Many of my clients already have an existing web site when they contact me. Often they’re unhappy with their site’s visual design, or its functionality, or its performance in the search engines. I hate — I really hate — telling a potential client that their site needs to be completely re-developed from the ground up in order achieve the level of performance they’re looking for. Yes, I can charge more for a complete redevelopment, and I like that part, but it always feels sort of “snake oil salesman” to me. I’d rather tell the client, “Yes, we can work with your existing site. We can make these changes, and add this functionality, and we can do this, that and the other thing.”
But sometimes that’s simply not possible. Particularly when the potential client is looking for improved search engine performance or better usability.
Sometimes a site can be improved dramatically by minor tweaks: Add unique, custom title tags to each page, add alt text to images where needed, add text-based site navigation, beef up the content, and a few other improvements. Bang, I’m done, and the client can look for improved performance whenever the search engines see fit to recognize the changes to the site. (That might take days, it might be weeks, it might be months — I try to make sure the client is aware that I have no control over what the search engines do in that regard.)
But all too often the site is constructed so badly that nothing but a total redeveloment will do:
- Frames — frames-based sites are not only less usable for human visitors, but they still throw roadblocks in the path of the search engines trying to index the site.
- Frames Part Two — Even worse is sites that frame content from other sites. The framing site gets no credit in the SEs for the framed off-site content.
- All-Flash Sites — The search engines are working on their ability to index Flash sites, but your all-Flash site is unlikely to be the breakthrough. Flash elements should be used sparingly to add to the visitor’s experience, but Flash should not be the site.
- Search-engine-hostile Dynamic URLs— There are so many ways to go wrong here that it’s hard to list them all. Session IDs in URLs. Meaningless long numbers and section ids and category ids. URLs that display all the site’s content on the same page (using formats like “index.php?page=thispage”).It’s so easy to use the magic of server-side technology to write user-friendly and search-engine-friendly URLs, and to keep session IDs out of URLs. Which type of URL do you like better:
Yeah, I thought so. Me too. The search engines like the first one better too.
- Lack of content — if there’s little or nothing for the search engines to spider, there’s little or no likelihood of any of the pages turning up in searches.
- Sites that requires the user to submit a form before seeing the content — Hey, search engine spiders don’t submit forms; they’ll never see all that great content on your site.
- Invalid tag soup — Badly coded sites with such badly formed html that it’s darn near impossible to work with the code. When I’m optimizing a site, I need to get down-and-dirty in the code, and pages with invalidly nested tables, invalidly nested divs, incomprehensible, invalid code everywhere — well, I just can’t work with it. It’s hard to even touch the code in a site like that, because you just don’t know what will happen.
- Rigid, inflexible design and code — This usually results from so-called “designers” who design a pretty image in Photoshop or Fireworks and then slice it up and export the entire thing from their image-editing program. The code for these sites is so rigid that you can’t make a single change without breaking the entire thing.
- Template sites based on some badly designed content management system — There are too many big companies out there who have built half-baked content management systems that allow anyone to “build their web site” with a few clicks of their mouse. Nice concept, but usually badly implemented. These sites are usually required to be hosted with the “big company” and runs off their database on their servers. These template sites often don’t allow custom title tags or custom descriptions for each page. They also don’t allow any access to the underlying code. This means I can’t make search-engine friendly URLs, and I can’t set up a 301 redirect, and I can’t eliminate the appearance of duplicate content, and I can’t do any of the easy tweaks that are needed.
All too often, I see sites that suffer from most or all of the above problems. I may be able to work around one or two of the above items, but when a site presents numerous serious technical problems, there’s just no point in attempting to patch the old wineskin.
It’s a shame when someone has paid good money for a site that is so badly constructed that it can’t be improved. But there are times that it makes more sense to throw out the old and build anew.