Photo: 'Free' puppies cost an estimated $2000/year
A kid came to my door the other day with such a deal; free puppies! They were cuter than a bug's ear, or indeed any other part of an insect you could name. (Who, after all, has ever seen a cute Lepitdopteral thorax or set of mandibles?) Despite their soul-rending plaintive whines and heart-melting puppy-dog eyes, I let logic make my decision. This was no free offer, despite the entreaties of the 8 year-old scam artist on my doorstep. The small factoid the wee lad was hiding from me was that these puppies may not cost anything at the outset, but according to the Ontario Veterinary Medicine Association, the cost of caring for a "free" dog is over $2000.00 a year. "Free" kitties are only slightly less expensive at a whopping $1500.00 per annum. Over the cost of the life of the pet, you can be looking at between $20,000 to $40,000. Pretty expensive investment for a free commodity, although some might argue it's the only true way you can actually buy love.
Free websites can cost even more than free puppies
Now consider one of those "free" website offers that are ever floating around in cyberspace. In many ways, they are about as free as those puppies were that landed on my doorstep. I was certainly taken in by the thought of something so valuable, a well-laid out, attractive website, being priced so low. In fact, I even "bought" one back in the day to promote my writing career. It was a real learning experience and the first thing I learned is that it was a long ways away from being free.
Stupidity may be a factor
The problem is that, at the time, I was a freelance writer; long before I had joined a team of website development experts. Therefore, in order for me to get a decent-looking website, the first thing I had to do is to spend hours and hours on a difficult learning curve trying to become proficient at something I'm certain I will never be all that good at doing. Sadly, it was just as I tell my wife when she wants me to do plumbing work in the house, "My talents lie elsewhere".
The learning curve for me was so troublesome, in fact, that I actually hired a consultant to help with my website design education. The lady was a real pro and did help me a lot... for a fee. When I proved to be a terrible student, she eventually gave up on me. Ultimately she generously laid out the site for me which she hadn't agreed to do, then cashed my check and blocked all my emails. Although I had a pretty good looking, operational website, at first, ever since it went online, it has been going seriously downhill. One can't neglect a website and expect good results any more than one can neglect a pet.
How will you be paying: cash, credit card, debit or precious time off your finite life?
Figuring that a fairly decent average wage for a guy my age and life situation is, say, $25.00/hour, after a month spent trying, failing, fiddling and cursing, not to mention paying my consultant, I estimate the first 30 days of website ownership probably cost me about $500.00 in time and cold, hard cash. Factoring in the constant updates and extra education I still needed, I anticipated this "free" website, over the course of a year, could cost me thousands of dollars. My time, as discussed, is not free and the work doesn't come even close to qualifying as playtime. Website design is real work.
There's more? What the SEO are you talking about?
Unfortunately, depending on the purpose of your website, your mounting costs have yet to be capped. There are still other considerations that could definitely have a monetary impact on you. If I am selling a product, for example, I would have to factor in the cost of lost business because of a whole litany of reasons. For example, take SEO. Until recently, I thought it stood for Social Entertainment Options. How can I possibly get decent Google rankings when I don't even know the jargon, never mind the techniques that enhance it?
Is your site driving profits or driving customers away?
I should also factor in the cost of poor graphic design. Experts can tell you where to put images for greatest impact, how far your text should go down the page and how to phrase things for the most persuasive effect. Large, hugely successful companies know the value of effective design and invest a lot of money into it. Poor design, however, confuses customers and can drive them away just as surely as cramming them into the trunk of your car and speeding off.
There's a reason people pay for Marketing courses
Another cost that "free" sites fail to mention is that their offers do not come with any marketing expertise. If you are putting up a site with no marketing savvy, rather than a sales tool, you will only be the owner of an Internet footnote. Let's be clear; knowledge and understanding about effective marketing strategies is not information one is born with. That's why they offer it in college and university courses. Like so much in life, marketing expertise is often a case of you get what you pay for.
Do you want to sell a product or be a product?
One vital issue that must be brought forward when dealing with "free" is the cost to your personal, professional and system security. There is a saying in cyberspace that if someone is offering something for free, YOU are likely the product. No one does anything for nothing; therefore you have to ask yourself how companies offering freebies make their money. More often than not, the price you're paying is the information the company is mining off of you through your "free" site. They may even be stealing your customers right out from under your prose.
It's like buying a car with no motor. Or headlights. Or steering wheel. Or windows...
Lack of functionality is also an added cost that must be factored in when comparing "free" websites with their paid counterparts. If commerce is your goal, do the webtools available through your provider give you all the elements you require to run a successful web-based business? Do they have features such as a Shopping Cart, Blog Space, a Product Catalog, Customer Login, Private Area, Lead Capture capability, a Newsletter system, Photo Gallery, Ad Manager, Traffic Analytics, Customer Service, Cool Sliding Graphics, Job Postings, Job Applications, HR Integration, Testimonials, and is Mobile Responsive to boot? The latter is of grave concern since Internet analytics show that the majority of users who will be viewing your site will not likely be on a desktop computer. The majority will access your site through a tablet or smart-phone that can mash up your graphics like you'd thrown them in a blender. Then who will you be selling to? Picasso? Salvador Dali?
What? You mean there are yet more costs to consider?
Besides the multitude of costs already listed, there are many more factors that can lose you money, fail to make money you should have made, or outright costs you money, These would include:
- Cost of not having a home page that tells your visitors what you sell, how to get it and why they should do business with you. There is a whole science behind effective landing pages. If you don't know the science, you may as well open your windows to allow the winged dollar bills to fly out.
- Cost of not knowing what to do after having a new website up and running. If you build it, they won't just come on their own. There is, after all, no successful product ever developed that didn't require at least some promotion to make customers aware of its existence.
- Cost of having competitors ads on your website. Most, if not all, "free" website hosters demand their site users have ads on your pages of the hosting company's choosing. This takes away greatly from your professionalism and depending on the ad, it might even rob you of customers.
- Cost of having a slow website. Free websites are hosted on crowded server farms. Google penalizes slow websites and will send less traffic your way. Slow websites are not just infuriating but downright painful to navigate. Surely your customers have enough irritation and frustration in their lives.
- Cost of paying your nephew or to get 'the cousin of a buddy's former roomate who can do it cheap cheap' to help you fix your site, if you can actually get them to answer their phone. You might have to block your number or borrow a friend's cell phone to call them.
- Cost of eventually having to build a professional website after wasting your time working on the free one. For a small fee, they may even line you up with a counselor to help you move past the remorse of the bad decision to try a "free" website provider in the first place.
So, can you afford free?
In the end one needs to be realistic about your website needs. Are you a professional business person or just a hobbyist with time on your hands? If you are on the net to make money, you must accept there are always costs. However, if you have trouble filling your day with things to do, a "free" website might just be what you need. Either that or a free puppy.