Websites have been around for 20+ years, hasn’t cost been pretty well settled by now?
In fact, the website industry has fractured. The number of options, and the range of cost for a small business website has never been wider.
There’s a spectrum of DIY (do-it-yourself) website tools, and a multitude of service providers vying to do the work for you, each with dramatically varying skill sets and expertise.
Cost depends on:
- Scope of the work
- Skill and experience of the developer
- Objectives of the business
- Performance requirements
- Amount of content to be created or optimized
- Custom design or features
- DIY vs. professionally built
As a result, pricing is all over the map. To simplify this mess, I’ll boil small business websites down into three price tiers based my research and experience. But first . . .
A Different Way to Think About Cost
Instead of “How much does it cost?”, the question should be:
“How much will this investment return?”
Insufficient website or SEO investment kills returns — your website will rank poorly in search, or fail to engage visitors. Overspending (rare in small business) also leads to lower returns.
Somewhere in the middle there’s a sweet spot — where enough money is invested to get initial results, with more investment over time to refine the marketing funnel and deepen content.
It’s All About Signal Strength
People who are not in the online marketing business often think online marketing works something like this:
1. Build a website in a couple of days, done!
2. Magically, customers find it
3. The phone rings.
In today’s market, that’s a FANTASY.
A website is only one element of on online marketing system. To make your marketing perform well, you’ll need a highly-optimized website, solid content, sufficient backlinks, and some way to stay in touch with potential clients (email, web push notifications, or social media).
Local businesses must add optimized business listings, citations, and reviews to the mix.
Finally, advertising might be needed to extend geographic reach, or to cover weak areas in organic visibility.
The goal is to create the strongest overall “signal” for your business.
Makes sense right? Like a radio or TV transmitter, a strong signal means a better chance of reaching potential “listeners”.
Experienced web developers and SEO consultants can help you put the elements in place that create a strong signal and form the foundation of your marketing funnel:
- Clear Pitch and Call-to-Action
- Lead Capture
- Optimized Content
- Technical SEO
- Business Listings
- Backlinks (links from other sites)
- Citations (mentions of your business information)
- Reviews (social proof)
The more you invest in these difference-makers, the better your business will perform in both search results and conversions.
When everything is done right, your website will rank highly, your marketing funnel will capture more leads, and you’ll convert more of those leads into clients. Perfect.
A Strong Signal Requires More Than a Website
Your website is the hub of your online marketing presence. But since we’re focused on cost, let’s not forget about the other elements that go into creating a strong “signal”.
I’m talking about content creation (usually blog posts), and backlink-building. For local businesses add business listings, citations, and a review acquisition strategy. These elements are almost never included in website building fees, yet may cost as much, or more, than the site itself.
Reality check: there was a time when small / local businesses could get away with static brochure-style website. No longer. Old-school static websites get in the way of content creation. And if you don’t add fresh, optimized content, you’ll be at a big disadvantage, even in local markets. A blog is the easiest and best way to make it happen.
So how will you know if your website is ranking well, or performing technically as it should? Well, you can’t, not without the special tools and knowledge of an SEO consultant. That’s a real downside of the do-it-yourself approach. You need a way to track performance.
As you think through cost, a key concept is: Understand what you’re buying. Are you creating build-it-and-forget-it online “brochure” that may be ineffective, or a online marketing machine that puts out a strong signal to attract clients for years to come?
Expect the cost to depend on what you’re actually getting.
Quick Story: You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
Some years ago, while trapped in my dentist’s exam chair, she casually mentioned:
“Patients cannot discern quality.”
WTF? I was offended. Wait a minute, I know quality when I see it! Do you think I’m an idiot?
Then I realized . . . she was absolutely right.
Unless you’re a dentist — an expert in the field — you have NO IDEA what quality of procedures / tools / materials are being used. You must trust the dentist to do the right work, at a high level of quality, with proper materials.
Guess what. It’s the same with websites.
If you unknowingly end up buying appearance instead of performance, your business will stay in the shadows, and you won’t know why.
This is where DIY websites and consumer website-building tools like Wix, Squarespace, and Go Daddy fall short.
So with due respect to DIY owner / builders, please consider that . . .
Websites Are (Much) Harder Than They Look
I chuckle when I see Wix ads.
“You need a website. Why not build it yourself!” or “Don’t delay. Create your stunning website today!”
Fine. While your at it, why not do minor surgery as a side gig? Build your own hovercraft!
Can you tell I’m cynical about the DIY route? (unless you don’t care about traffic).
Here’s why . . .
Experienced web developers have a wide range of knowledge and skills:
- Graphic design
- Information architecture
- Web languages: CSS, HTML, PHP
- Search Engine Optimization
- Marketing psychology
- App integration
- Server configuration and security
- Responsive design (to fit 4k TVs, tablets, and phones)
- Performance testing
Business owners or staff are unlikely to have those skills, and almost certainly will not have the TIME it takes to learn them. It’s not going to happen.
Yes, if you use a website builder, much of the baffling code and server setup is hidden. That still leaves a few important things . . . SEO, copywriting, design, marketing psychology, performance testing, etc. — all of the stuff that actually influences people to take action.
Google doesn’t care if your website is “stunning”, so let’s drop that idea entirely. Google only cares about satisfying search intent.
The bottom line is that the bar has been raised by intense online competition and fast-moving technology — there’s a compelling need for specialists to get the results you expect.
The Website Creation Process
Here are the typical issues a professional website developer would work with . . . can you imagine actually going through this process?
- Wireframing. What content goes where? How does the navigation work?
- Clarify your customer’s persona and create a brand
- Settle on a layout, look, and color palette
- Understand competitor’s online strengths
- Research keywords that match customer’s behavior
- Configure Google Analytics and Search Console
- Arrive at a strategy to create consistent, optimized content (or be prepared to spend $$$ on ads)
- Find or shoot photos with proper copyright permissions
- Write basic pages, call-to-actions, landing pages, and maybe initial blog posts
- Create a lead magnet to entice subscribers (if you have an email list), set up an email system
- Collect and organize premium content like videos and infographics
- Integrate social media pages
- Add security and backup measures
Invest to Get the Results you Need
If your “business” is really a hobby, or you’re just testing the waters of a niche market, then Wix, Squarespace, or similar website builder services might suffice in the short run. And they may be the only answer if you insist on doing it yourself and truly can’t afford a website that you own and control.
But if you’re serious about business and depend on your website to support family and employees, it’s completely worthwhile to pay an expert to get it done right.
Website costs vary by an order of magnitude for good reasons. Your budget should be driven by business goals and what competitors have already invested.
Do you want to dominate the local market, carve out an ecommerce niche, or compete nationally? Invest accordingly.
Let’s look at a few cases . . .
Tier 1 — a Do-it-Yourself Website: $100 – $300 / year, plus your time.
Tier 1 includes:
- Cleaning services
- Day care facilities
- Garden and yard services
- Hair salons
- Local artists
- Local musicians
- Local photographers
- Maintenance services
- Neighborhood bars
- Part-time businesses
- Small retail shops
This group will likely end up with an amateur website created by the themselves, or nephew Josie, or grandpa Cyrus, because the fee for a professionally-built site cannot be justified or afforded.
The lights come up, music envelopes the audience.
Behold, ladies and gentlemen, the website builders!!!
Squarespace! Go Daddy! Wix!
Awesome! Cheap! Stunning!
Yes. Yes. But before you get too excited, be aware that the Do-it-Yourself (DIY) approach using these tools has important, hidden disadvantages.
Why DIY online website builders are actually the WORST option for your business
- Website development and SEO has become more complicated than you imagine; doing it yourself means you won’t even know when you’re screwing up.
- Google doesn’t care about “stunning” websites — their heartless algorithm only cares about giving users the best search results. Top-ranking sites have topical authority (backlinks and high-quality content), relevance (content specificity), positive user behavior signals (click-throughs, time-on-site, etc), top-notch technical performance (speed), and good scores on about 200 other ranking factors (literally).
- If you or your “Wix Professional” focus on looks, and don’t implement the key SEO factors above, you’ll be at a real disadvantage, your website may not be found, and you’ll lose business. That’s the very real “opportunity cost” of DIY.
- Vendor lock-in. DIY services trade single-source simplicity for open source flexibility and performance. You’ll be stuck with what the vendor offers, instead of a best-in-industry solution.
- Time you spend on building your website is lost to other things, like running your business. You must account for that time.
My take is that website builders such as Wix, Go Daddy, Squarespace, Weebly and the like are fine for events, small side projects, or non-commercial use, but not good as a long-term business asset or tool to drive leads.
I wish I could tell you how many hours it will take to build your own. I can’t since it depends on so many factors. But starting from scratch, I would figure on at least a week, full-time, or double that if you’ve never built a site before. Figuring out how to optimize your site and content, plus fixing things you’ve screwed-up will take more time.
The Best DIY Option
What options are available if you want something better than a Wix website, but you don’t have the money to pay a professional developer? Here’s my solution.
You may have the impression from relentless advertising that Wix, Go Daddy, Squarespace, and other online website building tools dominate the market. Not true. WordPress, a free, open-source solution has a 40% market share, compared to Wix’s measly 1.5%. Go Daddy, Squarespace, Weebly, and other website builders have similar tiny market shares.
If making money is your goal, WordPress is the best DIY solution.
But isn’t WordPress more complicated? Yes, it is. No question. But it’s also more flexible and powerful. It can do more to help your business prosper. Fortunately, it’s also easier than ever, because we now have visual page builders that work right inside WordPress. I’m not saying it’s EASY. It’s not! It’s just easier than it was before, and it’s getting easier as time moves on.
If I was building a small business website today, and didn’t want to pay a professional, I would forget about the online website building services, and instead use WordPress in combination of other tools below. With the exception of hosting, which will cost you less than $10 / month, the core tools are free. Inexpensive upgrades are available if you want more features.
The right kind of person — someone willing to dive-in, learn, and figure things out — will be rewarded with a solid website they own and control at minimal cost. This combination of tools is a good fit for Tier 1 businesses that are willing to invest time, but not money. Be aware your DIY result will fall short of what a professional developer can do in terms of appearance, technical performance, and conversion of visitors into real customers, but that’s the trade-off. If you go this route, you’ll probably still want some outside guidance.
Here are the core DIY tools I recommend that work nicely together. These are all highly-rated, mainstream choices:
- WordPress (self-hosted content management system with 75 million+ installations)
- Elementor (visual page builder with 5 million+ installations, strongly recommend the paid version)
- GeneratePress (WordPress theme with 400,000+ installations, strongly recommend the paid version)
- Yoast SEO plugin (post and page optimizer with 5 million+ installations)
- SiteGround (website hosting with 1 million+ domains)
Tier 2 — a Professionally-built Custom Website for Most Small Businesses: $2,000 – $8,000.
Tier 2 includes:
- Any business selling nationally or globally
- Entertainment venues
- Healthcare practices
- Marketing / ad agencies
- Professional authors, speakers, artists, and performers
- Professional services
- Small manufacturers
This group should invest in a custom, optimized site, built by a experienced developer.
Your business will likely rank better due to various integrated SEO features, and you’ll convert more visitors into clients / customers / patients, returning the investment in a short time. Don’t expect top-tier “SEO” and performance at the lower end of the range though. In fact, a lot of website developers, and almost all website “designers” think SEO is someone else’s job. SEO, Secure HTTPS Conversions, and Speed Optimization are often by handled by a different specialist (that’s us!).
Professional sites typically have a clear conversion path (instead of being just a generic brochure). Also, the website will likely be built using Content Management System such as WordPress, which offers enormous content creation and flexibility advantages.
Beyond that, you will OWN the website’s design and content, so you can move it to a different hosting company, and enhance its functionality and effectiveness without limit. Complete flexibility with no vendor lock-in.
Tier 3 — a Professionally-built Custom Website for High-Ticket Services and Niche eCommerce: $8,000 – $20,000+.
Tier 3 includes:
- Professionals in highly competitive niches or areas
- Niche eCommerce brands
This group could well justify a larger investment because either the opportunity cost of even one lost client is high, the competition is fierce, or both. That single new client could be worth $20,000+ in revenue.
In niche ecommerce markets, competition will be tough — comprehensive SEO and a marketing funnel driven by organic search or ads is likely a requirement, and may (or may not) be included in this price range. You’ll need a website that reinforces your brand, resonates with visitors, fully exploits optimized content, offers a beautiful and streamlined shopping cart experience, promotes sales through an integrated email marketing system, offers superior technical performance, etc. All that takes a lot of skill and time.
Ongoing Fees for Hosting and Maintenance
For tiers 2 and 3, there will be additional fees for hosting and maintenance. Modern websites require maintenance especially if they are built with a Content Management System like WordPress. Expect to pay $25 – $100 / month depending on scope of service. This does not include creating new content.
Update themes, plugins, and core software(now automatic)
- Verify backups are running
- Update plugin licenses
- Fix broken links
- Corrections, minor editing
Conclusion and Guidelines
Don’t be afraid to invest in your site — it’s the hub of your online marketing presence and the first place customers go to learn more about your business, services, and products. There are some truly great people that can dramatically improve your online results and provide an impressively high return on investment. You just need to find them.
Wait, you have somebody that will do it all for $697? OK, if you say so ;-). Remember you don’t know what you don’t know. Something’s missing. And that “something” will likely cost you more than you save.
- Be clear about the outcome. What should the website accomplish?
- A website is not a project — it’s an process. Get the most out of it by adding content and optimizing your message
- If you can afford it, get a pro to build your site. If not, build it yourself using WordPress
- Invest within your means, but spend enough to get the results you need
- Find an individual or team that you trust
- Fresh content and especially, follow-up systems are important
- Local businesses also need listings, reviews, and citations
- Insist on a content management system like WordPress — edit and add content yourself!
- Ask about maintenance. Who does it? What does it include?
Hopefully these guidelines will keep you out of the weeds. Good luck!
References: Check These Posts for More Information about Website Cost and Related Topics
- WordPress? Wix? Weebly? Drupal? Squarespace? Which Website Platform For Your Business?
- How Much Does a Website Cost in 2018?
- How Much Does It Cost To Build A Website For A Small Business?
- How Much Should a Website Cost in 2018?
- Cost To Build A Website 2018 | Our Trials & Experiences
- How Much Does a Website Cost
- How Much Does a Website Design Service Cost?
- Website development cost: site building rates and maintenance expenses
- How Much Does a Website Cost to Make?
- How Much Does a Small Business Website Redesign Cost?
- How much does a website cost?
- The Very First Website
- 6 Reasons Your Prices Need to be on Your Website
- Infographic: How Much Does a Custom Web Design Cost?