A colleague recently told me about his experiences putting together a quote to build a website for a government department way back in 1996. The department in question had no idea how much it should cost so they set aside a budget of $400,000(!!). Needless to say, my colleague was more than happy to take the project on board, using relatively low-priced contractors to put together the site and rake in 80%+ margins.
Ah, the good old days…
A few years later, in 2000, a medium-sized company of my acquaintance thought it was about time they got on the web. They located a designer who offered to put together the site for $40,000(!). Unfortunately, they chose the wrong developer and the site didn’t even make ONE sale over the next few years. OUCH!
Fast forward to 2003 – the Internet had started to mature and become a viable revenue-generator for most “offline” product and service businesses. A wide range of web design companies and specialist firms had sprung up in addition to clearing houses such as Elance and Guru.com.
But essentially, what companies were paying for was for geeks to manipulate impenetrable technology to achieve a desired result. It’s been compared to the early days of motoring, when well-to-do families who could afford an automobile would also retain a mechanic to make the thing work and deal with frequent breakdowns.
Now in 2007, we’re seeing this trend of “democratizing the web” continue, and the geeks in the middle are getting squeezed out and commoditized. The technologies for building and managing websites are becoming more and more accessible and user-friendly.
The in-demand, “top 20%” skills that companies will pay for are now shifting toward marketing and analytical skills rather than technical skills.
Examples of emerging technologies that are democratizing the web
Tools such as Google Pages allow even absolute novice to put together a reasonable looking webpage in under an hour. There are also countless other platforms connected to simple content management systems that allow you to design your own site without touching any code. These tend to lack advanced functionality, but if it’s a simple brochure site you want they can certainly do the job.
Web analytics tools have become much more accessible in recent years. 5 years ago you needed a propellerhead to generate meaningful, useable statistics from your website (i.e. beyond page views and hits). Now there are a number of free or very cheap tools available to provide you with most of the analytics you’ll ever need. Some recommended tools are:
Google Analytics – an outstanding free service
Crazy Egg – slick clickpath heatmap tool (earlier post here)
Google Adwords conversion tracking (for calculating ROI)
Email list stats such as those generated by Aweber
Website conversion optimisation:
Multivariate analysis of landing page content is another area that has come a long way. Testing different landing page versions is one of the core techniques of website conversion optimisation. Traditionally it has involved setting up software to serve and track different content.
As a provider of this type of consulting service myself, my impression is that many companies feel they are paying more for the technical component of the sevice as much as the marketing component (i.e. results).
Testing functionality which would have been considered cutting edge not too long ago is in the process of becoming freely available via new services such as Google Website Optimizer (still in Beta). While Google’s new service doesn’t provide particularly advanced functionality, it’s adequate for most uses and is certainly easy to use.
Providers of conversion optimisation services are thus going to have to ensure they add sufficient value in terms of marketing smarts as the technical side becomes more accessible and transparent.
My take on what this means
At the lower end especially, technical smarts are getting squeezed out and commoditized in favour of the marketing and analytical skills required to make sense of data and turn it into improved outcomes (i.e. Return On Investment).
There will always be a place for highly competent technical people, but I expect to see more mid to low-level tasks done inhouse or outsourced offshore.
The real growth in demand will be for people who can show companies how to profit from the web. This is the trend that I’ve built my new business model around.
Instead of building new sites from scratch, I now specialise in working with companies and/or their inhouse or external teams to optimise the results of their existing site. This includes a combination of SEO / SEM / Conversion Improvement / Web Analytics / List building and management.
I believe that many companies can often tap into greater leverage opportunities by understanding and optimising their online marketing rather than investing in “capital works” projects.
It’s important to start with the right structure, but it’s what happens after your site goes live that separates mediocre from stellar results.