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Real Estate Digital Web Development

Cowboy (Web) Builders: The Bain of Real Estate Digital


[Originally published in PropertyDrum Magazine]

Spent good money on your website lately?  Happy with what you’ve got?

(Can you hear the pin drop?)

Or do you wish there was a Dominic Littlewood  for the property industry who’d go round your web developers for a wee argy-bargy?

There’s not much I can do to help you recover lost costs and opportunities arising from a bad website.  Nor can I give you a full overview of what you must do to execute a web development project successfully in a handful of articles.  BUT – we’ll illustrate some common pitfalls and streetsmart solutions to selecting a good web developer. 

The Usual Suspects

You can spot them a mile away:   great sales, a dream team intent on dizzying you with digital jargon, and a low low price!  When you get into the nitty gritty of actually making the website you want, they weave their web and before you know it you’ve signed a 2 year deal for a software product, web development, and rights to your first born child.

Heaven help you when your company grows and you want to make changes to your site, or just need some basic tools to keep you up to speed in a fast moving digital world.  Need social media buttons to connect your website customers to major social media platforms?  Sure!  But that’ll be XXX per month.  Want to connect your property stock database to social media products that allow customers to search for property by area, postcode, street name, tube stop or more?  Of course – but that’ll be new fields in the database and api development which will cost you XXX?  Want to make sure your site is visible for key customer searches  in Google?  No problem, BUT, we have to reengineer our whole ‘code base’ to cope with the industry standard best practices in development that occurred over 10 years ago!  And you’ll need to pay for it!!!!

Don’t Get Done, Get Dom

There’s probably not a single one of you reading this article that hasn’t seen the havoc cowboy builders wreak.  From horror stories following the 1998 tornadoes, leaving a slew of homeowners with unfinished, not to mention dangerous, building repairs and renovations, to the tawdry tales of deceit regularly filling a prime time slot on Channel 5’s Cowboy Builders series, the property sector is plagued by people promising the world and delivering ….!  The obvious question: How do I avoid being the next mug?

Top Tips for Avoiding ‘Cowboy (Web) Builders’

1.       Beware false profits!

First things first.  Of course your website needs to work hard for you.  But it’s hard to place an ROI figure that’s accurate for the property industry – given the multiple channels you advertise and market in without an accurate portrait of the sources of enquiry to your business.  But how many estate agents take the time to actually investigate which channel their customers found them by?

In addition, high ROI figures are nigh on impossible to promise in the shifting landscape of the online property sector – given that property portal prices have gone up, while referrals to your business stagnate.  Unless you find out where each and every one of your customers come from, you cannot possibly begin to calculate the best channels to market in, the best product to purchase for your digital needs, or the best budget to allocate to digital marketing?

Any developer selling his software or web dev services by utilizing ROI figures needs to be interrogated more intensely than the Spanish Inquisition.  What is he basing his figures on?  What is the calculation used to determine ROI – specifically?  Can you contact any of their customers referenced in ROI case studies to confirm the claims?

2.       One size fits all

So you find a developer and they flash a range of website choices for your project.  You try to ask if you can change this or that, if they can make it look more like the designs you’ve drawn up,  or if you can have x, y or z feature.

“Sure! We have a social media module that does just that”

What you should hear inside your head right now is the sound of tyres screeching to a stop, leaving long black lines of tar behind you.  This way lies danger!  Module coding means many things (very few of them good):

  • Almost all of your web developers’ clients will share a single code base.  This means that any changes you request and pay for will be available to your competition.  Any client’s your developer has will be able to access these changes, sometimes for free, other times by paying an upgrade fee.
  • Modules are often built in bloated javascript code, which is – in layman’s terms – renowned for creating long, long, long lines of code that slow down Google’s crawl of your website (a crawl: what Google does to read and index the content on your site that visitors can see).  Bottom line?  You decrease load speed of your site, a Google ranking factor, and Google also gives less importance to the IMPORTANT readable content on your site because it’s too busy reading 1000 lines of javascript code.
  • Every time you want something that doesn’t exist in a current developer module – you’ll have to pay!  Remember what we said about paying for the rest of the developer’s clients as well!!!


Not all modular coding is bad, and certainly, if you’re on a budget and/or don’t have much choice  – there are ways to work around these issues – but careful digital consultation and a decent development team capable of implementing recommendations is the key to salvaging value!


3.       Getting what you pay for

We’ve all been strapped for cash. But would you jeopardise your business’ future just because you’re hard up?  The recession dictates we’ve all tightened our belts.  So let’s do a little math.

 Thousands upon thousands per month to property portals

+ local print advertisements and papers

+  expensive print materials designed to entice potential customers into our fold


= LOTS OF MONEY!  Let’s call this “traditional spend”. 

I am willing to bet that you spend MORE in 3 months on “traditional spend” than you spend on a single website set to represent you in the digital world for years to come.  Can you see where I’m going with this?

Classic blunders in choosing a web developer can often be traced back to being miserly.  Either you choose a bedroom developer, someone who has shown aptitude and is ‘pretty sure’ he can build you what you need, hire an “IT guy” – with or without nepotism involved – or go with a cheap package that promises the world.

Your business pays the piper:  not being able to update your site without development requests,  or connect to new technologies (such as social media platforms and products), or specify ANYTHING really.  Oh yeah:  your site looks pretty bad on mobile devices too!

Solution?  Map out your website aims.  Hire a digital consultant (but beware here too!).  Create a user experience that is perfect for your customer base.  Create wireframes and initial designs for the site you want to see, even if you do it with paper and pen!   Create a ‘brief’ for your web developers to show them  exactly what you want.  Send this brief to multiple developers. Get quotes. Ask for example work. Have these website vetted to make sure they’re technically up to scratch for the modern digital world.  If it sounds like hard work, you’re right!  But it’s the single most important thing you can do to protect your business online and prevent bad (present and future) spend.

PMH (NOT hormone related!)

PMH.  Otherwise known as Project Management Hell.  We’ve all been there.  Your web development firm is spending more time on conference calls, being pedantic with fancy spreadsheets or arguing deadlines with your internal teams than they are coding your website.  You meticulously check your website product, and document your requests for changes, and package it all up to make it easy for you to track and trace project progress.  But STILL, things seem to drag on, and you’ve got more emails than solid code?  This is a typical outcome of property sector specific web development firms.

Your project manager isn’t your friend, he’s your attendant in the 3rd ring of Dante’s Inferno.  If you find yourself in this position, you can almost guarantee your developer is juggling a range of clients utilizing a ‘single’ code base product and your needs and request for change are in a long queue of updates requested via their customer base.

How can you step out of the ring of fire?  Document once and document well.   Make sure you know what each and every page of your website looks like and will contain.  Check outcomes against this.  Call for real-time accountability by putting all your development requests through easy to document and track online tools such as BaseCamp or Lighthouse.  In fact, go so far as to put the whole project through Odesk.com – where you can even track live screenshots of developers working on your project!  Odesk also allows you to set up a budget and stick to it – it will not allow invoicing over and above the budget and time you have set for a project.

The golden rule: your developer is working FOR YOU – not vice versa.

We invite all of our readers to submit their tales of Cowboy (Web) Builder woe totracy@streetsmartsocial.co.uk for a chance to win a free consultation.  In addition, we’ll select individual entries to highlight and help solve in upcoming articles. 

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