There are slippery people in every industry. That bit isn’t new. But what is new is a wave of predatory web designers essentially pulling a “pump and dump” scam.

(Source: AARP Bulletin, December 2018, “The Website Wolves” by Doug Shadel)

Here’s how it works.

You receive an email offer stating that for some small fee (often $50) they will give you the tools needed to set up an easy e-commerce website with drop-shipping access to thousands of products. Sign up and start making quick cash.

During the sign up process, all of your contact information is collected and added to a database of web developers. After a month or two of disappointing sales from the new website, you’ll be bombarded with phone calls and emails “just checking in” to see how the website is going.

See, they let the lack of results sink in for a bit so you feel guilty and responsible, since after all, you built the site yourself. All they’re doing is offering to help now, after all.

The source article mentioned above states that in one particular case a gentleman (called Simmons) had exactly this experience, and it got worse.

One developer called Simmons 9 times per week, telling him he’d never make money from such a cheap website when the industry was so competitive.

Simmons was desperate to get some return on investment, so he that developer because he had references and seemed willing to help. For “only” $7500 he could build a powerful website that would dominate the space and make Simmons $50,000 in the first year.

Sounds exciting, right? One thing I’ve learned in my years of marketing is that making specific claims like that are usually suspect, but for those who don’t know better it’s an easy justification for the hefty price tag.

When the new site was finished, Simmons was disappointed that it didn’t really seem like anything special, and lo and behold, still no sales.

The developer pretended to be frustrated alongside Simmons, saying, “Well, I suppose I could add some more keywords to make the site more competitive.” For an additional $1000.

Unpacking This Situation

As an SEO guy any time I hear someone say “add some keywords” I cringe a little bit. Optimizing for keywords is far more complicated than popping keywords into a form in a plugin, which is what that turn of phrase makes it sound like is happening.

First of all, even if it were that simple, why is it $1000? Secondly, anyone wording it that way is either inept or being deliberately misleading to their customer, which of course is exactly what happened in this example.

I’ve been in the industry a long time, having worked in big agencies and independently, and currently don’t build websites as my “main thing”. I’m not selling anything with this article.

Here are a few “set it straight” points for folks to bear in mind to prevent the aforementioned story from happening to you:

  • The only websites that need to cost $7500 are highly customized, large and generally e-commerce sites. However, even as an e-commerce site there would have to be some pretty sophisticated things going on (or a ton of products) to justify the price tag. Using templates or even builders like Divi, a decent developer could build a workable e-commerce site for half that. If it’s not an e-commerce site, even less.
  • Never pay for any SEO where the explanation of what they’re providing involves the words “adding some keywords”. No one competent and trustworthy I’ve heard of would say that, and would instead provide a lot more tangible detail.
  • Unless the website being built is gigantic (tons of pages) and involves a lot of intricate, highly custom-built functionality, it should never take 3-4 months to build. It’s become something of a norm in the industry, but for the typical small business website anyone competent should be able to have it done in a month, tops.
  • If someone is calling you daily about selling you something, no matter it is, run. If they were really the big shot they say they are they’d be way too busy to act that desperate. It’s pushy and disrespectful, and no one reputable does it.
  • Beware of specific promises of success, such as “you’ll make $50,000 in your first six months with this.” Even the best web developers and SEO guys in the industry — the ones who have had the most consistent success — agree that promising hard figures isn’t something they’re comfortable with. You can think you have the Google game figured out pretty well, for instance, but no one can control Google.

I hope this helps people who may be looking for a website to avoid ending up like Simmons.