“Cream Puff, One Owner”: The Proprietary Perils of ISP Website Designs

November 25th, 2014

You’re walking past an auto dealership and stop to admire a red two-seat convertible. You know this model, that it’s hard-working and dependable and has lots of features, but that purchase price — whew! Just then you hear a distant shout. It’s Honest Ed from the rival lot across the street. He motions you over and waves grandly toward another vehicle that looks very much the same. A price card on the window reads “For Lease. Easy Terms.” How can you resist? Half an hour later you drive off the lot in a brand-new red car.

You enjoy your acquisition for the next few years. Then you begin to discover downsides. The monthly payment is low, at least at first. But when you bring the car in for a tune-up, the mechanic glances under the hood and tells you no one is allowed to touch the engine but Honest Ed. You think the dealer’s choice of sound systems is substandard, so you purchase a great one, planning to install it yourself. As you leave the store, Honest Ed walks up, pointing to a clause in your contract that says any additional features must be bought from him. Sometimes you go out to the garage in the morning and find a gadget installed that wasn’t there the night before. From then on the monthly bill is sure to include an extra, permanent surcharge. By year four you’re ready to toss Honest Ed from a high window, but that agreement of his is iron-clad and seems never to expire. You leased your dream car and now that baby is yours for life.

That’s what can happen when you opt to run your business website and online sales through an Internet Service Provider. ISPs have lots full of bright, shiny new convertibles that a company can jump right into and drive. Their features are so easy to use that even if you have no experience in ISP website designs, you can set up a professional-looking page in hours. However, you’ll soon find that you have lost control over something essential: the way in which many of your customers get to know you.

We’ve all noticed similarities between the online catalogues and checkout systems of very different companies. That’s because those businesses subscribe to the same ISP and have set up their sales features using its Web template. The system they’re using is proprietary, a term that, as you might guess, has the same root as “property.” The physical merchandise, and the words and pictures their sellers use to describe it, belong to their respective stores. But the method their customers use to learn about and pay for those things belongs to the ISP.

By entrusting your business to a proprietary system, you’ll have limited options.You must use the ISP’s own features, which may be “buggy” or simply not meet your needs. You’ll see your monthly fees creep upward as your business grows, and at the end of each subscription period, and as the ISP adds new features to their websites, some of which you will never use. You’ll have the option, of course, to sign on with a less expensive provider and cancel the original “lease.” However, when you move, you’ll have to leave all of that proprietary content behind — the page design you created so carefully using the old ISP website designs’ backgrounds and fonts, the ordering and sales system, those hundreds or many thousands of separate files describing individual products that could be taken on or off the old site with the press of a button.

If you’ve thought about this from the start, you’ve saved up-to-date electronic files with the details of each of your products. If not, you will have to start again from scratch with the new provider, possibly even typing in the information one field at a time. For a small-scale store like a bakery, this would be a time-consuming and annoying but not impossible task. For something like a bookstore chain, it could be fatal.

Your other option may seem more expensive but will prove to be far cheaper in the long run: to purchase your own website and systems rather than lease them. After the initial payment you will own and control every aspect of your business’s online presence. You’ll have the option to change your site’s look or features as often as you like. You can purchase add-ons from your own choice of supplier or even design them yourself. The monthly maintenance costs will be minor — and if you’re not satisfied with the mechanic who’s been keeping your “convertible” in tune, you may hire another.

The smart choice is obvious. When Honest Ed approaches waving that tempting-looking contract, walk away and start constructing a vehicle of your own. The cost will be lower in the end. It will look exactly as you want it to and will respond to your slightest touch. And you’ll never have to be afraid to check under the hood.

Written by: Katherine Harper, Ph.D.

Guest blogger Katherine Harper, the owner of To the Letter Editorial and Research Services, writes and edits a range of materials for businesses and nonprofit organizations.

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