Interestingly, "How much will it cost?" is not the most common question a web designer is asked. No doubt though, it is the second most common - right after "What do I put on my site?" Yet, it is the most difficult to answer. The reason is, designers are usually asked to estimate costs even before the client knows what to put on the site. Almost all web designers find themselves in this dilemma and, no doubt, potential web site customers are finding themselves in a growing state of confusion (you see, you are not alone after all).
This article is an attempt to help clear up some of the confusion. To do this we will discuss some general industry policies and we will attempt to explain the impact these policies have on the commercial web site purchaser. One must acknowledge that the web site design industry is young and changes are occurring even as we write this. The implication is that there are probably as many different pricing policies as there are web site designers. Consequently, it is virtually impossible to look at a web site and "guesstimate" how much its owner has paid.
Essentially, professional web site designers are split into two primary groups in terms of costing practices. This split was a function of the industry from which the web design firm grew. Those designers who grew out of the computer industry (programmers, etc) tend to cost their web site creations by the number of graphics, amount of text, quantity of links, etc.. This group tends to design pages that are highly technical and display the latest in programming skills and techniques.
Most web designers coming out of the marketing industry cost as a function of the time it takes to do the job. With these sites it is often difficult to differentiate, cost-wise, between the graphics and the text. These designers attempt to create a specific overall atmosphere and take a more commercially oriented approach to site creation.
We could certainly describe these two groups in more detail (and this could really be a lot of fun) but let's stay focused. To summarize , while the first group (programmers) tend to design web pages for the web site owner, the second group leans more toward designing their sites for the site owners' customers. This is, obviously, a generalization but it could have vast implications in terms of your web site. For example, web design firms who view themselves as a virtual advertising agencies tend to be more expensive than those who view themselves as computer programmers. Essentially, these two groups have a fundamentally different perspective of the Internet and its purpose so, because the prospective web site owners are not certain of what they want or need, the site designer usually has a large effect on site content decisions. Therefore, comparing the web site value for the same customer between these two design groups is truly comparing 'apples with oranges'. The situation, thus, appears to get more confusing.
We promised you that we will try to clear up some of the confusion, so... what are you supposed to do with this information? Well, lets compare this situation with something that happens in everyday business life. Suppose you wanted to create a flyer for your business. Let's also assume you are not sure what to say in this flyer but you know that everyone in your industry puts out flyers and your company really should have one also. Would you go to your printer or the marketing expert for a price? If you went to both, would you be able to compare the two quotes? You see, the first web site design group is like your printer and the second group may be compared to the marketing experts. While in the physical world the marketing expert eventually brings the design to the printer, in virtual reality most marketing experts, at this time, do the web site programming in-house (like an advertising agency that also houses a printing firm). Thus, you must realize that when you are hiring a market driven web designer you are actually receiving two separate services and, therefore, you may expect to pay more for this. Realize that while you may (though not necessarily) pay more to a "market driven" designer, when you approach a firm who views itself as a "virtual advertising agency", you will find yourself paying a premium beyond that of the two basic groups.
Because this industry is so new, web designers are still quite confused as to what a fair market price for their product is. We all hear of pages that went for $50,000 and more. These stories just add to the confusion on all sides concerned. Some web designers advertise with slogans such as "Corporate Web Pages Starting at $5,000.00." More confusion! What if that "corporate page only took 15 or 20 hours to develop? $250.00/hour and more? Whew! We are web site designers and we have not a clue what a good deal is. So... again! What does this all mean to you? What we really need here is some common sense!
Putting ourselves in your position we would ask ourselves this question: "We asked a quote from our printer and another from our marketing expert for what we perceive to be the same product and they came back with similar quotes. How can this be?" If you feel there is a problem with this then you are becoming aware that either you are asking the marketing expert for something where no marketing is required or the printer is over-charging. The problem in the web site design industry is that as long as the web site consumer does not see the difference between these two groups, this confusion will continue. So... what to do?
Unfortunately, the answer is always the same: "The consumer must become informed." The best way for the buyer to accomplish this is to look at what the prospective web designer has done in the past and at what value. Notice that we say "value". Value does not necessarily imply what the customer paid. This is important because consider that we, for example, have created sites for friends and family at deep discounts. We have also done sites for non-profit organizations at no cost. We would not do this for regular customers (sorry - we really don't want to adopt you). You, as the customer, must be weary of web designers who are not willing to provide adequate information. Finally, decide whether you want and need a printer/web designer or a marketing/web designer. You must decide if you have the experience to decide, on your own, what you need on your site or if you need consultation and support in this new communication venue. Learn the background of the people who are responsible for the final product. Ultimately, the site your provider gives you is dependent on the experience of the design company's management, not on the individual artist/programmer. A great artist or the world's best programmer does not necessarily have the background to understand your specific company's needs. Responsible management will assure that the individual(s) working on your site do not give you a beautiful (but unfocused) page.
Once you have made this decision, establish a price range that fits your budget and ask your selected group of possible designers what they would do for you within the given budget and in what time frame.
Now, we know that there are many of you who were hoping that somehow we could come up with some way of giving you real numbers. We don't think that is possible but here are some guidelines you may use - loose though they may be. There are some web designers who have price lists but because of the nature of price lists, it is usually the designer in the "programmer group" which follows this practice. Unfortunately, the prices are widely variable - you can pay anywhere from $1.00 to $1,000.00 per graphic. Consequently, these price lists really mean very little, besides most customers are not able to evaluate the value of these graphics for their web site. There are designers who will charge a fixed price (ie. $20.00 each) per graphic. Can they truly allot the time needed to create a custom graphic? Are they undercharging or overcharging? Does each graphic actually take the same amount of time to create? Are their designers machines, working from pre-programmed formulae, producing graphics within defined parameters or are they providing you with "custom" graphics from their private library of images - are these images, then, truly apropos to your site? Hmm, more questions. These are, though, the questions you should be considering when shopping for your site.
The web marketers usually charge by the hour (most range from $10.00 to $150.00 per hour). Some designers within this group charge differently for different type of programming (eg. $80.00/hour for HTML, $100.00/hour for Java and $120.00/hour for scripting). Unfortunately, this also will not tell you how much your web site will cost since there is no way of knowing how many hours are required for what. When doing an estimate, the estimator will look at their portfolio and calculate how long it took for past jobs of similar size and purpose, take the average, and deliver their price that way. When pushed to a firm quotation, they will take the most time consuming elements of past jobs using them as a guideline for their costing. These are, after all, businesses and as you are quite aware, business cannot afford to be non-profitable. What should you know (or ask) about these designers?
If they run out of time on the cost of the job, will they leave your site incomplete? This is not something a reputable designer will ever do - regardless of their costing practice. There are, however, quite a few sites posted on the Internet today which display impressive covers yet are devoid of content-rich sub pages. You must ask yourself whether the designer encouraged this as a solution to budgetary considerations or whether the customer actually wanted this. You can avoid this trap by checking on the web designer's previous jobs. If there is a pattern of rich covers and weak sub-pages, you know you may have a problem. An inexpensive web site should still be balanced in appearance and content.
Still another way to approach costing your site: Set a budget and ask what your prospective designers will do in that price range. Satisfy yourself that what they propose is reasonable. If your site developer is doing too much, you might ask yourself if they will be there to continue development of your site. Nobody will stay in business working at $5.00/hour and you will probably want your chosen developer to be there for follow-up service and maintenance. Equally, there is no justification for paying $500.00 per hour. The return on investment is simply not reliable enough to justify this kind of expense - certainly not in the early days of your site and the Internet! Budgeting, however, is not a bad way to go. If you can set a budget and get a fair value for your dollar - this is a wonderful approach!
At the same time, you can discuss, with your consultant, what the next step in development of your site should be. This brings us to the next question, "What time is chargeable?" Nobody, in any business, charges for a sales call. To expect a consultant, however, to design a site for you in a sales call is not truly reasonable. Site development, after all, is a creative process. Once contracted to do the site, expect your consultant's time to be billable. Gathering of information is, perhaps, the most important part of the process. Without effective information collection you cannot expect to have a useful site. A site, after all, is not just about graphics. It is about information.
As you can see, not only are the site buyers confused, so are the web site designers. In a sense, asking a web site designer "how much do I have to pay for a web site?" is like asking your real estate agent "how much do I have to pay for a house?" To provide a reasonably accurate price, the designer must know more about your company, products, customers and what kind of budget you have for the project. After all, when you buy your home you tell your real estate agent how many bedrooms you need and in what price range you are looking. In the absence of this information, it would be helpful to your agent to know how many people will live in the house. In our experience, the better an understanding your consultant has of your business and customers, and his/her business, the better and faster your site will be produced and, consequently, the more satisfied you will be with the site.
Finally, the general payment policy in the web site design industry is to ask for 50% of the estimated cost in advance with the balance due upon completion. The reason for this is that most of the cost of producing web sites is labour. While, this is a really good reason from the financial perspective, it has been our experience that customers who do not pay 50% in advance are a little too relaxed about providing the information to create the web site because they lack the commitment to the site. Consequently, web designers find themselves "chasing down" their customers to gather the information needed to complete the job. The time spent on these unpleasant activities, of course, are never part of the original estimate. Taken to the extreme, the designer will, without a doubt, eventually have to charge for this time in order to stay in business. Thus, the relationship between the web designer and the customer becomes increasingly, and unnecessarily, strained. It goes without saying that the final product, the web site, will, under these circumstances, not be quite as good as it could have been.
We hope that the above information has cleared up some of the questions you may have about the price of web site. As we are sure you now understand, we cannot tell you how much your site should cost but, remember, there are a lot of good and honest web site designers out there and costing practices are not necessarily an indication of the quality of work you will receive. All you really have to do is find the one who fits your purpose and budget. Even if your budget is small, don't let it stop you from creating an Internet presence. You can always improve the site as time progresses. Above all, ask questions. Learn about the people who will oversee the design of your site and learn about their past works.
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Last Updated September 4, 1997
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