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July 29, 2009

Cookie-Cutter vs Custom Web Site

There are many large web companies offering specialty web sites for retail stores, real estate, restaurants, travel, insurance, non-profit organizations and more. Many of them are very sophisticated and offer much more than your local web company.

The high quality web vendors have custom design, search engine friendly pages, content management systems, and plenty of bells and whistles. However, they often come with expensive setup fees ($10K or more) and monthly charges ($200 – $1,000/month or more). While these sites are professionally designed and can work very well, you can often duplicate this type of site with a local or inhouse webmaster who has access to programmers, designers, and other web professionals. Much of the site can be built for roughly the same price or slightly more than the setup fees, but the monthly fees can be kept to a minimum.

You need the proper host for the type of database and content managment system you’ll be using. For most small businesses, a simple hosting program for under $10/month will suffice. For many real estate sites where large daily downloads of MLS datafeeds are necessary, a virtual server may be required. These can generally be maintained for less than $50/month.

The problem with cookie cutter sites is not only do they have expensive monthly costs associated with them that can run from $200 to $1,000 per month, but they’re not portable. If you want to move your site to your own server, where you’re in control, you’re out of luck. If you want to hire your own webmaster for custom changes or a programmer for application changes, you’ll have to use theirs at extremely high rates, often exceeding $150/hour.

In an economy like we’re currently experiencing, large monthly fees can be devastating. What’s worse, if your web vendor happens to fall into their own financial woes, you could be left without the site you paid dearly for in setup fees. And have to start over from scratch!

It would be wiser to have your own site, your own hosting, control of your own domain names, and hire your own webmaster, designer and programmer as necessary, expanding as you go. Work with a trusted webmaster or hire one in-house (highly recommended), and contract out large scale programming or design projects through your webmaster.

Most webmasters have plenty of contacts with different areas of expertise such as programming, design, copywriting, search engine optimization, networking, content management and more. There are literally hundreds of disciplines used in the development of web sites, many of which overlap, and many of which are just different approaches to accomplishing the same goal. Your webmaster should be fluent in several of them, but no webmaster will know everything.

Many small business owners take on the web themselves, learning as they go, and hiring professionals for those things that just take too much time to learn while trying to run a business. These are the most likely to be successful, and will know who to hire and what services to procure to insure their web presence is most profitable, efficient and effective, depending on your needs.

If you don’t want to have anything to do with the technical details of running a web site, then a local or inhouse webmaster could be the best solution for you. Although they may not be the top in every facet of web development, they should be familiar with each discipline, and have the capability to expand on outsourced work. Your webmaster should be familiar with HTML, CSS, Javascript, web design, graphic design, copywriting, search engine optimization, site architecture, and at least one programming language such as PHP, ASP, C#, Java, PERL or a similar programming language to use in applications. They should also be familiar with at least one database program such as mySQL, SQL, MS Access, Oracle, or a similar database program that’s widely used with web sites. (You can use this list to qualify a potential webmaster).

In reality, anyone can build a web site in an afternoon. Software and online applications have been around for at least a decade that will allow even a 10-year-old to do this. But to have a web site that works for you, is customized to your needs, and delivers visitors that will purchase your product or services on a regular basis takes years of experience. All in all, by taking and retaining control over your web site, you’ll win in the long run.

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