A website is an investment that should pay for itself post-launch. You must invest correctly, at the right pricepoint for the right quality and level of functionality you need to make that return.

There’s no charm bracelet inside the Padora’s Box you just opened, only anger and opinions from every web designing nephew to the best firms in the world. To understand the price of a website, one must understand the scope of a web property and available build-out options. I’ll phrase these things in a metaphor, so you can grasp the scope of web properties. I then give you the average dollar amount of a website below, what you need to understand that price, then how to vet web design companies in your town.

Understanding web properties

I’m going to speak to the five-year-old sitting behind you. A website is a digital building. There’s an internal structure, a facade, and some storage rooms. There might even be a shop inside with a cash-register. I want you to think of your website in terms of a building. When I say, Facebook, you say 1.5 Billion active-monthly users, with a “B”. Imagine building a hotel to hold that many people. How much money would that hotel cost to build? The Venetian in Vegas only holds 7,000 people, and was built for 1.5 Billion (not to mention upkeep).

Trying to explain website work to a non-web audience is difficult. Please understand, just like construction, the additions you make as you create a website will add or subtract to its cost. The examples below are reference points. If you want a shack with an in-ground pool, don’t point at this list and claim you should only have to pay for plywood.

A splash page with business info = A Lemonade Stand
A splash page doesn’t require too much work and is only one page of code with some included pictures and possibly some javascript. Definitely the mark of a business that doesn’t have the budget to invest in a web presence. Just like a lemonade stand, they’re easy to build but don’t draw real traffic.

A five page website = A Cabin
It’s Nothing big, just a nice little website for your customers to come in, learn about your products or services and know your store hours. You’re not selling anything online, but clients can find you and you pick up some new foottraffic or sales leads. You don’t feel the need for a Content Mangagement System (CMS), but want your name out there.

An eCommerce Website (<100 items) = A Boutique Shop
You’re not ebay, but goods are being sold through the website. The SSL certificate and payment gateway are managed by your eCommerce provider and you’re making money selling products you’re passionate about. The product database costs every month to maintain, but your life is easier with it and you can focus on updating your website and keeping your business pointed towards growth

A 10-20 page CMS website = An Office Building
The business is large enough to warrant the space and there’s enough content to fill page after page with company info, products and services. The website is your 24/7 salesman and you rely on your web presence to bring in leads every day and are constantly updating it. You have full control of the site and can create new pages at will. It has a news feed, event calendar and modules you need to update your clients on the latest industry info.

An eCommerce Website (1000+ items) = Grocery Store
Business is booming and you need the inventory management of a robust website to keep your shoppers happy. Your dropshipper is reducing your overhead and you’re busy building the next wing to your office building to add more support staff.

A Directory Website = A Hotel
Your website has users that can manage their own accounts. They have their own webpages within your website, have security needs as well as permission control assignments. Your website needs to allow for new users, as well as give you admin permissions to control their permissions along with the static pages.

So, that’s a brief look at the work involved in projects big and small. Some website’s take less time than others, but you must understand there is an underlying foundation, structure and plumbing to most websites that make them function and it comes at a price. The more functionality you want, the more time and resources that functionality consumes. Always consider ROI.

Understanding your build-out options

Now that you’ve chosen what website best fits you, you need to look around you for the resources and budget you’re willing to spend on the web property.If you’re building a new website, just like a home, it’s going to take a bit of time to construct, and not all contractors are the same.

These options are going to be put in order of price point, not skill level, skill level depends upon the individual and we don’t want to generalize and insult hard-working web builders. We’re not going into the Odesk, oversea development option. If you’re reading this, you’re not ready for that particular experience.

The Nephew = Your Brother-in-Law
There is a running joke in web design, where clients complain of too high a price and explain that their nephew is good at this “computer thing”, and will do it for $50. The nephew represents budding web designers with little experience who can hack together a semi-functioning website. They’re typically good at installating WordPress plugins and making splash pages. They know little about code, but can copy and paste from StackOverflow.

Pros: Possibly free, A website

Cons: Little knowledge of code, poor functionality, bad design, no sales funnel

The Web Shop = Craigslist Labor
There are a lot of web shops out there in garages and strip malls. The web shops are typically just out of college kids who are looking to start their own business. They’re offering cheaper prices since they’re young and inexperienced, but each has their own discipline and can make a lovely small website.

Pros: Eager Team, Variety of Skills, Competent website, Decent Design

Cons: Inexperience, Poor Quality Control, No Project Management, Can vanish into thin air

The Freelancer = A Seasoned Contractor
Freelancers are a mixed bag. We know freelancers who are going on 20 years of killing it on the web. Some are just out of college. The thing about freelancers is that you get one, unless he sources his work out. Meaning, there’s no developer or SEO expert or another professional jumping in to help him. He might be a jack of all trades, but master of only one discipline. Many freelancers have SEO and developer friends that form well-rounded teams when they work together on jobs, which many do. Let’s assume they’re a veteran below.

Pros: Experienced, Quick, Have processes and PM skills, Good Design, Reputation to uphold

Cons: One man band, Premium on skills outside of their range, Can vanish

The Design Boutique = A small construction company
Boutiques are very hands on and most pride themselves on putting a great deal of time and care into their products. The extra time they put into their products tend to make the design outstanding. You do pay for that time, but the implementation is worth it. They have experienced teams, but tend to be lacking in web development experience if not strictly a web boutique. Still that doesn’t keep them from making phenomenal smaller websites.

Pros: Killer Design, Team of Experts, Established, Lots of time on project, lots of communication

Cons: Longer Timelines, Limited to smaller websites

The Web Design Firm = A mid-size construction company
Firms are established web design companies that have teams of developers, designers and web experts. They make websites day in and day out. Their experience and focus gets leveraged towards your business and they can typically fulfill any request since they have experts in all aspects of web building. The firms tend to be more business minded, focusing on your website’s ROI, analytics and SEO results. Their experience does come with a price.

Pros: Established, Team of Experts, QA/QC Processes, Solid Design, ROI Focused

Cons: Derivative work, You’re one of MANY clients, Focused on Launch

The Advertising Agency = A building foreman
Agency’s do not make websites day in and day out, as their tasks are client specific. Agency’s are very well rounded but their primary goal is to retain high-end clientelle to support their staff. Therefore, projects through an agency come at a high price. It’s like buying Nike: their name makes your business look good. With their reputation behind their work, agencies bend over backwards to deliver an awesome website. However, keeping an amazing web team on staff is expensive year round, so the agency will typically websites to Web Design Firms.

Pros: Established, Team of Experts, QA/QC Processes, Award-Winning Design

Cons: Non-web Project Managers

The Development Company = An International Building Company
A development company is a company that is devoted to building software. Althought they do employ designers, these individuals are more focused on usability and simplicity than branding and the latest coolness. This business is for your heavy development websites, such as web apps or large web portals. They’ll be expert in best web practices, database architecture and data security. The heavy reliance on programmers for projects drastically increases cost, but leads to a better project.

Pros: Established, Team of Experts, QA/QC Processes, Data Security, Custom Development

Cons: Less Focus on Design Aesthetics, Little Idea Generation

What’s my cost?

On average, a fully responsive, seven-page business website in Wichita, KS is around $4,500.

Assume that they charge $100 an hour. At $4,500, you’re getting 45 hours of work from their team. What are you really getting with that price though? Do they really spend all that time on your project? Yes.

$100 an hour, really? Yes, if not more. Your plumber, mechanic and electrician charge similar prices, and they only went to a two year tech school. Your designer and developer went to a four year college. Website’s have their own internal mechanics and issues like so many physical systems.

Depending on the type of web property you wish to build and the level of quality you wish it to be built to, the cost varies. The smaller the web property, the lower the cost. When you’re looking at a mid-sized business, your seasoned freelancers, design boutiques and design firms are going to be very similar in price. They each have experience in that area and, depending on your market, they’ll all try to hang around the same price point. You’re going to get more creativity and uniqueness from a boutique. The design firm is going to give you a better marketing tool. The freelancer is going to be a mixture of both.

The cost will also be determined by your development needs. The more development and interaction with a database, the higher the price. Interfacing with a CMS template is going to drive the cost up due to designing around a rigid system, and an ecommerce cart will push the cost up further due to product template design. The more work, the more money.

Where does all that time go?

It’s generally consumed by the four or five employees who touch the project.

  • Pay the salesman for his time courting and quoting you (salesman)
  • Design meeting time with you and your business partners (project manager)
  • Proofing the website’s home, interior and mobile pages (designer)
  • Re-Proofing and editing the design(designer)
  • Coding out the website and developing the functionality(developer)
  • Optimizing the website to web-standards and SEO best-practices(seo expert/copywriter)
  • Testing the website on multiple browsers and devices(designer)
  • Pre-launch client edits (designer)
  • Post-launch testing (designer)

What do I look for in a mid-price company?

  • Portfolio
  • Reviews
  • Usability

Look at their web portfolio. Do you like what you see? If not, don’t use them. They’re design isn’t going to improve due to your awesome communication skills. Look at their customer reviews. Do their customers praise them? Everyone has great reviews on their own website. Head to Google, Yelp or Bazaar Voice and dredge up some client reviews. Visit your favorite portfolio websites for usability. Many web heads put up beautiful concept websites that aren’t real. Make sure they can build as well as they design. Look for broken links, bad mobile sites and the like. Ensure your website will be a quality, lead-generating tool.