Misleading Words, Misinformation, and Poor Design Drive Away Visitors and Money

Posted By on October 9, 2014

Photo Copyright: Fotolia

Photo Copyright: Fotolia

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a letter to the editor of my local paper, addressing an issue that arose in the City of Medford, Wisconsin, over restrictions on sex offender residency. In response, a colleague contacted me to ask who would want to live in Medford anyway, given that the City’s website claims it is a progressive community. He was sincere. After visiting the City’s website, he came away with the impression that the City only welcomes those who self-identify as progressives—a common term meant to describe a person’s political viewpoint or affiliation. Is that what the Medford City Council intended when they authorized the language? Doubtful.

I contacted a local realtor, George Zondlo of Dixon Greiner Realty and asked him what the term meant. He assured me that it meant “growing.” Medford is a growing community. Maybe, but any professional web developer worth their salt would have warned the City about using such language. So, what exactly should a municipality or business look for when they’re considering building or maintaining a website? Here are three simple questions to ask potential web developers before turning your cash and your trust over to them:

  1. Do you have a proven background in communication? Anyone can learn a little bit of code and throw together a website. It’s so easy, a monkey could do it. But qualified and competent developers have a background in digital and print communication. They know that language has an impact, and choosing the wrong words can offend and alienate, while choosing the right words can convey a sense of welcoming and community. Ask your web developer if they have a degree in communications or a related field. For instance, I have a B.S. in organizational communications as well as a juris doctor with an emphasis on intellectual property and cyber law. I am a professional editor and writer who has been published in print magazines, college text books, and online. I understand how to use words to craft and send the correct message the first time.
  2. Do you code in html? If the answer is yes, the interview is over. No professional web developer codes in html any more. In fact, html is where beginning programmers start—in middle school and high school. Experienced internet programmers will use a language like php, Java, or JavaScript to build a site. Even if your programmer plans to use a Content Management System (CMS—and if your web developer doesn’t know what that is, show them the door), they will still need to have a working knowledge of an advanced internet language in order to perform efficient updates and keep your site’s security up to recognized industry standards. Only amateurs code in html, and hackers know it. They routinely search out sites that are using html because they are easy to break into. Ask a middle-schooler.  Not to pick on Medford’s site, but the code is html and the developer actually used it to make tables. No professional web developer would do such a thing. It’s sloppy coding. Period.
  3. How will you assess and provide the required legal notices for our site? Privacy notices are required by law. Fail to provide them, and you could find yourself in a courtroom in a hurry. Only a competent web developer with knowledge of cyber law can help you. A professional web developer will assess the purpose, reach, and level of interactivity of your site and craft the appropriate legal disclaimers. If you web developer comes to you with a set of pre-made disclaimers, make certain they either wrote the disclaimers themselves or paid for a license to use them. If not, and the creator of the policies finds out, your organization can and will be liable for plagiarism and copyright infringement. So, please keep in mind that the notices on this site are my sole property. If you need legal notices crafted for your site, I will be happy to discuss developing originals for you.

One last thing to keep in mind if your municipality is considering a designing or upgrading a website: the sovereign immunity of the Eleventh Amendment that prevents States from being sued for money damages without their consent does not extend to municipalities. So, if your city or county is using words that seem to discourage one group of people from visiting or living there, don’t be at all surprised if someone initiates a claim under the Privileges and Immunity Clause of Article IV, or an Equal Protection challenge under the Fourteenth Amendment. Words have meaning, and like or not, a court could find that the meaning behind the words on a municipal website could infringe on someone’s fundamental rights.

About the author

Jerri L. Cook is a recognized leader in rural media. She holds a B.S. in Organizational Communications and a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from Concord Law School. Exceptional legal research and writing is essential to providing effective counsel. With her proven record of excellence, Jerri L. Cook provides effective trial support for attorneys who find themselves with only a 24-hour day. Her background in communications, including content creation and internet programming, complement her academic focus on Cyber Law. E-Discovery can be daunting, but with Jerri L. Cook on the team, digital information is readily discovered and retrieved. Contact her at 715.257.4363.


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