What determines success and failure on the web?

What makes a web site (or a web app) a success or a failure? Having seen a lot of successes and failures I find there are a few common types of business website that have different risks and determinants of success:

  1. The website is the product or the core of the product.

  2. The website is an important part of your service.

  3. The web app improves productivity

  4. The website is just a brochure for an offline business.

  5. Content websites (ad or subscription revenues).

In our opinion most businesses should have 2 or 3. Some only need 4.

General success factors

  • Usability matters more than design.

  • General business factors like having a USP apply.

  • Your users are not you (or your friends). Measure and test rather than ask for opinions.

  • Unless its very simple, start with a minimum viable product, then improve incrementally.

The reason for the last is that it gets revenue generation going as early as possible, and let you base decision on what to add on observations of user behaviour rather than guesswork or opinions.

Specific Factors

The website is the product

These are the highest risk and highest return businesses. The commonest indicators of failure are:

  • Requiring a critical mass of users with no clear plan for getting them.

  • A clone of something that already exists, so users have no reason to switch.

  • A good idea but no marketing - "build it, they will come" rarely works

Indicators of success are:

  • A clear niche market and a plan for reaching it

  • Something new or better than existing products.

In short, the website itself needs a USP and a marketing plan.

A good example of how to build a critical mass of users is Facebook. It started as as directory of Harvard students and gradually opened to more universities, then schools and companies, and then to the general public, adding features as it went.

A good example of better is Google. There were many search engines before Google, but Google's link based algorithm delivered better results. To some extent a website is a me too idea, but Google had both a significant improvement to offer users and a solid business model.

Launching a search engine now would be difficult unless you can do substantially better than Google (a difficult task) or people will simply not bother to change their habits. I have worked on a niche search engine and news aggregator aimed at a narrow market that Google served poorly (it did not properly support a minority language), but it was difficult for even that to gain traction.

A few more examples of this are online market places, review sites, and so on. Its a common business model because people see the success of the likes of Ebay, Amazon, AirBNB and so on. However, most people I have dealt with in this like of business are either struggling or have failed.

So think carefully about getting into this sort of business, but the rewards are potentially huge. These businesses tend to scale up very easily and cheaply. We are happy to discuss and advise and this is where our USP comes in: we can advise on both business strategy and technical issues in a joined up fashion - so you do not get good business advice that is technically unfeasible, or technical advice that does not match business goals.

The website is an important part of your service

This covers quite a range of cases. It might be:

  • An online catalogue helps customers find the right product or service.

  • Content that needs to be presented in a unique way (e.g. interactively).

There are many more possibilities.

You get a USP from the website, or the offline part of your business or a combination of the two. On the website side:

  • Marketing the website (including SEO) matters.

  • Keep it simple for users.

  • Make it productive for staff.

  • Automate whatever you can.

  • Think about ROI (even if its hard to measure or estimate).

Finally, a few examples of the above from our customers:

VCases is a good example of a combination of a web app and specific content. The content would not work without a fairly complex web app, but the web app would not be useful without the expertise to create the cases that make up the content, and it would not be a business without controls on access to the content. it is a good example of content that needs interactivity.

Student Stay is built around an online product catalogue and booking system. The database "understands" the product so the search page allows very specific filtering so users can find exactly what they want, and then send an enquiry or make a booking through the system.

The web app improves productivity

This is my favourite type of project as you have complete control. You do not need to rely on the cooperation of people outside your business to make it work. You (or your staff) can give good feedback on what works well and what is not useful.

There is an overlap between this category and the last one, in that it is common for the same website to do both. On the other hand, some customers have purely internal web apps that are entirely separate from, or only loosely linked to public websites.

Although productivity through automation of processes and faster data entry is the most common advantage of these types of system, than can also improve the information available to management: if you have a database of customer interactions, or purchases, or other data, you can analyse it.

A good example of this would be a form on a website that feeds customer enquiries into a CRM that then allows staff to easily track future communications and sales from that customer.

This type if project is highly likely to succeed. We recommend putting some effort into planning, but more into testing once you have a prototype, then deploy a minimal system and improve it incrementally.

The website is just a brochure for an off-line business

We do not do a lot of this sort of work any more. We are happy to help you find someone who can and to provide an independent check of the quality of their work.

How difficult it is to succeed depends largely on the competition. If you are chasing a large international market its likely to be difficult: a lot of other people will be too. If you aim at a small niche - a specific location, or a very niche service its a lot easier. If you have hard to find skills or there are other barriers to entry to limit competition that helps too.

SEO really, really matters. Conversion (turning visitors into customers) is also crucial. Make sure you have the metrics to see where visitors come from and which of them buy.

Beware of hiring SEOs: there is lots of snake oil and short term success can lead to long term failure. It is possible to get a temporary ranking boost using dubious techniques that disappears when Google and other search engines realise they are being tricked. Never trust and SEO who makes definite promises of top rankings - either they will fail to deliver or the rankings will prove to be worthless (because you come top in the wrong searches, or ones no one ever does).

Content websites (ad or subscription revenues)

We run one of these for historical reasons. It used to be ad supported and was successful for some years, but eventually declined. This is often the fate of content sites that rely on search traffic. Google rank is easily lost, often for no discernable reason.

There are two very different models: free content to maximise ad revenues or subscriptions to make more money from fewer users. Free traffic is easier to get, but subscription revenues are more dependable once you have them (provided your content meets users expectations). It is a complex decision, and we would be happy to discuss it with you.

Success comes from having an existing brand and reputation, or identifying an under-served niche, much the same as in print media. Unless you have a clear market you can advertise to (which tends to work better with a subscription model) then, once again, SEO really matters.

The technology side of these is actually fairly straightforward, and that can be done cheaply, often with an existing solution (again, we can advise on the pros and cons of out of the box and custom). This is one type of site for which we might break our usual "no Wordpress" rule.

The problem is that you are going to have to generate good content, and keep generating it while traffic or subscriptions pick up. That can be expensive.

The solution

Plan, measure, talk to users. The biggest difficulty is remembering that your users are not you, and may not like what you like.

Finally, of course, please talk to us. We will not charge for an initial chat.