Is a free website really FREE?
by Eric Swain
The true cost behind developing and maintaining a website:
This is a question that comes across our desk all the time; why pay for something when I can get it for free? I can help quantize this question with another question. Why do we buy bottled water, when we can go down to a pond, lake or canal and fill up a jug for free? This type of expression can parallax into many different fields but the point is what may seem like a good thing because of the lower upfront cost may not truly be the case in the end. I will try to help break it down so that we may see what "Free" really looks like.
One of your very first costs will begin with the inception of your business name or branding name, the ever so valuable mybusiness.com or .org or .biz or .net or any other suffix you choose to purchase, if not more than one. So let’s say the first year you buy that domain name, "mybusiness.com" for $9.99,.... not bad, not bad… that’s a really low cost… but now, this is an introductory cost that will follow the next year with a 50% inflation rate. Still it’s not a huge number but as you will see this trend will move across the rest of the so called “Free” spectrum.
Now depending on where and how you have your site hosted this number can range dramatically from the simple “Free” which usually means, Ad supported to the dedicated server type hosting that can cost up into the thousands of dollars. We are going to focus on the new SMB, (Small / Mid Size Business) model so that we can keep a more realistic number but, to give you context to the amount that SwainBros spends, we have partnered with a Data Center in San Antonio, Texas to host all of our customer’s web sites. For those wondering what a Data Center is, it is a building usually the size of a full city block that stores an array of servers available to scale out any application need. We invest thousands of dollars so that we may utilize their array and have the ability to offer a 99.9% uptime. Now back to your hosting package, if you were to pay for a shared package you would spend approx. $19.99 a mo. So scaled to a year that’s an annual cost of $239.88.
CMS or Content Management System:
Most of the “Free” websites will use some sort of Content Management System, this is the front end editing system that allows you to add pictures, text and in most cases a call to action form. Free Site Builder, Wix, Web.com all have a CMS that will allow you to add and remove content, others like WordPress and Drupal will allow you to do a little more front and back end work. Content Management Systems were initially developed because businesses needed a way to constantly update their website without the need of utilizing a web developer to layout and design a new page. Through action scripting in the back end the CMS will automate the development of a new page via PHP or .Net. The one caveat with this standardization is that hackers are notorious for searching out sites that have or utilize a CMS because, just like any other program, the original developer built the platform to serve a need and sometimes hackers can find exploits to inject malicious code or cause damage that will harm your site. Developers of CMS's are always trying to stay one step ahead and for that reason there is a constant update cycle that needs to take place in order for your site to stay secure. Okay so we got together with our CMS developer and found a few anti-virus plug-ins and code injection plug-ins at a total cost of $160 dollars.
If you have ever had the pleasure of working for newspaper, magazine or printing press you will find out right way when something goes to print with an error on it as the readers or clients are quick to point out every single flaw without hesitation. When your business writes and posts an article online the same scrutiny can take place causing your flaw or grammatical mistake to take center stage instead of your content. Copy editing is a crucial part of the writing process, your site needs content to stay in compliance with search engines but you need to make sure that the content grammatically correct and edited correctly. Your secretary may be the go to person for your business letters but is she the best person to trust in writing your online content. Even as such, how many hours is that person now taken away from the other responsibilities to keep the site updated. Let’s just say 10 hours a week at $12 hr. So now you are spending $120 a week to keep your site updated.
Everyone has an Uncle Joe that has a camera that says, “Hey Billy Bob, I can take them there pictures for ya”. Okay maybe not that with that incredible Southern accent, but, we all have an Uncle Joe. So you say yes, go for it and Uncle Joe breaks out his fancy camera with all the du-dad buttons on it that he has used a handful of times to shoot wildlife and begins clicking away. Now, while he may get some usable shots he doesn’t understand how lighting, colors and shadows work online, he doesn’t understand use rights, meta-data, and captioning, or how getting a signed release to use somebody's likeness in a business photo can save the business from future legal distractions. Composition, perspective, context… all keywords that take years of dedication and training to take into account when framing your shot. Even at that, there is still a cost to "Free", there is cost to bringing out Uncle Joe, his time to process and optimize your jumbo jpeg files for the web. Say you went the other way, what if you were to just use Stock photography from an online source, now we are not talking about illegally using images from Google or Yahoo images but a reputable source like iStock or something along those lines. Why reinvent the wheel right? We do the same thing too, sometimes the cost doesn’t justify the means so we will find ways to stay within our customer’s budget. For stock photography though, there is a cost associated with them, and it can range from a few dollars, up to several hundreds of dollars dependent on the use rights. Let’s just say to stay on topic that you purchased 10 photos at $10 each, now that “Free” website has added another $100 to the total cost.
This is your business, and you honestly care about your business…. That stock template look of your "Free" site just isn’t going to work for you. You want your site to look different, except, you are limited to the select templates that are available to you for "Free". Maybe you will spend a few dollars for something a little different so that you will feel like you have a unique space. Templates can range anywhere from $10 dollars to say several thousand, again depending on the use rights. Speaking of use rights, make sure you check to make sure that by modifying the template you are still within the Terms and Agreement allowed for the Template so that you do not run into legal issues. Again for this purpose let us say you purchased a template for $50 dollars.
Okay boss, you got your site all setup, content is good, pictures are top notch, template is cutting edge but...... you have no visitors, it doesn’t even show up on Google when you try to search for it. This goes well beyond optimization and friendliness in linking you know… the marketing keywords that most of us are sick of hearing, SEO and SEF. The truth is you just want Google to even see it, do you pay for Ad-Words? Do you find ways to contact Google to say hey! I have a website, index me! The truth is that there is a lot of tools and utilities you need to understand for your site to become indexed properly in any search engine. Bots need to crawl your site and find the right indexing via site map with unbroken links, they need to read the meta-data and meta-description that matches with the content of the post. Headers need to poses the right meta data so that the site can be indexed correctly. With new SEO rules you will now be dinged if your site is not optimized for Mobile as well. This brings in a whole new level of complexity, thank you Google! So now your secretary has to work on not only making sure the copywriting is correctly done but now has to work on making sure the site is search engine friendly. We are going to say she is now spending another 10 hours a week, on the low end because she has a ton of other responsibilities to address on search engine optimization at again $12 dollars an hour so add another $120 a week to that “Free” site.
Cost of your Free Site:
I believe you are by now starting to get the truer picture of what “Free” really means, but let’s recap by itemizing the following:
Your yearly cost of starting, building and maintaining a website is now: $3,539.87