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What are the elements of a Website and what do they cost?

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Websites rarely come in neat boxes with a yellow label showing the price and feature list. Website costs can be deceptive. If you are trying to decide how much to budget, or looking over a set of proposals, you’ll want to know what the bottom line really means. One estimate may seem low, but you might end up paying much more in the long run. Another estimate may include elements that you can more easily accomplish in-house.

If you are looking at completed websites, you may be able to judge the cost of the website from the quality and the functional elements, but some things might also be misleading. Good graphic layout and design isn’t necessarily measured in bulk. A lot of images and fancy animation can be found on cheap sites, while a very simple clean graphic look is often the result of substantial planning and work by disciplined graphic designers. Often, the more natural a site feels, the greater the care and hard work that went into its construction.

In many cases an existing website will have something you really like, but the owner may have spent a lot on features that are less relevant to your needs. If you understand why you want a website, and have done a good job of prioritizing your needs, you should be able to confine the costs to those areas that are most important to you. The key is to spend the most in the areas that will bring you the best return.

We have broken out some typical website cost categories and thrown in a range of costs for each. In some areas, you will be able to get more value for each additional dollar spent. In other areas, there are certain value levels and spending much more will not bring any return.


Strategic Planning & Development

Good planning done prior to the commencement of actual design will greatly reduce the overall cost of the website. Redesign is costly, scope creep and loss of focus can derail a project entirely. Taking the time to get all the potential decision makers, in advance, to agree on the goals and process that will be used in development will give you the best chance of getting you what you want for the budget you have laid out. This preplanning is not free, of course. You should account for the time spent internally, including that by the top-level decision makers. And, you will want your design firm involved in the preplanning process to a great extent.

Creating a website involves strategic thinking, analysis of needs and audiences, and awareness of where you want it to develop over time. Having the appropriate information architecture and good design notes on how it should look before starting will save a lot of time and money later. How much you should be paying for planning varies widely depending on the size of the project, the type of firm you're dealing with, the management style of your own organization, and whether you intend to be more of a leader or an imitator in the market. Even a small site will require about 10 hours of pre-planning, though much of this may be accomplished in a well-thought out Request for Proposal.

Another element that will increase the cost in this area is the complexity of your organization. It is much more difficult to develop a site for multiple decision-makers than for one. If you have several departments, and each has a different set of expectations, then the strategy development is more complex.

This element will normally use at least ten hours. For every design and programming hour allot anywhere from a quarter hour up to an hour for management. Rates run from $30 an hour up to $200 an hour.


Project Management

A complex website involves many elements which must fit together properly. Timing is also important, certain steps need to be completed before others can begin. Some elements may have to be redone if not coordinated properly. Even if you have a single designer doing a basic site, the communication between designer and client are a form of Project Management. One party has to ensure that all communications are tracked and nothing falls through the cracks. Not all designers are inclined to spend time managing their own projects, transferring that burden entirely to the client.

Assume that for every hour spent on design or program, at least a quarter hour to an hour will be necessary to manage the project. Project management hours will probably be billed at about the same rate as the design hours. Factors such as institutional complexity and functionality will increase costs of project management in ways similar to their affect on strategy costs.


Web Design and Graphic Design

This should be one of the most important elements in the creation of your Website, yet is often taken for granted. A poorly designed site will drive people away. A site that is difficult to navigate will only frustrate visitors. It is true that unless you're trying to compete in a very tight market, you don't need to spend as much as the major corporations. However, first impressions are sometimes the most important, and this is no less true of how a first time visitor to your Website. Of course, you want to convey a look that is a reflection of your organization's personality, mission, and goals. Remember that many times "less is more". To achieve the crisp, professional look, it might be wise to request a proposal from 2-3 vendors. More than likely, you will receive a range of prices, since each vendor may offer distinct features that will help you build your online identity. (Caveat emptor: Request and call references. There are a lot of fly-by-night Web developers who post information on the Web that is simply not true, or reflective of their organization's capabilities.)

At the most basic level, graphic design can be free. If you are the kind of business that prints up everything at home, you can probably do the same on-line. With a bit of time, training, and free tools, you can design a site that looks as if someone designed it at home.

At a very low cost, around $100 to $300 dollars/year, you can produce a site that looks adequate for many basic purposes. You can use on-line site building services to produce your site, many will host it as well.

Custom design web development firms typically start at $3,000 (just for the design elements) and can cost more than $500,000. The advantage of custom design is that you communicate a look and feel that is particular to your firm or company. As prices escalate for design, hopefully, you gain the additional benefits of advertising, creating a marked impression in the viewer that will result in some great benefit to the company.


Database Development

More and more Websites are incorporating database functionality to provide added value to the visitor's experience on the site, and to increase the efficiency of in-house operations.

If your firm uses a database(s) that can easily be updated, maintained, or accessed over the web, your operational costs will almost certainly decrease as a result of adding database functionality to your site. Examples of database development that can help improve your site include:clearinghouse of all electronic media (newsletters, press releases, job listings, etc.);contact information for clients and vendors; product listings; photo galleries; etc.

The use of a database in combination with necessary programming that will allows your site to become "data-driven" will only further enhance the functionality of your Website by providing a means to maintain your site without prior knowledge of HTML programming or HTML editors.

Below are some average costs incorporating database elements/data-driven functionality into a Website:

  • Jobs listings - $1,500 to $2,500
  • Press Releases - $1,500 to $4,500
  • Corporate Rolodex - $1,000 and up
  • Corporate Calendar - $1,000 and up
  • Advocacy/Action Center (Congressional Lobbying) - $2,500 to $10,000
  •  Shopping Cart/email processing - $3,000
  • Real-time Credit Card Processing - $3,000

Enterprise systems that coordinate activities of wide-spread offices may run more in the $50,000 to $100,000 range.


Website Interactive Features

A Website that just sits there and displays itself may be fine for some people, but chances are you want to know more about what your audience thinks. You may want to know who they are and where they've come from. Some information can be gathered from statistical programs on your site's server, but you might want to et specific personal information from them as well. You might want to ask them what they think about certain topics. Perhaps you want a record of visitors in certain categories so you can e-mail them when news occurs in their area. Information collection can be done with respect to privacy, with plenty of notice, if necessary.

A basic form that would collect an e-mail address, a request or a comment, and a brief profile might cost as little as $100 to develop, while a more extensive set of forms with questions and differentiation that ties into a corporate database might run into the thousands. Interactivity can be enhanced with the addition of many fairly simple tools. Some, such as visitor hit counters have become hallmarks of amateurism, but others are often used and bookmarked by visitors, if useful. Mortgage calculators, phrase translators, on-line calendars, protein parameters translators, etc. are just a few of the thousands of tools that can make life easier. If your site has an audience that will be well served by some such tool, you might consider adding it so that people will come and come back.

Adding an on-line tool should be targeted. Generating fortunes might be interesting for a Chinese restaurant, but useless on a home finance page.

Some tools are available free. If you are building your own site, you might consider adding in a generic tool, downloadable from various shareware sites. The disadvantage is that these tools are often not customizable. Also, other similar pages may have the same tools.

Semi-custom tools are often available through your design firm. The tools may have been prepared for one client and are now in a library, easily customized for others. Prices for such tools start in the $500 to $2,000 range, and may include installation costs.

On-line tools may be custom designed for prices that vary, depending on the complexity of the tool. Say you want to add a function to your site whereby constituents can log on and write a letter to their Senator. Such tools can be programmed, complete with customized and customizable text options.


Multimedia Design: Selection and Usage

Modern Websites don't just sit there. Flash and Shockwave animation, streaming video, javascripts and applets, and any number of action graphics enhancements, make your Website come alive. That doesn't mean you should do it. Done badly, animation can annoy and distract the viewer, extend download time, require the viewer to download plug-ins, and give the Website a cheap feel. But done well, animation can give the viewer a stronger sense of the sophistication and cutting-edge nature of your company. In all cases, repeat viewers need to be able to skip Flash programming. The following prices are just a sampling of the rich multimedia enhancements available.

Basic Flash animation, which can be done for anywhere from $250 a page up to $10,000 for a medium site. Some Fortune 500 companies have paid up to $250,000 for a 30 second flash intro.

Streaming video clips can be added to your site for anywhere from $500 a clip on up, depending on the nature and the video production costs. It seems obvious, but many fail to realize that a long-loading clip of your executive director talking is not going to keep your visitors on the Website for very long. Animated gifs can be downloaded for free, or built for the project at prices ranging from $100 to several thousand, depending on the need and the type of integration. These can be a nice touch, but should be used very sparingly. Remember the phone message rule, if it's only funny once, don't make people listen to it every time they call.


Website Maintenance: Keeping Content and Graphics Up-to-Date

A Website, once up, will not stay current all by itself. The more up-to-date your content is, the more quickly it will go out-of-date. Design elements will change if your organization changes its image. And Website technology will continually raise the expectations of your target market, demanding that you stay current as well. Whether you include the costs of maintaining your site upfront are up to you, but be aware that they do exist and you will be facing them. If your organization goes through changes, the information on the Website will need to change to reflect that. Even if your organization doesn't generates much news, you will probably want to rotate the information available in order to keep it interesting to repeat visitors.

Onsite/In-House Maintenance. Obviously, the easiest way to make sure your site is kept up-to-date and running efficiently is to have a talented Webmaster in-house. This, however, is easier said than done, and can be expensive. A typical Webmaster can easily cost $50,000 in annual salary, plus benefits. Most small companies, associations, and non-profits cannot afford this option.

Some organizations prefer to have an IT professional of some type assume Website updating as part of his or her responsibilities. If the person already has significant duties and can easily add Website maintenance this might be a cost-effective solution. However, often the skills are too diverse, or the IT person's duties are already filling most of the day. If overtime is involved, or an additional employee must be added, then the cost to the organization of this solution may be considerable, even it does not show in the Website budget.

A large Website with frequent updating may require a webmaster or web division internal to the company. Obviously the cost of this solution starts with the salaries, plus associated personnel costs, search costs, equipment, etc.

The most scalable solution may be to use your web design firm as a web department. Some offer maintenance contracts, either with a monthly rate, an hourly rate, or a discounted package of hours. The advantage is that you can scale costs to your needs while retaining a high level of expertise. A good design and development firm will offer maintenance services. Such services usually come in two forms - either on an hourly basis, with fees ranging anywhere from $50 to $125; or on a monthly basis, with rates running from $50 a month up to thousands, depending on the firm and your usage.

Another option is to have an authoring tool built into the site design, so that the site can be updated easily with little risk of damaging the site. While this will increases the front-end development cost, it may save money in the long run, depending on your needs. Such a package could cost $1,500 - $3,000 to purchase and configure, plus $50 a month to license. The advantage is that you can use an employee with no special training to maintain the page. However, don't forget to include the hours spent by the employee into your cost figures. For every five hours spent generating the new content, assume an additional hour for putting the content onto the web page.


Website Hosting

All Websites have to have a "home", the place where the files are stored that allow others around the world to access them. To the site visitor, it's probably not of concern where files are stored. Although many assume that when viewing an organization's Website that they are accessing the information from within the organization's physical structure, this is many times not the case. In reality, your Website will probably exist on a server somewhere in cyberspace on a server, maybe more than one, unless you are able to afford an in-house Web server, a broadband connection, other equipment, and staff to support it.

If your Website company can provide hosting, they can also provide you with a number of customizable e-mail addresses. Typically these will use the domain name of the site, with a front end that describes the purpose of the contact, such as [email protected]. One of the great benefits of these Internet-based e-mail addresses is that they can be forwarded to other addresses, and can be accessed from multiple locations using Point-of-Presence (POP) server protocols.

There are a broad range of cost-effective hosting opportunities that will free you of the burden and cost associated with maintaining a server in-house:

  • Free - Free server space is offered by a variety of companys, but this is not a wise solution for many businesses, since the trade-off is having limited functionality, prominent banner ads of the provider littered throughout Web pages, pop-up adverstisements, etc. "You get what you pay for..."
  • Shared Server space - Sharing server space with others is a common, and inexpensive solution for many small-to-medium sized businesses.
  • Co-located servers - Some company's choose to buy their own equipment and to store it on the premises of their Internet Service Provider (ISP) or hosting provider. Administration of the server is often provided by the ISP or hosting service provider, as well.
  • Dedicated servers - For larger Websites, ecommerce Websites, and others that store confidential information such as credit card information, sensitive personal information, or proprietary data, a dedicated server is probably the best and safest option.

Internal hosting may seem free, especially if a company already has the infrastructure in-house, but often is not. While it may be a good solution for a large institution with a full IT department, a smaller organization, may not have the budget required hire an network administrator, and other support required to successfully maintain an internal Web server. be able to there are many hidden costs you must account for in considering this option. Hosting a Website on a server at your office means that you must have the following:

A reliable server that is up all the time. While any computer with Windows 95 or higher can act as a server, you will have to set aside at least three and possibly five to six hours a month to maintain and configure the computer.

Reliable access, with enough bandwidth to serve your expected traffic. Most DSL lines are asynchronous. This means that though they may download at a fairly fast rate, the speed of uploading information to the net is about one-fourth as fast. If you are hosting a Website, it's the upload speed that counts, and your $60 a month DSL line won't handle the load. Synchronous DSL lines are more expensive, starting at about $150 and going up into the hundreds per month.

A hosting service normally provides things like e-mail and password configuration. Hosting the site in-house means you will have to set aside a certain amount of someone's time, probably at least 3 hours a month.

There are literally hundreds of small hosting companies that will host your site for a monthly fee. Basic sites may be hosted for rates ranging from $10 - $50 a month. Questions you may have to consider are:

  • How stable is the company you are dealing with? Internet related companies come and go, and you don't want to have to find a new hosting company all of a sudden. Even Chevy Chase Bank recently had to shut down its on-line banking service for several days when their ISP went bankrupt.
  •  How reliable are the servers? Some hosting companies have racks of servers with constant monitoring, technicians standing by, redundancy, etc. Others may consist of a few computers in a garage. You want to know what is being done to ensure that your site stays up.
  • What type of server is it? What software is available? Is it Linux or NT? Is there trend analysis software installed? Can you install your own server software? Is there a collection of CGI bin routines?

Major companies, such as Yahoo and MSN offer hosting services ranging from $20 to $50 per month. These services are basic, but have the advantage of being linked to a major company. You may prefer working with a company that will give you more personal service, however.

Some web development companies offer complete packages that include hosting. Prices range from $20-50 and up. The advantage to doing this is that your web development company is doing the research and taking the risks in finding the best option for you. They will best understand your software and options requirements, and provide all the configuration and maintenance activities in conformance with the rest of the site maintenance. If your prefer having a single company that is responsive to all your Internet needs this may be the best option.


Domain Registration

A small, but sometimes overlooked expense in Website development is domain name registration; cheap self-registration sites may be as low as $15 dollars a year, per name. Depending on the type of site, you may also need to register domain names for .com, .net, .org, and possibly domain names that are variant spellings. Political organizations and large companies frequently register domain names that could be used by parody sites, i.e.


Online Marketing & Search Engine Optimizaton (SEO)

Marketing online is a very fluid endeavor. Marketing should begin in the design phase and go from there. For instance, design elements such as text on the front page, meta-tags, page titles, and keywords provide for maximum placement with search engines. Once a site is up, it should be registered with all the major search engines, any specialized search engines, industry specific lists, and cross-linked to related sites whenever possible. More specific on-line marketing might involve banner ads on relevant sites, placement of logos and URLs in html newsletters, and identification of media sources that could reference the site.

This activity can be conducted in-house, once again the hours should be computed to determine the cost. If you have to hire someone, or train someone, it may not be cost effective.

Automated registration services are prolific, but probably do you little good. Being submitted to 1,500 engines once a month may sound like a great deal, but only the top twenty or so are relevant, along with industry-specific directories. Hand submission, either in-house or by your web development firm, is far more effective.



It's no secret that E-commerce has gone through a tremendous boom and bust. Many business models drew an enormous amount of investment, yet failed in the implementation. Still, there are successes. More importantly, Websites for companies and organizations that aren't purely devoted to e-commerce add an important revenue stream by adding e-commerce, as well as satisfying the expectations of many of your site visitors. While a full-blown e-commerce site that exists entirely to sell on-line is looking at costs around $800,000 per year, adding e-commerce to your site doesn't have to be expensive at all.

Some on-line template-based site builders offer e-commerce capability for less than $100 per month. If you are satisfied with an off-the-shelf one-size-fits-all solution, this could be for you.

If your product is entirely electronic, or you are soliciting contributions or membership fees, there are solutions that can be put in place for less than $100 per month. These solutions are flexible and can be easily customized to fit into a professional, custom-built site.

If you are offering a catalog on-line, you will need a merchant account, shopping cart, and catalog. These are typically custom-built into a site, using database-programming languages, such as Cold Fusion. The costs for custom database programming begin in the $1,000 to $3,000 range, but for larger sites, you can expect to pay anywhere from $25-$75,000, depending on the complexity of the programming. You will also have to consider the costs of a merchant account.