Web developers bank on customization in DIY era

Ability to customize sites for companies to create unique online identity differentiates Web developers from do-it-yourself tools, along with customer support and up-to-date expertise.

Do-it-yourself Web site builders say more enterprises appreciate the ease, speed and hands-on experience when establishing online presence and business on their own. On the other hand, professional Web developers say their ability to provide advanced customization to Web sites is a key differentiator as enterprises value a unique online presence and corporate branding.

Along with having up-to-date knowledge and skills and offering technical and customer support, professional site developers argue that their services are still relevant and sought after by companies, despite the advent of DIY solutions.

Donna Sheather, marketing director at online Web site builder HostFare, said the company saw demand for its services increase more than 100 percent over the last six months of this year. HostFare lets users create a site or online store by themselves.

"I definitely think more enterprises are turning to DIY Web building tools," she told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail.

"Any business needs to build its online site to compete effectively in the marketplace" Sheather said. "Small and midsize businesses are looking to take control of their online presence and need to build their Web sites fast and efficiently, so they can focus on more important issues such as sales and marketing to bring in revenue."

She noted that people used to think they needed professional help because they did not have programming know-how. But these days, as technology advances, they realize that building their own Web site is "really a lot easier than they thought", she added.

Sheather pointed out that most enterprises look for ease and functionality at a reasonable cost when it comes to site building. HostFare offers the tools, support and flexibility to build fully-functional business Web sites or stores, including access to design, editing and management features, promotional tools, subscription services and online payment processing, she said.

What companies need is an easy-to-use tool to customize Web templates to suit their businesses and needs, not complex computer language, she noted. The availability of DIY site builders is, hence, making the role of the professional designer less relevant, Sheather added.

Ashley Lim, founder of online cufflink store The Little Link, who built her corporate site on DIY e-commerce platform, Magento Go, said she did not go to a professional Web design developer in order to keep her initial startup cost low.

"It was more cost-effective, and many times, a Web designer's solution was not vastly different from the multitude of free templates and e-commerce solutions online," said Lim, who added that she is not trained in HTML or CSS.

Asked whether design aesthetics would have to be compromised if her company went the DIY way, she said this would depend on the objectives of the Web site. "Some business owners are not picky on design, and design is really a subjective matter," Lim noted. "Many are happy using default, off-the-shelf templates without customization."

Customization the clincher
Web developers, however, highlighted their ability to fully customize site designs--which, they said, set them apart from the array of DIY building tools available online. They pointed to this as the reason businesses engage their services to construct and present a unique online identity.

Razil Ali, a freelance Web developer who runs Zallaza Creative Studio, noted that although several Web templates provided by DIY site-building services do offer good designs and features, they are "not unique".

"These templates are generic and may not reflect a particular business's culture or branding, and could be purchased by other businesses," Razil told ZDNet in an e-mail interview. "Businesses that are aware of the importance of branding would know that it is best to customize their Web site design to reflect their unique corporate brand."

He added that while the income of Web developers might be impacted, he did not think the availability of templates and site-building software threatened the role of Web developers.

"It is, in fact, an opportunity that Web developers can leverage to expand their services in areas such as template customization.

"Web developers should not be there merely to develop a Web site based on requirements and move on. That would make them equal to a DIY tool. Like any other business professional, we must always keep up with the latest trends, technology and equip ourselves accordingly," Razil said.

Alex Chew, project manager at Hoovix Consulting, which provides Web, digital and mobile applications development, also disagreed that the Web developer's role was threatened by DIY tools. "Actually, we use these tools extensively and value-add around them," he said.

Chew noted in an e-mail that DIY content management systems (CMSes) can fulfill a certain level of satisfaction and requirement for businesses.

However, to have something which fits exactly what they need, enterprises would still need to hire a company or freelancer to help them customize the Web site. He added that DIY tools can be "rigid", whereas Web designers are more flexible when changes need to be made.

Competency and customer service
Chew revealed that some clients have full knowledge of how to build sites in-house, but they still chose to outsource the process to Hoovix as "we're way better at [the task] and our exposure to the industry is, and will always be, far greater than theirs".

Being a Web services provider means the company is motivated to see projects through to completion, and to also stay up-to-date with the latest Web technologies such as cross-browser compatibility and HTML5, he said, adding that these, in turn, help the clients stay ahead in the Web arena.

Chew also underscored the need for Web developers to provide good customer service to stay in demand.

"Most enterprises are not comfortable trusting automation [and need to] hold someone or a company accountable…and [one that is] a phonecall away", he said.

Nigel Lauw, account manager at advertising and design firm SuperSonic, told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview that the company engaged a third-party Web developer to build its site because the opportunity cost was lower.

He said working with a third party to develop the site was more efficient and it also made more sense for SuperSonic to focus on its core competency.

Razil similarly highlighted the importance of maintaining relevant Web development skillsets and offering additional service and support to clients, because "businesses do not create Web sites merely for the sake of having one".

He added that DIY tools lacked the insights that a Web developer would have. "The purpose of the DIY tools is to help businesses set up a Web site. It does not advise end-users whether they are doing it right or if there are alternatives," he said.

Businesses which engage "knowledgeable and passionate Web developers" are able to gain insights and advice on the best practices on Web development and design to reflect their unique corporate branding, search engine optimization and social media integration for better visibility and engagement, he said.

All of these would improve the user's online experience, which was something DIY tools could not provide, Razil concluded.