Beware Of Website Builder Scams
Website building is an endeavor with very low barriers to entry. All you need is a computer (actually, a few builders are now fully operable from a mobile device), internet access, and, ideally, some semblance of an idea. It was therefore inevitable from the moment internet access became commonplace that website builders would spring up from every nook and cranny of the World Wide Web to facilitate our go-go dot-com lifestyles.
But oh, how things have progressed since the likes of GeoCities and Tripod had us self-populating our cultural biosphere with Chandler Bing fan sites and Sublime MIDI song covers. Back in those days, people used the ‘Net mainly to share crudely-made GIFs. By contrast, nowadays. . . um, nevermind.
Seriously, though, the landscape of website creation changed in the oughts. Site builders grew more sophisticated to meet the evolving needs of businesses and individuals. Encroaching on the territory of professional web developers, site builders shifted their emphasis from their free products – most adopted the freemium business model ubiquitous in the industry today.
Of course, with customers becoming more likely to use their credit card, the incentive grew for scams, shams and scalawags to flood the zone as well. Website building is easily entered into from both the consumer side and the supply side, as many companies use white label website editors sold to them by CMS entities. These companies often implicitly try to pass these editors off as their own.
Combine the relative ease of establishing a website builder service with a user base comprised largely of people with more pressing priorities than researching website builder companies, and you have a climate that breeds execrable business practices. How, then, are we to separate the wheat from the chaff? (I looked up the origins of that saying – apparently, chaff is bad)
Here are 5 things to look for when checking out a website builder:
Table of Contents
Look For The About Page
Step one is fairly easy. Check out the website of the site builder in question. Do they have an About page? If they do, good. If they don’t, not good.
The good guys and the creepazoids have fundamentally divergent motives here. The honest companies have an interest in gaining the trust of potential customers, for obvious reasons. No company thrives in the long run by leaving behind a trail of embittered ex-customers with lurid stories to tell. Not in an industry like this where choices proliferate, anyway. But the flim-flam sites aren’t in it to grow a company. They’re in it to make a quick dollar/euro/ruble/bitcoin off a certain percentage of people who stumbled onto their site, nothing more, nothing less. They could vanish tomorrow and still have done what they set out to do.
If I were running such an entity, I sure wouldn’t want my name put out there. I wouldn’t list a company address (and if I did, it would be in the least prominent spot possible). The fewer identifying details, the better! Nobody wants to become the target of an angry social media campaign. Disclosure is the best disinfectant, and disinfectant burns the eyes.
So, look for identifying information about the company in question and the people it employs, or at least the owners. The ease with which you can find this information is a fairly reliable indicator of whether or not it’s the sort of company one would want to be publicly associated with. If you can’t find any such info on the company’s site and have to find it on some registry somewhere after going through a bunch of search results, beware. They may well be opaque on purpose.
See If They Require Your Credit Card For Their “Free” Trial
Guess I gave away the game with that heading.
Website builders of a particular flavor will dangle the promise of a free 14 or 30 or whatever-day trial, but will require you to enter your credit card information to access it. You then have to remember to cancel your account before the charges go through, or, in some cases, to get refunded in the window of time they offer refunds. Now, a company may well be doing this without engaging in fraud in the legal sense. The terms of the deal, and the process by which you can cancel your account or get a refund (and in many cases, it’s quite the “process” indeed), will likely be spelled out somewhere in small print. And the determined customer is still likely (though not certain) not to incur unwanted charges in the end.
But the Shady Shadersons out there are banking on the statistical inevitability that a certain percentage of users will forget to cancel their accounts in time, fail to notice unwanted charges in time, and/or be so discouraged by the labyrinthine cancellation process that they stick with the company a while (“They want my 12 digit User ID PIN to cancel? Ah, screw it, the blogging tool is pretty good”). And no matter how few people fall into those categories, some will.
Companies with this policy are telling you what their real priorities are. You just have to be listening.
Check The User Reviews!
Another piece of mind-blowing advice from your website builder guru. As David Letterman once said, “There is no “off” position on the genius switch.”
And yet it’s true! A recurring comment amongst user reviews of dodgy site builders is inevitably “I wish I had read these reviews first!”
So, look for user reviews of any site builder you intend to trust with payment information. Check the company’s Trustpilot page. A new/obscure company may not have one, but it’s the first place I go to gauge community reaction to a site builder. If there’s no Trustpilot page, do some further digging.
Obviously, the mere existence of criticism doesn’t mean the company in question is a “scam” – I’ve yet to see a site builder that was universally well-received by users. But, you know, check for common themes. Check for patterns that may emerge. And, perhaps most of all:
Check For Company Responses To Those User Reviews
This one is important. Companies with an eye towards legitimacy tend to care if their reputation is taking a hit online. They may be having problems with their services, and they might not be an amazing company, but the website builders who care will typically attempt to publicly address customer complaints in order to demonstrate some degree of responsiveness. Clearly, a company isn’t going to find every single bit of criticism directed its way on the internet, but complaints in prominent forums should draw some kind of response – especially if said complaints coalesce around particular ongoing issues. Highly-trafficked venues like Trustpilot are places where grievances are most likely to be addressed. See if they are.
Check For Other Sites Using The Same White-Labelled Website Builder
There are a number of companies – one of their leading indicators seems to be a generic-looking home page – who use a common website builder. Some CMS outfits will provide a white label website builder that multiple companies can use and sell as their own. Sometimes a behind-the-scenes web host will even host copies of the same website builder and sell them under different names and domains, as is the case with the camera-shy UK-based group behind WebsiteBuilder, SiteBuilder, Sitey and Sitelio.
Again, this doesn’t necessarily indicate outright fraud, but when a company is hosting multiple, yet nominally separate, copies of the same website building service (right down to the identically-worded automated emails I received from each one), it certainly invites questions about their motives. And if different entities (different not just in name but in ownership) are using the same site builder, you’ll at least want to compare the companies offering this identical software to see who offers the better deal.
I realize you probably have better things to do, but if you’re thinking of tossing some dough at a website builder, do some due diligence to avoid future regrets:
- Look For The “About” Page
- See If They Require Your Credit Card Up-Front
- Check For User Reviews
- Check For Company Responses To Complaints
- Check For Duplicate Editing Software
It is especially galling to see shady website builders taking advantage of people, as users of website builders are among the people who can least afford to be scammed. They’re probably not playing with millions of investor bucks or dipping into their trust funds. Those with money to bleed can hire a professional web designer or three. No, website builders are for the dreamers and scrapers, plugging holes in our makeshift Hoover Dams, restraining life’s remorseless torrent of responsibilities, all the while trying to shepherd something of value through this predatory world. They’re for the small business owners, the nonprofits, and the digital grinders trying to make a dollar outta fifteen cents.
So even though you’re fed up, you’ve got to keep your head up – up above the rising tide of website builder scams.