What you need to know before getting a website built or upgraded to avoid getting ripped off, or losing a lot more from false economy.
With any significant purchase, it is important to research how much you should expect to pay before making a buying decision. Many businesses pay far too much for their sites, while others pay nowhere near as much as they should (more on that shortly).
Because websites vary so much in their requirements, there is no ‘one price fits all’. Websites have cost anything from a hundred dollars to well over a million. The range truly is that vast.
In this article, I will try to cover the key variables that you want to check for in a quote. That way you can see if what you are being offered is actually what you need, and if the price is fair.
The first question to ask is which CMS (Content Management System) will be used. There are many CMSs out there, and each come with their own pros and cons, including setup, security, speed, ease of use, and ongoing costs.
Most web design agencies have their preferred choice, but essentially the options can be broken down into two groups, SAAS (Software As A Service) or self-hosted platforms.
The most common SAAS options include Wix, Weebly, SquareSpace and Shopify. Many agencies love these platforms as they require no installation, provide many pre-made templates, and are automatically updated. This means they can create great looking websites in very little time, and there is nothing to maintain once handed over to the client.
While certainly not the only self-hosted option, WordPress is by far the most common. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 4 of all websites are built using this CMS. Magento is also a great choice for larger eCommerce stores.
Self-hosted options are generally more costly as setting them up well takes time (and time costs money). Just how well your site is setup can be one of the first big variations in a website’s cost…
WordPress itself is free, and can be setup in less than 5 minutes. Therefore, if used out of the box, it should not really cost any more than using something like SquareSpace. However, to optimise it takes considerably longer, and requires several premium plugins (extra software that comes at a price).
Many cheap sites are built using WordPress, but skip the more advanced setup, or choose to use only free plugins to cut costs, which is a big mistake. WordPress is incredibly versatile and powerful (which is why it is so popular), but it needs setting up properly to make it secure, fast, and search engine friendly.
If a site is not secure it can easily be hacked, and there is a genuine risk of losing your entire site (one guy I know lost 59 sites, simply because he did not have the necessary security).
If your site runs slowly you will not rank as well in the search engines, you will pay more for Google Ads, and it can decrease your conversion rates. Speed is not something you want to compromise on either.
SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is far more complex than just speed, which is why a site needs a lot more work to keep Google and Bing happy. SEO is something that many web designers know little about, and even when they do they rarely quote for the extra work (unless requested) so as to keep their quote low.
So which is better, a SAAS or a self-hosted platform?
There are of course advantages and disadvantages to both, but as a company, we only use WordPress for our own internal projects. We simply prefer the flexibility and control over factors such as speed and advanced SEO settings that we just can’t get from SAAS platforms. For clients, we generally prefer to work with WordPress, Magento or Shopify, depending on their needs.
A third option is custom coding. If you are building a website that has unique functionality, you may find that you either need to get a moderate amount of custom code for a self-hosted solution, or you need to have your site custom coded from the ground up.
Custom code can cost anything from a few hundred dollars to several hundred thousand (as was the case with one of my sites that ended up costing in excess of a million dollars over the course of a few years). Most sites though, should not need custom coding.
With a CMS chose and setup, the focus then turns to content.
Web designers do not usually supply the content, so there is typically no cost for this. However, some will, and if this is included in the price, things will start adding up very quickly.
It is important to ensure that content, especially any sales copy, is written well. I don’t just mean grammatically well, but in a way that engages the reader, and leads them to take the desired action (eg buy something, call you, make a booking, visit your store etc).
Every car dealership knows the importance of a good salesperson. You can have the same stock in the same location with the same prospects and one salesperson will constantly outsell the others. Even if they were to all wear the same suit!
The words you use can sell or lose a prospect. And this is just as true for a website as it is a car yard. Unfortunately, most websites do a terrible job on their messaging and site content. This is because they don’t understand how to do it well themselves, and they can’t see the value in investing in professionally written web copy.
Years ago I was working as Director of Marketing for an online company that would pay $10,000+ for a single sales page. And that was just for the words. Design and page setup cost extra.
When I tell people this they think the company must have been mad, but they knew exactly what they were doing. It does not take long, even with a small increase in conversion rates, for great copy to more than pay for itself. Conversely, bad copy loses you sales every day.
When rebuilding a website, always check if web copy is being included, and if so that the person writing it is a trained sales copywriter (not just a content writer with good English). Whatever you do, don’t be stingy here. Make sure your content is written to sell.
You would think the design is fundamental to web design, but actually, many web designers can build a site with little to no design skills at all. If you already have the logo and a few graphics, they can use an off the shelf template and simply edit the colours to match.
This can be a great way to save on costs, but you should be aware of what you are paying for. If you want something unique, then it will take time. This is especially true of the graphics used throughout the site.
Many designers use stock photos or icons, which help save on costs. And often this is fine. However, if they do need to make something custom, then this can add hundreds or thousands to the final bill (depending on the complexity and number of graphics needed).
One danger with designers though is that they will put aesthetics before usability or conversions. Most designers know how to make things look good, but have little, if any, training in web usability or conversion rate optimization.
This lack of understanding can lead to many design choices that lose customers, even if the site looks great. Design is important, but actually, the usability and messaging of a site are far more important than how good it looks.
This is particularly true for landing or sales pages, and for pages with a lot of content. If text is too wide or too small, if it uses an unclear font or paragraphs are too long, or if there is not sufficient contrast with the background, then your site visitors will just click away before they get to your call to action.
On one of my sites, I spent over half an hour optimising a background image to ensure the text overlaying it was sufficiently clear. To get something that looks good does not take long. To get something that is properly optimised can.
If you are not trained in conversions, it can be difficult to know when you are paying for time well spent, or if you are just wasting money.
I suggest that when working with an agency or developer, ask what design principles they are using to ensure maximum conversions. If they say something like ‘we create clear and unique designs to enhance your brand identity’, or some other meaningless waffle, run.
If they start talking about font size for readability, maximum text width, clear layouts to allow the eye to focus, clarity of message and minimizing animations or complex design to increase page load times, then start listening.
Usability testing is THE secret weapon that will ensure your site significantly outperforms the competition.
Even after having built your site according to best design practices, never assume it is going to work as well as expected. By testing your site with a handful of users before it goes live, you will quickly identify any poor design and messaging.
This process can save you a small fortune in lost sales, and does not need to be complicated. Even so, few web design agencies bother to do any testing at all.
All you need is 4-5 guinea pigs to test drive your site for 30-45 minutes while you ask a few questions. This will soon find where people are getting confused or stuck, ie where you are going to lose sales. (If you are not sure about investing into a new site, try doing this on your existing one – most people are shocked at the results.)
Running usability tests does cost extra. Test subjects need to be paid, trained team members need to observe and analyse the user’s behaviour and feedback, changes need to be made based on the information gained, and then the process repeated.
This may cost anything from $1,000 to $15,000 (depending on the size of the project and the number of tests done), but it is money well spent.
For any site that makes just a few thousand dollars a month, this extra step will pay for itself in no time. Not doing this will cost many times as much within the first year alone.
Perhaps the most common mistake businesses make is to build their website without first considering the marketing. To make things even worse, often the company that builds the site has nothing to do with the marketing.
Why is this a problem?
In short, they are not separate things. A website is a part of the marketing process, and it needs to fit in like a perfectly shaped piece of the marketing puzzle. If there is any disconnect, results will be negatively impacted.
In addition to this, certain types of digital marketing rely on the website to be designed in a particular way to work (or at least give a positive return on investment).
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) needs the site to be built and structured according to very specific guidelines. Google Ads also require the site to contain certain information in order to reduce the cost per click.
Then there is the ongoing marketing requirements for a website. This includes the ability to clone and edit pages easily, advanced analytics integration to get detailed reporting, and the ability to run split tests to continually improve and optimize the site.
When calculating the cost of a website, you need to understand how much time is being spent on planning and preparing for marketing. SEO for example could be minimal, or if it is a larger site in a competitive niche, it could take days or even weeks of work just to manage this alone.
One of the biggest dangers in having a site built or updated is false economy.
Not all websites are created equally, and neither are the results. Many people think that getting a new website is like getting a new car – sure you can pay more, one may look better, but they will both take you from A to B.
A website is a cornerstone to almost all your marketing efforts. If it fails to do its job well, your marketing and advertising costs will be an expense, not an investment. Designed and built well, a website is an investment that will keep paying for itself many, many times over.
Thanks to the advent of website builders like Wix, Weebly and SquareSpace, anyone can build a website these days. And, unfortunately, anyone does.
Because it is easy to make something that looks reasonable, too many business owners try to do it themselves. Perhaps even worse, many amateurs masquerade as web designers when they have no idea of key usability a conversion rules.
As I said at the beginning of this article, this costs the business twice over. Once for the work, and then again in lost sales for the life of the site.
Do not assume that because a website costs more that it is overpriced. But equally, don’t assume just because it is more expensive that it must be better. Many agencies charge far too much (especially many of those using SquareSpace or similar, as often there is little actual work involved.)
Before you commit to a new website, interview the company you plan to use, and make sure they have your conversions and marketing in mind. It will make all the difference…