The Elephant in Your Web Site: Cost

elephantwebsiteThe brilliant Jen Kramer wrote in one of her early books on developing web sites, a chapter entitled, "I Want a Web Site and I Want It Blue; How Much Will That Cost?" Everyone who has ever charged someone to build a web site understands immediately why this is sadly humorous. Of course, any serious conversation with a well-prepared prospective client doesn't start this bluntly, but it's true that the question of cost is always the elephant in the room.

The problem is that different vendors could very well charge you vastly different prices for the same type of web site. In the end, the responsibility for getting what you want from the end product is mainly your job -- so knowing what your vendor is charging you for each component, and why, should be an important piece of your vendor selection process. You shouldn't meet the elephant until you know what you really need to get out of the whole jungle, so to speak.

Vendor Expertise

No matter what job you've ever done, you probably became better compensated for it once you had racked up several years of experience. This is no different in the world of web deisgners and developers. A person just a few months into his business will not yet have acquired the expertise of someone who has been doing that same work for a dozen years. You can -- and should -- pay more for experience. This piece of the cost-elephant is probably reflected in components of the project that seem less concrete -- things like information architecture development, strategy, and procedure mapping. This where the benefit of your vendor's experience -- or lack thereof -- can be most obviously noted.

elephantfaceDesign Time & Resources

If your site is going to be built using a content management system, like roughly 40% of the sites on the web these days, your vendor will likely choose one of a few routes for design. From quickest-to-implement to slowest-to-implement, the options are:

  • Use a software-as-a-service model like SquareSpace, Wix, Weebly, or something similar. These systems include already-build templates and themes with very limited customization options. They can be set up very quickly and without much programming/coding experience.

  • Use an open-source content management system like Drupal, Joomla, or WordPress with an existing template or theme, then make adjustments and customizations to that template/theme. This allows for a wide range of options without having to reinvent the wheel for basic things like overall layout, menu systems, and often, a few little extras like slideshows and social media sharing.

  • Use an open-source or proprietary content management system like those mentioned above, but design an entirely custom template or theme. This takes more time, but a skilled design and development team can make the site look exactly as you want it -- no limitations based on someone else's code.

For our clients, we have chosen largely to go with the middle option, which, for the design phase, usually takes us roughly fifteen hours per site. While we find the first option a bit too restrictive for us in terms of customizing the look of the site, we've estimated that it shaves about half the hours off of the design time. The final option, while not very popular with our client base, would take us at least double the amount of time as the middle. So we're looking at a wide range of design rates just within our own portfolio. Add in the variables of multiple proposals from multiple vendors, and it can be hard for a business to know what they're really looking at in terms of a design deliverable. Ask your vendor the question: are you building it from a template, customizing an existing template, or starting utterly from scratch?

Development & Functionality

There is so much that could fit in this category that I encourage you to read some of my older blog posts on functionality. This catch-all term includes everything that is not simple display of text and images. Some basic examples are: image slideshows; contact forms; interactive calendars; embedded video; advanced blog layouts & feeds; scheduling software; e-commerce; social media sharing and feed displays; online forums; event management and lots more. These range in time commitment from an hour or so to hundreds of hours to implement. It is impossible to give a blanket cost for these items -- your vendors should tell you how much of their cost estimates come from implementing these extras.

 And here's the rub: the real reason it's impossible to tell anyone how much a web site costs is that very few web sites have the same set of requirements. In our client base, we have a web site with several distinct complicated blog layouts, an integration with their donor database, and an interactive image slideshow, among many other small custom functionality installations. We also have clients with simple web sites that just have text, photos, and a contact form. The price difference between these two kinds of sites is significant.

That is the kind of example I point out when someone tells me that they know a guy who can make a web site for $500. What kind of site? Who gets to decide what's included? Both those sites I just described involve such a different range of expertise and hours that charging the same price for both would be ridiculous.

Hosting & Client Technical Sophisticationelephant bottom

This is often the hardest part of a project for us to appropriately estimate in terms of cost. The most fundamental piece of technology at play in the birth of any site is the web server itself, followed closely by the domain name at which the site will live. (You can learn more about this distinction between hosting and domain name in an earlier blog post.) Some development firms do the hosting themselves, which means the price they quote to you includes the space on their servers and all the maintenance required to keep those servers secure. Others -- like us -- help you choose a third-party host for your site, and so our price estimates don't include the cost of your hosting, but can offer you assistance in setting it up and installing the software you need to run your site. Still others expect you to set it all up yourself before they begin building the site.

It is worth considering what you can or want to do on your own, and what is worth getting the expertise of your hired hands. Either way, hosting can be difficult to change, so it's a decision that can impact your site long after your developer builds it. Choose carefully. Take the time to ask your vendor what they can and will do for you in this area, and look at what's involved and what the savings are if you do some of it yourself.


 In the end, you're hiring a professional because you value having a web site that reflects your business well. Coming to that professional with a vision for what you want will help them give you an accurate quote. In addition, it's important to remember that the hours your hired hand spends building your site are real, honest-to-goodness, sleeves-rolled-up, hours dedicated to you and your business, lending their skills and expertise to your enterprise. Those hours also represent years dedicated to learning their craft. Before you decide to build your site yourself at SquareSpace or some other DIY solution, consider the value there may be for you in having expert attention to the marketing opportunity most commonly used by consumers and donors today: your web site. It's a big deal. Before you make your decision, take the elephant by the ears, look deeply in his eyes, and see if you think he might be worth your investment.

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