Building websites can be a very opaque process to someone outside the technology field. The pricing for building a website can be even more so. This is one of the few industries where there are multiple ways to do something and each way has pros and cons. In addition, each approach comes with varying degrees of costs.
To a business that needs to build out a digital platform without the inhouse knowledge to know what they are buying can be a minefield. Choices a business makes will determine the cost to build, maintain, and expand in the future.
Considerations Before Building a New Website
- Budget: This is a big one. The investment to build a quality website vary widely. The solutions you get for different levels of investment also varies widely. The best place to start is simply deciding how much you want to allocate before talking to developers. Unfortunately, too many businesses do this backward. They meet with a developer and once they see a proposal and price they decide if that is acceptable.
- Features: This goes hand in hand with the budget. What does your website need to do? If all you want is to take the brochure you have laying on your sales counter and create a digital version of it on your website this is towards the lower end of the budget spectrum. It also isn’t effective at all, but that is an article for another day. If you need eCommerce, eLearning, Membership, Interactive forms, customer service, registration, and other types of functionality you begin moving up the spectrum of investment. A good digital marketing consultant can help you figure this out, but you need to do it before you start asking for proposals.
- Maintenance: Websites require care and feeding so to speak. These are not a do it and forget it type of project. An online marketing platform requires new and fresh content and promotion. Websites require software updates to ensure they remain operational and safe from hackers. A business must decide in the beginning if they want to try to do this inhouse or if they are fine with using an outside firm to manage this process. Assuming you won’t need it or that it isn’t important is NOT an option.
- Marketing Integration: How will the new website fit into your overall marketing structure? As many businesses learned and are still learning through the COVID-19 shut down that business that had robust online platforms had ways of still making money and promoting their businesses during the shutdown. Those that didn’t have a site or didn’t integrate it into their operations had a hard time. The short speech is websites need to be the hub of your marketing activities today. It needs to be the core of how you promote and interact with customers. Too many small businesses don’t understand this simple truth and assume slapping up a digital version of a brochure they use is enough. It isn’t. It is a complete waste of money and time.
- Software Integration: Some businesses have ERP, CRM, or accounting software they want their website to integrate with. This can be a very complicated process outside the scope of this article, but if you think this is something you will need to do it is best to bring a developer into these conversations as soon as possible. This can be a very complicated piece of any project with any number of pitfalls and roadblocks.
Once you have given the 5 items above some thought you can begin to have a productive discussion with a web designer. Websites are not created equal and designers/developers come with a variety of skills, experience, and background.
No Industry Standards or License for Web Designers
The barriers to entry for web designers are incredibly low. A few online classes and some free software and anyone can call themselves a web designer. There are no licenses and no standardized approaches to how to build a site.
There are some standards professional designers use when building projects and coding, but not all web designers know or follow these standards and as a small business owner without an understanding of the industry and technology you wouldn’t know if they do it or not.
If you think about it this is rare in the world. Your plumber generally requires a license and must meet certain building codes with what they do, but not so with web developers. Hiring the wrong developer can cost you a lot of money and cause you to have to develop a brand-new website before recouping the investment in the current one.
How to Evaluate a Web Designer
Without industry standards and licenses this process can be hit or miss. That doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do, but it does mean that without the proper background you might find it challenging to select the right one. Please understand that choosing a web designer based purely on price is probably the single largest mistake you can make in the selection process. Instead, you should use a variety of measures to evaluate a designer with the right set of skills, background, and experience. Here are some areas you will want to consider.
Web Designer Background & Experience
What is their educational background? Ideally, they possess a college degree in business, information systems, or computer science. I will probably get hate mail from graphic artists or anyone else that doesn’t fall into one of those narrowly defined fields, but the reality is without a foundation in technology and business. If you are hiring a web designer that doesn’t have both the technical and business skills to truly evaluate your needs you will find your finished project missing something in one of those two areas.
As mentioned above anyone can call themselves a web designer and the process of creating “a” website is not as challenging as you might believe. Creating the right website that solves business and marketing problems, generates useful data, aligns with your business goals, and utilizes the right technology is a different matter.
Websites should be the hub of your marketing and business activities. It takes a knowledgeable web designer that understands both technology and business/marketing to bring this together. Too many businesses don’t understand this concept and think if a website looks good it is effective. This is simply not true. The visual appearance is probably the easiest part of a project and arguably the least important beyond basic branding.
Web Designer Experience Level
How many years has your potential developer been in business? This is an industry where you can literally set yourself up as a newly minted web designer in one day. How would you feel about going to a heart surgeon for surgery and discovering there were no licenses, educational requirements and they started practicing medicine yesterday? A web designer should have at least 10 years or more of experience in the industry.
There are many reasons for this 10-year plus designation. Web technology changes rapidly. The Internet of 2020 is very different from the Internet in 2010. Ten years ago, mobile design was just coming into practice and wasn’t even widely implemented or standardized. Today it is.
Ten years ago, an application known as WordPress was in its infancy and used in limited applications. Today this same platform powers 30% of the Internet and is used by both large and small businesses alike.
Those are just two examples of how much can change in a decade. What will the industry look like 10 years from now? If you are hiring a developer with at least 10 years of experience in the industry you can be reasonably sure they have at least rolled with the punches, updated their skills, and made large transitions across a quickly changing technological and business landscape.
Paraphrasing the Famers Insurance Commercial. “We know a thing or two because we have seen a thing or two”. That is true with web developers as well. A developer with at least 10 years of experience knows their way around the technology landscape and knows multiple ways to solve technical and business challenges.
Conversely, someone hanging out their shingle last week with less than 10 years of experience may know only one way to build a website and may not even have extensive experience in that one approach. They have not yet had to adapt to wide industry changes and challenges. They have not had to learn entire new sets of skills to stay relevant.
Many of these inexperienced developers have limited technology skills, have only one way of doing things, and quickly get in over their heads. They don’t have the staying power of experience to know when one solution doesn’t work how to find and implement another.
You have probably heard the saying if the only tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. In the web development industry, this is a very common practice among inexperienced developers.
Keep in mind 10 years should be the minimum. More experience in this field is better, but less is problematic. Youth is often associated with an understanding of technology. After all, if you can’t figure out how to do something on your phone you usually hand it to a teenager that figures it out in 3 seconds. However, as technology has matured and web development has become like most business fields where knowledge, skills, and experience trump youthful curiosity.
Robust Portfolio of Work
How large is the developer’s portfolio of work? An experienced developer will have a large and diversified portfolio of projects and case studies ranging from small sites to large complicated projects in a variety of industries. You should take time to look through this portfolio and evaluate it based on:
- Visual Design
- Organization of Pages
- Mobile Design
A solid portfolio of work isn’t a full-proof way to evaluate a developer, but it does give you a good idea of the type of work you can expect from them. One note of caution here, with the proliferation of templates and professional designs that can be purchased for as low as $20 or in many cases free the way a site visually looks is not always a good representation of experience or quality of work.
In the web development industry, it is not uncommon for a low skilled and inexperienced developer to purchase a template for $20 or download a free one and slap it up with some of your information on it and charge you hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If you don’t know what you are buying it is easy to overpay for what you get.
I have come across businesses that outlined what they thought they wanted in a website and were quoted everything from $8,000 to $300 dollars. Please understand one thing, an $8,000 website and a $300 website are not equal. If you think they are you are about to make your first critical and costly mistake. With web design as with most things you truly get what you pay for.
It is much more important to evaluate a developer’s portfolio based on how the site was constructed and the functionality it has. Again, as with design, there are shortcuts that you can take here, but they are far less common and making highly functional sites on a robust platform at least points to a developer with some skill.
Web Design Platforms Used
One key question you should ask every potential developer is what platform they build websites on? The answer to this question will range far and wide, but here are a few things you may hear and some information about them.
This is probably the most common answer you will hear. This is a robust platform that has come a long way from its early days. It is estimated that WordPress powers approximately 30% of the Internet. There is a large community of developers and you can get a lot of functionality and a beautiful site using WordPress. It is easy to use and is probably the go-to platform for many freelancers and even agencies. There is a lot to like in WordPress.
The downside to WordPress is it easy to use by new and inexperienced developers because it can often be used to create quick sites with no coding and minimal technical skills. This is a danger because very experienced developers also use this platform and the difference between the two is again knowledge and skills and what they can do with WordPress. Even though two developers may use the exact same platform what you get from each and your long-term success with that platform will very much depend on how it is utilized and the skills of the developer.
An example to consider is that two building contractors can each buy the same tools and lumber. Both can agree to build you a house. The contractor that has been building houses for 10 years and has a deep and broad skillset with a talented and proven team backing him/her up will build a far better house than a contractor that has been in business for 1 year and is still learning and building a team. Both may use the exact same items, but the outcomes at the end will be very different. It is the same with developers that use WordPress.
This is generally used in eCommerce applications. It is a robust platform with a lot of technical capabilities. As with WordPress, you can build some very impressive sites with Magento. The downside with Magento is the number of developers and community that surrounds this platform is smaller. If you choose to build your site on this platform and your developer goes out of business or you decide not to work with them, it may be hard to find another developer or agency that can provide updates, maintenance, or work you may need.
Like WordPress and Magento it is a development platform and CMS (Content Management System). However, it is like Magento in that the number of developers that work on this platform and the user community around it is smaller. Finding support for a site built on this platform could be challenging and expensive.
Wix, Square Space, or Go Daddy Website Builder
These are not web development platforms. These are services offered by the companies that share their respective names. They are very limited in what they can do, and it is like leasing a car. You need to pay a monthly fee every month to keep the website. Stop paying and the site will disappear along with all your content. The options offered are very limited and many of the sites created on these platforms tend to look the same. These solutions are popular with business owners that don’t know any better because the upfront cost is small and to the uninitiated, it *appears* to be a website that looks good.
You are not able to access the actual code on these sites and any functionality you need to add must be purchased directly from the company you bought it from at an increased monthly fee. These “websites” are very difficult to get optimized for SEO and have any number of additional problems. There is a reason they cost $5 per month and advertise like crazy to get new customers. They are worth what you pay for them. If you think this is a viable option to “just get a website up” you are about to make a critical and costly mistake.
Custom Built Website
This is a bit of a catch-all category and the name is not really appropriate because many sites, including those built on WordPress, can be custom-built. However, this was the best name for it. This is a site that is completely custom coded from the ground up. The graphical layout is typically designed from scratch and the backend functionality is usually custom coded using .NET or PHP and uses a Microsoft SQL or MySQL database. This is how all websites were built in the early days of the Internet and still is how most of the Internet is built today. It is a perfectly fine solution, but perhaps not the best for small and even medium-sized businesses.
The reason a company would go this route is that they want a very specific functionality and branding that can only be accomplished with a custom coded site. The downside to this solution is that every developer approaches coding and technical issues a bit differently. If your developer or agency relationship ends you may be looking for another developer and many developers hate trying to follow someone else’s code and thinking. It will take a new developer a lot of extra time and work just to map out how the first person set stuff up. In addition, it is easy for them to miss something, and in the process of adding something new or fixing something, inadvertently break something else.
Another issue is the finished code on your site as it relates to the code used to create it. When a developer writes customized code, they finalize their work by compiling this code so it will run on a web server. That compiled code is not the same as the originally written code. If your original written code prior to being compiled is not available for some reason you would face a huge expense in rebuilding it all over again by a new developer from scratch to make any changes because they didn’t have access to the original.
Quick story, I came across a potential client that needed some changes to a custom coded eCommerce site. Unfortunately, their previous developer had passed away and didn’t document his work or provide copies of the original uncompiled code used in sections of the site. My developer had two choices, charge the client A LOT of money to rebuild this code from scratch or leave it as is. They chose not to change it. Their site still works fine, but they are stuck with not being able to make any changes without building a new site from scratch at great expense and time.
If you don’t have a relationship with your original developer that built your site, you may face a difficult time finding a new one who will pick up where the last one left off. In addition, even if you do locate one, they will likely ask for a budget up front to figure out how the project was originally coded. Any future projects could cost more and take longer and in a worst-case scenario still fail after a large expenditure.
The Ideal Solution for a Website
This is a bit of a dangerous recommendation to make. Please understand doing so means I am painting with an extremely large broad brush without knowing anything about your specific issues or business. So, to some degree, this must be taken with a grain of salt, but it at least gives you something to go on.
I recommend building most sites for small and even medium-sized businesses on WordPress. I further recommend using a developer that has actual coding and technology skills and as pointed out above at least 10 years of development experience with at least 5 of them in WordPress. Most businesses don’t require the extensive custom-coded solutions that warrant a ground-up custom-built site. If yours does this solution is not for you.
WordPress in the hands of a professional and experienced developer that has years of coding and technical experience, professional licenses for plugins and themes, and a talented team of supporting professionals will deliver a completely different experience than an inexperienced, technically challenged non-coder using free templates and plugins. The former understands how to assemble the components to give you an outstanding result. The later will cost you a lot of extra money and headaches in the long run.
How Much Does a Website Cost
This is literally the million-dollar question. The web design industry is the only place you will get someone that will quote $100 dollars for “a website” and other projects costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and both will be worth exactly what you pay for them in most cases.
Over my career, I have worked in agencies on $400,000 web projects for large multinational corporations that took teams of designers and developers months to design and build. It really comes down to what your business needs and the quality of work you want.
You can hire a company from overseas where English is not their first language and let them develop and write all the content for your site for $300 or hire your friend’s teenager who assures you they can build a website and again you will get “a website”, but it will be worth exactly what you paid for it and most likely you will be doing it over again in the near future when you discover all the problems that came with a website at that price point.
In addition, getting a site built is only part of the project. Websites like cars, require maintenance. Without maintenance and updates, they will get hacked or quit working. When that happens finding the foreign firm that built the site or the low-cost provider that charged $300 won’t be available to restore it or maintain it. You will then be forced to start all over again and pay a new fee to do it right the second time around.
Quick story, I received a call from a small business owner that had his website hacked. All the traffic coming into his site from search engines was being routed to a site overseas that sold knock off products from popular brands. As if that wasn’t bad enough the hacker was kind enough to display several X rated pictures and ads all over his existing site. He was a funeral home so you can imagine his panic when he thought about grieving families seeing this if they tried to visit his site. I asked him who developed the site and had he talked to them. That is when I was informed that he had hired some kid he met who charged him $500 to build the site. He couldn’t get a hold of this kid any longer and he was in a panic about what to do.
He probably lost thousands of dollars in potential business from people who saw the disgusting display on his site and left to find another provider. Ouch! I was able to fix his problem by building him a new website the right way. Had he simply hired a professional and reputable developer in the first place and paid the market rate for the site and maintenance this would not have happened, and he would not have lost thousands of dollars in business and had his brand and reputation damaged. Poor choices in this industry have big financial consequences for your business. Ask yourself if you can afford these consequences.
So, again we come to the question of how much it cost to build a website? The short answer is it depends. The longer answer is a professional will need to figure your business needs and how much work is involved. However a good starting point is if you are paying less than $3,000 for a basic site you are probably talking to an inexperienced or desperate web designer that is new in the field, will make several mistakes, and probably won’t be there to help you when things go wrong because they are out of business. The bottom line is professional work by skilled and professional developers is an investment, but it is money well spent and you will be much happier in the long run for having done it. If you doubt that consider the story above of the funeral director. Ask yourself how much did his $500 website really cost him?
Broad Skilled Web Designers & Digital Marketing Consultants
As eluded to earlier an experienced web designer often has a broad range of both technical and business skills. They blend marketing, business, and technical skills together to give you a far better outcome than individuals that don’t have these skills.
They often have a large team of trusted professionals such as videographers, writers, graphic designers, marketers, and other professionals they can tap into when needed. If your web designer utilizes the Hollywood model for their agency, as we do, they can offer you large agency results without all the overhead and expenses of an agency, which will give you a better return on your investment.
An experienced and skilled web designer will charge market rates for their work and by doing so provide a quality solution and be in business for the long run. They will grow with you over the years and be there to support you when things go wrong and make sure your investment pays dividends for years to come.
Hiring a web designer/developer is not unlike hiring any professional for a complex and skilled job. Unfortunately, in an industry with such low barriers to entry and no licenses you need to use other elements to evaluate their abilities.
Basing a project strictly on price is a critical mistake. Assuming if you pay a low price, you got a deal and if you pay a high price you got quality work is not correct. There are low skilled people in every industry and there are unethical people that will charge high prices for that low skilled work. Evaluate your web designer based on a broad set of factors and you will stand a much better chance of coming out happy at the end of the project and in the future.