When I got into the website development business back in 1998, we built handed coded sites starting at a $250K, which took teams of nerds 6-9 months to complete. Over the past decade, website technology has so vastly improved that a technical neophyte can drop $49 on a WordPress book and launch a reasonably well designed site on her own. Add some technical acumen to properly configure the site and a commitment to generating good content and you can be off and running. Today there’s a slew of designers in every city, churning out good-looking sites in just weeks.
So this brings us to the question at hand – what should the cost be for a law firm website?
I took data from my firm, Mockingbird and two other reputable law firm specific website developers (Consultwebs and NiftyLaw) to provide information on the actual market cost and timeframe in turning around websites. These agencies all source entirely from the US and work exclusively on the WordPress platform.
We wanted to get a feel for how much websites should actually cost – not necessarily what they were sold for. So “market cost” is the agency’s internal numbers – hours spent designing and building the site multiplied by the hourly rate (again not cost) for those hours. Those hourly rates ranged between $75 and $250 depending on the skill set in question, with basic design at the lower end and complex SQL integration at the top. We did not include sites that were NOT primary to the firm – i.e. microsites, blog-only sites or sites built specifically for advertising (none of which we would really recommend anyway.) In the data below, we also provided turnaround times from project kick-off to website launch – for those projects for which we didn’t have that data, they are graphed directly on the y-axis.
In many cases these projects are more than just look and feel redesigns. For example, we simply wont launch a site without configuring Yoast or rewriting unique meta descriptions for each page. So much of this includes costs for getting to basic SEO best practices.
We’ve also asked the agencies to look at their own data and provide insight into the top and bottom of the cost spectrum by posing two questions:
- What are those things that significantly increase the cost of a website development project?
- What are the common elements of projects at the lower end of the cost spectrum? i.e. how can a law firm save money when undertaking a website design?
A Note on WordPress
WordPress has become the de facto website platform for most commercial websites. It is amazingly easy to use – enabling law firms to update their own site when a new lawyer gets added to the flock or when they want to post a blog about a recently won accolade. Furthermore, the ubiquity (and low cost) of WordPress developers, ensures that lawyers can fire their agency, instead of being trapped by a vendor’s proprietary platform. Many law firms have found themselves stuck in a multi-year contract with outdated platform their own vendor can’t afford to update. For all of these reasons, the data set only includes WordPress development projects. One side note: not all WordPress themes are created equal from a technical infrastructure perspective… many are extremely poorly built without sound SEO principals. So if you plan on going it alone, it is worth having someone help you in selecting and configuring a theme.
Website Pricing Models
Most websites are sold on either a fixed cost or a subscription model, although we are increasingly seeing the hybrid model – a one time cost followed by a series of monthly payments.
Fixed Costs – The upside of a fixed cost is a one time investment and the delivery of a final product. The biggest downside to this (other than coming up with that one off payment) is that as technology changes, your 2014 website might not adapt to meet those changes. To stretch the car analogy above a little too far, you may end up with a car without seatbelts or ABS brakes as the technology evolves.
Subscriptions – subscriptions require minimal up front investment, but often include extremely long term contracts – as vendors recoup their upfront design and development costs; eventually your subscription becomes pure profit. This model is frequently used for advertising specific sites. Your worst case scenario is a subscription with a vendor who doesn’t bother to upgrade his technology with the times. For cash strapped new firms, we like the expiring subscription model, which finances a website over time, but with an end date to those payments – Mockingbird offers a $300/month for 24 months option, for example.
Hybrid – more and more we are seeing an initial spend followed by ongoing payments. For example, Elder Law Answers sells websites for elder law attorneys for a $995 upfront payment followed by a $125 a month subscription. This puts some skin on the game on the part of the firm, and generates an ongoing revenue stream for the vendor. Just make sure you are getting ongoing value for your subscription. Beware the perpetual SEO fee that means nothing more than: “you have a website on the interwebs” or hosting that costs more than $29 monthly.
The reality is, the vast majority of law firm sites get turned around in a few months, for well under $10K. In our study across 83 projects, the average market cost was $6,183 – and the median (useful in minimizing the impact of the atypical, very large and expensive sites) was $5,096. Time from kick off to launch, averaged just 76 days. There’s simply no reason to follow in the footsteps of Morrison Foerster who dropped a cool million on their site in 2010 (and despite the expense, was built with major structural SEO issues, but I digress.) Half of the projects fell between $4K and $8K and there was more variability in market costs at the extremes – with eight projects under $2,000 and six north of $15,000. [Access the raw data here.]
What Adds Costs to a Website?
One common consideration is the migration away from a legacy platform to the widely available WordPress. The data set included migrations from Justia, Foster Web Marketing, Drupal, Scorpion, FindLaw, Blogger, i5Fusion, and even a few hand coded HTML sites. Moving away from one of these platforms added both time and money – adding 3 weeks and almost $1,000 to the average project – as developers needed to extract and reformat the legacy content. The most expensive project involved a large site in which we maintained much of the existing look and feel and functionality, while updating the platform to WordPress based best practices.
Moving and/or managing large volumes of content can be extremely time consuming and therefore expensive. Extracting content from large sites built on propriety platforms requires custom scrapers to cost effectively extract content, which is later reformatted for fit into WordPress templates. Firms who adopted the content-is-king mantra and churned out reams of extremely low quality or automated content frequently exacerbate this.
A few years ago, some firms were very successful in the SEO game by running multiple sites with keyword rich domains. And despite the fact that Google launched their Exact Match Domain update in September of 2012, many firms continue to run multiple domains in an attempt to game the system, or have just never bothered to (properly) manage their old domains. Some of the website development projects included efforts to consolidate the authority formerly spread across multiple websites and blogs and remove the frequently commensurate duplicate content problems that arose from doing so. These projects, while more expensive and time consuming, have the added benefit of overall increase search traffic (when done correctly.)
What Reduces Costs to a Website?
Literally starting from a blank slate often removes legacy issues that need to be managed – essentially technology mistakes from the past. And while we very rarely recommend entirely scrapping a domain, this does bode well for new firms hanging a digital shingle for the first time.
Because design is a very subjective matter – coming to the discussion with examples of sites you love (and why) and sites you hate (and why) is very important. And if you are unsure of the answer to that question, invest the time ahead of the project to find out what you (and the key players in your firm) like. Sometimes a good designer can help you verbalize what you are looking for. And while you are doing this – remember that most lawyer branding is around being a lawyer – we recommend letting the person behind that lawyer shine through instead.
Don’t Design by Committee
Appoint one person (with the genuine authority to make decisions) to interface with your website developer. This person’s primary role is to gather information from across the firm, distill feedback into a single direction and make hard decisions when they need to be made. A website designer’s worst nightmare is presenting at the partner’s weekly marketing lunch and fielding contradictory feedback from ten divergent but equal viewpoints.
Learn Thyself Some WordPress
Getting hands on involved with a site under development means you can not only contribute (like adding content), but you’ll also get a working knowledge of how your site works. While this may frustrate a designer/developer in the short-term, the long-term benefit of being able to monitor and manage your own site pays off.