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How Much Do Websites Cost? - A CMS Comparison

November 29, 2021 by Levi Carter

I have built hundreds of websites, consulted with experts, talked with business owners, and spent countless hours researching all of the options available. And after all of that time, effort, and experience I still have a hard time answering this simple question: how much does a website cost?

Why is the cost of a website so complicated?

To start with, a website is never “just a website” - any more than a business is “just a business”. There is a lot of planning and strategy that should go into a successful website.

Considerations of Website Costs

Some of the most basic questions you will need to answer are:

  • What should the site look like?
  • What content should it contain?
  • How often will the content be updated and by whom? 

At a slightly more technical level you need to address:

  • What technologies will make the website most successful?
  • What about SEO, front-end user experience, security considerations, and networking and pagespeed optimization?
  • How will the technology be maintained or improved?
  • What contingency plans and precautions should be in place?

Once all of those questions have been answered then you’re ready to begin asking the hard questions, such as:

  • How do you plan on measuring, testing, and improving your website goals?
  • How will you guide and nurture your visitors through their user journeys? 
  • What other initiatives would you like to enable with your website?
  • How do you plan on implementing them - or at least making them possible when the time is right?

How you answer each of these questions may have a significant impact on your business while also changing the up-front and long-term website costs.

The Hidden Costs of a Website

Hidden Cost #1: CMS Platform Pricing

To make matters complicated, there are countless technology options available for websites - each with their own unique advantages and disadvantages. And each technology option also has its own unique pricing structures. I wrote a little about this in a recent post titled 6 Types of Content Management Systems.

At their root, almost all content management systems charge based on a combination of these factors - often in unique ways. While this is not a comprehensive list, almost all content management system pricing fit into these generic categories:

  • All-or-nothing. The cost you pay for the technology does not change.
  • Do-it-yourself. You get a minimal product and any enhancements are your own responsibility (e.g., most open source content management systems).
  • Pay-per-user. You are charged based on the number of administrators/editors/users you have.
  • Pay-per-site. You pay a variable rate based on how many websites you have.
  • Pay-per-view. You are charged more if your website has more traffic.
  • Pay-per-page. You are charged more based on the amount of content you create.
  • Pay-per-feature. You may choose to pay extra for the features that you want.
  • Pay for data. Either file storage, or data transfer charges (network utilization), or both.
  • Pay for support. The more you pay the better support you will get.
  • Pay for performance. The more you pay, the faster your site will run (at least in theory). In rare cases security features are also paid extras (e.g., security audits, backups, etc…).
  • Pay to remove advertising. In the management interface or on the live site (eg: “Use your own logo”, “remove [system name] branding”, or anything from “on-page advertisements” through “minimal” or “no advertising”).

Note that none of these pricing models are necessarily wrong or bad. In fact, depending on the system they may make a lot of sense. But they are completely unstandardized. As you begin to research systems, you will quickly find that there is very little in common between options - which makes it even more difficult to compare them with each other.

Hidden Cost #2: The Do-It-Yourself Tax

As you begin to look into website and website technologies, it is common to be attracted to do-it-yourself solutions. Many companies like the idea of maintaining their own open-source website, or even building a plain HTML site using the tools of their choice.

Unfortunately, when discussing website pricing, it is my experience that open-source websites and do-it-yourself hosting is far more complicated and costly than it first seems. And while a plain HTML website or a homegrown CMS may seem like an inexpensive and practical solution it does not scale well and quickly becomes unmanageable; it costs more to manage than the paid alternatives.

Additional costs for open-source and self-hosted websites:

  • Web Server Hosting costs: Range from $3-$300+ per month. You generally get what you pay for.
  • SSL Certificate: $8-$238 per year
  • CDN (serve static content faster): You’re on your own for this optional extra - but simply setting it up is likely to be a major pain.
  • Backups: Typically “cheap” to make and to store, but requires up-front and ongoing effort to maintain. And you really want to maintain your backups AND have a recovery plan in place in case something happens..
  • Security: Optional. You can spend as much as you like here but for basic security precautions you need to plan on a minimum of $20 per month.
  • Network Optimization: Good luck. You’re on your own here as well. CloudFlare has an option that can help and will only cost an extra $20/month.
  • Server Maintenance and Updates: DIY
  • Infrastructure Maintenance: DIY
  • Support: Hey, that’s you!

Simplying Website Cost

Thankfully, I can (at least a little). But, contrary to our natural inclination to start at the beginning I like to start with the long-term maintenance costs and requirements. 

You need to keep the unique needs of your site and of your company in mind at every step in your consideration. Remember that even though a solution works for someone else does not necessarily mean that it is the best solution for you.

Long-Term Website Costs

One of the early questions you have to ask yourself is who is going to build and maintain your website? Remember that creating the site is really just the beginning - for most sites it will be more important deciding how the site will be maintained than it is deciding how the site will be built.

  • If you are going to maintain the site yourself you will need to build it in a system that you are comfortable maintaining.
  • If you are going to pay someone to maintain your site you should consult with them to determine what system(s) they are comfortable using. Most web development and marketing agencies are competent with a wide variety of systems (sidebar: you should be wary of any agency who is only competent with a single solution) but are partial to one or a few.

My advice on how to further eliminate technical options at the start of your pricing exploration is:

  1. Instantly eliminate any options that do not offer high-quality support at least one price point LOWER than the offering you are considering. You do not want to go into business with a company that does not support their product exceptionally. Especially beware of any offering that requires you to pay extra for support.
  2. If you have not already, eliminate options that do not have the “features” that you absolutely need. This includes reasonable security measures - such as automated backups and regular platform updates.
  3. Eliminate any options that require you to pay extra to remove advertising or branding. Your website should be YOURS, not theirs, which should be explicit from the start. Similarly, eliminate any options that do not make it free and easy for you to retrieve your information from their system while your account is still active. No one should have the power to hold your data ransom.
  4. Eliminate any options that do not empower you to customize your website beyond the level that you currently need - your future self will thank you.
  5. Beware of pay-per-user models. Not that they are always bad, but they can easily lead to frustration when you need someone else to help with your site. It is also common to “work around” pay-per-user models with account and password sharing or by creating and deleting short-term accounts - which is neither helpful nor secure.
  6. Minimize any do-it-yourself components. You have better things to do with your time and money. Except for maintaining your own content - which you at least want the capability to do even if you do not want to be the primary person responsible for it.
  7. Minify (if possible) extra charges for performance. If you are going to put effort into making an effective site, you do not want it to be slowed down by an additional paywall. While some performance-based pricing is reasonable for high-traffic sites (e.g., thousands of concurrent visitors) that should be the exception and not the rule.
  8. Cross reference your list with these 6 Must Ask Questions Before Your Website is Developed.

Once you have compiled your “short-list”, you can start comparing the list of “features” that you want (i.e., would be nice to have) to each solution. While you are doing that, take notes on how much each option is likely to cost you both up-front when you initially create the website and long-term for each month (or year) that you maintain and improve it.

Sometimes calculating the estimated price for a system can be challenging - such as estimating the number of visitors to a new site or the amount of data you will need to store and/or transfer. Thankfully, most systems also include recommended pricing for the “typical” website - which can be a useful starting point for your calculations. Just beware that your website will never be the “typical” website because - as mentioned at the start of this article - there is no such thing.

Up-front Website Development Pricing

After you have compiled all of the data so far - you can factor in the up-front cost for your website design and content. These costs will vary wildly for every website, but here are some of the major considerations in this phase:

  • 99% of the time it is worth paying extra (even up to 50% the total cost of the website!) for a full website strategy. The strategy should be as unique as your website - and your business - in order to get the most out of what will no doubt be one of your most significant assets.
  • A templated (cookie-cutter) website costs a lot less than a fully custom site, but a well-done custom site can deliver unparalleled value. If you do not have the budget for a fully-customized website then look for an in-between option that will still fit your business at a more moderate price.
  • Remember that as important as the design is to your website, your content is even more important. It’s fine if you want to write your content yourself but dedicate enough time and resources to do it right.
  • It seems like everyone wants to sell you their SEO work, but a good system should make this easy for you once you have your strategy defined. I’m not saying that good SEO isn’t worth spending time and money on - it is - but that time and money should be built into the project from the beginning.
  • There is a saying that holds true for web development projects in general, “You can have fast, low-cost, or high quality. Choose only two.”
  • Keep in mind the cost of doing nothing or delaying your decision in your analysis. This is also hard to define, but the cost of lost opportunities is very real.

The Final Consideration For The Cost of a Website

Finally, while it may appear that your pricing analysis is complete there is still one more factor to consider in your calculations. How do you plan on improving your website?

Your business is dynamic. Even the steadiest businesses change over time. And if you are part of the one company in all of history that is immune to internal change, you will still have to deal with the fact that everyone else changes, too. If you build the perfect website today, it will no longer be perfect in 5 years. So how do you plan on staying ahead in a constantly-changing world?

A surprising number of companies answer that question by building a new website whenever their old site no longer fits their needs or their target market (roughly every 2-3 years). But by taking some effort along the way you can measure, test, and improve your website continually so that it is not only still relevant in 5 years - it is even more fine-tuned to your market and to your specific goals than it was when it was brand new!

Naturally, you will have to select a solution that enables you to perform that kind of optimization - ideally without costing a fortune.

You can budget however much you want here. There will always be improvements you can make to your website, and many of them will have a notable return on your investment. If you have the budget it is not unreasonable to spend as much as 10%* of the cost of your initial website build on monthly updates and improvements - such as new content, A/B user testing, lead nurturing, third-party integrations, etc.

* For most small and medium businesses, 10% is prohibitively expensive and is only used here as an example. Your specific requirements and mileage may vary.

The key here for now is this: plan and budget for regular updates and improvements to your website - no matter how small they may be. Skip this, and you’ll be looking for a new site way sooner than you want.

About Marketpath CMS

Website pricing sucks for many reasons. At Marketpath, we understand that, and we want to make it less sucky wherever we can. That is one reason why we created the Worlds #1 Content Management System.

We do not claim to be the final “one-size-fits-all” solution (and anyone who says they are is clearly lying), but we believe that we are the best solution for many websites and companies.

With Marketpath CMS, you’ll get:

and more!

Without:

  • The do-it-yourself tax
  • Unmanaged or unmaintained infrastructure
  • Surprise costs or pressure to “upgrade”

PLUS:

Talk to our web services team about your website strategy, SEO, design, content, etc…
We’d be happy to discuss your next website project with you!

Marketpath CMS: A Fully Managed Content Management System

Marketpath CMS has features built-in, like CDN, image resizing, SSLs, automatic backups, and non-breaking updates, that puts you in full control of your website. Plus, if you or your agency wants to try Marketpath CMS, its free and you have access to our support team if you're in need of advice or have questions. You only pay when the website is live. Save yourself the headache of constantly updating and a slow website by giving Marketpath CMS a try.

Create a Free Account   Sign Up For a Demo

Website & CMS Cost Examples

To highlight the drastic range in website requirements and solutions, consider the following three scenarios:

Website Cost Example 1: Dead Simple Website

Premise

I need a simple and cheap site. I want it to look professional but other than that I do not have many specific requirements. I will not be adding much content and would like to do it all myself. If I need to do more with my site in the future I will probably want to build a new site anyways so I do not need anything hyper-functional.

Technical Option - Page Builder

Use a page builder. Start by selecting a theme, then write your content to fit it. Most of the remaining questions will already be answered.

Further Considerations

Most page builders host your site for you, so you do not need to worry about additional technology costs and considerations. For some sites the inability to integrate with other technologies might be a drawback, but for you it makes life easier. However, you will need to purchase and maintain your domain name. This is a reality of any website regardless of your chosen technical solution. And further optimization and customization of your site may not be possible without significant effort.

Bottom Line

You can get one of the “cheapest” websites available. Your costs should be limited to only the cost of your domain name and the monthly CMS fee. You will also get one of the most limiting websites available, but that doesn’t bother you.

Example cost: $18 (first month of hosting) + $18/month

Website Cost Example 2: Small Business Website

Premise

I work for a small to mid-sized business that needs a new marketing site. I have a limited budget, but still want a solution that will help my business to grow. I want to manage the website myself and would like to choose a solution that does not require too much technical expertise.

Technical Option - Managed CMS

Consider using a managed CMS (naturally, we recommend Marketpath CMS). It may look like it costs more than open source or licensed content management systems but the inherent stability, capabilities, and technologies actually make these both more affordable and effective in the long run. Each managed content management system has a different offering, though, which will affect both the overall cost and effectiveness of your final website.

Further Considerations

It should be easy for you to create and maintain your content in any managed CMS. These systems should also take care of the security, networking, technology updates, backups, and sometimes other optimizations for you as well. Most will have pre-built websites for you to customize or you can hire a developer to build a fully-customized site to your specifications. Obviously a custom site costs more up front - which is something you will need to discuss in your up-front website strategy. Managed systems should also make SEO easier for you, although you can decide for yourself how much time and effort you want to spend getting your “inbound marketing strategy” just right.

Bottom Line

You can get the best bang for your buck with a managed content management system. It will take a little more up-front effort than a page builder, but you will end up with a site that is truly and uniquely yours - which you have full control over and which will not only suit your needs now but also in the future.

Example cost: $3000 (customized pre-built site) + $49/month (CMS) + $50/month (improvements)

Website Cost Example 3: Corporate or Enterprise Business

Premise

I work for a big business that needs all of the bells and whistles. We will work with one or more marketing agencies and need a solution that can handle all of our initiatives while providing top-level security for all of our intellectual property and processes.

Technical Option 1 - Headless CMS

If your content management needs are diverse and you have the interest and ability to manage your content separately from your website you may consider a headless CMS. These systems have some serious capabilities behind them, but frontend websites are not typically one of them. So if you choose to move this direction you will still need to strategize your site.

Further Considerations

Unfortunately, this does not actually simplify anything for you or make your decisions easier. Since a headless CMS will only help with your content but not your site, you will still have to answer all of the website questions again.

Bottom Line

Headless content management systems can be nice, but expect to pay for a full website - including additional development costs for integrating with your headless CMS - as well as paying for the headless CMS.

Example cost: $30,000 (custom site) + $1000/month (headless CMS) + $300/month (website hosting) + $3000/month (improvements)

Technical Option 2 - Managed CMS

Using the right managed CMS can help you in building and maintaining a fully-custom and modern website. Similar to the small business analysis above, you can benefit from all of the managed technologies that the CMS offers. You will probably also want to consider partnering with your CMS provider for some of your bells and whistles, and may consider integrating with other third-party service providers for additional advanced functionality.

Further Considerations

Select your CMS carefully. Some have better support and more capabilities than others. We are partial to Marketpath CMS. If you are not already working with a marketing agency you should consider looking for one that is willing to work in whatever system you choose (most will, but some insist on using their own system of choice). Naturally, your content writing, SEO, and development optimizations will cost extra but the results are often surprising.

Bottom Line

You can get a top-of-the-line website that showcases the distinct benefits of your business for the industry’s most effective pricing - all while maintaining peace of mind that your CMS has all of your bases covered.

Example cost: $20,000 (custom site) + $99/month (CMS) + $2000/month (improvements)

Related Tags: CMS Comparisons, CMS Tips & Best Practices, Web Content Management Systems, SaaS CMS, Website Maintenance, Fully Managed CMS, Headless CMS, Marketing, Digital Marketing, Development, CMS Features, Small Business, Client Website, Agencies

Levi Carter

Levi Carter is the senior developer of software products at Marketpath. While his primary responsibility is planning, developing, and maintaining Marketpath CMS, he has also been heavily involved in the full software lifecycle starting with strategy discussions and analysis through customer support and documentation.

When Levi is not working on Marketpath software products he enjoys gardening, woodworking, and spending time with his wife and four children.

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