I am a web designer, and maybe I should not be revealing how others in my field can overcharge, kind of like the secrecy kept by magicians. The problem in that there are all kinds of companies that try to reveal the truth behind the magic by offering cheap websites and hosting, but those companies aren’t doing you any real favors. The purpose of this article is to show you that finding an honest and reliable web guy is just as important as an honest mechanic or reliable yardwork guy, but all of us will overcharge if given the chance. This is just to give you some idea how and why it happens with web designers.


 1. Charging Hours Instead by the Job

A web guy should be charging by the job because you would never pay if you knew how many hours it takes (SOMETIMES). Here’s the deal: it can often take me less than 8 hours to fully set up a $500 website. OR it could take me 8 hours to almost set it up and then three hours to figure out why one component is generating an error. OR it could take 8 + 3 + another 6 hours figuring out that the new host requires a php.ini file in every folder instead of just one, which is causing all of the problems in the first place.

Most clients are perfectly happy when a job is done, and it’s always a job they could not have figured out for themselves, but that’s where the fuzzy honesty can creep in. I recently charged $450 for two Joomla 2.5 to Joomla 3.4 upgrades that included adding a newsletter component and a form for collecting user information. I made about $75 an hour on that job, until you factor in the 5+ hours and frustration I spent trying to fix a header issue caused by the upgrade. Those were also five hours I could not have added to the bill, since it would have appeared I didn’t know what I was doing, so the other parts of the bill had to cost a little more. Not a big deal, since I priced the job out via comps online at over $1000, but still something to consider. Would you really pay someone $100 an hour to learn how to fix the site he broke in updating it? No, but you might pay a total of $1000 for a job that included it as part of the process. If your web guy knows it all, all the time, try to pay by the hour (even though he’ll want to charge an hour for 35 minutes, a soda, and an online game. The main lesson is that if you’re happy with the service for the price, don’t worry too much, but the truth is that I could charge you three hours to make a change that takes me ten minutes. And if you question it, I could always say there was an administrator issue with a trouble tracker that was totally out of my hands. Basically, a web guy COULD pull the same stuff your in-house IT guys could also do all the time.

2. Consultation charges

I just saw a competitor offer an hour free up front and then change $90 an hour once you’re a customer. That’s probably not that bad of a rate, as long as you’re not talking to his unpaid intern for either or both consultations. Expect to pay $50 to $100 for web guy consultations. I give way too many away free over email with “friends” (clients). The main issue here is that a five minute Google search might help more than the $100 consultation, or it might at least cut the consultation time in half. That’s all your web guy is going to do, anyhow. Search the internet and then apply fixes, AFTER the $100 consulting fee.

I encourage website owners to take ownership and try a few things. Yes, they will need me, but they will often solve minor issues without a phone call. But that is why I have to set a cost of interaction, since some people will try to abuse it. Conversely, your web guy might charge $100 for 45 minutes while he’s driving in to work and another hour for a 15 minute email once he gets there.   

3. Site Updates and SEO

A lot of the CMS stuff I use allows me to set it to do automatic updates. If you are being charged $50 a month for this kind of maintenance, it’s probably way too much. Yes, there are services needed, but routine maintenance is just that, and often hands-off. I added search engine optimization to this category because people charge just as much for just as little return. Google has tried to figure a way around cheating for placement for years. SEO folks will still sell you on their services, but the better idea is to CREATE GOOD CONTENT. You don’t need constant minor site updates or optimization of poorly-written words. Just write something relevant, like this article, and it will matter to Google, and your customers. 

4. Site Upgrades

This is also known as rebuilding the website. Theoretically, it’s easier in a CMS like Joomla or Wordpress, but these can be a total pain. Plus, your original designer almost never lets you in on the secret that his design will be mostly obsolete in three years, and nearly impossible to upgrade if you wait another two years. Really, it’s not fair to the designer to expect free upgrades, but it’s not fair to the consumer to never tell them there will be major updates at some point. It would be like selling a car and the customer assuming the brakes, suspension, transmission, and engine are all made to run forever, as long as there’s oil and gas inside. I just looked into a Joomla 1.5 to 3.4 upgrade, and I don’t really want to bother. Joomla 1.0 to 3.x is impossible. I’ve even had more issues than I want to remember updating 2.5 to 3.4. There are so many variables that your web consultant will want to charge enough to cover all bases, so I’ve seen these kind run $300 to $1500. You might be better off starting over, and that sucks when using a CMS with the main purpose being to manage content.

5. Component Add-ons

The first few sites I built, I added these things like crazy. Then one component failed. Then another couldn’t survive a minor upgrade. Then there are the updates to the extensions: more time. Now I try to add about $100 per add-on. Some companies might charge $500 or $1000. They do it based on time they know they will need to keep it running. Like I told a client recently, “The fewer moving parts we can use for the same result, the better.” In this way, building a website is like the poetry I write, in that I try to create the most emotion with the fewest words possible. Web design companies deserve to get some money for adding these components, but I’ve seen $10 monthly upcharges on hosting for adding a Youtube embedder. If your web guy can explain the extra cost, fine. If not, the component took five minutes to install and twenty seconds once a year to update, and it was free, so just keep that in mind if your hosting costs a lot more than what we can do at Passive Ninja.

6. Hosting Packages

If you’re not getting a dedicated host, your hosting is probably worth about $10 a month when buying through a web guy. Decide with what is being offered and if you need the add-ons. Most of those add-ons exist already in the C-Panel, but you’re just paying to have access to them. Do you need a new email address or analytics? Do you need a $100 e-commerce solution when you can sell stuff securely using Paypal and my $15 a month option? The way I do it is to look at my own cost and time/cost and then double the cost. The prices I have seen from other companies indicate they have a lot more costs, but that makes sense, located in the trendy side of town, employing twenty heads at $100,000+ each. I’d be charging a lot more for hosting, too, but the real truth is that they get the same Cpanel and 99% uptime as me. Sure, they have five socially-awkward guys ready to fix your problem before noon each day, but those problems don’t tend to exist, anyhow.

7. Opt-in Sites

My sister was all excited about opt-in marketing. She’d learned it was the thing to do. I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I had just set up a site for another client that allowed him to collect email addresses and send emails out to over a thousand potential clients because of a form and newsletter component I added to the page. His business has doubled in the last year, partially because of this type of marketing. A lot of companies will charge you a lot of money to house, store, and send emails for you. Like I said, my sister asked for it, and I added it to her site for about $300. I also added a “free book” offer. Pretty sweet: free book put in shopping cart, which is really a form to join the site and get a newsletter. Newsletter promotes other paid-items to people who wanted the initial book. The best part about me or another honest freelancer setting this up for you is that once you have it, it’s yours. AcyMailing is totally free. J2Store cost me $30 (and I pass a small portion to clients). Community Builder is free unless you want to add subscriptions.

 8. Shopping Carts or Subscription Sites

There are plenty of free or cheap solutions for your web guy to implement. I use J2Cart for shopping carts and CB Subs for subscription websites. Think of ways you can sell an item or a service, especially a recurring service. Passive Ninja is a specialist in creating websites that generate constant money, but you have to be the specialist in generating customers. One of my clients told me that the CRM components used for insurance sales costs so much that he wouldn’t make enough each month to cover the costs. A web designer can’t operate very long with that type of mindset. Once I set it up, there are no extra fees beyond the normal hosting. You sell, you get rich. Simple.

9. Site Ownership

Some web guys want to try to maintain control over what goes on. Too much control. As long as I warn a client (and get paid for fixing it), I am fine with the client trying to do as much as possible to the site. It’s yours. If you need me to replace a photo or add a new article, you need to use Blogger instead of a nice CMS. Web designers build this kind of ownership in so that they can continue to nickel and dime you forever, as they allow the site itself to get older without needed updates. Even the big companies, like Web.com, have poor reputations for this sort of behavior.

10. Outsourcing

Did you know that I could potentially get a contact from you and outsource the whole thing to India? I get an email a day with requests to outsource my web jobs to them, which means I could sign you up, get $1000 for a site, play golf all day, and then check the work from New Delhi after dinner. I’m sure this is not a trend for freelancers or even fancy downtown web design boutiques, but someone is using these folks. Technically, I can’t compete with what they can accomplish, timewise. Even if I’m fast, like 8 hours for a pretty darn good site, and it takes them 16 hours, I could still make $900 for hiring out and playing golf. Small spelling errors and lackluster images aside, they will charge about $5 an hour to do the work. If you find out that any aspect of your website is outsourced, including your trouble tickets, your web guy is ripping you off. The problem is that your web guy even has to deal with hosting plans that are completely outsources and trouble tickets that hang in purgatory for months. However, at least try to keep most of the job local, which keeps excuses local and control local.