This article discusses the three major levels of web design to help businesses make an informed decision on their goals and needs.
Most websites today are built using a Content Management System, or CMS. The CMS is the architecture of a website that determines how you add and modify content, and attach applications to a website. Most content management systems allow Web-based content publishing, content formatting, collaborative revisions, editing, and an internal search engine.
A good CMS allows you to add, edit, and update content without knowledge of HTML or some other programming language. Most employ a simple user interface or “dashboard,” which looks like a word processing program (e.g., Microsoft Word).
The level of CMS you use to build your website will largely determine how customized the site is and how much it will cost. You should have a clear idea of your budget before you begin this process to help narrow your focus and avoid evaluating options out of your price range. The cost of building a website can range from just a few dollars per month with a DIY (“Do-It-Yourself”) website, to tens of thousands of dollars with a custom CMS built just for your business.
- Level 1: Do-It-Yourself Websites. At the low end, you can use some content management systems for free. Examples are WordPress and Blogger (owned by Google). You can go to these sites, open an account, and have a website up within minutes. Other websites such as Go Daddy and Network Solutions offer low-cost packages that include hosting fees and easy site design tools.
- Level 2: Custom Websites in a Popular CMS. The next level up from a DIY site is a Custom Website designed for a popular CMS. For these sites, you’re working with an established CMS (WordPress, for example), but you hire a website design firm to create a custom look and feel for your site. Depending on the level of customization, your vendor will either customize an existing theme based on your needs or design an original theme from scratch. A custom website could cost anywhere from under $1,000 to about $7,000, depending on the number of customized page templates and the extent of features needed.
- Level 3: Custom CMS. The last and most expensive level of website design we’ll explore in this guide is a custom CMS. This is a site where not just the way it looks, but also the way it functions, is completely tailored to your business. Building a custom CMS is a considerable investment and usually requires hiring both programmers and designers. Expect to spend over $10,000 to build a completely custom CMS website.
Level 1: Do-It-Yourself Websites
Your lowest-cost option for creating an affordable and functional website for your business is to go with a “Do-It-Yourself” (DIY) site. DIY websites, also known as “Site Builders,” are an inexpensive, easy-to-manage option.
DIY websites allow you to create a new website without hiring a Web design vendor, and without any knowledge of HTML or some other programming language. To launch a DIY website, you simply select one of many predesigned website templates, adjust the settings, and start adding content via an easy-to-use interface.
DIY websites have several major benefits:
- Low Price. DIY sites typically start at $10/month, with no setup fees. Those rates can increase based on additional features.
- Ease of Management. DIY websites provide an all-in-one solution for Web design. The monthly fee usually includes website hosting, domain registration, free website templates, and email accounts. This is convenient because you can manage all these features “under one roof,” without working with multiple vendors and paying multiple bills.
- Ease of Use. DIY websites are easy to use even if you don’t know HTML or another programming language. DIY sites are usually easy to navigate and very user-friendly. Customers can add and update content through a dashboard that resembles a word processor. They can update the layout and graphics with drag-and-drop convenience. Customers also have the ability to easily select or change their website template, which sets the overall design look and feel of the site.
- Inexpensive Add-Ons. While most of the features you need will be included in the monthly rate of the package you select, some features may not be included. Add-on features such as search engine optimization (SEO) software, additional email accounts, customer relationship management (CRM) integration, and extra bandwidth can be added for extra fees or by purchasing a larger DIY package.
The downsides of a DIY website are what you might expect. DIY sites lack the originality and custom features that you get with a more tailored website. That doesn’t mean you have to settle for a dull DIY website. As easy as it is to update content on a DIY site, it’s also easy to adjust design elements of the website template you choose to match the colors, style, and feel you’re trying to achieve.
Level 2: Custom Websites in a Popular CMS
For anywhere from under $1,000 to around $7,000, you can create a custom website in a popular content management system (CMS). Your Web design firm will work with an established CMS, but will create a custom look and feel for your site.
Most content management systems, such as WordPress and Drupal, for example, offer free or premium website themes. In this price range, you can have a Web design company customize an existing theme based on the look and feel you want—including your desired font styles, colors, logo, and other branding. In some cases, depending on the level of customization, your vendor may design an original theme from scratch, rather than customizing an existing theme.
Every CMS theme—whether it’s a free or premium existing theme, or an original theme just for your business—will include the layouts for several different pages. These are known as page templates. There are typically five or six standard page templates that come with a CMS theme:
- Homepage template
- Top-level page template (“About Us,” “Services,” etc.)
- Contact page template
- Blog homepage template
- Blog post template
- Archive page template
The price of your Web design project will vary based on how many of these page templates are customized and the extent of the customizations.
- At the low end (around $800 to $1,000), you’ll get an existing theme with a customized homepage. The other page templates will get only slight modifications from the original theme, so that the colors and fonts match the customized homepage.
- For a little more money (around $1,000 to $2,000), you can expect an existing theme with a customized homepage, plus two to five additional customized page templates.
- For about $2,000 to $3,000, you should expect an existing theme with a customized homepage, plus six or more customized page templates, including multiple customized top-level page templates.
Above the $3,000 price point, depending on the level of customization needed, your Web design vendor can either work off of an existing theme making extensive customizations to meet your needs, or can create a completely original theme for your business.
- For about $3,500 to $4,500, you should expect a completely custom-designed homepage, and usually up to seven additional page templates designed to meet the more advanced needs of your site. Additional features such as image galleries, custom graphics, and social media integration may be included in this price range.
- For around $4,500 to $7,000, you should expect a completely custom-designed homepage template, and usually up to ten additional page templates designed to meet the more advanced needs of your site. Additional features such as image galleries, custom graphics, and social media integration will typically be included in this price range.
Level 3: Custom CMS
At the high end of modern Web design, you can create a custom content management system tailored specifically for your business or organization rather than trying to conform to an existing CMS. This allows for the integration of specific functionalities that will benefit your business and those managing the website.
On the front end, your website design will have extensive features and functionality, and many unique page template designs. Some website management may also be included free, or for a monthly fee.
Here’s a sample of what may be included. Some of these features are available with Level 1 or Level 2 sites, but all of them are usually included with Level 3 packages:
- All hosting services (website, domain name, and email)
- Custom graphics
- Multiple landing pages
- Email newsletter and social media integration
- Blog and forum development
- Custom internal search engine
- Photo, image, and video galleries
- Complex interactive forms
- Integration with back-office systems, such as inventory records and accounting systems
- Custom e-commerce features, such as product listings, a custom shopping cart, CRM integration, and account details viewable through the CMS directly
Some benefits of going with a totally custom CMS include the ability to integrate your website with the other systems your organization uses: accounting, inventory, payroll, CRM, etc. And custom CMS websites are usually more secure than using popular CMS systems because the site code is not readily available to hackers.
On the downside, once you go custom, it’s hard to go back. You and your employees may have to learn the custom system and train people who work on the site in the future. It can be difficult getting your data out of a custom site and into another program in the future. And you will most likely have to pay for revisions and new features as you go.
If you don’t need to develop custom CMS features, you’re better off designing a high-end, original theme for an existing CMS that will be easier and faster to develop, launch, and learn. The additional budget can be used to help improve the visibility of your website and drive traffic via online marketing, search engine optimization, or public relations.