Too often, my clients tell me “I want a website that looks like X Company’s website.” I look up this other website, and find that they’re in direct competition with my new client. When we talk about things, it turns out that the client is very serious about wanting their site to look like the competitor’s site – as they look at the site, they love every component of it, down to the photo and the logo. And, they want their site to be just like that.

As I’ve dug deeper into these feelings with them, it often turns out that the competitor that they’re referencing to is someone they respect, and even look up to. Sometimes, it’s because the competitor is wildly successful, and the business owner really hopes to be. Other times, it’s because they do great work.

It’s good to have companies to look up to and model in that way, but you won’t see great results of your own if you copy their marketing approach and style exactly. You probably remember your grade school teachers hammering home the “don’t plagiarize” message – that if you did, there would be dire consequences – failing the project or even getting suspended. And, I know my teachers made it clear that even if you didn’t get caught, bad things would happen to you. And, those lessons also taught us to be suspicious of anything that looks too closely copied.

Imagine that you’re a web surfer, out researching the services that you sell. And, in your search, you come across your own future website, created to look very much like your competitors. You read the site, impressed by the great design.

But, then you go back to do more research, and you wind up on the competitors’ site. As you look around, you have this feeling of deja-vu. Weren’t you just here? Are these two companies related? What’s going on here? You get more and more suspicious, and both companies lose your trust and your good will – you wind up taking your business elsewhere because of it.

That’s definitely not the reaction that you want your website to create! Modeling does have a place – I recommend that you visit and study your competitors’ sites to learn from them. Learn about the types of pages that you might include in your site. Look at the forms, samples, and resources that they’ve made available. But, when it comes time to design your site, put those references away and create a site design that’s truly your own – based off of your Brand Definition and your logo and Visual Vocabulary. It will help you to stand out in the field instead of blending in.

Another thing to watch your competitors’ sites for is the overall quality and complexity. You want to make sure that your site is on the same level as, or looks better than, your competitors’ sites. If your site looks amateurish and all of the other sites in your category look really amazing, then your site’s performance and overall pull will suffer.

And, if it’s the norm in your industry to have very in-depth sites, with many pages of information, and you develop a very simple site of just a few pages, that can backfire as well. You want to create a site that will answer your visitors’ questions and allow them to do an apples-to-apples comparison of your offerings to your competitors – so make sure that your site has comparable levels of information available for them to read.