What’s the Difference?

By Andy Crestodina

Any company that has looked into getting a new website will tell you that the price range can be enormous… A few thousand dollars? Ten thousand? Fifty thousand?  More?

Some interactive agencies won’t consider projects under $100,000. On the other end, a man once called me and said he built $500 websites and he suggested that if I helped him find clients, he would split the money with me, 50/50.

When prices range from three-figures to six-figures, how do you identify the difference between discount web design and custom, high-end web design; besides trying to use price as a gauge?

Here’s a list of four big differences and tips on how to spot them:


To offer sites at a low cost, discount web design shops have to operate at high volume. They have to drive profit through economies of scale. The programmed features on sites all have to be very similar, and any minor customization of that programming has to be minimal and as simple as possible. So that means compromises. The site may be:

  • harder for you to update;
  • harder for visitors to use; and
  • harder for search engines to index (an incredibly important point if you want your site to be found by your intended targets).
So how do I tell if the features are limited?

You’ll know it when you have a conversation that goes like this:

“I thought it might be nice if the site… Not possible?  I have a brilliant idea… It’s out of scope? It would be easier for me if it could… That’s not how it works?”

Remember, these companies have standardized the programming to be efficient in order to bring down costs. The lower price brings more limited features.


The quality of design is perhaps the most obvious difference between web design companies.  Put simply, there is a huge difference between brilliant design and garbage. You can feel the difference in a palpable way. But beyond the talent and skill of the designer, there is another key difference in design…

Every website needs its own look. No one would – or should – accept a site that is a photocopy of another site. The creative should be unique to the company or entity for which the site is created! So how does a discounted web designer efficiently offer unique designs? With templates.

Templates are standard layouts where branding elements (logo, fonts) and content (text, images) are placed in predefined spaces to quickly create a somewhat custom-looking site. Templates are so fast and efficient that there are huge, discount web design sites that present mammoth catalogs of templates.

One site, templatemonster.com, sells individual, templated web page layouts for only a few hundred dollars. So for a few thousand dollars, your site can be “unique.” For an extra fee, they’ll promise you they won’t sell your pre-designed template to anyone else after you buy it – although they may have already sold it hundreds of times in the past!

How do you tell what level of design would be provided by a web design firm?

Look at samples. Regardless of colors, fonts and images, are the layouts of their projects all very similar? They may be reusing standard templates. If they are, expect a lower price and a more standardized design process.


This is a key difference. Web strategy involves the process of aligning the site with business objectives to make sure your site generates desired results. This almost always means building a site specifically for a business or an organization. Obviously, this requires custom work.

Discount web design shops try to avoid custom work, either because they can’t do it profitably, or they just can’t do it, period. They need to focus on quantity over quality. They must build sites that look alike and deliver similar functionality in order to remain profitable. They cannot respond to the deeper, strategic needs of a business or organization

How do you tell if strategy is included?

Ask about the first phase of the project. How will the vendor learn about your business? Are they asking about your target audience? Your current results? The business objectives of the project? Typically, they will try to gently usher you into their predetermined set of parameters, offering generic “strategies” such as “generating traffic.”


Web design is a service industry, same as restaurants.

Suppose you’re hungry. When you think of dinner options, you consider what you want to eat, but also consider how you’ll be cared for by the staff. And you have lots of options:

  1. You can hire a private chef (a full-time in-house web team)
  2. You can sit down at a nice restaurant (professional web marketing agency)
  3. You can get a pizza (freelance web designer)
  4. There’s always the drive-thru (template-based, discount web design)

Now, unlike a meal, a website is a critical piece of marketing that you’ll have for years. But it does satisfy a need. And where you get your site determines what kind of service you’ll get in the process.

How do you tell what level of service will be provided?

Ask this question: “Will I have a project manager?” If the person who will be leading your project specializes in project management for websites and leads a team of specialists, you’re getting ready to sit down to a nutritious and satisfying experience. If the project manager (PM) is also the designer or programmer, you may be at the pizza place or in the drive-thru lane.

If you choose a discount web company, you’ll need to fit into their model to keep your costs down. No discount vendor can offer high-end custom sites and exceptional service.

If you expect a high level of service and great results, plan to budget more. The most talented interactive marketing agencies can’t do their best work without a significant budget.

Bottom Line

If the requirements of your project are 90% similar to other companies in your field, a discount web company may be perfect. But keep in mind that getting the other 10% of what you want may cost a lot more than you think, or may not be possible at all.

So the differences are:

  • design quality,
  • capabilities,
  • service, and, ultimately,
  • results.

Know what you’re getting into and set your expectations and budgets accordingly.

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