Got a small business website? The dirty little secret your web developer didn’t tell you

Imagine as a small business owner you go and buy an office suite, off-plan in some big office development somewhere from those well known property developers Bodgett & Bludgett.

Now imagine that following the completion of your new office suite your property developer plasters large signs on every customer-facing entry point to your office saying  ‘Building designed and built by Bodgett & Bludgett Property Developers’.Who's marketing themselves using your website? Photo by on Flickr licensed under Creative Commons

Your customers cannot avoid seeing Bodgett & Bludgett’s signs no matter which way they enter your building and if they look you up in the phone book just below your details they also see ‘Building designed and built by Bodgett & Bludgett Property Developers’.

Seems a trifle unreasonable already doesn’t it? But we aren’t finished yet.

Now imagine that as your business becomes more successful and you start drawing in more customers, a little bit of your marketing budget (‘just’ half a per cent per month or so) is continually diverted to support Bodgett & Bludgett’s own marketing efforts.

“Kee-rist,” most business owners would be saying at this point, “Bodgett & Bludgett Property Developers should be paying me!”

The analogy isn’t perfect but it’s actually what a lot of website developers do on the websites of their small business clients.

You’ve seen it yourself. At the bottom of  the page your friendly website developer places an innocuous piece of text saying something like ‘Website designed and built by Acme Developers‘.

Most web developers will place this text on every single page in your website.

But the more subtle point which the developer usually doesn’t discuss with you is that they also place a hypertext link around this text pointing back to their own website (sometimes with a stylesheet applied so that the link only shows up as a link when you hover your mouse over it).

In Google’s world a link is quite valuable – under Google’s PageRank system (all other things being equal) an outgoing link like this from your own business’s website is effectively a vote for how close to the top in the search results your web developer’s own website should rank in the search results. In particular this is also influenced by the text that forms the link, the ‘anchor text’ – which is why the web developer creates the link around the words ‘website designed and built‘ (on the basis that people searching for website developers may use one or more of these words in combination).

Hear the joke about the lawyers and the web designers? Photo of leech by Sarah G... on Flickr licensed under Creative CommonsBut the really neat bit is that as your website becomes more popular, for example as you list it in paid directories that link to it, a little bit of your PageRank is transferred to your web developer’s home page from every page in your site. The more popular your website, the more you are promoting your web developer’s site, perhaps even years after your developer last did any work for you (almost makes tied financial planners look virtuous doesn’t it).

Now that I’ve pretty much burned my bridges with all the website developers I work with here’s my suggestion about how you as a small business owner negotiate this somewhat irksome issue with your own developer.

The underlying key point is of course that you are paying the website developer to build your website to help promote your business and not vice versa (unless you want to get a suitable discount).

Your website developer will probably be surprised that you would object to their link marketing scheme – most of their other clients won’t have even noticed. It's not a zero sum game is it? Photo by mmarchin from Flickr licensed under Creative Commons

“But we always do this,” they’ll say in a somewhat injured tone ( just like the independent financial advisers who have been selling investment advice with 50 year trailing commissions).

You can of course ask them where in the development proposal you are providing ongoing marketing services to them.

But some might regard that as confrontational (something that shies away from).

Instead, remove the link (you can still leave the ‘site built by’ bit) and offer them a testimonial on their own website. You’ll say that they are “the greatest”, “the best”, “the fastest”, and “truly creatively inspired”. 

And, by the way, right underneath that testimonial on your web developer’s own website you’d like a small unobtrusive outgoing link (using keywords carefully chosen by you) to your own website.

You may feel guilty, you might  feel you’ve been pushy, but it’s all a damn sight more transparent. And best of all, given the number of other client websites your developer has already leached PageRank from (which trickles in turn to your site), you’ll be significantly better off from a web marketing point of view!

Go on. Do it!

Feeling faint hearted? Need moral support? Drop us a line to @Drivelry on Twitter (ok – if you’re a developer abuse is fine too).

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Article posted by @Drivelry on November 20, 2009

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