A common mistake small businesses make with their web project is to rely on a web designer to guide them on all matters involving the internet. Although web design is an important component of web success, it is only one of many different skills needed.
Many small businesses need help to assess the objectives of their website, and how best to fulfil its objectives. But a web designer may not be the right person for them to approach initially because the answer may be to not have a website at all. For many situations a blog or a stand alone e-commerce site would suffice.
Similarly, a web designer may have a conflict of interest that prevents the recommendation of an off the shelf or hosted e-commerce package which could be implemented without significant design effort.
While other disciplines also have inherent conflicts of interest, a counteracting effect will be their regulatory body to whom they are answerable. Also their training will have instilled integrity, so that a professional would be more likely to look at the bigger picture rather than their own self interest when faced with conflicts of interest. But the web is completely unregulated, and there is no regulatory body to which web designers belong.
Expecting a web designer to advise on all aspects of the internet is rather like relying on an interior designer to provide all the advice you need on a property matter when buying or renting a house or a shop. It may sound ridiculous, but the lack of understanding of the internet is such that this is precisely how much some businesses rely on a web designer. Everyone knows when physical property is involved that you need to engage an estate agent, lawyer and surveyor at least, in addition to the interior designer, and that if you were thinking of significant improvements you may also need an architect too. However, the various internet disciplines are not at all well understood.
With a website, how much advice you need depends on the size of your investment. But the minimum you do need is to make sure that whoever helps you with your project is properly able to advise on the best way to achieve your business objectives. This includes ensuring the necessary legal and technical issues are properly addressed, as web projects are riddled with Intellectual Property Rights issues.
In terms of the legal issues associated with a website, one of the key mistakes is to leave the registration of the website domain name to a web designer. The designer will be unable to advise on the suitability of the name for branding purposes, and whether there may be a potential conflict on the trade mark registers. Finding that the name may infringe a trade mark or is not suitable to prevent copycat sites can be an extremely costly error to make.
Further if the designer registers the website domain in their own name then they hold the upper hand in any dispute, and many may use it unfairly to get their own way. The costs of seeking redress tend to be too high for many small businesses, so they invariably end up accepting an inadequate site, or service.
It is only for a major site or if serious damages have resulted that a case will be litigated. For example, in one case an e-commerce site did not work. Meanwhile the client had spent thousands of pounds promoting the launch of the site.
Usually, the consequences of an unsuccessful project are less devastating albeit extremely annoying. Typically, as happened to one client we saw recently, the web designer will admit to lacking the skills or the time to complete the agreed project. Often there will be no written contract, and the project budget will be under a thousand pounds. So litigation is not the solution, even if the final cost of rectifying the situation may be several times this amount.
Another misconception is that a designer has the best technical skills to produce an effective website. It is not generally appreciated that except for the most basic brochure site, what is critical to success is technology and IT skills. This is not only for ensuring that the site has the necessary content management systems and associated databases, but that the development is properly managed and tested so that it can cope with the anticipated traffic, and that the site has the necessary backup and recovery procedures to cater for any system failures.
Because the web is completely unregulated, start ups and small businesses should be particularly wary when engaging internet services. They should be much more wary than when choosing a professional from a heavily regulated industry like the law or accountancy.
Just as it would be unwise to commit to a new office or shop lease without the benefit of expert (legal) advice, so businesses moving online should find out about the legal and business issues before engaging web designers or other internet marketing providers. Online success can often be critical to the future success of any business, so it makes sense to avoid the pitfalls.
Many law firms do not have the requisite technical skills and internet knowledge to guide their clients in this area. Internet and intellectual property law are specialised areas. Consequently, non lawyers are seeing this as a fruitful area of work and are moving in to offer themselves as business consultants on internet matters. Many of these advisers may also lack the full range of knowledge and skills to be effective advisers, so this is something else to be wary of.
Being one of the few firms to specialise in both trade marks and internet law, we saw a need for a workshop to guide businesses setting up or extending their online presence, and approached the British Library”s Business and IP Centre. The result is a workshop being held at the British Librarywhich will give key pointers to help people make an informed decision when engaging services for a web project or internet marketing.
The interactive workshop is being run by Shireen Smith, Solicitor and founder of Azrights Solicitors at the British Library”s Business and IP Centre. It focuses on the legal and business issues associated with Websites, E-Commerce and Online Branding. More information is available here.