Exploding the Myths of IT

By Fenner Pearson, managing director of Meantime IT.

If you’re going to spend money on IT, chances are you’re shelling out a significant sum, and with every penny counting now more than ever it’s important to make sure you get it right first time.

There are plenty of companies out there who are more than happy to extract as much of your hard-earned budget as they can while promising you the Titanic, when all you really need is a dinghy. And when it sinks, putting right an intricate and expansive system will eat away at even more of your budget.

There’s no denying that some elements of IT are complex and best left to the experts.  But there are some simple guidelines to follow that will ensure you’re not left out of pocket and throwing good money after bad.

Social media – it’s not rocket science

Many people – particularly those that charge for seminars and workshops on the topic – will have you believe that social media is very complicated and difficult and not to be messed with.  In reality, it’s common sense and straightforward – it’s not some mystical science that you need a degree to decipher.

Very simply, social media is just a new way to communicate with your customers and any other people you want to reach.  More importantly, it also gives your customers a way to communicate with you and share their experiences with other customers. It’s no longer enough to issue a carefully worded press-release and expect it to be taken as gospel.   Companies have to be transparent, because if they’re not being honest with their customers, someone else will be.

Social media has made it easier than ever to engage with customers and get their feedback – good and bad – and rather than being a new area companies have to plough money into, it’s actually a very simple, cost-effective way of communicating.

Rob Dobson at Northern Comfort has created a simple slideshow that shows just how easy it all is: What does ‘Social Media’ mean? (and what does it mean for my business?)

There’s no shortcut when it comes to SEO

If you receive a call from a company promising they have a magic solution to your SEO needs, hang up.  There are a growing number of companies who use hard sales tactics to convince you that they have the answer to your search engine optimisation needs, but the reality is there’s no such thing.

The cheapest and most simple place to start when it comes to SEO is to improve the text on your pages.  Page headings, titles, keywords and general content used in the right context and correctly structured not only provide your customers with valuable information, but also act as a way of telling the search engines where to focus.  Repetition and emphasis of your key selling points reinforces what you do in the eyes of your customers AND the search engines.

Don’t be tempted to simply repeat your key words over and over though – not only will it look awful, it will also get you penalised by Google et al, who are more than wise to the clumsy tricks that less reputable SEO ‘experts’ try to pull.  The same goes for hidden text – hiding key words on your web pages in the same colour as the background so they can’t be seen by visitors to the site.  Whatever tricks have been developed, you can be sure Google is one step ahead.

Most important of all, once you’ve risen from page 2452 to the top of page one, you need to be able to back up your top ranking with a great product.  If you can’t come up with the goods when the traffic comes to your site, potential customers will simply leave and never come back.

Read this cautionary tale of US retailer J C Penney’s experience of the SEO snake oil merchants to see just how badly in can all go wrong in The Dirty Little Secrets of Search.

KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid

In the cut-throat world of IT, there are developers who will come to meetings and spend an hour telling you just how complicated everything will be, and therefore more expensive.

But whether it’s a website or business system, simplicity is always key – don’t let your contractor blind you with science.  The clever bits mean nothing if the basic system doesn’t run as it should do, and a decent developer will be able to explain very clearly in layman’s terms exactly what they’re providing.  What you want might not always be what you need – sometimes, it could be a lot less.  So before you waste half your budget on bells and whistles, ensure that your basic systems run exactly how you require.  In design, everything should have a reason for being so just ask yourself – do you need that Flash introduction that can’t be read by text readers or displayed on an iphone?

Even major players like the BBC aren’t immune to being taken in by style over substance.  A recent bug on the BBC homepage meant that it wouldn’t remember your location based preferences, despite the corporation spending more than £60 million on the redesign.

Or take the Child Support Agency.  After spending £456 million on a system, you’d expect it to work, but no, it gets worse – as the working practices of staff and the basic working requirements weren’t taken into account when it was developed, a huge number of cases can’t be handled on the CS2 system, costing an extra £40 million every year to rectify the problems and carry out the extra work.

E-commerce systems

If you’d like to enhance your business offering with a small selection of products to buy on your website, there’s really no need to pay for a complicated bespoke e-commerce system.  Of course, if the main crux of your business relies on selling online, then yes, your own system is a must. But if you’re just complementing your existing business with a few extras then don’t be fooled into thinking you must have a system to rival Amazon’s.  A simple third party payment client such as Paypal or those offered by high street banks can be added to your site with minimum effort, and more importantly for very little money.

Take a look at Tom Avery‘s website – it looks good, it’s effective, yet it was very simple to implement.

Don’t change for change’s sake

If you hire a new IT consultant, he or she may try and convince you that you have to scrap everything you’ve got and start from scratch.  This isn’t always the case – sometimes all that’s required is a few tweaks.  A decent developer will do a proper audit of the systems you already have in place and advise on how you can make them work better, and often all that’s needed is a minor overhaul.

Obviously, antiquated over-complicated systems may need to make their way to the big IT department in the sky, but if your basic system is well-built and well-designed, updating and expanding it will be simple.

Take Entrust, for example.  The social care agency’s payment and administration system is built in such a way that whether they have 10 staff on their books or 10,000, the system will be able to cope without slowing down, crashing or grinding to a miserable halt.


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