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How to judge a Web Shop by its cover

Published to Blog on 6 Feb 2007

I have been in the web business for about 10 years now. Over that time I have spent a lot of time looking at competitors’ sites. Anytime a site, good or bad, has a link on it to who developed/designed it I will follow. Curious by nature, I usually just want to see who did the work and what kind of work they do. Some of the shops I have worked for have had some really good sites and some have had some pretty bad sites. The stock excuse for a bad site is “We’re so busy working on clients’ sites that we don’t have time to work on our own.” That’s an excuse, but it wouldn’t fly if I were running things.

Any web-based business, and especially a web agency, is judged by their web site. If I were looking for a web agency to do work for me I would visit the sites of those I was interested in or had been referred to. Without even so much as talking to someone from any of those places I would whittle down to a short list based only on their sites. What’s that you say? How shallow of me? Well, I’d be looking for a few things in any agency I’d consider. I want a company with good design chops, experience with web standards and accessibility, a good grasp on usability (or has at least read Don’t Make Me Think), an understanding of community, and an apparent attention to detail. I would learn everything I need to know about those things by spending a couple of minutes on their site.

I have a few tips on how to make sure that your web site does not turn away potential clients. Or, in other words, if I were running things these are the things that I would make sure were implemented on my web shop’s site.  

1. Make it easy for me to consider you. You probably have brochures, flyers, cards and all sorts of other material that you leave with prospects or send via mail. Make that available on your site in digital form. Below is a good example - this company would earn bonus points from me for going the extra mile.


2. Create an RSS feed for your news and press releases and post regularly. You don’t know what an RSS feed is? Get to the back of the line.

The first thing your developers will ask, though maybe not to your face, is “Who the hell wants to subscribe to our news?!?“. Potential clients do, that’s who. I would subscribe to the feeds of every agency on my short list. If you don’t have an RSS feed you probably will not make it to my short list. I’d watch those feeds for a couple of things. How often do you announce the release of a site? What types/size of sites have you doing recently? These two things will help me judge the size and scope of your company. Maybe more importantly, I’ll be judging your writing. Your copy does not have to be professionally produced, but it should still be good.


This company above offers an RSS feed for their news and projects, they might make it to my short list.


This company seems to update their news frequently enough, but I see no indication of a feed available. 

3. Have some job postings on your “Careers” page. This one may involve a little trickery, so look away if you are squeamish. Whether you are hiring or not have some job postings on your careers page. As a potential customer I want to know that you are in good shape. One indication of that is growth. If you’re currently hiring then you’re probably currently financially sound. Updated: After reading this a second time I realized that it may come off a little unethical, which I truly am not. All companies are always looking for someone good, whether actively or not. Make sure that everyone knows you are looking for that right person by having a job posting or two on your careers page. Potential customers will of course see that, too.

4. Use quality images in your online portfolio. There are times to optimize images as much as possible and there are times when you shouldn’t. Your online portfolio is one of those places where you shouldn’t. I want to see big, clear, colorful screen captures. I’ll understand if the page takes a little longer to download than most. Don’t show me a crappy image, I’ll think you do crappy work. Wow me!


5. Refrain from gimmicks. I know that usage of Flash is pretty standard these days and other technologies (like WPF/E) are on the brink. If you want to use Flash for a banner or some type of rotating image, that’s fine. But don’t build your site completely in Flash, unless of course that is what you do. That wouldn’t be what my company does, but to each his/her own.

6. Tell me who your biggest/best clients are up front. Don’t make me dig through your site or call you to find out. Your client list is one of the most important factors in my decision making process. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to consider you if your biggest client to date is Bill’s Pet Shop. If you do good work I may give you a chance. Or hell, I might only have Bill’s Pet Shop type money to spend on my current project. I want to know what ballpark you are playing in. Please tell me.

7. Know where your referrals are coming from. From a potential customer standpoint this has no bearing, but as a web agency this is very important for you. Make sure that you know how people are getting to your site. My example below demonstrates using a source code passed in the querystring. That is one route to take, especially if you have some sort of affiliate arrangement, but the alternative is paying a lot of attention to your site’s stats. Get a good site statistics package, sign up for Google Analytics (even better - do both) or if you have the budget opt for a more expensive package.


The above tips are some things I came up with after visiting a site today that I was thoroughly impressed with. I started comparing that site with sites of places where I have worked and began thinking about how I would do things if I were in charge. Hopefully this provides some insight and a kick-in-the-pants for web agencies looking for potential clients. It may also serve as a useful tool and checklist for someone looking for a web agency. Feel free to comment on my tips or leave some of your own.

Dan Hounshell
Web geek, nerd, amateur maker. Likes: apis, node, motorcycles, sports, chickens, watches, food, Nashville, Savannah, Cincinnati and family.
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  • On 6 Feb 2007 "Ryan"" said:
    I couldn't agree with you more. Call it superficial, but when it comes to judging companies, their own site tells a lot about them. It's like you're picking a prom date, not a wife; It is what's on the outside that counts.
  • On 6 Feb 2007 "James Shaw"" said:
    Very nice post. Absolutely on the money - and why my (other) personal sites are getting higher on my to-do list every day.
  • On 6 Feb 2007 """ said:
    Thanks, Ryan, for the confirmation. I was hoping that I wasn't just being a snobby, superficial ass. At least now I know if I am then I'm not the only one! Nice analysis - "It is what's on the outside that counts."
  • On 6 Feb 2007 "British Inside"" said:
    Very nice post by Dan How to judge a Web Shop by its cover Dugg! [includeblogad]
  • On 6 Feb 2007 "Dave Burke"" said:
    Top-notch post in every way!
  • On 6 Feb 2007 """ said:
    Thanks, James. Hmmm - personal projects are a whole 'nuther story. Most of mine (other than this blog) have withtered away over the last couple of years. One of these days, though, ...
  • On 6 Feb 2007 """ said:
    Thank you, Dave. That's high praise from a man who puts out nothing but top-notch posts!
  • On 7 Feb 2007 "Ryan Hamilton"" said:
    I just wanted to point out that the day after your post Happy Cog Studios went live with a re-design of their site (http// Happy Cog, founded by Jeffrey Zeldman, is a perfect example of how a web shop should present themselves to the public and potential clients.
  • On 7 Feb 2007 """ said:
    Ryan, I agree, Zeldman is the master. I'll take a look at the new Happy Cog site when I get a chance, it looks nice at first glance. BTW, the site I was impressed with that caused the post was Slice of Lime, http//, who I hadn't heard of before. It looks like they have their act together, though, at least by all outward appearances. And that's the most important part, right?!?!
  • On 23 Feb 2007 "Broom"" said:
    nice post, and i think you're dead on too. are you trying to talk trash about Sound? ;) as a designer i know how hard it is to do your own site. i'd go as far to say that you should farm out your own site to another firm. when you do it yourself its never good enough. it doesn't have that edge that you want to portray, so its hard to finish something that you can never be happy with. thats just the nature of the designer.
  • On 23 Feb 2007 """ said:
    ha ha - no, I wasn't talking about sound. I just happened to come across a good web studio's site and I began mentally comparing it to other sites I had seen before, good and bad. I actually agree with Sound Creative's choice to this point if you can't do it right then don't do it!