I launched my first website in 2009. Mercifully, no evidence of it remains. The same can’t be said for this 2011 version that has been archived for posterity by The Wayback Machine.
Yikes! It’s like looking at an old yearbook photo.
Since these early experiments, I’ve been involved in a dozen or so website development projects either as copywriter, website owner, or project manager. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that business owners underestimate what it takes to create a website.
How to start a website project
Before diving headfirst into your web development project, take time to plan. The fastest way to find yourself in a quagmire of missed deadlines, shifting priorities, and wasted work is a lack of clearly defined goals, roles, and expectations.
Start by asking yourself, “Who is this website for?”
Getting to know your users (a.k.a. customers or target audience) is the most important step in your web development project. Why? Because if you fail to meet their needs and expectations they won’t stick around to buy anything.
Next, ask yourself, “Why are they coming to my site?”
The answer to this question will shape the design and structure of your website. For example, Wayfair.com is designed to help customers locate products for the home.
It has a prominent search bar, product categories for navigation, large images highlighting deals, and easily located account information.
Meanwhile, The New York Times is all about bringing you the news.
The navigation is sorted by topics, the latest headlines fill the front page, and popular features like the crossword puzzle and local weather are scrawled across the top.
And finally, Google knows you come to their website to find stuff, so their homepage looks like this:
Now, start planning your content.
Once you understand who your website is for and why they are coming, you can begin planning what goes where on your site. Make a list of things that must be included such as tour or room descriptions, frequently asked questions, and tools such as a booking engine. Write down everything you can think of then prioritize them from most to least important.
At this stage you can begin looking for professionals to help you such as web developers, graphic designers, SEOs, and copywriters). Look for providers who are proactive, responsive to your communications, and can explain why their recommendations will work for your audience.
What's needed to start a website
The absolute bare necessities you need to start a website are a domain name, web host, and a content management system (CMS). This is enough to get your website up and running but it is still not finished.
In order for your website to have a chance at attracting prospects and converting them into customers you will also need:
- An SSL certificate
- Graphic Design
- Apps, portals, and tools
Fortunately, if you are bootstrapping your business there are plenty of low- and no-cost options out there. But if you have the capital, it’s definitely worth investing in custom everything. A quality creative team - graphic designers, copywriters, and photographers - will create a look and feel for your website that is unique to your brand and tailored to the interests of your target audience.
When hiring a professional team, define roles and responsibilities for everyone and assign a project manager - either someone within your organization or a third party - to keep the project moving along. I’ve seen website builds grind to a halt because no one was responsible for providing the website content!
How much will it cost to start a website
If you do it yourself
Web development doesn’t have to cost much at all. You can go live for under $200, but you’ll have to invest sweat equity and cope with a steep learning curve.
Website-builders like Wix or Weebly look like an easy option, but I don’t recommend them. When you build your website using these free templates the provider owns the intellectual property behind it. That means you can’t take your site with you if you outgrow the platform or simply want to switch web hosts.
Instead, sign up with a hosting service and download an open source content management system like WordPress. It will grow with you, do pretty much whatever you ask it to, and you can take it wherever you go.
If you hire others to build your website for you
The cost varies greatly.
Web developers charge anywhere from a few hundred to several thousands of dollars to program your site for you. The size of your website, the experience of the developer, and how much customization you require all affect the price.
A graphic designer can create a unique look for your site including your logo, images, colors, fonts, and more. The cost for this also ranges from several hundred to several thousand dollars with price being determined by both the quantity and quality of the work you request.
Finally, copywriters provide all the written content on your site from taglines to product descriptions to blog posts. This, too, will add anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars depending on how much content you need and whom you hire to write it for you.
You’ll find that some providers charge hourly while others offer a flat, project-based rate. I recommend the project-based approach if you can work it out with the provider of your choice. Hourly rates introduce a level of pricing uncertainty that isn’t good for you or the provider.
On the high end, a custom site with lots of features, beautiful graphics, SEO, and amazing copywriting can easily run you $10,000-$20,000.
Other fees you may run into include third party apps, like appointment schedulers or email marketing providers, which can add anywhere from tens to hundreds (or in the case of enterprise-grade software, thousands) of dollars per month.
Tips when starting a website
Whenever possible go custom. Stock photography sucks. Template-based sites all look the same. And bad copywriting will sink your entire website. Always pay for the best professional services you can afford.
SEO is not an afterthought. If you don’t take SEO into consideration before you begin your web development project, you could end up making mistakes that cost you later. Learn about SEO and/or consult with an SEO expert before you get started.
Gather ideas from your competition. If something keeps popping up on your competitors’ websites, pay attention—it’s probably something your customers' respond to. Don’t plagiarize, but don’t reinvent the wheel, either.
Make sure your site is mobile ready. The Internet is mobile. If your website doesn’t look or work right on a smartphone it will cost you both customers and SEO rankings.
Plan to expand. You may have big plans for your website that just aren’t in the budget right now. That’s OK. Go with what’s most important today, you can always grow later.
Web development is never done. Once your website is up it will need regular maintenance both on screen and behind the scenes. Software updates, security, fresh content, SEO . . . you need to be prepared to make a long-term commitment to your website or it will not get you the results you want.