How much does it cost to do something on the web?

Getting involved on the web isn't as cheap as it looks. In this article we discuss how much you may have to spend and why.

Prerequisites: You should already understand what software you need, the difference between a webpage, a website, etc., and what a domain name is.
Objective: Review the complete process for creating a website and find out how much each step can cost.

Summary

When you're launching a website, you may spend nothing or your costs may go through the roof. In this article we discuss how much everything costs and what you get for what you pay (or don't pay).

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Do-it-yourself

Software

Text editors

You most likely already have a text editor (often Notepad on Windows, gedit on Linux, TextEdit on the Mac). But, as you'll soon learn, you'll have an easier time writing code if the editor color-codes and checks your syntax, and assists you with structure.

Many editors are free, for example, Bluefish, TextWrangler, Eclipse, and Netbeans. Some of them, like Sublime Text, you can freely test as long as you like, but you're encouraged to pay. Some, like PhpStorm, can cost between a few dozen and 200 dollars, depending on which plan you buy. Some of them, like Microsoft Visual Studio, cost hundreds or thousands of dollars (although Visual Studio Express is free for individual developers or open source projects).

To start with, we suggest you try out several editors (even for-pay editors often have a trial version), and get a feel for which one works for you. If you're only writing simple HTML, CSS, and Javascript, stick with a simple editor.

Price does not reliably reflect a text editor's quality or usefulness. You have to try it for yourself and make up your mind as to whether a given editor meets your needs. For example, Sublime Text is cheap but comes with many free plugins that can greatly extend its functionality.

Image editors

Your system probably already includes a simple image editor or viewer (Paint on Windows, Eye of Gnome on Ubuntu, Preview on the Mac). But those programs are limited and soon you'll want a more robust editor to add layers, effects, and grouping.

Editors can be free (GIMP), moderately expensive (PaintShop Pro, less than $100) or several hundred dollars (Adobe Photoshop).

You can use any of them. They all feature roughly the same functionality (although some of them are so complete that you'll never use every feature provided). However, if at some point you need to exchange ongoing projects with other designers, you should first find out what tools they're using. Editors can all export finished projects to standard file formats, but each editor saves ongoing projects in its own specialized project format.

Media editors

If you want to include video or audio into your website, you can either embed online services (for example YouTube, Vimeo, or Dailymotion) or include your own videos (see below for bandwidth costs).

For audio files, you can find free software (Audacity, Wavosaur) or pay up to a few hundred dollars (Sony Sound Forge, Adobe Audition). Video-editing software likewise can be free (PiTiVi, OpenShot for Linux, iMovie for Mac), less than $100 (Adobe Premiere Elements), or several hundred dollars (Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro). The software you bought with your digital camera may already cover all your needs.

Publishing tools: FTP client

You also need a way to upload files from your hard drive to a distant web server. In order to do that, you must use an FTP client.

Every system includes an FTP client as part of its file manager. Windows Explorer, Nautilus (a common Linux file manager), and the Mac Finder all include the functionality. However, people more often choose dedicated FTP clients that can store passwords and display local and remote directories side-by-side.

If you want to install an FTP client, there are several reliable and free options: for example, FileZilla for all platforms, WinSCP for Windows, Cyberduck for Mac and Windows, and more).

Note:  There are other ways to publish contents on remote servers, such as rsync and git, but they are not as easy as FTP and we won't discuss them here.

Browsers

You either already have a browser or can get one for free. If necessary, download Firefox here or Google Chrome here.

Web access

Computer / modem

You need a computer. Costs vary tremendously depending on your budget and where you live. To publish a barebones website, you only need a basic computer capable of launching an editor and a browser, so the price for entry is quite low.

Of course you need a more serious computer if you want to produce heavier designs, touch up photos, or produce audio and video files.

You need to upload content to a remote server (see Hosting below), so you need a modem. Most of the time your ISP can rent Internet connectivity to you for a few dollars per month.

ISP access

Make sure that you have sufficient bandwidth:

  • Low-bandwidth access may be adequate to support a “simple” website (reasonably-sized images, texts, some CSS and JavaScript). That will cost a few dozen dollars, including the rent for the modem.
  • On the other hand, you'll probably need serious DSL, cable, or fiber access if you want a flashier website with hundreds of files, or if you want to deliver heavy video/audio files directly from your web server. It may cost the same as low-bandwidth access, or several hundred dollars per month for professional use.

Hosting

Understanding bandwidth

Hosting providers charge you according to how much bandwidth your website consumes. This depends on how many people and robots access your content during a given time and on how much server space your content takes up (that's why people usually store their videos on dedicated services such as Youtube, Dailymotion, and Vimeo). For instance, your provider may have a plan that includes up to several thousand visitors per day for “reasonable” bandwidth usage (defined very differently from one hosting provider to another). As a rule of thumb, consider that reliable paid personal hosting costs around ten to fifteen dollars per month.

Note that there is no such thing as “unlimited” bandwidth. If you consume a huge amount of bandwidth, expect to pay a huge amount of money.

Domain names

Your domain name has to be purchased by a domain name provider (a registrar). Your hosting provider may also be a registrar (1&1, Gandi for instance are at the same time registrars and hosting providers). The domain name usually costs $5-15 per year. The cost varies depending on

  • Local obligations (some country top-level domain names are more costly, since different countries set different prices)
  • Services associated with the domain name: some registrars provide spam protection by hiding your postal address and email address behind their own addresses (respectively, the postal address can be provided c/o the registrar, the email address can be hidden behind an alias belonging to the registrar).
Do-it-yourself hosting vs. “packaged” hosting

When you want to publish a website, you could do everything by yourself: set up a database (if need be), put up a Content Management System or CMS (like Wordpress, Dotclear, spip, etc.), upload pre-made templates or your own templates.

You could also rely on your hosting provider's already set-up environments, usually for the same monthly fee of ten to fifteen dollars, or subscribe directly to a dedicated hosting service with pre-packaged CMS's (eg. Wordpress, Tumblr, Blogger). In the latter case, you won't have to pay anything, but you may have less control over templating.

Free hosting vs. paid hosting

You might ask, why should I pay for my hosting when there are so many free services?

  1. You have more freedom when you pay. Your website is yours, and you can migrate seamlessly from one hosting provider to the next.
  2. Free hosting providers may add advertising to your content beyond your control.

Some people opt for a mixed approach: for example, put their main blog on a paid host with a proper domain name, and use another, free service to host spontaneous, less strategic content.

Professional website agencies and hosting

If you want to have a professional website, you will most likely ask a web agency to do it for you.

Here costs depend on multiple factors, such as:

  • Is this a simple website with a few pages of text? Or a complex, thousand-pages-long website?
  • Will you want to update it regularly? Or is it going to be a static website?
  • Must the website connect to your company’s IT to gather contents (say, internal data)?
  • Do you want some shiny new feature that is the rage of the moment? (at the time of writing, clients like one-pagers with complex parallax)
  • Will you need the agency to think up user stories or solve complex UX problems (for instance create a strategy to engage users or do some A/B testing to choose the best solution among several ideas)?

Additionally, for hosting purposes,

  • Do you want redundant servers, in case your server goes down?
  • Is 95% percent reliability adequate or do you need professional, around-the-clock service?
  • Do you want high-profile, ultra-responsive dedicated servers, or can you cope with a slower, shared machine?

Depending on how you answer these questions, your site could cost thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Next steps

Now that you understand what kind of money your website may cost you, it's time to start designing that website and setting up your work environment.

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 Contributors to this page: martinmcbride, chrisdavidmills, Jeremie, Andrew_Pfeiffer, notabene
 Last updated by: martinmcbride,