Small Business Websites – Inexpensive and Easy

Is the website for your small business outdated and amateurish? What does that say about your company? But, websites can cost thousands of dollars, right?

Yes, they can but, they don’t have to. In this article, we’ll discuss the options that you have to get the website you want, while keeping more of your hard-earned money to invest into the core functions of your business.

The barrier to entry as a “web developer” or “web designer” is at an all-time low. Practically any kid in high school can build a simple, decent website these days. But, your business deserves more than “decent.” You want to show that you are professional, and nothing can take away from that more than an out-dated website with poor design and usability.

What is often not understood is that the biggest expense in website development is the creative work, such as graphic design and copy writing, and the administrative costs associated with managing the project. Believe it or not, the person coding your site probably receives only about 1/3 of the fees you pay for a website when you use an advertising firm or design shop.

So, what’s a business owner to do? Let’s take a look at some options.

Offshore Outsourcing

May websites, such as planetsourcecode.com, guru.com, and odesk.com will offer services with which you can hire contractors to build your website for you. Most of the contractors you’ll find on these sites are working from Middle East and Eastern European countries, and you can find someone advertising the skill set you need in all price ranges. While this seems to be an attractive option, it does come with several drawbacks.

I have used these services in the past. However, I usually limited it to small projects that required very little oversight, or to have an expert in a particular field solve a very specific problem. I have not had very good luck when we’ve assigned a full project to one of these contractors, especially if the project required a lot of administrative oversight.

Some advantages of using offshore outsourcing for your web site are:

  • With a lot of searching and a little luck, you can find skilled workers who are willing to work very inexpensively.
  • Many contractors are students who are in computer science classes, and typically have a good attention to detail and industry standards.
  • Most services have an escrow system so that you don’t have to release funds to the contractor until you accept their work.

But, as mentioned, outsourcing your website to offshore contractors has some disadvantages, as well:

  • While most of the contractors you work with will speak English well, there are still some communication barriers. I believe this has more to do with the differences in terminology used, rather than a true language issue.
  • It’s not uncommon for a contractor to get halfway through your project and then disappear.
  • While you can find someone to work for a low price, you typically get what you pay for. Many times, you would have come out ahead paying a much higher hourly rate and having someone who is more accountable build your site.

While I wouldn’t count out offshore development help, I really feel that the disadvantages are magnified for the typical small business owner. Once you count the cost of your time, the headaches and hours spent trying to manage a few overseas contractors can greatly outweigh any advantages and cost savings you would see.

Hire a Kid

These days it’s very common to find a teenager with the skills to build a simple website. In fact, there are many with advanced skill sets that rival some professionals. If you have a good relationship with a teenager or college age student, and need a very basic site, this may be a good option.

The advice I would give is to only use a student that you know and trust. While their skills may be adequate, there is still a level of maturity and professionalism that may be absent. Teenagers may not realize the importance of issues such as security, protection against cross-site scripting attacks, protecting web forms from spammers, etc. However, for a basic, static site, you will probably not find a better bargain.

Some advantage of hiring a student are:

  • The will likely work very inexpensively, or even at no cost, if they’re trying to build up a resume or portfolio.
  • They usually have very good skills at the basic level.

Some disadvantage include:

  • Lack of maturity and responsibility
  • Lack of knowledge of advanced aspects
  • Lack of importance placed on security and other issues, which can cause you problems down the road.
  • Lack of support when you need something changed or fixed later
  • The appearance of your site is directly related to the design capabilities and creative skills of the student, which may not provide you with the most professional looking site.

As mentioned, I would only suggest this option if you are needing a very simple site with static content and no advanced features. I would also recommend that the person hired is known and trusted. Otherwise, I would look at one of the other options available.

Use WordPress or Drupal

The use of pre-packaged content management systems (CMS), such as WordPress or Drupal is growing in popularity. This is due to the fact that they allow a person with fairly basic knowledge of web development to get a very professional looking site up quickly and easily. They also have many plugins that allow you to include almost any common function you’d like into your site.

The fastest growing CMS is WordPress. This is likely due to the ease of development of plugins as compared to others. The number of plugins and themes available for WordPress seems to be endless, and it’s very easy to build a nice looking and fully functional website without requiring custom programming.

Drupal, while not growing as quickly in use as WordPress, is still becoming more and more popular, especially with highly customized site. It sells itself as more of a true framework than a CMS system, as it lends itself to the development of some highly advanced plugins. Personally, I see WordPress catching up in this area with the latest release. I believe WordPress to be easier to theme, as well.

For the typical small business, using a CMS for your website is probably the most cost-effective option. Many hosting companies have a “one-click install” for WordPress and Drupal, as well as some other popular CMS applications.

However, the claim that “anyone can build a website” with one of the systems is really an over-statement. There still remains a required level of technology skills and an understanding of basic website development. The user must be capable of doing some research and finding documentation on the use of the various plugins in order to take full advantage of these systems. Many development companies will assist with this and include some basic training with their services.

So, to summarize the pro’s and con’s of this option, the advantages of using a pre-packaged, Open Source content management system are:

  • Produces a very professional looking website
  • Easy to install
  • No cost to install and configure with many hosting companies
  • Many plugins and/or modules available, both free and commercial, which can extend the functionality beyond the core system.
  • Many themes available, both free and commercial, which allow you to change the look of the site very easily without altering the content.
  • Most produce compliant HTML/CSS code, making the site’s appearance uniform across different browsers and operating systems.

Disadvantages include:

  • Steep learning curve for developers looking to extend functionality past what is available with existing plugins.
  • Custom themes may be more difficult for developers/designers to build than if working with other template engines or raw HTML/CSS.
  • Many advertise that they improve search engine rankings out of the box, but much of the search engine optimization is based on the content of the site. Therefore, these claims are basically unfounded, in my opinion.

One other common CMS which we’re beginning to look at is Typo3. It shows to be very easy to develop on, but a full review of it hasn’t been completed. Therefore, I’ll have to wait before I recommend it. However, I would highly recommend WordPress and, to a lesser extent, Drupal for the typical small business website. Nothing is quicker and less expensive to have a professional looking site up and running.

Hire an Individual Developer

Of course, as a developer, my favorite option is for you to hire one of us to build your website for you. Granted, I may choose to develop it on one of the CMS applications noted above, but we also might wish to use a custom-built CMS to provide a better user experience for you when you’re keeping your website updated.

Custom programming is often used to develop such functions as shopping carts, membership management systems, image galleries, etc. Many of these functions are available as plugins to one of the pre-packages CMS applications, so the need for them is certainly not a driving force in the decision to hire a professional developer. However, if you don’t want to spend the time to learn one of the CMS applications, and research the documentation for all of the plugins, a custom application can often save you time and money down the road.

Some key advantages to hiring a developer for a fully custom-built site are:

  • It’s easier to integrate custom graphics and complex designs into your site
  • It’s easier and less expensive to build custom application functions that aren’t available with the plugins and modules offered in a CMS
  • The user interface can be built to be so intuitive that very little to no training is necessary for you to manage your site
  • It is often less expensive to build custom functionality from scratch than it is to build a custom plugin for a CMS to provide that functionality
  • Well built custom CMS applications are often much less resource-intensive, and scale better than pre-packaged systems.

Of course, going this route has its drawbacks, including:

  • It’s very important to hire a developer that you can communicate well with and that you trust, or else it can be a financial nightmare
  • Custom applications tend to be “buggy” at first and you have to allow for a period of time to test and fix some quirks before you make the site live. (A good developer will fix any bugs at no cost — see the first item in the list)
  • The time involved with development, as well as testing and debugging, will not allow a site to be put online as quickly as it can be with a CMS.
  • Though this option is more affordable than most people believe, there is a higher cost involved than there is when developing on a pre-packaged CMS
  • The look of your site will depend greatly on the quality of the graphic design, which may increase the cost of your site even more

My recommendation is that, even if you believe it best to use WordPress or Drupal for your site, have a good developer look at what you’re wanting to do and give you a solid quote for a custom CMS. You may find that the cost difference is not much and the advantages may be worth it. This will likely be true if your site is built around an advanced graphic design that doesn’t lend itself to being implemented in a pre-packaged CMS.

Summary

Shop around and compare options. Discuss your needs with someone who has diverse experience and an open mind, rather than with the person who only has one solution to offer. Be sure to discuss future plans for your business and your site, so those issues can be addressed early in the process.

Getting your site up and running can be an easy task, but make sure you select an option which allows you to easily manage your site in the future as well. Doing so will ensure you have more time to spend on running your business, and less on maintaining a poorly developed website.



Source by Brian Hannah

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