What Does a Website Cost?
If you are planning to have a new website designed and built, you’re probably wondering what it will cost.
I’ve had this discussion hundreds of times with website owners and managers.
The truth is that a website could cost virtually nothing, or it could cost $500,000. While I realize this is a thoroughly unsatisfying answer, the ambiguity of the question, “what will it cost to build my website?”, makes it the only real answer.
It is a little like asking “what will it cost to build a house?”
The cost depends, of course, on many things. How many rooms? What level of finishes? Custom design, or pre-fab? Minimal landscaping, or a large, lush garden with a pool? Built by you and your brother-in-law, by a local handyman, or by a contractor?
Websites have the same kind of range, from single-page, template-based sites to custom-designed sites that are based on extensive user research and testing, with tens or hundreds of thousands of pages, membership features, and ecommerce systems, as well as integration with third-party systems.
Before you can begin to estimate costs, you need to answer several questions:
- What is the website’s primary goal?
- What is the brand image you want to establish or maintain?
- Does the website have any functions (such as ecommerce) beside presenting content?
- How much content will it have? Where is the content coming from?
- Do you have photos and other graphical elements to use, or do these need to be created or modified?
- How much of the work are you prepared to do yourself?
With these answers in hand, you or your consultant should create a written specification for the website. Without a detailed specification, it is impossible to get a meaningful estimate for design and development cost. And if you start design or development without a spec, there’s a high risk that there will be disconnects between what you have in mind and what gets built.
The amount of work involved in discovery and specification varies dramatically. For a reasonably simple site, with one person providing all the direction about what the site needs to accomplish, the specification might be completed in a few hours.
Many simple sites are built without any written specification at all, but we recommend writing down as much detail as you can about your requirements and desires to avoid misunderstandings with your designer or developer.
At the other extreme, when building a site for a large organization, we might conduct 10 to 20 stakeholder interviews, review competitive sites, and spend weeks writing and revising a specification.
Design Appropriate for Your Goals and Your Brand
Once you have a thorough understanding of your website needs, the next step is to consider your visual design needs.
To keep costs down, you can start with a template (such as a WordPress theme) and adapt it to fit your needs. For many small businesses, this is a good approach, if the website is not central to the business’s operations.
These themes are, of course, generic, and you’ll need to add some well-chosen images and styling to create a distinctive site. You’ll probably want a designer’s help with creating banner images and perhaps some icons, even if you are sticking with a theme’s layout and overall design.
If you have (or are trying to build) a high-quality brand, or have custom structure or functionality requirements, you need a full-custom design. This is considerably more expensive than building a “quick and dirty” site based on a template—just as you won’t get a custom house built for the price of a used trailer—but it gives you much more flexibility. A custom site helps you stand out, and it gives you the flexibility to create a superior user experience.
For a simple site, the designer may only need to create a home page design and an interior page template. Whoever is providing the content is then responsible for the layout of each interior page.
At the high end, the designer might create visual mock-ups of 10 or more different interior pages, allowing each to be highly tuned to its particular requirements. Each major page, or section, may have unique design elements, such as photography, illustrations, icons, or layouts. The designer (or design team) would carefully consider the goals for each of these pages and craft a design to convey the key messages visually, as well as in text, and to optimize for that page’s particular goals. This level of design can cost ten times (or more) than a basic home-page-plus-interior-page design template.
In addition, the experience level of the designer, the size of the firm they work for, and the complexity of your needs all can have a huge impact on the cost of design.
Given all of these variables, there is a correspondingly broad range of design costs for custom sites. For a simple site created by a junior designer, you might get a complete design for $1,000. The visual design cost for a midsize site is typically $3,000 to $10,000. (Note that this does not include any coding.) If you want unique design elements for many different interior pages, or need custom photography or illustration, the design cost can go much higher.
Just as the cost to build a house could range from a few thousand dollars for a shack to millions of dollars for a large, luxurious house, website development cost has an extremely wide range.
If you just want someone to set up an existing theme and do a little customization, the development cost could be as low as $1,000 for a junior freelancer, up to $5,000 for a more experienced developer or firm, or for more extensive customization.
For a custom site design, the development cost is higher, because the page templates must be coded in HTML and CSS to match the custom design. In WordPress terms, a custom theme needs to be built.
The cost for coding the design depends on how complex it is, and what content management system is being used; we charge between $2,500 and $10,000 for typical sites. For a complex site with many different page layouts and iteractive features, the cost could be much higher.
The great majority of pages on most sites are simply presenting content. Any decent content management system can deal with these sorts of pages.
Things get more complex, and more expensive, when the content within a page is interactive, and especially when custom back-end (server-side) functions are needed.
At the other extreme, consider a website that offers online courses for sale. First, this site needs e-commerce. The courses themselves are just content, but after the course, there is a test, which the site grades. Then, if the user passes the test, the site generates a completion certificate.
This kind of capability requires custom server-side (i.e., back end) programming. It is time consuming to design, to develop, and to test, and it requires more specialized skills than building typical web pages. Costs for this sort of thing are typically $10,000 and up.
Such a website is really a web application, with complex business rules and custom back-end programming. Web applications can be very complex, ranging into hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop.
Content Migration and Content Creation
If you have an existing website and the new site is going to start out as a copy of the old site’s content, then you have a content migration project. Depending on the amount of content you have and how much cleaning up it needs, the cost could be as little as a few hundred dollars, or as much as tens of thousands of dollars. Existing website coding often needs to be stripped out to enable a responsive design to function properly, and images may need to be resized.
The cost of creating new, quality, on-target content is something that too few site owners take seriously enough. Great content should be the heart of every site. There is such dramatic variation in needs from one site to another, however, that content creation cost defies simple characterization. For the purposes of this article, we’ve assumed that the site owner is providing all of the content. You should budget separately, in either internal or external resources, for content creation.
Testing and Revision for Desktop and Mobile
We’re done, right? Not quite. Especially in this world of mobile devices and multiple browsers, it is a non-trivial effort to test your site on all of the supported browsers, platforms, and devices. Inevitably, some issues are found; then they are fixed, and the testing cycle repeats.
If you have the time and budget and want a truly polished user experience, we recommend conducting user tests and planning for a round of revision after those tests. There’s nothing like seeing real users try to accomplish their goals using your site to inform your views of how easy the site is to use.
User testing can be done for as little as $1,000 for a couple of tasks with a few participants in each, up to tens of thousands of dollars for large-scale tests.
Often, testing and revision aren’t budgeted, but they need to happen if you want a quality result. If the testing is done only by the developer, you’re likely to get a site that has some rough spots, and issues on some devices or browsers.
Other Requirements: Accessibility and Project Management
Some projects have additional costs that don’t appear in the basic outline above.
Many sites for larger companies and institutions must meet accessibility requirements for disabled users. Two commonly referenced standards are WCAG 2.0 and ADA Section 508.
To meet accessibility requirements takes additional coding effort, as well as additional testing and revision time. For a very simple site, it could be as little as $1,000. More typically, we budget $2,500 to $7,500, depending on the site’s complexity.
Another “hidden” cost is the need for meetings and project management. This cost is sometimes rolled into other costs. If listed separately, it can amount to 10% to 20% of total project costs. This cost depends on the size of the project and whether there are any process or reporting requirements your organization imposes.
Once the site is launched, there may be costs for maintenance and for search-engine optimization. We’ll tackle those in future articles.
Putting it All Together: Typical Website Costs
To bring it all together, this table shows the typical range for various kinds of websites.
|Type of Site||Description||Cost Range|
|Simple, template-based site||Cost depends on how much you do yourself||Free to $5,000|
|Custom design, simple site||Full-custom design but not requiring much functionality other than presenting content||$7,500 to $15,000|
|Custom design, large or elaborate site||Custom interactive features, lots of content, complex designs||$15,000 to $75,000|
|Custom design, elaborate site for large organization||Extensive discovery & specification, user testing, accessibility, content migration||$25,000 to $100,000|
|Custom design with ecommerce or other back-end requirements||Back-end features could be anything from e-commerce to a membership system||$10,000 to $100,000|
|Very large websites, complex functions, high load||Complex or large-scale e-commerce, high availability, business systems||$100,000 to millions|
Of course, prices may vary considerably from one region to another, and one firm to another. The prices above are based on Webvanta’s past projects, and others of which we have personal knowledge. Your mileage may vary.
The cost ranges above are quite broad, and no doubt you want a more precise estimate for what your sort of project would cost. In a future article, we’ll give suggestions for how to get quality estimates, and, if desired, fixed-price quotes.
If you’d like a free consultation about your project, just let us know and we’ll set up a time to talk.