When a new client engages us for work, one question surfaces time and time again: “You know, I really like Company X’s website. Can we just make it look like theirs? Is copying a website okay?”
At first, I was really surprised by this question. I thought clients would be more focused on creating something original and unique, but much of the time, that does not appear to be the case.
In this article, we’ll take the time to explore some of the assumptions that undoubtedly lie behind the question, how we approach this issue at NorthMac Services, and what you can do to ensure you get the website you really want in a legal and ethical way.
The Similar Site Problem
In the early days of website design, there were very few people with the skillsets necessary to creatively bring something to the web.
It was a new discipline that self-taught coders were embracing, and if you were not the kind of person who wanted to bury themselves in books and courses about designing and developing for the web, you didn’t even touch it.
Today, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. And not for the better, either.
According to them, building your own professional website does not have to be complicated, and it requires no special skills at all. If you can use a social media site, you can build your very own website. Easy peasy.
Now—whether you should be using these tools as a business owner is a philosophical question that we’re not concerned with right now. (Though spoiler alert, I think if you value time as much as money if not more, you should not waste it building your own website.)
In truth, the answer for most people probably lies somewhere in the middle. While a hosted pagebuilder solution like those will work for a certain kind and size of business, many will find they need something more custom.
But—and helpfully so—we are beyond the days when a business owner must rely on a person who can design and code completely from scratch. In between the “Code from Scratch” and “No Code” options lies what companies like ours and many others specialize in: A “Code When Necessary” option.
We use the world’s most advanced and popular Content Management System (CMS), called WordPress, as the foundation for all of our websites. And then we use a theme/pagebuilder called Divi (Elementor is another popular one) to get a head start on the design and development.
Most of our websites are probably handled with 80-90% Divi and 10-20% code, which of course varies depending on the needs of our clients.
While this works for us, there is a pitfall many companies fall into. Since Divi and other themes, while highly customizable, start with the same basic template for a foundation, those lacking skill in customizing that template will end up creating sites that look relatively the same.
We call this the “Similar Site Problem.” Defined, it’s something like this: Many websites look so much the same they look and feel like using a template, but are just different enough that it doesn’t look like they were intentionally copied.
Is that the end of the world?
No. Of course not.
But it’s not what you’d expect from a company charging thousands for dollars for a website.
You’d expect some originality in design, or at least some intentionality in using design elements from other websites that would work well for your brand.
All that to say, if your going to copy a website so that it looks like another one, it should be intentionally rather than as a byproduct of lacking skill on the part of the designer.
But, Should Your Website Look Like Someone Else’s?
We take an educational approach with our clients. So we always ask questions like: “Why?” “Should we…?” “What about…?”
So if you’ll humor me for a moment, I’d like to explore whether it would even be wise to make your website look like someone else’s.
By the way, we try to avoid double-talking around here. In another post, I described how we do not even host a public portfolio of our work, for the simple reason that I do not want to constrain the possibilities that prospects have about what is possible. Seeing isn’t believing. Believing is seeing.
In our experience, there are a few reasons you may want to copy another website. Maybe you can relate to one of these:
- It’s easy to visualize—perhaps you do don’t see yourself as being very creative, so it’s hard to cast the vision.
- You think their site is successful. If it’s working for them, it’d probably right for you too—right?
- The design doesn’t require much thought, so as long as it looks halfway decent, it’s all good.
The above items are assumptions. And nothing more.
Creativity is not just about the design aesthetic. It’s a reflection of your overall brand, and as long as you can explain that to a competent designer, you should not have to cast specifics about the vision.
Is their website successful? What does that success look like? Is it truly attributable to the look and feel of their website, or something else? Unless you have specific insider knowledge, this assumption should be carefully considered.
How much thought goes into the website design? Quite a bit. Not just because we want it to look good—and we do! But also because we want it to be effective.
Every time we send over a design concept, for example, we include a 15-20 minute Loom video explaining the design choices. We’re looking at website accessibility, conversion factors, clarity of content for first time visitors, the overall brand story, and more.
Copying a website, while perhaps not the end of the world, is definitely not doing anything in service of your brand. And in a very public world like ours, everything you do will either help or hurt your reputation.
Modeling vs. Stealing
Before we discuss how we handle this with clients, we need to talk about the difference between modeling and stealing.
I first learned of this distinction from a marketer named Russell Brunson, though I’m sure the insight can be traced back much further.
The chasm between modeling something that works and stealing something that is not yours is Grand Canyon wide. The former is good business, legal, and ethical. The latter is theft, illegal, and unethical.
What does stealing look like? It’s pretty simple: If you basically copy another site’s (and therefore another company’s) exact page design and wording, but slap your logo and colors on it, it’s stealing. And everybody knows it.
(Including, by the way, search engines, which have the ability to tell who’s page came first and will always prioritize that one (called the canonical link).
Modeling, on the other hand, is what all great artists and thinkers do. In some way, everyone’s work is built on the shoulders of those who came before. Whether our insights differ entirely or build upon them, it’s impossible to ideate in a vacuum.
In that sense, it would be virtually impossible to build a website from scratch without using at least some elements from other websites.
And if that’s the case, then it cannot be considered stealing to copy elements of another website’s structure and wording to use in service of your own.
The NorthMac Process for Modeling Other Websites While Making Yours Unique
So, how does that actually shake out in the design of the site?
Since you asked, I’ll explain the approach we like to take.
1. Whatever You Do, Don’t Steal
Once again, stealing is wrong, unethical, and even punishable by law.
Don’t do it.
If you choose to work with us on your project, we will not let this happen, so there’s no need to worry about it.
Instead of stealing, we will take a modeling approach as well as honing in on the unique design and wording elements of your brand.
2. Sample, Select, Scrap
This is the fun part.
First, we sample.
When we first onboard you as a client, we will send over a website design questionnaire.
This questionnaire is filled out completely online, guides you through the entire process, and is quite helpful in giving us an overall design direction for your website.
That questionnaire will ask a few questions that help in our modeling approach.
It will ask for the website of up to three competitors. This arms us with the firepower needed to see what is working and not working for those already in your space.
Then, it will ask for you for up to three websites that you personally find appealing.
Then, we select.
The questionnaire will ask you what you like about them and what you don’t like about them.
Do you like the way they said something? The way the pages are structured? The way something looks? A particular aspect of their marketing?
Do you hate the “voice” of the website? The color scheme? Something else?
Be as descriptive as possible in helping us understand what you do like, what you don’t like, and why.
Finally, we scrap.
It’s time to throw away any other details about these websites, never to be mentioned again.
At this point, our task is to take the elements that you like and don’t like, factor them in with the rest of your wishes from the questionnaire, and make something that is completely unique to you.
But we can’t—and don’t—stop there.
3. Results-Focused Modeling
The only thing that ultimately matters about your website is whether it is accomplishing the intended business result.
In the past, I’ve worked with clients who gave lip service to the fact that they wanted their website to be successful and produce real business results, but when it came down to it, they were willing to sacrifice that potential on the altar of a design preference.
We strongly urge against this mindset.
We spend our daily lives wrestling with design, copy (wording), marketing, and making really tough decisions.
For example, we know that Google will penalize a website that is not accessible for as many users as possible. So we can slightly change that color of green to use as the background for a button, helping (1) the maximum number of people be able to see it so they can click it and (2) Google to continue sending qualified leads your way.
So while you may have worked for hours and found just the perfect color green, it might be that color just will not work for your website. You should be willing to make those tough decisions that are ultimately better for the business.
As we are in the modeling process, then, we are always keeping an eye on the results. If something you like about another website is going to cause problems for the results of yours, we will urge you to reconsider adding it.
If a competitor’s website make a results-driven decision that you didn’t note, we might look at that and suggest something similar!
When we’re focused on taking your ideas, our ideas, and the ideas of those in a similar space, we can truly create something unique to you while honoring the good work done by those who came before.
So to answer the question, then, you can legally and ethically make your website look like someone else’s by:
- Refusing to steal their work.
- Modeling what you like and discarding what you don’t like.
- Cultivating a results-focused mindset.
If you like this approach and think you may be interested in working with us to accomplish your goals, please fill out our request a quote form, and we’ll be in touch.