Because WordPress itself is free, open-source software, and there are many good free themes and plugins, people have the mistaken idea that building a WordPress website should be free—or at least very cheap. While you can set up a WordPress.com site for your business for a mere $4/month, you’ll pay a lot more than that in time if you aren’t familiar with WordPress, and you do have to put up with feature limitations.
If you hire an experienced developer or agency, even a very simple website is going to cost a minimum of $1000 and an average of $2500. That’s because a website that helps you achieve your business goals requires discovery, content strategy, communication, and training. These might take more time than the actual site build—but without them your website won’t help you build your business, even if it looks pretty.
At the other end of the spectrum, a highly complex website costs upwards of $50,000 and requires a team of experts working over several months. What accounts for the difference? What makes building a website expensive?
What Makes a Website Expensive: Extended Discovery
When your needs are simple, it doesn’t take as long to determine what they are. But once you move beyond a “brochure” website with a blog, the discovery process requires digging deeper and questioning every feature request: why do you need it? How will it support your business’ mission and help you achieve your goals? Is there a better solution? How does the cost of building a feature compare to the benefit of having it? How will the functionality or design you want affect the site’s performance, usability, SEO, and ongoing maintenance costs? What haven’t you thought of yet that could improve your website’s ROI?
What Makes a Website Expensive: Research
When a website has requirements beyond the basics, it takes time not just to determine what those requirements are but to decide on the best way to achieve the desired results. There are many ways to solve any technical problem—probably as many as there are developers who do it, and certainly many plugins for any purpose you can imagine.
An experienced developer will have go-to plugins for standard or common functions (such as contact forms or ecommerce), but will still need to decide which is the best choice for the purpose. If you are only selling downloads, you don’t need an ecommerce plugin that also handles taxes and shipping; if your online course doesn’t need to integrate into an academic institution’s learning management software, you can use a simpler LMS plugin.
For uncommon requests, the developer will need to spend research time in order to choose the best solution, and to decide whether it’s better to use an existing plugin or write custom code.
What Makes a Website Expensive: Project Management
A large, complex project usually requires multiple team members—at least if you want it to be completed before it’s obsolete. That means someone needs to coordinate everyone’s efforts and keep the project on track. There’s project management involved even when there’s just one client and one developer, but when you have either multiple client stakeholders or a large design and development team, it’s usually best to have a dedicated project manager. More people to pay obviously means higher costs.
What Makes a Website Expensive: Extended Content Strategy & Content Development
For any website, even a small one, you need to answer the question “What kind of content should this website contain, and how do we need to organize it to make it easier for visitors to find what they need?”
For a small and simple website, an hour’s worth of discussion and brainstorming will do. But when you already have a mass of accumulated content, or are planning to create a site that will have hundreds or thousands of entries, it takes longer to determine the content types, choose taxonomies and custom fields, and decide how best to manage them and organize them within the admin.
When rebuilding a website that has a lot of existing content, you need to conduct a thorough content audit before you can decide what to keep, what to update, what to replace, and what to add. Content audits can take many hours, but they are necessary not just for content strategy and site architecture, but for any serious attempt at SEO.
When the website is completely new, someone needs to create content. Copywriters who are experienced with writing for the web command substantial fees. (It’s only very rarely that you’ll get good results by hiring someone inexpensive from the Philippines.) Hiring a copywriter also means more project management time.
What Makes a Website Expensive: Custom Design
If you want a completely customized website design, or you need a new identity package in addition to your website, you need to hire a graphic designer and you need to pay a front-end developer to convert those designs into CSS and HTML. This readily runs into thousands of dollars when you need a lot of designs for different templates.
You can save a lot of money by starting with an existing theme that you like and just customizing the colors and fonts. That usually still requires some CSS work, but doesn’t necessarily require the services of a graphic designer. Page builders can also help make an off-the-shelf theme look unique, by allowing you to create your own layouts.
What Makes a Website Expensive: Choosing Images and Fonts
Studies show that people are more likely to read your posts (on blogs and social) when you include an image, but it can take hours to find the right stock photo and more hours to take a photo yourself and edit it. While it’s possible to have an attractive design without using dozens of images, it’s likely you will want to use at least a few hero images for your home page or landing page design. And while there are many sources for free stock photos, quite often you’ll need to pay for them.
If you already have a print style guide for fonts, all that’s needed is to find and license the web font version. There are 846 families of free fonts available from Google, and Adobe’s fonts (the ones that ship with Photoshop and InDesign) are available through TypeKit ($49/year) or as part of the Creative Cloud subscription. If your corporate style guide specifies a proprietary font from another foundry, you’ll need to pay to license the web version—even if you have already bought a desktop license. You might find that the $9.99/month Monotype Library Subscription is a good choice if you need multiple fonts and weights.
If you don’t yet have a corporate style guide, someone is going to end up spending more hours poring over font combinations in order to help you create one. Experienced designers are knowledgeable about which fonts go well together and other typographic issues, but perhaps even more likely than normal people to get sucked into looking for the perfect font.
What Makes a Website Expensive: Custom Functionality
If a plugin is already available to do something like managing events or creating forms, it’s always going to be more cost-effective to use the plugin. Even commercial plugins cost far less than hiring a developer to build you a custom plugin to do the same thing. Some plugins, like learning management systems, e-commerce plugins, and membership or content restriction, require considerable time to set up. You can’t expect to just install and activate them.
In many cases, however, your developer will need to write some custom code to make the plugin work just the way you need it to, and in some cases, it’s less work to write original code than to modify existing code. Depending on your site, that might add up to a lot of billable hours.
What Makes a Website Expensive: Multiple Authors and Roles
A small-business website requires only a few user accounts. A website for a publication or an enterprise may need accounts for dozens of authors and editors, as well as an editorial workflow to allow editors to send new posts back for revisions or approve them before they go live. Some sites also require the ability to add guest authors who don’t have WordPress user accounts but still have author archive pages. (Think of multi-author scientific publications or sites that accept guest bloggers.)
What Makes a Website Expensive: Additional Services
Do you need to hire an SEO specialist to conduct keyword research and review your proposed site architecture and taxonomies? Do you need new email marketing templates and social media banners to match the design of the site? What about new print design assets (letterhead, brochures, business cards) to go along with the new site? Your website is only one part of your marketing plan. The more related services you require, the higher the project cost.
What Makes a Website Expensive: Changes in Scope
If the discovery process is conducted properly, everyone knows what’s included in each phase and what isn’t. Just as you’re going to incur delays and extra charges from your general contractor if you decide you want a major change to your house remodel halfway through, mid-course changes to a website redesign push your launch date out by months and increase your costs. It’s less expensive to spent a few extra hours on discovery than to have your developer rip out a lot of code and replace it halfway through.
In addition to a good discovery process, regular communication is the key to avoiding costly change orders. Review wireframes, prototypes, color palettes, font selections, photographs, and design elements promptly, and let your designer or developer know right away if something doesn’t work for you.
So How Expensive Will My Website Be?
To get a general sense of the cost of a website (re)build, read over that list and ask yourself which of those things you need. If the answer is “All of them,” expect a five-figure price tag. If the answer is “All of them and more,” your website could be a six-figure investment.