Q: "Is there such a thing as a free Website?" A: by Steve Puffenberger, Advent Media, Inc.
So a friend asked me the burning question, “Is there such a thing as a free Website?” To which I can reply, “is there such a thing as a free lunch?”
You really pay for “free lunches,” only indirectly. Free food at hotels? It’s included in the rate you pay. Free lunch from a vendor? It’s a business expense paid for by the price of items you buy. Free food at a free seminar? You have to listen to a marketing pitch. You get the idea. If you want something free you have to give something in return.
Well the same goes for Websites. There are “free” services, some very low-cost options, and of course “real” Websites, but they all come with costs. Let’s look at these generic types.
To have a Web presence for free usually requires two things, first advertising, and second, someone else’s identity. Free options include pages on Facebook, blogs on Blogspot or Wordpress, and groups on services like Yahoo or Google.
If you use a service that is advertising based, your content will be interspersed with ads for various products and services. Some may be unrelated to what you are offering, (adult diapers next to a kid’s book, for instance), but most often they’ll be ads targeted to what the user is searching for, and that will inevitably bring up competitors’ ads next to your content. If you’re OK with that idea, then you’re open-minded
Then there’s the concept of identity. That has to do with the domain name. The domain name is the part of the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) that people use to find you (xyz.com, for instance). It’s your “identity” to the Web. Free pages or sites all use the host’s domain. If you create a page in Facebook, you’ll always be “yourcompany.facebook.com” (Facebook.com being the domain name.)
That brings up the issue of "site reputation." If your site has a domain name not your own, and it has ads that aren't related or of your competitors, it's pretty clear that your site isn't to be taken seriously. After all the first job of a Website is to establish your credibility.
Domain names are cheap, between $10 and $20 per year, but you can’t connect them to free services. You have to use at least a low-cost option to build a site with your own domain.
Low Cost Options
Many of the sources for domain names also sell low-cost do-it-yourself Website packages starting at $5 to $15/month. These are called “templated” sites in that you sign up, pick a template that they’ve predesigned, insert your content and publish. This can be a good place to start, but your options are limited, and your template may look like someone else’s.
The biggest issue is that you’re on your own when it comes to navigation, layout and design. Most people are too close to their product or service to tell their story from the perspective of the audience. Bloated text, unrelated or unprofessional images, clipart, stock photos and kitschy design scream “amateur” to prospective buyers, users or donors, and that can turn off visitors. Plus, without paying attention to the search engine optimization (SEO), it’s unlikely your site will even be found by people searching for it. That’s all right if you just want the site for credibility as people check you out from a business card or print ad, but for Google searches, forget it.
The biggest problem with low-cost sites (especially Wordpress sites) is that do-it-yourselfers and inexperienced "Web designers" don’t understand all the security issues that go along with managing a Website. So, they use weak passwords, get hacked and become a platform for scammers to steal identities. We’ve seen that happen many times.
Real sites are custom designed by a professional who looks at your content from the perspective of your audience and designs layouts, navigation, and graphics that are keyed to your corporate identity, that are also easy to use by your intendended audience. Professionals also look at the text of your content and "shape your case" to be relevant to your target audience. Real Websites provide e-commerce, data collection, member access and other advanced features, both in design and function. The process to build a Website can be compared to design-build construction. It can be lengthy, and the overall cost can be as much as the cost of a new car (depending on model).
Real Websites also have monthly costs to keep them online and secure:
Hosting – The quality of the Website's server and underlying infrastructure will determine how fast the content is delivered to viewers - and speed is critical when it comes to retaining visitors. While low-cost sites are usually hosted on “shared servers” from which thousands of unrelated sites are published, “real” sites use isolated, dedicated or cloud servers with proven strategies for data protection implemented.
Security Certificate – Certificates encrypt traffic to and from the Website and are mandatory for any traffic involving e-commerce or personally identifying information (PII). But now Google is flagging sites without a certificate as “insecure,” and demoting their ranking on their search pages. That makes a Security Certificate required. There are several levels of certificate, the strongest of which, the “green bar” certificate, means the certificate authority (issuer) has verified that the site belongs to the legitimate business, which can be key in building your site's reputation.
Content Management – Most sites these days use a Content Management System (CMS) which makes it possible for site owners to edit certain portions of their sites just as easy as using Word, but other changes require coding that professionals should handle. A maintenance agreement provides quick turnaround change management for content.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Keyword Research – This is the real budget buster and key to being found on the Web. You may have one idea about what to call what you’re offering, but the users on the Web may be calling it something else, and they’ll never find you. “Keyword Research” is a technique that uses professional tools to pinpoint the words that people are actually using to find products or services like yours. Once you define those keywords, then the SEO skill is to weave them into your content, headers and even domain name so that you are more likely to be ranked higher. (Disclaimer: no SEO firm can “guarantee top generic results on Google” for all keywords, so don’t fall for that hype.)
Other Costs - There are more things that real site owners pay for. Email service, for one, that is tied to the site's domain. This is another reputation builder, because email correspondence with potential customers needs to be consistent to show you're serious. We recommend Office 365 Exchange mail for this purpose.
You get what you pay for...
When you’re ready for a “real” Website, Advent Media, Inc. can get you in the game. It’s not free, but we make it affordable to have a real professional site that gets results. There is no such thing as a free lunch…or Website, but remember, “you get what you pay for.”
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