• by Tom

BT Websites: 'The new standard in affordable web design'?

We don't think so.

BT Websites launched recently, and provide website hosting, domain names and SEO services (as well as some marketing services). I haven't seen any large fanfare to announce this new area of the business, but we received an email from them today offering a 'Free 15 minutes Website Consultation' so I couldn't resist giving them a call to find out what it's all about.

My theory is that BT, being a large, household name, would use this fact to sell market-averaging services for market-averaging prices with the illusion of trustworthiness from a big brand. And it turns out, I was right.

First of all, let's have a look at BT Websites online.

I'm not sure what's going on with the carousel on the homepage, but it doesn't seem to agree with Opera - the navigation appears on top of the image header. Looking at it in Chrome, it looks like the green navigation is supposed to be vertical. Strike one, BT.

The product listings are interesting, especially considering the nature of the phonecall I later had with them - they suggest that you purchase packaged products, rather than a bespoke, tailored service.

They have several resource pages that talk about design, layout and fonts which make for very interesting reading for any web designers/developers out there. Each one backs up the suggestion that these are packaged, templated products (which also suggest that £999 for a website from BT may be a tad on the expensive side).

Portfolio

Handily, BT provide a nice portfolio of pages that they've built including eCommerce and content managed sites. Of the ones I checked, the majority are no longer available - even though they're 'new' websites - and several are built in tables. Strike two, BT.

As for the CMS/eCommerce software, we'll come to the later.

SEO - or 'BT Website Manager'

BT provide their own SEO solution, called 'Website Manager' which has several different options, and requires a minimum 6 month contract. Interestingly they outline the 'sessions' that they will cover when training you to do SEO for your website including using 'Google Keyword Tool' to perform keyword research, link building through directory submissions and article marketing, and learning about PayPerClick.

Their BT SearchSmart option, for Pay-Per-Click ads, seems to be a fixed price of £300 a month. I'm not sure how they can charge a fixed price, when they don't even know what you need. Strike three, BT, and your website is OUT.

So, let's give them a call to find out more!

The phonecall

I spoke to a very friendly salesman called Peter. He's one of just three salespeople who work for BT Websites, in their Edinburgh-based callcentre. I say salesperson instead of Web Expert (which is what they call themselves) because it was obvious from the outset that the first 8 minutes were completely scripted. He asked questions about what my business was about, whether I had a domain name, and so on. I then asked him to explain the service, and afterwards, asked a few specific questions. Here are the highlights. Where I've quoted, they're direct quotes by BT.

"With small agencies, they will charge you a set price, and you don't know what you're getting"

Yup, that's right. According to BT, small agencies charge a set amount, "say, £5,000", and don't really tell you what you're getting, because they don't know your business. He did know my business, however, because he had asked 4 questions about it beforehand.

"We don't make much money from building websites"

When I asked him why, if that was the case, they're building websites for people he explained that they "think about long-term" - whilst they might not make money to start with, helping you start a business will hopefully lead to more BT business (phone lines, business broadband and so on).

I remain skeptical however, as a templated eCommerce website for £2,000 should make them a few bob.

"We provide custom quotes - not black-and-white prices, like smaller agencies"

I'm fairly certain the only customisations you would get in your quotes with BT is addition/removing features, rather than actually negotiating costs, as you would with an agency.

"We train you to run and manage your own website, so you don't have to keep paying a freelancer or designer"

There will always be things you want to change in the future that require a bit more knowledge than simply using a CMS unless literally everything is changeable within the CMS. Which it won't be.

"With small agencies, they simply don't have the support structure. We're a big company, and we have lots of resources"

I know plenty of agencies (us included) who are more than equipped to help businesses of all sizes with their needs. It's obvious that BT are using their size and brand to push this product, rather than having any actual skill at it.

"If your site is built by a small agency... it will never get found online"

Unbelievably, BT say that small agencies are either useless at SEO, or 'not big enough'.

"We take secure debit and credit card payments - none of this PayPal nonsense"

Yes, that's a direct quote.

As for the SEO front, there were some fabulous quotes in our conversation:

"It is literally impossible for anybody to give a guarantee that they'll get you to page one on Google"

No it's not. It's impossible to guarantee when you'll be on Google or how long for, but a freelancer/agency/whoever is absolutely within their right to guarantee a top 10 position. It just means that when they don't attain it, you'll get your money back (or whatever's set out in their contract).

"SEO just means 'website management'... you need a platform capable of being found online... content written properly... products should have 'titles' against them... website code should be written in conjunction with Google"

I'm not entirely sure I know what that last one even means. In conjunction with?

"You don't need to worry too much about SEO anyway - getting to page one will happen naturally, if you spend the right money with the right people"

Oh boy.

There was no mention of linkbuilding at all, by the way - but he did talk about 'external sources', and rambled on about social networks for a while.

The (even more) shocking stuff

During the call, I asked several questions I already knew the answers to, to see what they would try and sell me.

Q: Why would I come to BT instead of a smaller agency?

A: "They don't have the support or infrastructure to give you the help you need, and they will use 'off the shelf' software which might look lovely, but won't get you found online. Plus, if you get a website built, they will take your money and if you call a week later for some help they will tell you to 'get lost', as they've already got your money."

This is a somewhat shocking attitude toward reputable agencies, especially smaller ones that are incredibly keen on client retention and ongoing service. Plenty of agencies (certainly smaller ones) are more than happy to help people out - clients or not - for free.

Q: Do you have your own CMS system, or do you use open source?

A: "We have our own, proprietary CMS system."

No, they don't. If you look at BT Websites' portfolio and look at some of the example sites, the CMS ones are built into Joomla - a well-known open source CMS - and eCommerce sites use ePages, a reseller CMS system for shopping carts aplenty. I haven't seen one site using a BT CMS (but I'm willing to be corrected if anyone finds one)

Here are some examples of Joomla-built BT sites:

I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but that they should probably be honest about what they're doing.

So that's BT's current 'Websites' offering. To be honest, they're no worse than the 'cowboy-builders' of our industry, but they seem to be using their household brand name to peddle substandard quality websites that people could find for free.

Has anyone used BT Websites so far? Have you been happy with their service? Did they tell you to 'get lost' after building you a website? (I bet they didn't, I hear that only small agencies like us do that sort of thing.)

Tom Haczewski
This blog's author

Tom is our Head of Web. He likes bacon, cats and geeking out.