A rule of thumb in any business is to look at competitors and if they are successful, do what they do.
I now give you this flashback from your childhood: If ALL of your competitors jumped off a cliff, would you?
There are some business people who understand that copying competitors does not necessarily make a good business; there are others who live and die by copycatting. Frankly, when to copy and when not to copy is often situational. In other words: it works in some situations and in others, not so much.
This is very true in web design too. One of the techniques many web designers use is to have their clients look at other websites and then “send me a list of sites you like and why you like them”. The technique is good, because it helps us start to understand our client’s tastes and how they perceive the world around them, allowing us to make a website that reflects the client’s personality.
The technique also often leads us to situations where a client finds a site they fall in love with that may not be ideal for their situation. The client’s response is often, “but my competitors all do it”. Sometimes, regardless of their success, your competitors might be doing it wrong.
For example, some come to me wanting a full Flash site. This is typically a bad thing for many businesses for a variety of reasons (which I will address in some future post). The point is: if your web designer says “here is why you should not do such and such” it can be a good idea to listen to that. When in doubt, do a little research to back it up.
Don’t follow your competitors off a cliff with your website. It doesn’t need to look the same or function the same. This is not to say that we should do a completely different site; there may be elements of their site which is good for you too. And a good web designer should be able to know which ones to use and help you understand why too.