FORTUNE Small Business:

Setting the budget for your Web site

Ask FSB's tips for getting the right Web site at the right price.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Dear FSB: We are in the market to have a Web site built. We are currently gathering proposals, but they range wildly, from $19,500 to $1,800. Help! What is the price range for a typical Web site construction in Maryland?

- Marylou Barkman, Mechanicsville, Md.

Dear Marylou: With quotes like that, it's no surprise you're feeling a bit out of sorts. How can a Web site cost so little - and so much?

A great site doesn't have to break the bank, but the World Wide Web is becoming more and more complicated as e-commerce grows. It pays to take a step back and make sure you don't pay for more (or less) than you need. After all, who wants to pay top dollar to be the next Amazon (AMZN, Fortune 500) if you sell nothing through your site - or, conversely, spend too little on a site that doesn't meet your customers' needs?

"It's really uncanny as to how big the range really is - and there are a number of reasons why," says Curt Schwab, president of Blue Water Media, a design firm in Washington, D.C., with 750 clients and 2,000 sites to its name.

The number-one reason for wildly variable cost quotes, Schwab says, is that many small-business owners don't have the time or knowledge to put together a "comprehensive requirements document": something that spells out to the letter the kind of site you need built. Without a detailed requirements list, bidding companies may be coming back with services that aren't necessary, or leaving out features you'll need.

Getting a clearer sense of what you need the Web site to do will go a long way toward zeroing in on a true cost. Still, Schwab says, "you are going to be hard-pressed to find a reputable firm to do a website for less than $5,000 - and that's even if it's very straightforward."

Everyone's needs are different, but small-business owners should know that successful Web sites share three qualities, Schwab says: good design, good placement on major search engines, and a good support staff.

He also recommends working with someone within your geographic area: "It's not necessarily a requirement, but it makes it more accountable."

Imad Mouline, chief technology officer for Gomez, a Lexington, Mass.-based provider of on-demand Web application experience management services, says he always advises clients to heed the golden rule: "Know your customer."

Are customers going to use your Web site for e-commerce? Are they going to be accessing the site from all over the world? Do you need to guarantee the site is going to be 100% on, all the time? These elements need to be taken into account. Mouline also preaches the importance of good design.

"That's what projects your brand," he says. "It can make you look like a big guy or turn customers off."

If images are broken on a business Web site, or some other feature doesn't work, it's akin to a store with broken windows, he says. Sure, the store still functions, but you aren't left with the best impression.

He also advises paying close attention to what a company is offering in terms of service and maintenance if your site is primarily for e-commerce.

"If they guarantee 100%, what does that mean?," he asks. "Does it mean the site will be reachable 100% of the time, or does it mean 100% of the transactions will go through?"

You want a company that can guarantee your site will work for all end users, no matter what Web browser they use. The site also needs to be scalable: What works when one person is on the system needs to run just as smoothly when 100 are accessing it all at the same time.

Finally, Mouline says you should ask a lot of questions about ongoing monitoring. Treat your site like an extension of your bricks-and-mortar business. Whether on- or off-line, he says, "You want to make sure the doors to your store are open."  To top of page

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