SiteSuite - Website Design Sydney

Custom website design vs mass-produced templates

by Tim Rimington | September 1, 2010

To borrow a well known phrase (albeit with a web twist), "To template or not to template, that is the question"...

As a web design business we're approached weekly by people who are "shopping around" for a website. Particularly in the past 5 years, web companies building template websites have sprung up on "every street corner". You can even download templates for free before paying a ridicuously small website host fee each month.

The more liquid you add to the soup, the more "dumbed down" it appears, i.e. the more web "design" businesses that spring up, the more lost in the crowd genuine providers become. And with so much template competition floating around, it's becoming increasingly more difficult for genuine custom design companies such as ours to convince proprietors that a template simply isn't going to "cut it" out there in the real world.

So when is a template design acceptable and at what point should you pay more for custom design? Let's begin our debate with an argument for the template advocates.

Template Website Designs

Without doubt there are some good looking templates floating around, but many I see leave too much to be desired. I call these "sausage factory" websites because they're churned out en-masse with little or no consideration for the business or organisation they're supporting. But is there any situation where a template is justified? Sure.

Buy a template website if:

  • you're a hobby-based market stall holder with a relatively small income being generated from the business
  • you're a non-branded business who doesn't necessarily rely on leads generated by the website, but has a website as a simple back-up to information ordinarily provided over the phone (utilities, etc.)
  • you want to take a hobby to the next level, effectively "testing" your market for interest
  • you want a personal blog (non-business related) or hobby website


Custom Design Websites

Now, I need to clarify the term 'custom'. There are website template companies that promote their templates as 'custom design websites', so let's make something clear. Uploading a logo or changing the colour of the template's background or font styles does not constitute 'custom design'. Sure, you could argue that these things equate to 'customisations' but the sum of these does not equal a custom graphic design.

By way of comparison, a genuine custom graphic design requires a design brief meeting where you, the client, work with a designer in creating something unique to you and your business. The eventual website will provide you with a unique presence on the web and, with a little luck (and appropriate budget), nobody else's website will look like yours.

You should commission a custom designed website if:

  • you have an established logo and brand or, as a start-up, have just invested in one
  • the website supports and represents your primary business (and therefore income)
  • you have competition that your customers may judge you against
  • a note regarding budget: you needn't take out a second mortgage to obtain a good custom design website especially if you're only starting out, just make sure you clarify the level of design you'll receive if it's of concern to you.


The design is only half the picture

Not too many years ago there was a time when website designers held all the cards with respect to ongoing maintenance and upkeep of a website. Then along came content management systems (CMS) - sometimes referred to as 'content management software' - that allowed a website manager to maintain his or her website content independently of the person who designed and built it.

A CMS is the life-blood of any good website but can also mean a slow death if a website is using the wrong CMS. Like any piece of software, a website CMS can become old and not support important Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) elements such as 'page titles', 'heading tags' and, the big daddy of them all, generate search engine friendly URLs. The latter point is of particular importance to online stores. Why? Because Google 'reads' a website URL (e.g. In that example anyone searching for baby clothes will have that website appear somewhere within the search results.

If, however, an older CMS spits out a URL along these lines:, Google isn't able to make sense of the URL and won't index the page as readily as a properly optimised equivalent page (such as our original example).

Your website design checklist

  • Avoid "one man band" website designers if your website is for your primary business or organisation. Why? Because you'll likely waste time chasing the designer for changes or updates, especially if that person is ill or taken annual leave (or simply lost interest in you) - trust me, we've heard them all!
  • Look at a website design company's portfolio and then speak to the managers of those websites, and ask whether they receive an acceptable level of support and service.
  • Take note of websites within a design company's portfolio and confirm that the page and product URLs are search engine friendly (if unsure, simply ask the design company's consultant to demonstrate this).
  • Take a tour of a design company's CMS software and make sure that you're comfortable with the tools you'll be using on an almost daily basis.
  • If a company doesn't offer a design brief meeting (either in person or over the phone), then it's possible the design is not custom to your organisation's branding, i.e. you're most likely being sold a template website.
  • Confirm that the website CMS is search engine friendly and offers related SEO tools. Without these, your website could remain virtually invisible on Google, etc.
  • Confirm that the website CMS can be updated so that it remains up to date with modern search engine indexing
  • Only deal with a well-established company that can demonstrate the above.
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