What am I Buying? Understand Website Cost and Technology

14 July, 2016

what am i buying? understanding website cost

When you need to make informed decisions about your website, how do you start understanding the many factors that drive website cost? Begin by learning about the technology that powers websites, its value and cost.

The Problem

Your website is a crucial part of your brand experience. The decisions you make about your site can make or break its effectiveness. You need to be as informed as possible about what it actually takes to build your site. There are many factors that go into the “cost” of building a website, and when I talk about cost, I mean more than financial impact. Cost also encompasses time and effort, and a big driver to the cost of your website can be technology. It’s a piece of website projects that is often most underestimated and misunderstood. This can lead to a host of decisions that affect your site, some not in a good way, and you could be stuck living with the effects for years.

The Technical Hurdle

One barrier to understanding technology can be the jargon often used in technical discussions. All those acronyms, weird phrases, concepts, and inside jokes like the ID10T error.

When people try to explain how the Internet works to the layman, there’s an analogy that is often that it’s like a “bunch of pipes.” While this is passable, there’s a lot that’s missed. A pipe implies, from everyday experience, continuous flow and permanent connection. But that’s not how the Internet works.

The Internet is a distributed network of wires, radio waves, machines, and software. It’s governed by standards and protocols. Information transmission may seem continuous, but in fact is broken up, sent to travel across many paths, and then reassembled as needed. (That’s the TCP/IP protocol for you.)

There are machines and software that route and filter these broken up packets to their destination. Most everything has an IP Address, sometimes several. There are public, private, and hybrid parts of the Internet. Firewalls to secure the perimeter. Servers (not the restaurant kind) that are actual machines, and servers that are software running on these machines. One example of a software server is a database. Another, a web server. Another, an email server.

In “the cloud” there are often server machines running “inside” server machines—and server software running “inside” those, known as Virtual Machines (VMs). Sometimes it’s not VMs on these machines but things called “containers” running server software.

Your website runs on some variant of all that and more. Coded up in HTML, CSS, Javascript, databases, and “written” in some programming language customizing a CMS (Content Management System). Oh, and those pipes? Size does matter.

See what I mean? If you’re nontechnical your mind is likely drifting right about now, and that’s OK.

What Do I Need to Know?

You don’t need to dive as deep into understanding network protocols, code, or deployment scripting. You should, however, understand the basics of what a website is and what it takes to build one.

What’s Actually Being Built?

Think of the user experience (UX) design and functional requirements as the blueprints to your website, and think of visual design as the choices for furniture and paint. Through code and configuration of the server and CMS environment, programmers assemble all the pieces needed to meet the design. Some programmers focus on the backend while others on the frontend.

The What End?

The backend includes all the things you don’t see when visiting the site: the configuration and organization of content administration, databases, and integration with other systems. The frontend is what you see when you browse your site. How the backend is organized can affect the frontend, in fact, there is value in spending time crafting a well-designed backend—it can help dramatically with administration of your site.

Choices you make in functionality and experience all have bearing on the level of effort for frontend and backend programmers. Sometimes, what seems like a simple change can actually drive up development costs. Having programmers be a part of the conversation around requirements and involved in the design process can provide valuable guidance and help you understand why one option costs more than another.

Does The Choice in CMS Matter?

Absolutely. Programming for one CMS can be different from another. It may take a different skillset or programming language and can make a difference in development costs. There are differences in what’s offered out-of-the-box or via third-party additions. There could also be UX and design impact. And it especially matters for the people who are going to be using the CMS every day—your content administrators. A CMS that’s hard to work with can be a long-term drain on productivity and your pocketbook.

The choice in CMS can also determine how easy or difficult it can be to integrate other systems into your site. Need a newsletter signup? What about your CRM needs, like Salesforce or Zoho? Do you have or are you going to allow users to login to your site? What about Single Sign On?

(Watch the Constructive webinar about choosing between two of the most popular CMS systems, WordPress and Drupal.)

Where Will My Website Live?

Your site will run (be hosted) on servers and infrastructure I mentioned earlier, and that has to exist somewhere. That somewhere must meet the technical needs of your website, and there are many hosting options to choose from. Your budget and capacity to manage the infrastructure (or not) should be factors in any decision.

What Else?

Websites can be expensive for many factors, some of which I mentioned above. The impact of functional and technical decisions should not be taken lightly, especially at the start, where choices made have lasting impact. To realize the vision of your website, you need programmers to make it concrete, to build according to the design. Programmers are specialists who spend time researching, writing, and testing code to develop what you end up experiencing when your website is fully live. The more complex a website is, the more developer time is needed, and the more it will cost.

Uncertainty and unknowns are also risk factors for blowing a technical budget. Consider the value of undergoing a business systems analysis to understand your technology landscape as well as proof-of-concept programming work when dealing with new systems and integrations.

Having a clear sense of your goals and functional requirements bridged with technical insight can help understand the bigger picture in what it will take to execute. Focus on what’s important for you, your users, and your organization—and give it the budget it deserves. If you don’t have the budget, think about what can you do using a phased approach over time as more resources can be obtained.

You should also remember that once your site is live, you still need to give your site care and attention. Take the time to build a great experience both for users and administrators that can last for years to come.

What Can I Do to Learn More?

You don’t have to become a deep technologist to make better decisions when it comes to your website. If you have a technical resource in your organization who can bridge the knowledge gaps for you—great. Use them to augment decisions you make. If you don’t—find a trusted partner who can fill that role.

Constructive is planning to hold workshops to help people get a primer on this subject. We also offer Business Systems Analysis. This can help you understand the technology you are using, the cost, recommendations, and strategy. If you’re interested in attending a workshop, having us be a partner, or want to learn more, get in touch!

A version of this article originally on Constructive Thinking.