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Small Business Websites: An Insider's Guide to Not Getting Cheated

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February 17 2017
February 17 2017

We've been building websites for 17 years. We've met some great professionals who create gorgeous, effective, sensibly-priced websites for small businesses in need. But for every one of them, I've met a lot more who charge too much, know too little, and are more likely than not to suddenly stop answering client calls one day — who prey on those who lack the right industry knowledge to defend themselves.

To level the playing field, I've summed the most important lessons you need to know into this five-point buyer's guide meant to help business owners get a fair deal they can feel confident in.

#1: Understand What You're Buying

A quality website is the product of five types of expertise working together:

  1. Strategy — Understanding what your business is, what the website needs to do, and how it should fit with your social media and other marketing tools.
  2. Content — Writing sales copy, sourcing high-res photos, creating graphics and videos, etc.
  3. Design — Translating your content and strategy into something beautiful and efficient.
  4. Development — Sourcing or writing the code that powers the site and its features.
  5. Training — Making sure you (and staff) are equipped to get full value from your investment.

Simple as all that is, the trouble is that no single “website person” is an expert at all five of those things. That reality in mind, website vendors have historically taken one of three approaches:

  • Outsourcing the bits they're not good at. Individual experts sometimes collaborate in loose teams. This is the most ideal model — but also the rarest. Most struggle with sales, leading them to offer as many services to each client as possible.
  • Hiring someone in-house with each speciality. This all-in-one approach is common among firms large enough to have offices and an admin staff. Of course, the downside is that more overhead translates to higher prices.
  • Ignoring reality and claiming to be good at all five things. All too common among small outfits who sell on price — who don't always disclose exactly which corners are being cut or what the long-term implications might be.

A Very, Very Brief History of Websites

15 years ago, creating a new site took forever. Anything good had to be designed and developed from scratch. There were no great site-building tools or open platforms.
Well, the world has changed. New technologies (which we'll get into later) came into being that cut the workload substantially — i.e., by 5x or more.

Today, a fraction of small business websites require from-scratch design (or would even benefit from it financially). It's now mostly a matter of finding the right template and customizing from there.

*Section Summary*

You absolutely need all five types of help (strategy, content, design, development, training) — which may or may not be available from one vendor. That said, the cost of design and development has come down sharply, which should free up cash for the other (often ignored) elements.

#2: Choosing the Right CMS

Every website runs on an engine called a Content Management System (CMS). In most cases, just five things really matter when choosing between them:

  • How easy is it add/edit content?
    Most businesses don't have complex requirements. All they need are simple ways to edit basic content (e.g., calendars, galleries, hours, bios, blogs, etc).
  • Are edit permissions limited by role type?
    Owners (and their staff) love having creative control. In 99% of cases this ends badly. What starts out beautiful can quickly devolve into an unprofessional mess. A good CMS saves people from themselves by allowing for foolproof content editing separate from design control.
  • Is the business behind the CMS stable?
    A young company trying to grab users will offer a terrific deal today. But will those savings be worth it if growth slows down and they go out of business? Will your content be salvageable? Do they have a solid track-record or firm set of guarantees?
  • What's the design shelf-life?
    Trends, tools, and best practices all evolve quickly. Most websites need to be updated every two years (at minimum). A good CMS does the heavy-lifting for you on an ongoing basis (i.e., security and feature architecture), allowing you and your designer to simply make a few stylistic choices.
  • How easy/safe is it to add new features?
    You should be able to have any qualified developer add a new feature to your site without the fear of anything breaking (even if they've never touched your site before).

That in mind, a quick overview of the main options:


Click-to-create services like Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace. Simple and inexpensive.

  • Templates: Included with monthly fee.
  • Setup: Built-in tutorial. Takes just minutes.
  • Editing: Basic control panel. Intuitive.
  • Features: Dozens of included plugins. But limited custom coding.
  • Role Types: Preset options, each with different permissions.
  • Maintenance: Nearly everything is automated.
  • Support: 24/7. Reliable. But narrow in scope.


Install and edit someone's template or create your own from scratch. What most independent designers and developers use. Big three are WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla.

Templates: $0-200

Setup: Moderate to advanced. Takes a pro 30-90 mins.

Editing: Some through control panel. Some through coding.

Features: Plugins from third parties (some free; some not).

Role Types: Preset options, each with different permissions.

Maintenance: Manual. Somewhat frequent.

Support: From your local developer/designer.


Like a site-builder, but through a mid-size agency instead of a global corporation. Most aim to be the happy medium between other options (i.e., simple but customizable).

Templates: Included with monthly fee.

Setup: Built-in tutorial. Takes minutes.

Editing: Advanced control panel. Intuitive but more options.

Features: Included plugins. But custom coding enabled.

Role Types: Create your own with unique permissions.

Maintenance: Nearly everything is automated.

Support: Personalized during business hours. Hotline if something is urgent.

*Section Summary*

For those looking for something quick and easy, site-builders are great. For businesses who would benefit from ongoing professional input and support, a good boutique CMS is often more ideal (just do your research, as no two are created equal). Options like WordPress offer the most flexibility, but require more maintenance. You often need to keep your original developer on retainer because they alone will know your unique setup (which is important when something breaks). That makes them ideal for those with advanced needs.

(Straight ecommerce businesses should consider Shopify or Facebook with a Shopify plugin.)

#3: Search Engine Optimization

Here's what you need to know about SEO in a nutshell:

Your business is a billboard. The internet is a series of highways. Google is the mapping software that brings people in search of solutions to the most helpful billboards.

Three important considerations:

  1. Google can only work effectively if those billboards are labelled correctly.
  2. When multiple billboards offer the same thing, Google sends people to the one that's the best combination of nearby + amazing.
  3. Google judges "amazing" by a secret, constantly-evolving formula that basically boils down to "offer lots of value to a well-defined type of customer". 
    Services that help businesses reach these goals are generally offered by marketers, website vendors, and speciality SEO firms that work on existing websites.

What most don't know:

  1. Setting up an SEO friendly website is a one-time deal (mixed with a few basic practices to be followed when adding new content). It should come standard with every new site.
  2. No one knows Google's formula. It undergoes small tweaks every day and major bundled changes every 6-12 months. Anyone who says they understand all of it is lying to you.
  3. Yes, there are some known best practices. But most of them just can be summed up in this: “Create really interesting content that customers will engage with and share.”
  4. Many so-called SEO services are selling hacks (like mass link-building) that haven't worked in years and may actually result in ranking penalties.
  5. Most small businesses either don't need ongoing SEO or need less of it than they think.

*Section Summary*

You definitely need basic SEO (i.e., proper labelling — which should be done as you go). You might also need professional help promoting content and handling link management. But you should only buy as much as you really need. Be skeptical.

In some cases you should also buy traffic directly (i.e., using Google's AdWords or Facebook ads) to get visitors on a cost-per-click basis). This is especially true during your first few months when your site is still earning Google's confidence.

#4: Fair Pricing

Planning the site. 

Before you sit down with a designer or developer, you need to figure out what your site is meant to do. Most businesses miss this step and overpay for something that never performs.

As a quirk of how this industry developed, no single profession ever emerged to take on this responsibility. It often falls in a murky middle between marketing consultants, business coaches, social media types, and traditional web designers.

We can't tell you who to hire. But we did create a free tool that asks you all important questions and gives you a print-out to bring with you to whichever expert you choose— just to make sure you've covered all your bases properly.

That expert(s) should charge you no more than $200 per hour. There's no universal estimate for how long it should take. You have to make your own calculation about return-on-investment (i.e., how much new revenue might a really great website bring you) and pay accordingly.

Basic site setup. 

This may not include all of the following steps (as some might be automated):

  • Registering a domain (i.e., website address) = 15 minutes
  • Setting up email = 10 minutes per account
  • Activating your template = 15 minutes
  • Setting up a server = 15 minutes
  • Indexing the site on Google = 10 minutes

A good developer will charge around $75-200/hour (depending on experience, project scope, guarantees, etc). You should pay more attention to the total quote than the hourly fee. A really good pro can do many things 2-3x faster than a relative newbie.

Creating the content.

You can write some content yourself. But pages that make up the sales process will benefit from a professional copywriter. Most charge around $250 per page (up to 500 words). Some charge twice that for your main page, depending how involved it is. Some really effective copywriters charge far higher rates across the board based on past results. Do your research.

High-resolution pictures are available via stock photo sites for about $25 each. Having them selected or edited will generally cost you $50-100 per hour.

Video costs are dependent on style. But if you're forking out more than $1,000 per minute of finished footage, you're likely overpaying. Most explainer videos should be two minutes or shorter.

Designing the site.

Site-builders offer free templates. Open platforms refer you to third-party stores like ThemeForest which charge $0-200 for a template. You can pick one out on your own time, but you're best off consulting with a marketer and/or designer before finalizing your choice. Their judgment is better.

Taking that template and customizing it is the bulk of your non-content costs. If you're simply adding your logo and content, you can do it all yourself. But having a good designer is almost always preferable — who will charge $75-150 per hour to help you with personalized layout and typography.

Developers should bill at roughly the same rate as designers to install, create, and/or test new features. In the majority of cases, there's something off-the-shelf they can use. Be very cautious of custom development. You might need it, but you usually don't.

Monthly fees. 

When you have a site on an open platform like WordPress, you're often paying your original developer a monthly “hosting fee” of $25-250 per month. The actual value of that hosting is about $10 per month. Whatever you're paying above that is a retainer. Depending on your package, it may include a certain amount of customer support baked in. Make sure to ask what's included.

If you're on a site-builder like Wix or Squarespace, your monthly fee will cover hosting and access to a customer support hotline (which only deals with common IT issues, not design help or custom development — you'll need your own designer/developer for that).

If you're on a boutique CMS, your monthly fee will either be $8-35 for hosting and basic support or $35-100 for more advanced help (such as managing some content for you).

*Section Summary*

Everyone wants your money. Many so-called experts are preying upon the fact that small business owners are too busy to do thorough research. Beware. If you're paying less than $500 (excluding monthly fees), you're almost certainly missing something important. If you're paying more than $3k, make sure you're getting a rock solid ROI.

That said:

  • Pay someone to help you with planning (using this tool as a guideline). It matters.
  • Get professional content. It's what drives sales.
  • Use a designer (even just to modify a site-builder template).

(Yes, you could just do it all yourself for free — but you'd end up with will be an online brochure, not a sales tool. A good site will pay for itself many times over.)

#5: Reliable Support

Just a few final notes about service (because of how outsized it is in terms of importance).

There's one particular mistake that gets made thousands of time per day and always ends badly: hiring someone who isn't going to stick around.

Larger agencies are usually fine — one of the redeeming qualities that justifies the cost. Even if the people you worked with directly quit, someone should be around who understands the CMS and the firm's general practices. And they usually have internal calendars to make sure all sites in their portfolio get regularly looked at for security updates and other forms of basic maintenance.

But the majority of owners don't use agencies, preferring the cost savings of using independent designers/developers, most of whom eventually get out of the business (or else get overwhelmed with new client work and pay less attention to those no longer signing large checks).

If that person set you up on an open platform like WordPress, you might be in trouble. The level of customization is so high that it may take a new developer some time to figure out how certain things were set up (and you might not have admin access to give them).

If you were set up on a site-builder, you'll always have the option of calling their support line — which is fine for basic troubleshooting, but won't cover more involved setup questions.

This is where boutique CMS platforms can shine. They offer the same upsides as site-builders (there's usually someone you can call even if the developer/designer who originally helped you stops taking your calls). But they offer a much more personalized support experience that can help you with the bigger picture of what your site does and how if fits into your overall planning.

*Overall Summary*

When you build a website you invest into a dynamic relationship, which requires cost/benefit calculations to prioritize what's most important. Agencies are great but expensive. Independent contractors can be cheaper but their skills vary greatly and they need to provide insurance against what happens when they are no longer around. Try to find a solid and flexible platform, a team that understands great design, and a company that can guarantee reliable/personalized support.

Try to avoid these common mistakes:

  • Failing to cover all five types of expertise.
  • Failing to plan before buying.
  • Using the wrong type of platform.
  • Overpaying for hosting, development, and/or SEO.
  • Skimping on good content (often to pay for unnecessary costs elsewhere).

May this guide help you make good choices.


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