free-websites-not-freeAs business owners feel the need to improve their online presence, and want to extend beyond a basic Facebook page, they are often googling “free websites.” It makes sense really – why pay for something if you can get it for free – it seems to be the zeitgeist of the new online economy.

But while these free websites may not have a dollar figure attached to them – have you thought it through? What is the real cost of these free website offerings? Whether it’s Wix, Weebly, Homestead or Yola, they are not charities, so they need to make money somewhere? And if this a genuine loss-leader offering, what’s the damage to your business brand using a free product?

Let’s look at some reasons why that free business website is not always the great deal you think it is.

1 – It’s not actually free

The website might be free but there’s some extras pieces you’ll need to make it live on the internet or have your own email address.

These extra pieces include a registered domain name and hosting.

Domain name – This is human-friendly name of your website – ours is pogostick.co.nz. This allows people to type in an easy-to-remember (and hopefully easy to spell – see our five tips for choosing a good domain name) address to access your website, instead of the long IP addresses that computers use to talk to each other.

Watch out for: Find out what they charge for a domain, how many years you have to sign-up for and what it costs to transfer to a different registrar. For the most common NZ domains you shouldn’t be paying more than $30 a year, you shouldn’t have to register it for longer than one year and you should be able to freely access your domain password (or UDAI, pronounced you-die – this allows you to move your domain to a different registrar) at any time. Transferring your domain doesn’t lose any prepaid registration period.

Hosting – A website on its own is a bit like a Word document you have on your own computer – you can access it but everyone else (the internet) can’t. To share it with the world you need something called hosting. This is where your website is put on a computer that is connected to the internet, and is always on. So no matter what time of day it is, or where someone is, they can go on to the internet and see your website.

Watch out for: Find out what they charge for hosting. Hosting costs and contracts can vary wildly. Most small businesses only need a shared hosting plan, which shouldn’t cost any more than about $15/month (we charge $9.90/month and this includes free work on your website). Also find out how long you have to sign up for – do you get locked in for an extended period? Website costs are fluid – the last thing you want to do is prepay years ahead for something that’s going to be a fraction of the price in six months time.

Losing your independence

The business world can change quickly. For one reason or another you may want to change providers. You need a website that you can easily take with you – either to a different design agency or a different host. Imagine buying a tent but only being allowed to camp at the same spot every year?!

Watch out for: Ask about options to take your website with you if you change hosts or website design companies. Is it easy? How much will it cost? How much notice do you have to give? Even some expensive website providers restrict your options to change providers by building your website in their own proprietary systems that aren’t easily compatible with other setups. Our websites are all built on the very open and flexible framework of WordPress and you can easily switch (for free) to another provider at any time (with 30 days notice).

Lack of flexibility

One of the great things about having your own website is the freedom to change your messaging, your branding or functionality at any time. You need a website you’re not going to outgrow. You need a website that you can change at short notice – add an online store, add social media integration or landing pages.

Watch out for: Ask how easy it is to add extras like an online shop, a credit card checkout, add new pages or change the styling. Some free websites are a very basic framework that cannot be altered – the only option is to start over again. Some are built in Flash, which makes them difficult to rank well in Google and even use in some browsers (Google Chrome doesn’t support Flash, and other browsers are following suit). Our WordPress websites are very flexible, allowing you to add new pages, change functionality, add an online store or easily change your whole look.

Is it really yours?

One of the things that annoys a lot of people about free websites is that they put their branding and logo all over your website. This is part of how they justify the ROI of offering free websites – essentially you are working for them to advertise their business. It’s like those free business cards – you flip them over and they have Vistaprint all over them – who’s business is getting more promotion? (ok I’ll admit I have a bunch of them!). The sad truth is that even expensive websites will often have a link on your website back to their website agency – it seems to have become a standard tradition. Well, we don’t follow tradition (our prices might have given that away!) so most of our websites won’t have a link back to our website – we believe if you’ve paid for your website it should be all yours – not mostly yours and a little bit of an advertising sign for us!

Watch out for: How much of their branding will a free website have on it? Logos, link-backs, credits and honourable mentions can all end up showing at the bottom of the page (or at the top, middle etc!). What damage will do this to your brand? Will it make you look cheap and unreliable? Will it betray your professionalism? Is it worth saving a few hundred dollars for (yes, you can get a professional-looking website without anyone else’s logo or link on it for under $300!)

How long will it take you to setup?

One thing small business owners are notorious for is not valuing their own time. That’s why they’ll spend hours wrestling with a spreadsheet system to calculate their GST rather than pay for software to do it. DIY website builders like Homestead can actually take a really long time, especially if you’re not familiar with how websites work, and the end result can, no offense, be horrendous. Is that really the best use of your time? Wouldn’t it be more profitable to do the stuff you’re good at, the stuff that makes you money?

Watch out for: Realistically, how much work will you need to do yourself with this free website to get it semi-presentable? If you’re a beginner, it would easily be at least 10 hours. How much could you earn in 10 hours? This needs to be part of the equation before choosing the free website option.

Work out the real cost of that free website

Free websites will continue to be popular. Free is one of the most powerful words in advertising and it continues to draw in eager customers by the hundreds. All we’re saying is stop and take a minute to make sure it’s the right decision for your business – go in with eyes wide open and educate yourself about what your options are.

If you decide one of our website packages is the right choice, we’d love to hear from you.

Is that free website really free?
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