March 19, 201911 min read
Want to make a website vendor squirm? Ask “How much does it cost to build a website?”
You might as well inquire about the sound of one hand clapping. The question is impossible to answer with authority. Every business is different, and online pressures unique to every industry shape what a business should do with its digital presence. All that impacts cost.
Instead, ask a more sensible question: “What are the industry-specific requirements that my business must match in order to stay competitive?”
Businesses with the most successful sites answer this question before they set a budget. Their budgets – huge, tiny or in-between -- flow from and respond to those industry-specific requirements.
How do you identify the online requirements that will determine your website cost, whether you’re building from scratch or improving a current site? Take these steps:
Set a digital strategy.
- Leverage the strategy to refresh or build a website.
- Implement consistent strategic changes.
- Repeat steps 1 through 3 as needed.
Step 1: Digital Strategy – Lay the foundation for a return on your investment
Audit your current site and competitors’ sites. The audits will teach you what users do and don’t do on your website and what your competitors do to drive traffic and conversions.
Hundreds of free and paid tools can assist in this research. However, as in any analytical effort, a certain level of understanding is required to make the most of the data.
For do-it-yourselfers, Northwoods has written tons of blogs to help describe the process, including Six Helpful Ideas for a Successful Website Redesign and Conducting a Content Marketing Analysis.
If you’re leaving the audit/analysis to the professionals, reach out to a vendor specializing in Digital Marketing, as opposed to Website Development or Website Design. Digital Marketers research market influences and data to guide a marketing strategy that best responds to user needs. A Web Developer or Designer turns that strategy into a usable site.
The cost of a digital strategy is mostly about time. At the very least, a vendor must do the following:
Review the traffic flow on your site to determine what pages work best and which fall short. Usually, this includes an analysis of your site’s analytics tool, such as Google Analytics.
Discover the myriad ways – search, social, ads and so on – that drive traffic to your website. Determine how and why they work (or don’t) for you.
Evaluate competitors’ content and websites to figure out what works for them and drives conversions.
Research how users search for your products, services and content.
Match recommendations to the pieces of data you gather, to guide your update of your existing site or to structure your new one.
The complexity of your overall research is dependent upon how well you know your customers and how you’ve established a voice for your business. If you have a clear strategy and message to evaluate, this process will be quicker than if you don’t. If you don’t have a clear brand voice, plan to spend more if you need help creating a succinct message.
What’s the cost?
- DIY – Plan to spend about 40 hours or more to conduct a digital strategy on your own. Even then, you may not really know how to leverage the data you collect. How valuable is your time and how well do you know the nuances of digital marketing?
- Vendor Approach – The cost of a vendor digital strategy audit for a small business can range from $2,000 to $8,000. Large businesses should plan on $5,000+. Higher fees apply to businesses with no concise messaging. The vendor will provide a road map on what your business should do with your website and will provide costs.
Note: Some web developers spread the cost of a build and digital strategy over a year. They build the site and then implement a strategy. While the costs are easier to accept, this approach takes much longer to realize a return on investment. Would you build the outside of a house first and figure out the rooms afterward?
Step 2: Website Refresh or Redesign – Implement the Strategy
Most people think about Step 2 as they search for information about website costs. That’s understandable. Many companies promise cheap, easy, beautiful websites. Many can actually deliver. But cheap, easy and beautiful mean nothing without a digital strategy. Do not skip Step 1.
Costs break down into five key parts:
The Digital Strategy will provide specific recommendations on the functionality your website needs to be competitive in your industry. For some, a simple website with strategic content will do. Others need a highly robust website with numerous databases to run a catalog of frequently changing content. The price to build, obviously, varies.
A prime goal is to make the site as user-friendly as possible. Don’t add functions just because they’re cool or different. Users don’t want to make too many decisions or think too hard – or at all -- when they visit a website. They want to find information quickly, easily, intuitively.
What’s the cost?
- For those lucky enough to need nothing more than a simple, yet strategic website, costs for added functions link directly to optimizing user conversions. Tools such as optimized conversion forms, robust internal search, and analytical tools give your users the best experience and drive conversions.
- If your industry requires a robust website, the cost of its functionality can range from several thousand dollars to tens of thousands. Use the competitive analysis from the Digital Strategy step to guide you in choosing the functions that are absolutely necessary to serve your users.
Content Management System (CMS)
The content management system (CMS) is the software, often referred to as the platform, that allows a user to create, edit and arrange the content of a website. The many extant platforms vary in complexity. Fit your platform to your needs; one size does not fit all. A Kia and a Cadillac can get you from point A to point B, but at different levels of comfort and speed.
Simple platforms have the basic functions needed for non-technical users to create and publish a website. For lack of a better term, I’ll call them Non-Technical CMS Platforms. The more popular platforms are WordPress, Squarespace, and Wix. Businesses with a generally simple digital presence or a small budget lean toward these platforms.
Enterprise class platforms have all the tools built in and require individuals with technical backgrounds to create the sites. (Northwoods has built an enterprise class platform called Titan CMS.) These platforms generally serve larger businesses and organizations with a highly complex digital presence. Websites with a lot of data, such as a product catalog fed by a third-party tool; those focused on document or records management; and those integrating with online stores require a platform powerful enough to manage all the information quickly.
How much does it cost to maintain a website?
- Non-Technical CMS Platforms – Most of these platforms either have no license fee or require a service fee that can range from $5 to $500 per month. While the initial licensing fees appear low, these platforms often require consistent maintenance vigilance to keep them up to date. (This can inflate maintenance costs, often forgotten during the budgeting process.)
- Enterprise Content Management Platforms – These robust platforms have licensing fees that help cover the cost of the development. Base licenses start in the range of $2,500 and can expand to over $1 million, depending on the scale of the website. The higher cost to purchase the platform comes with benefits, such as greater security, better tools, and more power to run big sites.
As you choose your content management system, include hosting costs and considerations in your budget. Hosting is another budget variable, because the type of hosting drives the cost.
For example, if you have a simple to moderately complex site, a shared hosting environment (i.e., your site lives with other sites on a shared server) is likely sufficient. Most websites live in a shared hosting environment and do not have performance issues.
Highly complex websites and sites with advanced security requirements call for dedicated hosting environments.
WordPress website hosting services include WPEngine and Blue Host. Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure are two leading enterprise hosting services.
If your web hosting service does not provide an SSL certificate (to ensure your site uses https and is secured), you’ll need to purchase one for your site. Many companies sell SSL certifications.
The hosting rule of thumb: The greater the requirement, the higher the cost.
User experience and Look and Feel
Everyone dwells on the look and feel of their new or updated website. (The most trafficked page on our site is our annual Top Ten B2B Website Design Trends blog.)
It’s the fun part, but it can be a point of contention because of conflicting design preferences. Competitive analysis during the Digital Strategy can be extremely helpful with this. If your competitors have high-design websites – i.e., trendy and groundbreaking designs -- your website might have to match them. If your competitors all have outdated designs, you can relax a little on this point.
Most people think of costs in two categories: Template Design versus Custom Design.
A Template Design is based on an existing piece of code that provides a design framework for creating the look and feel. The prefab framework makes creation of the look and feel more efficient and less costly. Most ads with the Create a Beautiful Website for Free message refer to Template Design.
Many find Template Design great for saving money, but not so great because of cookie-cutter results. All websites built on the same template (especially free themes or templates) look the same. Recently, some developers have pushed the idea of a Page Builder Template Design. This approach gives a designer more freedom within the framework to create something more original. Beaver Builder, for WordPress, is a great example.
In a Custom Design, developers and designers build unique look and feel from scratch. This process typically requires several steps:
- Wireframes – These are drawings of the structures of key pages. Think of an architectural rendering of a house or building. The point is to develop the best user experience.
- Design Prototypes or Comps – This next step adds the branding to the wireframes to help establish look and feel. Traditionally, this is what most people think of as redesigning a website.
- Development – In this final step, a front-end developer creates the code that makes all the pages work.
What’s the Cost?
- Non-Technical CMS Platform Template Design – A templated approach can save money during the website build, because everything is built in. Such platforms often provide numerous templates through their own marketplaces or through third parties. Some templates have licensing fees, typically in the hundreds of dollars.
- DIY Implementation – Plan on spending 20 to 40 hours researching and implementing the template on your own. It may seem easy, but unless you are extremely familiar with the template and the platform, it takes time to understand how everything works together.
- Vendor Implementation – A website built by a vendor well versed in the template and platform can build out the structure of a website in a few days. Vendors often prepare multiple versions and give clients choices in the final design. A vendor’s fees can range from $500 to $3,000.
- Non-Technical CMS Platform Custom Design – The advent of Page Builders has given designers the ability to build custom designs on simpler platforms. Page Builders have an initial license fee for the tools, and some have annual renewal fees. These range in the hundreds of dollars.
- DIY Implementation – Plan on spending 40 hours or more creating the custom design of your website via a Page Builder. It takes time to understand how the tools work and how to maximize the effectiveness across your entire website.
- Vendor Implementation – A vendor will likely create multiple versions of a website’s design to give the client a choice in the appearance. Fees for a vendor custom-designed website can range from $3,000 to $10,000 depending on the scale.
- Enterprise Class CMS Platform Template Design – Many enterprise platforms have begun to add design templates to their ever-growing list of features. These templates often still require the help from technical staff, but the templates make the process more efficient. Fees for this approach start at $10,000 and rise with the scale of the website.
- Enterprise Class CMS Platform Custom Design – The cost to have a vendor build and design a website from scratch requires a process, which includes running through wireframes, design prototypes, and development phases. Each phase requires meetings and review and revision, which can add up to 40 to 100 hours of vendor time. Fees for a custom designed website can range from $30,000 to $1 million or more, depending on the overall scale of the website.
Clients often underestimate content costs when considering overall website costs. Content is by far the most important piece in improving your website, yet most tend to think of it as the easy part of the project. Content draws users to your website, keeps them there, and ultimately convinces the user to reach out.
The Digital Strategy guides content creation and the targeting of keywords, queries and search intent. Taking that data and applying it to actual readable content is challenging. We always tell our clients that they should estimate the time they think it will take to write the content and then triple it. Content development often delays the launch of a site.
What’s the Cost?
- DIY – The cost to write content for a website is defined by the value of your time:
- Writing a page of completely new content will likely require eight hours of your time. Editing and optimizing a page of existing content will a take two to four hours, if you do it right.
- Vendor Approach – The cost to hire a vendor to write your content can vary based on their billable rates. Some vendors charge $25 to $50 per hour while others charge $100 plus. The higher the cost, the likelier a more experienced and trained staff member is writing the content.
- A vendor writing a page of completely new content will require four hours to interview, write, edit, and publish. The fee can range from $100 to $500 per page.
- A vendor editing and optimizing an existing page of content will take one hour to edit and publish. The fee can range from $25 to $100 per page.
Your online presence is often a prospect’s first experience with your business. You want it to be a great introduction to what you do or sell.
Don’t skimp on spending on a Digital Strategy. The more data you collect, the more likely you are to develop a site that connects with users and drives conversions. A Digital Strategy also presents the greatest opportunity for a return on the overall investment in your online presence.
Find the right functionality and platform to match the needs of your users and website. Don’t fall for advertising hype or shiny objects in vendor demos. Keep sharp focus on what your Digital Strategy recommends and find the best tools for your abilities.
The Digital Strategy should remain your guide when building or improving your site. Factor in requirements your industry demands and work to meet them with content that is strategic and easy to find and read.
Finally, a website will cost more than you expect, in your own time or in dollars to a vendor. Stay focused and methodical to get the most out of your effort and your budget.
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