We are all familiar with the age-old conundrum of how to get a great-looking website up quickly and cheaply. Ok, so maybe this is not age-old but rather a business challenge of the 21st century; nonetheless, it is a common issue. I can’t tell you how frequently we get inquiries here at Bixa like the following:
“Well I have a really basic site. It’s a super easy project. It’s pretty much an e-commerce store with 300 products, a blog, and 27 additional pages. The site needs to format to all devices and we want a really awesome custom design that can’t be seen anywhere else and some unique functionality so we stand out from our competitors. Oh and the site needs to be up in 2 weeks and we have a very tight budget. How cheaply can you do this? And before I forget we also want SEO and to be #1 on Google. So again, what would the cost be?”
I may be exaggerating slightly for effect, but the reality is not far off from the website redesign project described above. Many businesses realize the importance of having an online presence but aren’t fully aware of all the time, effort and cost involved in getting a new website up and running. Nonetheless, the hope still remains that a cheap, quick, custom website exists. The question is, does it? Or is it a unicorn, something that we’ve heard about in myths and legends, but has zero presence in reality? Here’s the cold hard truth: a truly custom website, from both a design and development point of view, can almost never be done quickly or cheaply. I say almost never, because there are exceptions, but they are few and far between. That being said, there are a few ways to get a great-looking website up rapidly and on a budget, which I will detail for you below. (Don’t worry, you can breathe that sigh of relief now, all hope is not lost!)
1) GoDaddy Website Builder
Whatever you do, DO NOT go down this route. Touted as a DIY website builder, GoDaddy promises you new website “tonight”! While the offer is compelling, the reality is a nightmare. First, you will spend much longer than expected twiddling around with their offered templates, trying to get them to work the way you envisioned. Second, there is very little customization that can be done to your site in the future, which inevitably you will need. Third, there is minimal SEO value from these type of websites; it’s essentially an SEO disaster when an SEO expert comes in at a later date to work on boosting your Google rankings. Fourth and most importantly, you do not own your site. Yes, no need to clean your glasses, you read that right. When you purchase the Website Builder option from GoDaddy, you essentially lease your site from them for a monthly fee. Should you ever move hosts or decide you want your website on a platform that is better suited to your needs, you lose everything because GoDaddy owns it: all content, all design…everything. I love GoDaddy for many of their products, including their web hosting, However, I do not recommend their WebSite Builder for anyone looking to build a website. It is a logistical challenge and a colossal waste of money and time.
2) WYSIWYG Site Builders (Squarespace, Wix, etc.)
For those of you who don’t know, WYSIWYG stands for “What You See Is What You Get” and refers to many website builders who allow non-developers to construct a site from the frontend, without knowing code. Often they allow you to drag and drop different elements to where you want them placed on the page. Doesn’t this sound like a dream come true? Unfortunately, it is a little too good to be true! Similar to GoDaddy Site Tonight, you are essentially leasing your website from the company and should their framework not fit your future needs, say adios to all your hard work building up your website! You will have to pass go, go directly to jail and then build a new site from scratch. Grrr. Often times these sites do not take SEO into consideration and there are code-quality issues. Plus you pay a monthly fee to lease your site which adds up in the long-run. WYSIWYG website builders that have become popular recently include, but are not limited to: Wix, Squarespace. Weebly, and Web.com.
Squarespace is perhaps the best option of all the website builders, especially in terms of SEO-friendliness. That being said, I would still never suggest that a client use Squarespace, so that tells you how much I recommend their platform. Now that I have forewarned you and explained what not to use to get your website up quickly and cheaply, let’s move on to some better options!
What originally started as a blogging platform way back when, has now fully developed into a content management system (a web application that facilitates website edits by those who don’t know code). WordPress is a great platform to build your website, especially if you plan on updating content frequently, for example through a blog or portfolio.
The beauty of WordPress, among other things, is that someone who doesn’t know programming can log in to the admin panel of the site and update content and images simply and quickly. Concretely what does this mean for you? Less website work needs to be sent to a developer and therefore less money will be spent on simple site updates. WordPress makes use of a programming language called PHP, which is very well-known among developers. Why is this important? It means you won’t have trouble finding a developer who can work with the WordPress platform and your cost will be reasonable as there is not a shortage of PHP developers.
WordPress Themes vs. Frameworks vs. Plugins
While upon first glance, WordPress can seem quite complicated, there are really just a few elements you need to understand:
- WordPress: The CMS can be considered the bones of your site.
- Themes: Think of a theme as the “skin and clothing” of your site. It essentially dictates the look of your WordPress website. When you swap out themes, you can swap out the look of your site, while still maintaining the structure and content (aka, the bones). Themes are also sometimes referred to as templates.
- Frameworks: Frameworks can be seen as the muscle of your site. They enable theme use.
- Plugins: Plugins serve to boost the styling and functionality of your site. Think of it like adding accessories to an outfit. Examples of plugins include: adding ecommerce or embedding your Tweets on your site.
WordPress Frameworks – Genesis & Thesis
When developing on WordPress, there are a couple frameworks you can use to help you get your site up and running. Wait, but what does that mean concretely? Essentially a framework is a code library that makes it easy to install, maintain and update your theme.
The two most popular WordPress frameworks are Genesis and Thesis. We actually don’t suggest using Thesis and you can see why here. However, we highly recommend Genesis by Studiopress. When you use Genesis, you get:
- Responsive HTML5 designs
- Speed (slow websites = low Google rankings)
- Automatic updates without losing your customizations
What’s even better is all Genesis themes are search engine optimized. This doesn’t mean you won’t have to do any SEO, but it does mean you won’t have to clean up any code. Plus, Genesis supports Schema.org code, which communicates microdata to search engines, so you can have special formatting for events, recipes or products. Why is this interesting? It helps your website standout on Google, Yahoo and Bing. Everyone wants that, right?!
We love WordPress frameworks here, but only recommend them in certain cases. For example, there are currently not great ecommerce or membership site options with Genesis, so unless you are going to invest in custom theme development, which can be expensive, we don’t recommend Genesis for those types of websites.
E-Commerce & Membership On WordPress
If you are looking to build an e-commerce or a membership (also known as subscription) website, there are a few different options for you to do so on WordPress. Some of the plugins we like for these purposes include:
- Woocommerce (free)
- Cart 66 (starting at $25/month)
- WP e-Commerce (free)
- Easy Digital Downloads (free)
- iThemes Membership ($97)
- WPMU Membership ($19)
- Restrict Content Pro ($42)
- Memberpress ($99)
- Membermouse (starting at $19.95/month)
The reality is there is no best ecommerce or membership solution for WordPress. Our recommendation will depend on your unique situation. Each plugin has its pros and cons and there is no perfect solution; at the end of the day, it ultimately comes down to figuring out which one is the best for your specific needs.
Places To Find WordPress Themes
Finding the right WordPress theme to use for your site is a challenging and very important task. Do not underestimate the power of a good theme. Likewise, a poor WordPress theme can hinder your online presence by resulting in poor SEO, a huge time suck and an enormous headache, literally. Luckily, we have some tricks up our sleeves for you!
If you’re going to make use of the Genesis framework, we suggest using themes that Studiopress recommends. If you’re not, we like going to the Themeforest marketplace for all our theme purchases. They have strict requirements for all of their theme authors and therefore tend to offer higher-quality themes. Even so, there are a few tips we like to use when searching for theme options on Themeforest:
- Try to buy a theme from an Elite Author. They generally have a proven track record of high-quality code, awesome customer support and continual updates.
- Look for a theme that already considers plugins you want to use. Do you want to set up an ecommerce store that makes use of WooCommerce? Look for an ecommerce theme that is compatible with WooCommerce. Nothing is worse than having to customize the s*** out of a template that didn’t take into account your original needs.
- Make sure you can perform basic customizations. You’ll want your site to look different from the demo theme, so make sure you can make basic changes easily to fonts, colors and visual assets.
- Find a responsive theme. Don’t overlook the importance of having a site that formats to all devices. Internet users are going mobile and so should you.
- No monthly fee + one-time theme purchase fee of $45 – $100.
- If you purchase a framework like Genesis, there will be a one-time fee of $99.95 (includes your theme cost).
- Shopping cart & memberships plugins have varying costs.
- You should plan on a monthly hosting fee from a webhost like GoDaddy or Bluehost, but the cost is minimal and starts at $3.49/month.
If you purchase a WordPress theme (and/or framework), you can have a basic site up and running within a couple hours, provided you have all your written content and imagery ready. If you have to prepare your content first, we estimate 3-4 days.
Shopify is a great shopping cart platform, should you be looking to build an e-commerce site. They have been around for a long-time and therefore are very aware of the features that businesses require to run a successful online store. For example, did you know they integrate with Mailchimp’s email marketing platform and can help you target website visitors who have abandoned their cart by sending customized messages to their inbox? They also allow you to sell in-store with their POS system that integrates with your website, if you have a brick-and-mortar location. These are just a couple of Shopify’s many great features. Plus, their backend is clean, optimized for SEO and very user-friendly.
While you do essentially lease your site from Shopify, as you would with most hosted shopping cart platforms, the starting monthly fee is minimal ($14 per month) and includes all hosting costs. It does not include credit card fees. After, for approximately $100, you can purchase a Shopify template from their Theme marketplace which you upload to your site and then add your custom photos and content. One consideration with Shopify to keep in mind is that the platform is built using a programming language called Liquid, which is similar to Ruby on Rails. There are fewer developers familiar with Liquid (compared to PHP, which WordPress is built on) and therefore the cost to build a custom theme or even customize your existing site at a future date may be higher given that there is high demand for Shopify developers and not an enormous supply. Nevertheless, you won’t have a ton of difficulty finding a knowledgeable developer, it is just something to understand before choosing to build your e-commerce site on Shopify.
$29-$179/month + credit card fees + one-time template purchase fee of $100-$150. You may have to also factor in the cost of an SSL certificate or plugins to beef up your site’s functionality.
If you purchase a Shopify theme, you can have a basic online store up and running within a couple hours, provided you have all your written content and imagery ready. If you don’t, we estimate 3-4 days to put this all together.
The Short & Sweet Of It
The decision you make about what you build your website on will ultimately depend on your individual needs. If you are unclear about what the best solution is for you, I recommend contacting a specialist to consult in the planning of your website. Even though there may be some upfront cost, you’ll save money and time in the long run. Plus, you can be confident that you’ve chosen the right platform for your business. And for those who are asking themselves:
“Wait, but if I use a template or theme to build my site, won’t it look like everyone else’s site?”
Well here’s my 2 answers:
- If you spend your budget creating custom visuals and content, no, you should have a fairly unique-looking site.
- You can’t have everything. Cheap & quick does not always mean totally unique and custom. As a wise woman once said: “You have to either raise your budget or lower your expectations!”