Don’t ever get a free website


This post originally appeared on the joomper blog.

We’ll preface this post by saying that we believe that free website solutions such as Wix, Weebly, Wozaonline, Blogger and (the freely hosted version of) WordPress add tremendous value to the Internet community. They give a platform and a voice to thousands of bloggers and small businesses, they give people the opportunity to create, share, be creative and keep in touch. They are free solutions that work for a lot of people. They just aren’t business solutions. Even though the price to use them is zero, the cost is not.

The cost of a (free) website

Websites consist of web pages. Web pages, in their simplest form, are a collection of text, style and multimedia (such as images or videos). Developers write these pages; designers and photographers create the images; the actual data reside on servers (computers that are almost never turned off and constantly managed) running on electricity in rooms around the world. There’s a lot of time, effort and money going into websites, including free ones. Free websites are still paid for by someone.

Someone has to pay for it. If not you, then who?

So the designer, the developer, the photographer, the cost of the servers, storage and the small army needed to maintain all of these things costs money. For any website. So where does the money come from?

Website data – images and text – are kept on servers like these in data centers around the world.

This is a bit more complicated than to point out a single source, but let’s first look at something important: effort and reward.

Effort needs to be rewarded. If effort isn’t rewarded, one will simply stop with their efforts. There are many forms of reward, we’ll get to those shortly, but in most instances the reward is monetary. You do a good job at work (effort) and you earn the respect of your colleagues (reward) or maybe even a pay raise (financial reward). You help a stranger (effort) because you know it will help them and you’ll feel good in the process (reward). If you never earned respect, got money, recognition or even a simple “thank you”, you probably wouldn’t do these things (or you’d do them for different reasons).

On the vast majority of free website platforms, the reward for all the effort and expenses of running and maintaining things comes from elsewhere: advertising.

Advertising changes the focus

If you’re not willing to pay developers for your website, they will either stop providing you with a service or they will go advertisers to raise money. This changes the effort that a developer will make from creating the best product (your website, your content aimed at your audience) to creating the best way to get advertising clicks (often irrelevant to you, your website and your audience). The focus changes from adding value to you and your website to adding value to faceless advertisers with mostly irrelevant content.

Please, not another annoying banner ad

If advertising pays the developer’s salary, then she is going to create a platform that adds value to the advertiser, making it easier to sell, to get clicks and to get traffic. If she doesn’t, she’ll go out of business because the advertisers will leave for another platform that helps them. If you pay the developer’s salary, she’s going to make sure that you and your customer get the most amount of value out of what they build. If she doesn’t, she’ll go out of business because you will leave.

Open-source and altruism

The rewards aren’t always monetary, however. Or they can be, but indirectly so.

Here at joomper we’re strong believers in open-source: providing code, ideas and inspiration to the world at no cost. The street artist gets reward in seeing his completed piece in very much the same way an open-source developer gets reward in seeing their application being used or seen by thousands of people. The end product can be the reward. But it isn’t altruism; the developer will still list her open-source application in her résumé. The designer who did free work for you will still use that work in their portfolio. The band that gives away their music smiles at the thought of thousands of people listening to their songs. There’s still a reward.

Artist painting
For some the process and the product can be the reward.
For some the process and the product can be the reward.

This very post you’re reading might be a case-in-point: we’re doing it because a) the reward comes from seeing the final product or b) we might eventually gain from having someone contact us to create a website for them. Which will always need a reward, monetary or otherwise. Open-source is amazing, useful and in most instances absolutely free. But it wouldn’t exist without the beautiful exchange between reward and effort.

Case study: A free website or a paid website?

Very much like a car is much more than just its colour and body shape, a website is much more than just the words and pictures that you see. There are a lot of things going on underneath the bonnet that determines how the machine performs.

A small business owner and client of ours started their website on a free platform. On the surface it mostly made sense: it was free and it looked pretty. Small businesses don’t always have mountains of cash lying around and with solutions like Wix or Weebly they can create something that looks really nice and professional. It gives them a sexy body.

The only problem is that they were lacking an engine. Their website wasn’t performing and they didn’t know why. We sat down with them and explained that there’s a cost to doing business and if they are serious about things, they are going to have to start paying for it.

We helped build them a simple (and affordable) website that had most of the same content as their free website. We changed the layout to be a little more intuitive, we made sure that the images and content would load faster (and in the right order); our final product looked about as good as the first one did (okay, a lot, we’re just not trying to offend them on their efforts!).

Since our clients are the ones effectively paying our bills, we had to add value to them and their customers. We had to make it look good on the outside, but we also had to make sure that it performs underneath:

  • We added their business location on the website and Google maps (through Google Places for Business). When people do local, mobile, GPS or map searches for them or their industry, they show up.
  • We changed the content and added the right keywords (among a whole lot of other things) on all the right pages to help their customers find them in generic searches.
  • We coded analytic tracking code to make sure that they can see how many people are visiting their site, where they come from, how long they stay and which pages they visit most.
  • We showed them how to keep creating valuable content for their target audience, how to get them to keep coming back to both the website and their business.
  • We registered a domain for them so they had stronger control over their brand.

If we didn’t do these things (and keep doing them and keep getting better and better at it) they’d leave us for another company that adds value.

Even before officially launching their new website, we started receiving messages from people who visited their website. They are seeing a big spike in traffic and will very soon start to reach the break-even point (where they assigned a rand-value to each visitor to the website and each person that made the switch from online visitor to real-world visitor) in paying for their website.

In closing, and because we know that these lists are popular (despite being incredibly annoying), in closing we present:

Ten reasons why you should pay for your website

  1. There’s a cost to growth, a cost to business but luckily this cost can be low.
  2. You’ll own all the content and how it’s displayed.
  3. You’ll own your domain name.
  4. Search engines will be able to find you easier.
  5. You’ll have more control over the way the site looks.
  6. You’ll have more control over how the site performs.
  7. You won’t have irrelevant or distracting ads, banners or pop-up balloons.
  8. You’ll have more credibility.
  9. You can get branded email addresses ([email protected]).
  10. You’ll have support available when things go wrong.

Do you agree with us or did we get it wrong? Is there in fact such a thing as an altruistic business (or one in the “free website” field)?

About the author

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (where we went from eight nerds in a tiny office to hundreds of people spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently investing, paragliding, and doing research, mostly in Mexico.

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About me

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (where we went from eight nerds in a tiny office to hundreds of people spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently investing, paragliding, and doing research, mostly in Mexico.