The Small Business Website Scam: What it is and how to avoid it

A large red illustration containing the words "Don't fall for this scam"

Let’s face it, you company needs a website. Unfortunately nowadays it’s not just about getting a website online though. You need to be smart about it. To avoid a website scam and make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, here’s a checklist to follow.

It’s true: every business should have a site. Even small businesses can reap the benefits of online purchases or new custom through being ranked highly by Google.

Back in the day it was all about getting a simple HTML file online and that was it. Now you have to consider SEO, dynamic content, how the site looks, the hosting, the domain… and about a hundred other things.

If you’re not familiar with the process of creating a website, this might feel overwhelming. So I’ve created this guide to remedy that.

What is the small business website scam?

The small business website scam can target anyone looking to have an external company build their site. It’s not just small businesses that are vulnerable to this – it’s anyone without experience in creating websites (which is most of the population).

Usually the perpetrators are small to medium web-agencies.

These companies will often demand high prices which are extortionate compared to the amount of work they’re actually doing. They’ll often then also charge a premium to “upkeep” your site.

Essentially, they rely on a lack of knowledge on the customer’s part, to avoid scrutiny.

How can I avoid the small business website scam?

This is the hard part. While anyone knowledgeable about the web will probably be able to identify the red flags, experts are hard to come by.

Luckily, there are a few easy steps you can take to make sure you’re making an informed decision and not giving money to someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing – or someone looking for easy money.

1. Ask for examples of their work

This should go without saying, but your first step should always be to check if this web-agency is right for your small business website.

Do they have examples of work they made for other clients readily available on their website?

This is usually the first thing that separates good companies from the bad ones. If they’re showcasing their work to the public, it means that:

  • They’re proud of their work
  • They know that their website will stand up to scrutiny
  • They know good examples are the best way to get new clients

If they don’t have examples of their work make sure to ask them to send some to you! You’ll need them for the next few steps.

2. Are their websites fast?

Speed is one of the main factors Google will follow when deciding if a website will rank highly or not. Having a slow website is the same as not having one, especially if you’re a small business and your brand isn’t well known.

To measure how fast Google thinks a website is you should use Google’s Pagespeed Insights. These are the same exact metrics Google uses. If Pagespeed Insights says the website is slow, Google will show it less in the search results.

How to read the Pagespeed Insights report:

Once you run a site through Google’s Pagespeed Insights, you will receive a lot of information which can be daunting for the average user.

But the most important part is at the top of the page.

a speed test for an example small business website, with the number '12' in red
The people that designed the site from this example asked for over 3000 euros. The result is, for want of a better word, not good.

This score will go from 0 to 100. If you’re paying a professional to make you a website, this score shouldn’t be under ~80. Remember, a low page-speed score is a dead giveaway that you’re not talking to a professional.

Other things to look out for:

While obviously everything on the report is important. There are certain things that are especially bad.

Text Compression

a screenshot from an analysis of a small business website, with the notice 'enable text compression'

Text Compression is basically an “on/off” setting on a server which diminishes the size of your files. It should always be switched on and requires little to no set-up.

So, if you see a message like the one above, saying that you should enable Text Compression, this means the company hasn’t done it. They either didn’t know how to or couldn’t be bothered to enable it. They are not professionals.

Unused CSS

An example of something you don't want to see on an analysis of a small business website. 'Remove Unused CSS'

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) is what makes your site look the way it does. It contains data about colors, fonts and a hundred other things.

The above warning is a dead giveaway that the company is using a lot of third-party plugins to cut down on their workload and they could not be bothered to optimize them.

An Efficient cache policy

A screenshot of a Pagespeed Insighs analysis of a small business website, with the message 'serve static assets with an efficient cache policy'

This is another very easy to enable setting. Not having it enabled shows very poor knowledge of web servers and websites in general.

3. Are they using third party themes?

Themes are often used by Content Management Systems to easily manage how sites look.

A respectable web-agency would start from a very simple template and develop their own themes to fit your needs.

Someone that’s trying to get as much money out of you as they can with the least amount of work will use a theme made by someone else and change it slightly to fit your needs.

How to tell if a company uses someone else’s theme:

This is easy. Luckily companies that use themes they didn’t make often forget to remove references from the site’s source code.

  • Go to one of their websites
  • Right click anywhere on the page
  • Select “View Page Source”

A new window should open containing the page’s code. Here’s how to find out if it’s a theme or not:

  • Press CTRL + f
  • This should open a small prompt to search for specific words on the page
  • Type “theme” in the prompt
  • See if there are any results

Here’s what came up in my case:

If you look closely, you’ll see the word “Flatsome” next to the word ‘themes’. A quick Google search then reveals the obvious. Yep, they just bought it from someone else.

Sidenote: there’s nothing inherently wrong with themes

A company using a third party theme is not always a bad thing. I’ve seen some developers use themes as a base and transform them into their own thing.

Consider this a red flag only if other things on the list pop up – and if the site looks a little… unoriginal.

4. Are they offering you an “upkeep” package?

This is a classic way a lot of lower-end companies make their money and it’s a classic part of the scam.

The way this works is that once the site is done you’ll pay a flat rate yearly for “upkeep” and hosting costs so that your site stays online.

While there’s nothing wrong with a company asking for these two things, make sure the money they’re asking you is fair.

What they don’t want you to know is that:

  • Keeping sites online is actually really easy
  • Renting a server that hosts 20+ websites is also very cheap
  • “Upkeep” can just be a way to add fees because they know more than you

When talking to a company offering something along these lines remember that:

  • A 5$ a month server is going to be enough for most websites
  • Domains won’t cost more than 10$ (to 20$) a year
  • The company should specify exactly what they’re charging you for

Conclusion

These are the absolute basics. Use them to quickly weed out companies when you first start looking for a website and they should help you avoid the small business website scam. There’s a lot more to consider, and that differs site to site, but this article should apply to every type of small business website.

The best way to completely protect yourself from the worst is having a web-savvy personal friend that can consult and guide you through the decision process. But lacking that, asking on Reddit is usually a good compromise.

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