Web design is an industry littered with scams.  This is probably because the barrier to entry is so low and any Joe Schmoe with a laptop can become a “web designer” in minutes.

It seems like the number of scammers outweigh the real developers 10 to 1 these days.  “I’ve been burned before…” is a phrase we hear from new clients way too often.

Here are the most common ones to look out for.

1. The cookie cutter

This type of web designer is a chop shop.  They’re all about getting clients in and out the door as fast as possible.  They’ll build you a website based on a template they’re probably using for every other client and you end up with the same site as a million other people on the web with your logo slapped on top.

Using a template isn’t all bad and in most cases is actually the right thing to do.  You should not be re-inventing the wheel every time and if you find opportunities to reduce the time it takes to develop a website, go for it!

However, the template should be dictated by the design and not the other way around.  Start with the design you want to achieve and code/modify/hack that template until it’s what you want.

What’s the solution?

More often than not, the type of person doing this is just inexperienced and does not have the skills, whether that’s CSS, Javascript, or PHP, to modify a template to match your goals.  Start by finding an experienced and trustworthy designer/developer.  If you’ve been unlucky in the past, check out our article on why you can’t find a good web designer.

Once you have someone you can trust, the next step is to get some kind of mockup or prototype down before developing.  This let’s you focus on the goals of the site beforehand and avoids wasted development hours.

2. The website audit

Hi Bob The Business Owner, I was just surfing the web looking for Bob’s Blueberries and noticed your site has some major issues.

[insert automated analysis report here]

Don’t be fooled by these emails.  They haven’t gone through your site with a fine-tooth comb and they didn’t stumble randomly across your site.  These are almost guaranteed to be 100% automated.

What’s sad about these is that they play off these reports as their own (even though you can copy and paste your URL into one of these third party generators for free online).  And then the continue to act like they’ve done you some huge favor.

Now to be fair, some of these services really will help you achieve a better score on whatever generator they happened to use.  But does that score really mean anything?  There’s a popular one going around that uses Google’s PageSpeed report.  We wrote an in depth article on PageSpeed and why this is mostly a waste of time and money.

3. The middle man

This guy is my least favorite and absolute scum.  He’s a salesman at heart and makes life worse for both clients and developers.  He does not do any of the code himself, but acts as a barrier between the developer and client, often lying to the client and claiming that he wrote the code himself.

There’s nothing wrong with connecting people and even making some profit from that connection, but you have to bring value to the table.  If you’re selling a lead to a web design company, that’s okay- sell the lead at a negotiated fixed price.

But if you’re taking 50% of the earnings for yourself (essentially doubling the client’s rate), you better understand and be a competent project manager.  While I can already hear many claiming this is what they do, here are the usual issues I see with it:

  • They don’t have real development experience, much less senior developer experience, and thefore have no business managing a web design project.
  • Maximizing their profits often means finding sub-par developers so they can increase their own earnings.
  • There’s no task management system in place to facilitate communication and you’re often left playing the telephone game which leads to project delays and even higher project costs.
  • They’re unable to accept the risk of being the middle man and may pass along failure to pay to their subcontracted developer or poor development to the client.

4. The first-page of Google promise

This person promises to get you to improve your SEO and get you to the first position or first page in no time.

The first question you should be asking is “first page for what?”  Getting ranked first page for “Al Harrington’s Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tubeman Emporium and Warehouse” is not going to be hard.  But this isn’t going to get you a whole lot of bang for your buck based on the 1 person searching this phrase per year.

On the other hand, ranking on the first page for “inflatable tubeman” would be an impressive feat.  But this doesn’t happen over night.  There are couple issues to watch out for here:

Elbow grease not included

SEO campaigns take 3-6 months before you start realizing any gains.  That means you may not even move any positions at all within the first 3 months, not to mention make it to the 1st page.

Improving search engine rankings isn’t expensive because it’s rocket science.  It’s expensive because it’s time consuming monotonous work.

Does that come with AppleCare?

The next issue is that there aren’t any guarantees you’ll make it to the first page.  It all comes down to how competitive the terms you’re trying to rank for are.  As such, you should be very wary of any promising to get you there within a specific timeframe.

Even if you do make it there, will you be able to maintain your position?  This usually requires an ongoing budget to make sure your rankings don’t plummet.

What are their methods?

You don’t care how you get to the first page as long as you’re there, right?  Well part of what makes SEO time consuming is that it has to be done gradually.

Blackhat link building is commonly used in these services.  Not only does this not work anymore, but it will almost definitely get you penalized in Google.  Paying money to end up in a worse position than you started is a terrible feeling.

5. The key holder

This is an old trick, but we still see it pretty regularly.  Your web designer was gracious enough to buy the domain for you.

Don’t let your web designer hold your domain hostage.  With most clients we see them paying $100-200 per year for their domain when this happens, usually none the wiser.  But this is 10-20x the actual cost.  If your business does well, they might charge $1,000s for renewal or try to sell it back to your for $10,000k+.

Often these charges are chalked up to “maintenance,” but unless you’re consistently changing email servers or web hosts, you’re being lied to.

Always, always, always buy your domain yourself!  It’s only $10 per year and you’ll avoid this whole mess.

6. The million dollar hosting plan

There’s nothing inherently wrong with hosting through your developer.  But unless you’re getting a whole lot of added service, the rates should be reasonable.

A few months ago we had a client who had been paying for “premium hosting” through their developer at a rate of $1000 per month.  What’s worse is they were on a shared HostGator reseller package (if you’re not in the know they’re a garbage web host)

My jaw dropped for a moment and then a spark went off in my head.  “Should we be doing this with all our clients?”  Then I quickly came back down to reality and realized how immoral that would be.  Life would be easier without a conscience.

There are tons of great hosting plans under $50 a month that are blazing fast.  While I don’t usually recommend going for the super cheap ones, unless you’re Amazon, you probably don’t need to be spending more than $100 a month on hosting or own a dozen sites.


Did we miss any of your favorite web designer scams?  Got a story to share?  Comment down below!