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How I saved a client $60,000 (or, Where To Tap)

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Long ago--in a more steampunk age--there was a rich factory owner whose factories were sitting silent.  The boiler that powered all of them was broken. He hired expert after expert, consultants and scientist with rooms full of scientific-looking testing equipment. None of them could figure out why the boiler wouldn't hold any pressur

One day, as the factory owner was getting very desperate, an unassuming boilerman with a very small toolbox came to his office.

"I hear you're having trouble with your boiler," the boilerman said.

"I am," the owner replied, "but all of the best boilermen have been through here and none of them have been any help. What makes you any different?"

"Probably nothing," the boilerman said. "How about I take a look at it. If I can't fix it, you've lost nothing."

The factory owner thought for a moment, sighed his resignation, and led him to the boiler. The man looked at it for a moment and opened his bag to reveal a small rubber mallet, a piece of chalk, and nothing else.

"That's it? Where is all of your equipment?" the factory owner laughed.

The boilerman nodded, smiled, and marked a small 'X' on the side of the boiler. He picked up the mallet and tapped on the chalk mark, and the boiler roared to life. The owner was surprised but very excited. 

A few days later, he got a bill from the boilerman for $1000. He called the boilerman into his office.

"What's this?" he shouted. "All you did was tap it with your little hammer! I'd like for you to itemize this bill for me, please."

The boilerman returned with another bill. The owner read it.

"For tapping with the mallet, $15. For knowing where to tap, $985."


There are a lot of schools barfing out web developers at an astonishing rate, few of whom are really qualified for what the industry is about to drop on them. They know all about W3C standards, maybe a theoretical understanding of Section 508, lots of hours on Photoshop and Dreamweaver (hopefully not all in design mode) and BOOM! there's your developer.

Then, not having any practical experience, they'll develop a major site in something like WordPress because it's easy and quick. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as off-the-shelf content management systems have a place and when used properly they can save development time and client budgets. But WordPress is really just a collection of PHP files, and understanding this will save you an incredible amount of hair. Or in my case, $60,000. 

This particular client just wanted their site to be search engine friendly. Optimized for search engines, as it were. SEO. In practical terms, this means letting Google see all your text so it can suck it up and store it away in its vast continent-spanning server farms where the artificial intelligence machines pore over it, scanning for weaknesses and tipping points so they can plot their eventual takeover of the planet.

But they have to be able to see the text first, and if Google can't see your content (because it's behind an AJAX call) then it can't index it and thus it can't begin its global domination. Because for all its vast intelligence, Google's robots apparently do not know how to use AJAX.

So this client's content wasn't getting indexed by Google and their search ranking was falling. They called one major development house who replied that they'd need to move all their content into a different WordPress template in the admin and from now on they'd need to set up their content as one big list that wasn't intuitive to edit at all, but all the content was exposed to Google.

Given that there were nearly twenty different clones of this code (one for each country--hey, I didn't set it up) they estimated that it would take about 40 hours. Per clone. 600 hours. At a fairly low development house hourly rate, that's about sixty thousand dollars.

For that kind of money you could buy your own web developer for an entire year. So they called me for a second opinion. 

I took a look at their code, and realized that there was a much simpler solution. Since WordPress is just a bunch of PHP files, instead of rearranging every bit of content in each clone from the WordPress Admin, I could just add five lines of code that would hide the text on the existing page to a few page templates (but everything else could stay exactly the same) and copy that code across each of the clones. Which I did.

Understandably, the client was very excited. They thought they were looking at weeks of development time, astronomical costs, and a migrane-inspiring kludge of an admin system, and here I'd done most of the work in a few hours without changing anything else about their site. I'm sure they'll be a client for life, suddenly very aware of the difference between high and low hourly rates and the immense value of knowing exactly where to draw that 'X'.

Though now I kind of wish it had taken two or three taps.

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