Are Websites a Commodity Now?

There has been rapid change in the website design and development field over the past two decades, and we are entering into an age where the website is losing ground and looking more and more like a commodity.

What is a Commodity?

To start this conversation, we need to have a functional idea of what we are talking about. Like many terms, “commodity” is used in slang and jest to disparage a product, but in our case we want to use it in its full literal sense. This is from Investopedia:

A commodity is a basic good used in commerce that is interchangeable with other commodities of the same type. Commodities are most often used as inputs in the production of other goods or services. The quality of a given commodity may differ slightly, but it is essentially uniform across producers.

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So the basic idea is that this product has three fundamental qualities. First, it is interchangeable from one producer to another. No one holds a patent on the product and the products are universally similar across the board.  Second, they are used to produce other things. Flour is a commodity because it is used to create so many different baked goods, like donuts, which are a perfect, puffy, delicious example of this attribute.  And lastly, changing the the quality of the product does not increase the value substantially enough to give one producer an edge over another.

Why Websites Are Starting to Look like Commodities

With the definition above, it’s pretty simple to support my claim on websites becoming a commodity from the agency world.

First, they are readily interchangeable.  With the proliferation of WordPress over the last decade, and other online WYSIWGY platforms, sites can be modified, moved, worked on, and operated by just about anyone in the industry. Leaving certain platforms aside, like Mageno and other big ecommerce sites, the basic website is interchangeable.  It used to be you looked for WordPress shops, or Drupal shops, and you still can, but the impact I feel is very minimal at this point. The value proposition is less about the product and more about the lack of knowledge in the buyer.

The second point becomes a bit more philosophical. Websites are used to create other things. The website is rarely a destination in itself. Ecommerce sites support selling; consultant websites invite  relationship. So websites are simply the conduit for the interactions and never an end in themselves. This is why bounces from a site are not a good thing. Very few sites in our domain serve a purpose besides spurring visitors to action for deeper interaction.

I think this argument could be poked and prodded, and rightfully so.  There are many examples of websites that are ends in themselves, containing value in themselves. But as I approach this argument, I’m looking for macro trends, not one-off instances that disprove the absolute. So yes to all of those outliers, but overall in the mass of businesses that exist and have websites, many are commodities in being no more than a platform for goods and services.

And for the last defining attribute, namely the quality of websites being universally the same, this is where the website designers and developers will start to pick up their pitchforks and light the torches. Again, there are great outliers in this argument, but if you plotted a million websites on a graph, you are going to have a very tall and specific bell curve showing that many sites are generally similar in quality.

I point again to WordPress. Not just this platform, but the adoption of platforms and code bases such as Bootstrap in mass. All of these have created great efficiency in our coding and development practices, but in many ways have leveled the playing field for all agencies. Show me one professional in the space that still codes everything by hand, anyone? If you can, you’re showing the outlier.  The push towards efficiency has mechanized the development process, pushing the quality to a great level but reaching a plateau.

Where Websites are Headed

The next few short years will show another rapid growth in websites. I think they will become even more accessible, and WYSIWYG tools will eliminate the basic website from most agencies development teams. The big custom CMSs will still thrive, but I have suggested even to my own team that we might be doing only WYSIWYG websites before the end of the year.

The reason is simple. The quality of these tools is surpassing what many people could do on their own. The collective promise of crowdsourcing has reached its fruit with templates and code already available that is better than some custom designed sites. You can get a great looking site for $19/mo, where 15 years ago that site would have cost you $19,000.

Yes, There will still be jobs in website design and development, but it will look much different.

Yes, we will still need designers.

Yes, coders do run the tools.

But the dollars and value will flow much differently and will continue to evolve as they look more and more like a commodity.

What You Should Be Doing About It

So how does this affect you?   Now is a great time to rebuild your website. Talk to your developer team about platform and code more than you think you should to understand the future of your code. Will it adapt and grow as the platforms do? Will you really ever need to rebuild it, or can you simply update the design?

These are all good questions and worth diving into as you push on your marketing teams to create better sites. There are more websites than ever before. And more high-quality websites than ever before.

The time is now to jump on the trend of the WYSIWYG website and build a site cheaper, faster, and more beautifully than you ever have before. If you need custom programming, you might have to wait, but you won’t be waiting long.

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