“How much will it cost?”
That’s the first question I get asked by a prospect.
“How much will it cost?”
That’s the last question I get asked by a prospect.
I’ve asked it. I bet you’ve asked it.
It’s a fair question; after all, you’ve got to make smart investments in your business and you can’t jump into a project blindly. But asking how much a website costs is a bit like calling your contractor and saying, “I want you to build me a house. How much will it cost?” He’d look at your cross-eyed for a while and then ask you a million questions about how many rooms, what type of flooring, whether you’ve already purchased the land or not… all of which have very real parallels when it comes to building a website.
To make matters worse, there can be a huge gap between the costs you get from different developers. Why is one offering a website for $500 and another asking for $5,000? Is one stupid, or the other a scam artist? How’s a person to make a smart decision?
What should a website really cost?
I’ll save you the effort of reading all the way through to the end if you’re here for “the answer”: there isn’t one. There isn’t ONE answer for the same reason there isn’t ONE website that looks, functions and evolves like every other website.
There are some very real and relevant things that you should consider and a few things to know about how pricing works. Read on to get the inside scoop so that before you ask the question next time, you’ll be armed with information.
The Preamble: Where Does The Cost Of A Website Come From?
In a DIY world, most non-developers don’t understand the work that goes into building a website. There are plenty of tools that let you drag-and-drop your way to an online presence in a few hours and call it a website.
That’s not the kind of site I’m talking about.
I’m talking about a website that reflects your business, your goals, your brand. I’m talking about a website that adds value and is a strong tool in your marketing arsenal. One that is optimized for search. One that works across browsers and operating systems. One that doesn’t stick you with another company’s logo at the bottom of it because you got it for $49.00 and now you’re obliged to perpetually advertise someone else’s brand.
So assuming we’re not talking drag-and-drop, “stick your logo here” types of websites, let’s talk briefly about what goes into building one.
Content. Whether you pen a few paragraphs or hire someone to do it, it’s got to be written, organized, keyword optimized, human being optimized, spell-checked and proofread.
Photos. Whether they’re original or stock, someone has to find, organize, retouch and properly size and output them for web.
Design. There’s high end custom and there’s minimal, but someone has to consider colors, fonts, graphics and how they all work with your brand.
Structure. Someone has to think about pages, navigation and usability, and the best way to get users from here to there.
Layout. Headers, footers, sidebars, call-outs, pull quotes, opt-in boxes, social icons. These things don’t magically place themselves on the page, nor should they be stuck somewhere haphazardly.
Optimization. Beyond keywords, there are considerations for code quality, site speed, meta data.
Functionality. Opt-in boxes don’t program themselves. Nor do contact forms, shopping carts or other features. There are fundamental questions like “what happens if…” and “then what?”
Compatibility. With half a dozen common browsers and twice as many versions, multiple operating systems and platforms, not to mention mobile, someone has to make sure your site works.
Launch. Someone has to install your site on a hosting server, set up the DNS, get your analytics, Webmaster tools and sitemaps in order and make sure everything is working in real life, including all those opt-ins and contact forms.
If this sounds like a setup for “…and that’s why a website has to be expensive!” it’s not. It’s just the practical reality of building a site. There are things to do and things to consider. These are just some of those things and they all go into determining a cost.
Things That Can Affect The Cost Of A Website That Have Nothing To Do With The Website
All things being equal (same site, same requirements, same amount of work) there are other things outside the project itself that can impact cost.
Geography. If you ask a company in New York to give you a price for building your website, they are probably going to give you a higher cost than a company in New Jersey or Maine or Wisconsin. Are they scamming you? Probably not.
The cost of living in New York is pretty high. So is the cost of doing business. A company covering its SoHo rent necessarily has to charge a higher rate than one run virtually out of a couple of home offices.
Sometimes you have to make your decision, not based on cost, but based on value – which company do you want to work with? Which one has the most experience, the best portfolio, the most responsive people? A higher cost should not disqualify a company if that’s the one you’re confident can get the job done.
Experience. A less experienced person may charge less because he doesn’t have the full-blown skill of a seasoned professional. That’s not to say he’ll do a bad job, but it’s always a risk when you’re working with freelancers who build websites “on the side”, self-taught “learn web design in 21 days” types and people who are just starting out in the industry.
If cost is a big factor it might be a risk worth taking. Just do it with your eyes open and don’t expect things to be as thorough as they might have been with a more experienced professional.
Experienced developers can charge you more because they bring the weight of their expertise to bear on your project. An experienced developer may be able to do your site in half the time and charge twice as much, but remember you’re dealing with value and not cost. You should expect an entirely different experience and result.
Size. Of the company, that is. If you’re comparing costs between a single developer and a company, chances are the company price is going to be higher. Why? It has more to do with expertise than overhead.
In web development there are many skills. There are Photoshop and design skills. CSS and HTML skills. Copywriting and SEO skills. Programming skills, with subsets of skills across a vast array of programming languages. It’s unlikely that a single person can excel at all of these. So when you’re working with a single developer, you are naturally limited by what that person has in his skill arsenal.
But when you work with a company, you have a team of professionals, from project managers, copywriters and testers to CSS experts and programmers at your disposal. In this case, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. It pays to consider your project needs before you jump at a particular cost option.
You. Here’s a little pricing secret among developers: annoying people get higher price tags. Now, I’m not saying this is you, but if it is, your developer is probably sitting in a dark room right now pulling his hair out and wondering just how much he needs to charge you to cover the cost of his stress-induced therapy.
Part of development is project management and if evidence indicates that you’re one of those picky, indecisive people who will disappear for months on end, hold the project up then show up with instant demands and want the shade of blue changed with each revision – well, you’re just going to pay a price for that.
Relationships. The world is built on relationships and you can probably negotiate a lower cost if you have a good relationship with your developer, if you’ve gotten a referral from a friend and can do some name-dropping or if you simply find a developer willing to work out a deal with you.
Remember, this is a service industry. There is no widget price. Costs are based on the factors I’ve mentioned here plus “going rates” and about a dozen other little nuances. So don’t be afraid to talk to a developer about the cost. But do keep in mind that there’s a limit to negotiation and a developer who offers you the $5,000 site is unlikely to come down to your $500 budget. At that point you should probably reconsider your goals and budget altogether.
Now That You Have Bit Of Background, Let’s Talk Money
Pricing is not a magic, secret recipe. It’s just the cost of doing business, plus the value of expertise, plus the time needed to complete a project in a particular set of circumstances with a particular set of requirements.
This pricing is based on what I’ve witnessed in the industry, what my company does when it comes to pricing and what I’ve seen works and doesn’t work in the real world.
No doubt some people will cry in outrage about such high prices and some will lament that I’ve given the industry a bad name by coming in so low. But I’ve worked with developers across the country, many good, a few bad, and this is the best consensus I can give you. This is what my competitors will tell you, too… minus a few bucks so they can appeal to your cost-conscious side.
I’m taking a “stacked” approach here, which means that as the price range goes up, you can assume that you get everything in the previous range plus some additional goodies. Of course, this might not be the way it works in the real world. For example, your site may have some specialized programing requirements that put you in a higher price range, but you may already have your logo and branding guidelines so you don’t need any additional creative work. Such is the challenge of creating a budget for a website!
This is most likely your entry-level range. In this price range you can expect a decent professional to put together a site for you that includes common functionality such as a content or image slider, contact form and opt-ins, photo gallery, blog and a branded design. Even at an entry level you should expect basic optimization. That means your site is built to current code standards and optimized for speed, functionality and fundamental search requirements. While your content may not be optimized, the rest of your site – from basic meta data to sitemaps and other essentials – should be.
What you will not get at this level is copywriting or any content creation. You should come prepared with whatever content you want on your site and that includes copy, photos, videos or whatever else you need, plus your logo and branding requirements.
The bottom line: this is where you’ll be if you’re just getting started, a small service business, or one without ecommerce or data management requirements. Plus platforms built in CMS afford you the convenience of content management without the added expense of custom programming. It’s often a good place to start on a redesign, since you likely have your logo, branding and content ready and will only need to tweak and perhaps reorganize it.
In this range you can add a fully customized design. This is where you get to sit down with an actual designer and talk specifics when it comes to branding, style and layout. Custom sites tends to be more time consuming to plan and build, so if you have specialized site requirements whether for design or functionality, you can expect to hit the higher end of this range.
You can add basic ecommerce in this category but don’t expect too many bells and whistles.
The bottom line: this is where you’ll be if you want to move past a basic design and if you’ve got fairly simple ecommerce requirements and don’t need anything customized like inventory management.
In this range you can get quite a robust website with accommodation for more custom requirements when it comes to programming, photo galleries and portfolios, forms, or other functionality.
You should also be able to get some keyword optimization here and depending on the size of your site, you may also be able to sneak in some copywriting. As with the last price range, you should come prepared with your branding materials.
The bottom line: think of this in similar terms to the previous category but with “more stuff” and a couple of added bells and whistles; perhaps multiple photo galleries, quite a few product pages, or more complex user forms. It’s also where you want to be if you need someone with a copywriter’s eye to kick your content up a bit.
In this price range you can sit back and relax because you can afford to work with a copywriter who will take care of content creation and full-on optimization for you.
It also buys you sit-down time with a designer, not only for your website, but for logo and branding development plus mobile considerations, too, although it won’t necessarily afford you anything specialized like custom photography or video.
The bottom line: this is sort of the all-inclusive vacation of websites. It’s where you want to be if you want to take more of a “hands-off” approach to your website and let the professionals deal with everything from the creative to the content to the optimization and construction, with some bonus collateral materials like business card and letterhead design.
In this category you can reach beyond “website” into “application”. This is where programming and functionality become so custom that your site is built purely to satisfy your business needs. Very specialized content management systems, inventory management, integration with third-party APIs and other special functionality come into play here.
You can also get a pretty robust ecommerce site with inventory and specialized content management that caters to the nuances of your product line and pricing scenarios. Just remember, the more requirements and the more little details and functionality you add to your project, the higher you go on the price scale.
You’ll get a fully customized design in this category, including mobile and, if you need, branding. However, copywriting at this level becomes more complex as you are likely dealing with product descriptions or other unique types of content so I haven’t included that here.
The bottom line: if you’re a retailer, distributor, manufacturer or other corporate entity with specialized data management or ecommerce needs, this is the place to be. In this range, your developer will create a project specification that details your website needs and then build around them.
That little “+” is enough to mean “whatever you want, sir”. If you’re in this price range you probably aren’t too concerned with budget anymore and there isn’t really a point to discussing limitations.
The bottom line: if you’re a corporate entity with serious internal and external requirements, or maybe a startup with funding and an experimental idea, you can reach for the stars.
What A Website Should Not Cost
$500. If that’s what your site cost, I bet you’ll find at least one fuzzy pixelated photo, at least one mis-programmed form validation, at least one missed optimization opportunity. Maybe you can get your blog set up for $500, but you cannot build a professional web presence for that little. Even an unskilled developer charging $50 an hour can’t put together an optimized, functional, professionally branded site in 10 hours. Please do not tell me how you know someone who did it because I promise you won’t want me to look at that site and pick it apart.
How To Decide If The Cost You’ve Been Given Is Fair
So now that I’ve given you some pretty broad ranges and a lot of variables to think about, how do you take that and translate it into something that makes you feel confident signing on the dotted line and starting your project?
For starters, if you’re comparing costs between developers, make sure it’s apples to apples – you may not be able to do it exactly, after all there are a bunch of subjective factors involved as we’ve discussed – but you should know what you’re getting in terms of feature set and functionality. Then take into consideration the experience and portfolio of the individual or company you’re looking at hiring, the attention you can expect to receive and the general rapport between you and a potential developer. Even if the cost is perfect and everything else seems right on paper, you may want to think twice about hiring someone if you don’t feel that somewhat ethereal sense of connection and comfort.
Finally, you should consider one of the biggest and most often neglected questions…
…and then what?
Once your website is built, you’re barely part of the way there! You need an “and then what” plan for making sure your site is hosted securely and your data backed up properly. You need a maintenance plan, whether that’s you on a WordPress CMS or your developer making changes for you periodically. You need to stay on top of errors and alerts in your Webmaster tools and you need to get out there and market your website, track its progress via analytics and keep making changes as you learn what your visitors want and need.
That may be the job of your developer, your marketing company or simply you, but it’s certainly something to think about.
At the end of the day, I want you to approach your next web project with a bit more information than you had before so you can read the bottom line on your next proposal and feel confident that you’re being neither stupid nor swindled. With these guidelines, I hope you now have a place to start.
Are you freaked out yet? Do you find my ranges absurdly high or insultingly low? Are you still thinking, “yeah, but what about…?” Let me know! I’m happy to answer questions.