A Free Site Isn’t Really Free

“You get what you pay for.” It’s a cliché, but it’s true; that’s why it’s a cliché. Here are some more: “Nothing in life is free”, and “If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is”. This is a free website in a nutshell.

Fortunately, the era of getting a son or nephew who is dabbling in website design to slap something vaguely recognizable as a website seems to nearly be over. Most businesses by now have already ventured into the internet arena, and that initial, crude endeavor at the hands of someone who just learned rudimentary HTML techniques has either been replaced as the individual’s skills improved, the business has reversed course and found that paying for a quality website presence really does pay off, or, sadly, has gone out of business due to their obstinance. There are still a few bastions of bad design, but good websites have proven they’re worth at least double the investment in design, content, and usability if done correctly. Bad websites have only proven they cost money even when they’re free: they cost business.

The Evil Doesn’t Die, It Just Changes Shape

There is, however, a new evolution of web-naivety occurring, and it can be worse than just getting a bad website: Falling for the “free” website trap. “Free” websites from hosting companies are not just poorly designed and short on usability, they’re predatory. Yet still people fall for the catch – and there is always a catch. Many of them charge for hosting, but do not allow a site to be moved. Others limit the amount of free features and a website owner has to pay outrageous amounts just to upgrade their site to perform basic functions. With nearly all “free” website hosts, clients don’t own any of the work they put in, and the database that contains all of their orders, product info, blog entries, etc. cannot be moved or downloaded. Essentially, the website is only free for as long as the client continues to pay for it.

Web.com is possibly the most successful website building/hosting service on the web at 55 million websites built, but a quick look at some reviews (http://www.hostsearch.com/review/webcom_review.asp) quickly shed light on why 55 million “free” websites can be wrong.

There are other versions of the “free” website, such as the “website builder” offered by most hosting companies. However, without truly understanding the web and how it really works, can a person whose job it is to run a business really build their own website? What tool can a person use that will give them the years of experience to know the difference between a user-friendly site and a site that visitors run from? How can a website builder automatically show someone how to provide something on a site that a visitor will seek out? In other words, how can it show a person how to make their website sell for them?

Are You Replaceable?

Think of it another way: as a business owner, can anyone walk in off the street and do what you do to make your business a success? Is there not information and experience you possess about your company, employees, region, and industry that make your shoes hard to fill? Would you trust your 15-22 year old self to take over the business in its current state and make it successful? Would you trust a “free business builder” program to make important decisions for you? As one of the most important investments a business can make, we owe it to our websites to make sure we’re not more focused on cheap than we are on effective.

 Paging Random Guy to the Emergency Room for Surgery

That is essentially why people pay for a website: they want a professional who knows how to maximize the potential of a project within the budget that is available. It isn’t just a matter of learning to use graphic design software, write HTML, code in a scripting language, or set up a server. The difference between a professional and an amateur developer is analogous to the difference between a doctor and a random guy with a scalpel: the doctor doesn’t just cut, he/she knows where, when, and why to cut. A doctor converses with a patient and diagnoses their ailment. They make a thorough plan, estimate the results, and proceed carefully to achieve the results outlined by the plan. If things don’t proceed according to plan, the doctor can lean on his vast experience to achieve the best results possible. The random guy with the scalpel just makes a mess.

Hiding Your Budget is Not a Negotiating Tactic, It Only Cripples Your Website’s Best Friend

There are other ways to procure an affordable website, and having a conversation with a web development company about budget is not to be feared because it can allow you to achieve more optimal results. If it seems like a web developer is giving you less than you think your budget can afford, it will quickly become evident by talking to other developers. A good, honest web developer will tell a client when their expectations overshoot their budget and come up with comparable alternatives.

Additionally, an established web development company can often provide flexibility. For example, we offer a pay-as-you-go program that our clients love: We work with a client to create a custom website with the right features and spread the cost into a monthly fee for a year, which includes SEO and SEM. If, for any reason, the client decides to cancel during the first year, they owe nothing. In contrast to the “free” website builders, once a website has been hosted with us for a year, the site is completely turned over to our client. They can continue to host with us at a normal hosting rate, they can hire someone to move it to a new host, or we can move it for a low, additional fee.

We believe a client’s website should be their own, that an effective website can be affordable for everyone, and that we should never sell anything to a client that they don’t need. That’s a very verbose way of saying we believe you should get what you pay for.

The author, Bob Ottaway, is President and Founder of Ottaway Digital.  Established in 1999, it has been a pioneer in SEO, digital advertising & social media since 2006.  

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