Lots of large purchases require a deposit; a car and jewellery to name a couple. The deposit is paid for two reasons. First it secures the item preventing anyone else from buying it—and second it shows you are committed to paying the outstanding amount.
A deposit on a website is no different: the web designer can put aside the right amount of time for the project, maybe even turning down or putting back other offers of work. It also shows the designer you are think they are the right person for the job.
Once paid, If you then decide to cancel the web project you would of course lose your deposit. On the other side of the coin, however, at this point the web designer can’t decide they no longer want to do the project and keep your deposit.
One note of caution is never pay a deposit on a site without first signing a web design contract. This will set out in writing all of the above—and it would be legally binding.
Should you be worried about paying a deposit and getting nothing in return? Well as discussed you are getting something for your money albeit no web design work. Perhaps though, you’re worried the web designer will disappear with your money, never to be heard of again.
I’m not saying this doesn’t happen but I’ve certainly never heard of it. Using the examples at the outset you’d have no qualms about paying a deposit on a car or an item of jewellery if the dealership or jeweller seemed reputable. Similarly, only pay a deposit to a web designer who appears credible. Look out for a good portfolio, testimonials and long trading history. Make sure you have their phone number and email address. And most importantly their physical office address. If they are a limited company (like I am for example) their company number and registered office address will be on their site. If it’s not you can obtain it easily from Company’s House WebCHeck service.