess. I don’t see why Web 2.0 concepts and ideas can’t be implemented into even the most anal of corporate sites. A digital suppository if you please… I think I’m on to something here….

    If BMW SA put up an official BMW car owners forum of some kind allowing their clients around the country to network, wouldn’t this be an example of Web 2.0 being incorporated into a corporate site?

  8. Jarred Cinman Jarred Cinman 29 August 2007

    I have one question for you guys: have you ever worked with a corporate client?

    (PS: I know you have, so I don’t need you to prove your credentials. But come now…)

    You know (he says, pulling out his old, fading scrapbook and pipe) in the old days, when the Web was new, corporates let us do whatever they wanted. And we built a lot of really crappy things that never worked, and also some very cool stuff that would still be considered cool today, but which the world was not ready for.

    Fact is, we don’t live in that world today. I’ve seen some great stuff coming out of some of the digital creative agencies lately, which are very campaign-based and thus a bit more experimental. But Web 2.0 is a grassroots thing. It’s driven from a need to socialise.

    Do you really want corporates owning your socialising? Trying to twist it to sell their products?

    What exactly is this debate about?

    Expert web developers are the perfect people to ask about getting content and functionality out to your target audience. They are not experts on how to invent the next big social networking phenomenon. But that, and the Web, are not the same thing. Not yet anyway.

  9. Dale Imerman Dale Imerman 29 August 2007

    Debating? I thought we were trying to find this caviar everyone’s going on about!

    Because I’m in motoring, I generally use something in my field as an example, like BMW above. I agree that corporates shouldn’t own our social habits, but surely you can agree that they do hold the key to a gateway of potential social networking?

  10. Jarred Cinman Jarred Cinman 29 August 2007

    I think maybe I don’t agree with that. They have money to fund this stuff, and market it, sure. But what comes with that is a high price of its own. It’s bad enough that most Web 2.0 are cluttered with “targeted” advertising, to actually have these people owning real data on people? Really?

    Listen, I work for these companies, and I advise them all the time: if you can grab an audience and profile them, do it, because that’s the next generation in marketing. But, to be perfectly honest, I don’t wanna be in their databases. Facebook scares the living shit out of me for this exact reason.

    Obviously I think there are applications one could dream up that are good for the consumer and the company. But the reason they’re not out there yet is not simply that corporates are small-minded. It’s also because they often don’t work when the intention is completely commercial.

    Let’s face it: we’re all cynical of the motives of someone trying to sell us something. And we damn sure should be.

  11. Dale Imerman Dale Imerman 29 August 2007

    I agree with you in that I don’t want to be on their databases. But strangely Facebook excites me. Whether it’s novelty will thin out.. I don’t know.

    I suppose when when looks at it purely from a commercial angle you get your traditional stuff that is necessary and then you get Web 2.0 which could be described as nice to have.

  12. Dianne Dianne 30 August 2007

    As a web developer, I can only say its about time developers lost some arrogance, and learned something about marketing and selling.

    Yes, clients are a menace in their lack of understanding (one of mine places PDFs of all his adverts and promotional banners on his site, in the hope that someone will want to download the artwork?) But with facts and logic at your fingertips, they can be convinced even if it takes time.

    I’m doing quite a bit of Web 2.0, but mostly for associations with membership. And it’s is a real struggle to get any of the members to publish a photo or even a suggestion. They are terrified; they are used to being passive recipients; they are a bit lazy; they are nervous that people will criticism their opinions; they are worried about their poor vacabulary and spelling. A great many seem to have nothing to contribute, and I am told don’t speak much in the meetings either. So a lot of reasons, but the end result is a sparse website – something that those same members occasionally complain about!

    Like everything to do with technology – you need to understand WHEN to use it, rather than just HOW to use it. Keep a strict eye on the client’s marketing objectives and you won’t make the wrong technology calls.

  13. derek derek 30 August 2007

    Hi all,

    Corporates are being targeted for Web 2.0 (enterprise 2.0, business 2.0 whatever) and the people moving in are the consultants. Usually the consultants have the time to sift the chaff, do the research and, if they’re tech savvy, discern what is implementable.

    Corporates like the ideas of internal productivity, external dissemination, and the (appearance, perhaps) of greater corporate governance by putting yourself out there. Trust me, this tack opens doors.

    I’ve had more run-ins with IT implementors of large corporates than I care to mention, notably all the banks in SA bar 2. You need those rare beasts, business-analyst types, in fact all of you on this post, who can talk to both to get it done and done right.

    Web 1.0 was tech startups being ravaged by VCs without the buffer of good marketing; they were largely absent until 2000-2001 because they preferred telephone to email. Web 2.0 is mannah for marketers, communicators, PR etc. This is what corporates like, and if you get to pitch to them, pray that you get to their mar-comms departments.

  14. Richard Catto Richard Catto 30 August 2007

    Your essay contains no examples to hang one’s hat on. Therefore I don’t have a clue what you are talking about.

    Please try again using examples to illustrate each point you make. All I see is hand waving, but nothing of substance.

  15. Vincent Maher Vincent Maher Post author | 30 August 2007

    Richard I did quote two examples – locking visitor exit paths and Flash-only web sites.

  16. Dale Imerman Dale Imerman 4 September 2007

    Dianne, I totally disagree with your comments regarding your clients desire to “place PDFs of all his adverts and promotional banners on his site, in the hope that someone will want to download the artwork”. Sure I have no idea what industry this client falls into, but I know from my personal experience in wholesale and retail product distribution that there is a big demand for users to see traditional media digitized for them to view online.

    As a reseller of other companies products I as the client expect materials to be available for me to view and use. Isn’t that part of building a brand – why else would big brands turn their print ads into desktop wallpapers? And why too are print ads looking more like desktop wallpapers, artworks, instead of “adverts”.

  17. Robert Robert 15 February 2008

    Well… web 2.0 certainly is here, or was here all along. Social media has simply evolved all along and as with everything else it’s really a case of catering to the client.

    Granted not all social media is cut out for the corporate world. Then again with a new coat of paint and a different view point it could be, couldn’t it.

    I work with a great team of designers, developers and programmers. All very much specialists in what they do. But the underlying theme on every project is always to give the client the best possible solution – that includes usability, look and feel as well as geared to drive traffic.

    Once everyone in a team has confidence that everyone else is good at what they do, it’s not a case of just trying to make something suited for one, but for all. A little input from all sides gives a much better rounded end product. One that ultimately works.

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