In April of 2012 I published an article called How Much Should A Website Cost?
To this day that post dominates our analytics, outstripping every post before or since in terms of visits.
But that was then and this is now and I often think that it’s time to update that post because three years on the Internet is something like 30 dog years, I think.
Perhaps most significantly, I’ve had the chance to experiment during the past three years with different pricing structures, different packages and different feature sets. I’ve discovered what works (at least for me, my company and my clients) and what doesn’t.
I’d like to share that with you today so that you can be smarter about budgeting and so that you can understand why one guy wants to charge you $500 and the other is asking for $5,000.
First Of All, Let’s Stop Calling It A Website
Yes, it’s a website. But if you want it to do more than sit there and look pretty, kind of like wallpaper or that strange half-vase your Great Aunt Tilda bought you, the one you have to keep on the counter in case she visits… then you have to stop thinking of your website as its literal self and start seeing it as a marketing tool.
A website can have various roles and serve different functions at different points in your sales funnel, from signing people up for your email list to enticing them to buy your stuff and even encouraging them to be evangelists for your products or services, but the point is that it isn’t just a thing.
It has a job.
This Post Is For You If…
You don’t have a website and think it’s about time you got one.
You do have a website but it’s mostly meh and you know your business is better than that.
You have a website but it’s not mobile friendly, looks like it might have been designed in 2003 and works only sometimes.
You have a website but you’re not generating the leads or making the sales you want – or that you used to back when a 2003 website was cool.
This Post Is Really For You If…
You’re that last holdout of a person who just wants a website, you know, “to look legitimate”.
You have a friend/nephew/cousin who knows a guy who knows computers.
You have said – or at any point while reading this find yourself saying – “Yeah but I just need something simple”.
Now That That’s Out Of The Way
I’m going to take a different approach to pricing a website here because I want to help you understand where the price comes from and why it’s important. It’s a little bit of a dangerous approach I admit, because I’m about to, in essence, give you the Chinese menu of websites.
But I don’t want you to view it that way. Rather than pulling out the pieces you **think** you don’t need so you can pay as little as possible, I want you to see how they all work together and how each component contributes to the cost – and success – of the whole.
The Pieces Of A Successful Website
But you already know what you want. You’ve already figured out the three pages, written a blurb about your company and picked out four competitor sites you want to be like.
Planning is one of the most important things you can do. Without fail – and this is about as close to a 100% certainty as you can get on this earth – when I begin talking with someone about their site we uncover a whole lot more than just a need for three pages and a company blurb.
What I uncover is that there are a lot of unanswered questions.
I find that people aren’t precisely clear on their target audience. I find that they don’t have analytics (or have never looked at them) and have no idea what their current website is doing in terms of traffic and performance. And if you don’t know where you’re starting, how will you know where to go?
I find that people have a hard time articulating the problem their product or service solves or why someone would want to buy it in the first place.
I find that people don’t understand what an email list is or why it’s important or how to build it or what to do with it.
I find that sometimes people don’t even know why they want a website or what it’s supposed to do beyond the fact that its 2015 and “everyone has a website.”
I have several pages of interview questions that I go through with clients before even thinking about building a website and you might be surprised by how tough it can be to get to the bottom of what your customers need and how to give it to them via website.
Even in its “simplest” iteration a website has to start with the fundamentals of understanding your business goals and target audience.
What it costs: Loaded question, because this isn’t typically something priced separately, but if I had to make an educated assessment, a “simple” plan can start at $500 (if you’re already pretty clear on everything), venture into the $1,000 range if you need a couple of discovery sessions to get to the bottom of things, right up into the $5,000+ range if you’ve got a lot going on – like ecommerce, membership or other custom functionality.
What goes wrong without it: Low cost websites usually omit planning and expect you to come fully prepared with exactly what you want.
As I’ve experimented with low cost websites, leaving the planning to the clients who think they know what they want, I’ve inevitably discovered that thinking you know and actually knowing are two different things.
What typically happens is the dreaded “scope creep” when my client realizes they forgot to mention this one little thing… and also, wouldn’t it be cool to add that other thing? At this point I have to explain that those things weren’t in the budget but that’s not something anyone wants to hear.
Then words like “nickel and diming” get said and expectations get all up in a knot. Nobody is happy and someone always loses.
Logo & Branding
This part is optional because you may already have your logo and branding in place, in which case you can move onto the website.
Except… maybe not.
I find that even when a business has a logo, they only have the version that’s on their website.
That’s a problem.
The logo on your website is sized to fit on your website. It’s already compressed (which means the quality has been reduced) and there’s a pretty good chance that it can’t be repurposed on your new website.
What you really need is your logo artwork. That’s typically a Photoshop or Illustrator file – not line art in a Word document or a PDF file – in high resolution.
So many businesses have a logo designed but then have no idea where the artwork is. Unless you can turn it up, someone will need to recreate the logo in high resolution so it can be used on your website.
If you don’t have a logo or any branding at all, you’ll want to remedy that before building your website. The colors, fonts and styles will ultimately inform the design of your site.
What it costs: If you lost your artwork and need a logo recreated, it will probably start at $500 for a qualified designer to replicate it. If your logo is complex, that isn’t always possible (or feasible from a budget standpoint) but a designer can help you determine that.
Need a logo designed? Please do not go to Fiverr – not only is the quality fairly terrible but they have a reputation for stealing and repurposing other people’s artwork.
I’ve worked with designers who charge anywhere from $500 to $2,500 for a logo – more for full branding – and sometimes the truth is that you get what you pay for. Higher priced designers tend to look at the big picture – where your logo will appear (business cards? T-shirts?), what size it will be displayed at, how it will look in black and white and more.
You probably won’t get bad work on the lower end of the spectrum but you may end up limiting your options later when you discover that the logo that looks great on your website can’t actually scale to billboard size or looks terrible in a newspaper ad.
And if you’re a small business you probably don’t need to go to the high end of the spectrum, either. Somewhere in the middle are lots of qualified designers who understand fonts and styles, colors and symbols and how to create something that is effective for your business.
What goes wrong without it: I’ve found that when people don’t have a logo they ask me to simply put their company name in text at the top of the site. Which sounds simple until you realize there are hundreds and hundreds of fonts to choose from. Which means that unless you are totally in love with Times New Roman, there’s a whole lot of potential for, “Well, I don’t quite like that one… can we try one just a little less… tall?”
Repeat after me: I cannot write my own web content.
Listen, I’m not saying you can’t write or that you don’t have great ideas. I’m saying that you are probably very good at running your business and that’s what you should do. And leave the copywriting to a copywriter.
There is more to writing good web copy than merely putting intelligent words on a page.
You need to understand your audience and convey the benefits of your product or service to them. You need to tell your story so people will want to do business with you and not with one of the 4,567 other yous out there.
Content is arguably the single most important thing about your website. People don’t buy stuff because you have a cool logo or because you picked a great shade of yellow. They buy because you give them what they want – and let them know that in your content.
I have several (more) pages of interview questions that I use when working with a client on their web copy. They are sometimes equally difficult to answer as the planning questions. It takes some digging and a lot of sweat to understand how to say the right thing. Sometimes I even talk to the customers of my customers. After all, what better way to find out what works and what doesn’t than right from the horse’s mouth?
You are an integral part of the copywriting process. You will need to share your ideas and experience with your copywriter. But your copywriter will know what questions to ask to get to the bottom of what you need to say.
This is also where keyword research and optimization comes in. I’m not going to break that into its own piece because you can’t optimize without content and content is only so useful without optimization. They go hand in hand.
What it costs: It depends on how extensive your site is but let’s assume for most small businesses that if you’re looking at four or five high level pages, you should be thinking about starting at $1,500 for Q&A, discovery, writing, optimization and editing.
If you’ve got 30 product pages or if you’re in a specialized industry that requires research, it will be more. If you have a good plan – part of which is a good sitemap – you’ll be able to gauge how many pages you’ll need and relatively speaking how much it will cost.
What goes wrong without it: This is one of the components I’ve experimented with leaving out of the cost of a website. For the people who wanted it “simple” (ie: cheap) I would give them a sitemap and say, “Go fill in the blanks.”
The problem is that most people are not writers. And even the ones who fancy themselves Hemmingways-in-training still don’t have the time to do it and run a business at the same time.
I’ve watched “simple” website projects lag for months… years… because I couldn’t get a client to give me their About page copy.
The only thing worse than “one-click DIY websites” is stock photo sites.
If you want to throw a stock photo on your blog then go ahead. But if you want to build a website, please stay as far away from stock photos as you can.
This is one of the most overlooked components of a website, perhaps because stock photos are so ubiquitous and cheap that we all run for the nearest photo of “businessman shaking hands” when we’re looking for a background for our home page sliders.
Given how visual the Internet is and the explosion of platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, I’m surprised by how many people forego adding even the tiniest touch of humanity to their websites.
Real photos – of you, your office or business space, your staff, your products or services in action – give your business credibility that stock photos never could.
They create a connection to your prospects and customers and differentiate you from every other company on the planet using a photo of “smiling young customer service woman with headset.”
What it costs: I know (and work with) an amazing commercial photographer who will show up at your New Jersey office for as little as $99 and do an entire photo shoot. I also think he’s crazy.
You may remember him from a recent podcast. His name is Paul Scharff and if you’re in the New Jersey area I’m happy to hook you up.
This is, in part, his passion so he does it because he loves it. But for most photographers making a living, they’ll want to start a little higher.
Photographers may charge anywhere from $500 to $3,000 for an on-site shoot (local, of course).
Price depends on a couple of things, from the length of the shoot to the distance the photographer has to travel to get to you, to how much setup he has to do (lighting, staging, etc.) to how much experience he has doing it.
And most good photographers will provide you not only with the high resolution photos but they will also color correct and touch up a selection of photos for you to use immediately.
What goes wrong without it: Sadly, most people never figure photography into their budget. They assume they’ll spend a few bucks on stock photos – if it crosses their mind at all – and never explore how good photography can leapfrog them ahead of the competition.
And without photos it usually means your website doesn’t look that great. You may have saved a few bucks but you’re not going to be particularly happy with the result. There really is only so much you can do with someone else’s generic photos.
This is where you take all the pieces of the site – structure, content, photos, branding requirements – and make it pretty.
But design is more than just about looking good. It’s about functionality, too. I’ve worked with plenty of talented designers who treat websites as art. And while that sounds pretty nice, it sometimes means they forget that a website has a job to do.
Take those big, lovely home page sliders. Sometimes they look pretty impressive, right? Slick styles and cool graphics with fun things to click on.
But did you know that those are terrible at getting conversions?
Sometimes things that look nice work at odds with things that make sales or get leads. That’s why your competitor’s crummy looking site is doing better than yours even though yours looks way cooler and cost a lot more.
So it’s not always cost that wins here. It’s whether or not you’re working with a designer who understands user experience, calls to action and business requirements. And has an aesthetic eye.
What it costs: the cost for an “artist” can easily start at $5,000. I’ve worked with designers who charge as much as $10,000 for a design. But I’m not convinced they serve your purposes best.
If you’ve got a unique niche or an experiential site or something different going on then maybe you need that kind of designer. But for most of the small businesses I’ve ever worked with, function beats art every time.
A reasonably priced small business website designer may charge anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 depending on how complex your site is and how much “custom” work they need to do vs. working with existing photos and color schemes.
What goes wrong without it: In my experiments with low priced websites I’ve tended to omit this piece. After all, there are tons of premium WordPress themes where for $50 you can have something pretty nicely designed right out of the box.
The problem is that if you’ve ever seen a WordPress theme “out of the box” it looks like a whole lot of nothing at all. Unless you import the dummy content so your site looks exactly like the demo you probably saw, there is literally just a blank page and it’s now your job (or mine) to make it look like something.
It ends up taking a ton of time to mess with colors and layouts and fonts and icons and whatever options the theme comes with and it never quite comes out looking as impressive in the end. I mean, it looks ok. And for some businesses without a budget, ok is ok.
But if you’ve got visions of your site looking like that impressive demo you saw? It’s not going to happen. Because someone designed that demo. And there’s a little more to it than just stealing the graphics and styles from someone else’s website.
The end result is usually a client who looks at their website and isn’t all that impressed.
If you’ve got the plan, if you’ve developed the content, if the logo and brand colors and photos and design are in place then building the site is a piece of cake.
That doesn’t mean it’s a one-click – there is still plenty to do, but at this point the foundation should be laid.
As for the “building”, it can and should include basic optimization (for speed and search friendliness), mobile friendliness, consideration for functionality and in the case of WordPress, ease of maintenance.
Some developers prefer to work with a theme and build the site within its constraints. Others prefer to build custom themes. Either way, it means taking all the pieces and fitting them together in a way that makes sense for you as the business, for your audience as the visitors and for search engines as the means to get your site in front of people.
There’s also what happens immediately after it’s built because “having” a website is not as effective as “having one on the Internet.” That means someone has to get it live on a hosting server. And test it be sure it’s working across browsers and operating systems.
Someone has to set up your analytics and Webmaster tools. Someone has to set up backups and someone has to think about maintenance. None of it is complicated but all of it requires someone to pay attention and to know what they’re doing.
What it costs: This is tricky because you can literally click a button and have WordPress installed in five minutes. And that’s what people tend to think when they think “website” which is why they also think it should be cheap.
If you stripped everything else out – that means you’re working with a preexisting theme and doing some simple configuration with little more than a contact form – I’d estimate you can “build” a site for $500.
But to really build a site, and I’ll continue to use WordPress as an example, incorporating the design, content, photos and functionality – and possibly building a custom theme – it probably starts closer to $1,500.
What goes wrong without it: The problem is that by now I bet some of you are reading this and thinking, “Awesome, so I can write all my own content, grab a few stock photos, hand over my logo and get a site built for $500!”
But that completely misses the point, which is that a business website, one aimed at helping you get leads, get sales, build up your credibility and authority, one that can be found in search engines and is accessible on mobile devices – is not that simple.
The biggest problem is that building a site is the part where most people’s thinking starts and ends. But hopefully I’ve demonstrated that there is lot more to it than clicking a button.
The Bottom Line: What The Heck Does A Website Cost?
In my last post I summed up a few price ranges and I don’t think they are terribly off today, so you can still check them out if you prefer a tiered approach.
What I’d like to do here, instead of telling you what you can get at each price range, is to give you one super solid starting point – not for building your site, because remember, it’s a lot more than that – but for walking away with an end product that does its job.
And that means, for what you might call a “simple” business website with a handful of pages and basic functionality… let’s do the math. I’ll use the lowest price from each section as a starting point.
Planning ($500) and content development ($1,500) and photography ($500) and design ($1,000) and building ($1,500) = $5,000
That’s your base price.
Got more than a couple of pages? Need a logo? Want more extensive functionality? Want a higher end design? More customizations? More photos or photos of multiple office locations? Thinking of ecommerce or membership portals? Want to add video or animations?
You can extrapolate from there.
If nothing else I hope you walk away from this article understanding more about what goes into building a good website so that when you do finally get to the point where someone proposes a cost, you will be better able to recognize why one cost is $500 and another is $5,000.
I know budgets can be tight. And sometimes good enough is good enough. But the more you can think of your site as a whole and as a key marketing tool, the less likely you’re going to be to Chinese-menu it.
Think of it this way: you may own a BMW but without an engine or a steering wheel, it’s only going to get you so far.