The website buyer's guide: Balancing quality and affordability

A quick scan online for ‘website design' racks up a few enticing options targeted at small businesses. So which options are best? And how do you balance affordability with quality?

Rewind many years back and I was in your position. Looking for a website and not sure how much I should be paying or who I should be paying to do it. At the time I was working for an organisation who was on a tight budget, so cost was a huge concern for us. We asked around and sourced a few quotes which varied greatly in price. Of course, presented with the price difference, it was agreed that the cheaper option was the way to go. I can’t begin to tell you how much we regretted that decision.

Everything we were delivered was (in my opinion) poor quality and took forever to get done (I’m talking over 12 months). I was constantly following up with our supplier, who would not take any responsibility for delays and avoided my calls for months at a time. I ended up essentially designing the website and inserting all the content myself because it wasn’t up to standard. It was a nightmare. Let me say here that I know that this is not the case for all cheap or affordable website developers. It is simply a cautionary tale in ensuring that you do your due diligence and really understand what kind of company you are entering into a contract with, no matter the price.

Fast forward to today and I co-own a graphic and web design studio. If only I knew then what I know now! I understand that building a website can be daunting, especially if you don’t know what to look for from a provider or have a good understanding of what options are available in your budget range. That’s why today, I want to highlight the pros and cons of some different website options. 

Hopefully with this guide, you can find a solution that fits your needs and budget, without getting taken for a ride!

The affordability vs. quality balance

I strongly believe that you get what you pay for when it comes to web design. But I’m also well aware that not everyone has $20000 to drop on a new website. When it comes to budget, if you’re serious about building a strategic, branded user friendly and beautiful site, I recommend having at least $2000 in the kitty as a very rough guide. 

There are some companies that just can’t afford to deliver a website at that price, but if you shop around, you may be able to get yourself a nice template solution on an open source content management system with hosting and SEO for that price. For $5000 you can find yourself in the range of custom websites and for $10000+ you can start to build more custom features and integrations. For a more accurate figure, works out a ballpark figure based on requirements that you input. 

With a higher price, you have more hours allocated to developing your site, which means more time for strategy and planning, content writing, revisions, extra features, testing and more.

When I was shopping around for a website I was shocked when I saw some of the prices. I thought ‘how can one company charge 30 times more than another?’ While at the time I thought that the higher priced option must be trying to rip me off, now I can see that they were offering me a more comprehensive website strategy, great customer service and many more hours of work than the lower priced agencies. The quotes I received were varied in price because, ultimately, I was choosing between quality and affordability.

When you add up the hours it takes to deliver a great website (not an ok website), it takes time. That’s why when you pay $350 for a website you get 5 hours of time and a bare bones solution. If that works for you, fantastic, but from my experience, investing a little bit more will allow you to build a website solution that is better at attracting visitors and generating sales. After all, that’s the end game everyone is working towards!

Website design options

The cheap fix: DIY

If you balked at the $1500-$2000 figure I quoted earlier, don’t worry, there’s a cheaper option. If you have the time (and patience) to set up yourself, then template options like SquarespaceWordpressJoomla or Weebly may be a good fit for you. You can choose from thousands of pre-built templates and tweak them to suit your business’ needs. There’s also a lot of online tutorials on how to set them up if you get stuck.

Website templates, for those unfamiliar, are pre-made designs that you can use as a base to form your own site. They’re comparable to using an existing blueprint for a house instead of getting an architect to custom design it for you. This approach is very cheap (and in some instances free), but you’ll have to spend quite a bit of your time learning how to use the CMS (content management system) properly, tweaking the design and inputting content into your site. While they vary between platforms, the built-in CMSs are mostly pretty easy to use (even for the non-tech savvy).

One of the big concerns with using templates is that you will have the same website design as thousands of other people who are using the same design. If you’re after a branded site that distinguishes you from your competitors, using a template may not be the best option for you. While you can definitely tweak certain aspects of your site, if you’re not familiar with HTML and CSS you’ll be limited with how much you can customise the look and feel of your website.

If you take this DIY approach, it’s probably a good idea to get up to speed with the basics of SEO so you can apply these best practices to your site. Without applying best SEO practices, you may have trouble getting found online. It’s also acknowledged that ‘clean’ code can positively impact search engine rankings as it allows search engine robots to easily crawl and index your site’s content, so if you’re looking for a template be sure to find one that has been optimised for SEO. This basically means the developer has spent the time to ensure that their template code follows SEO best practices.

Finally, while the website template might look stunning ‘out of the box’, once you start adding your own content, images and pages, the design, overall usability and navigation can get disorganised and lose visual appeal. If you’re not design-savvy, try and keep any new pages you create in line with the original template design and avoid making lots of modifications. 

Great for:

  • People who are looking for a cheap website 
  • Those who aren’t too concerned about being able to fully customise the design
  • Personal non-monetised blogs, unbranded startups  


  • Very affordable
  • CMS (content management system) is easy to use


  • Your website will not be completely unique and will not be targeted towards your specific customers
  • The strategy behind your website layout may be lacking, which will affect conversions & sales
  • You’ll need invest time and resources into making it look great and maintaining it, which may negate the 'cheap' factor
  • No expert assistance on hand if something goes wrong (although there are forums to provide assistance)
  • Depending on the platform you use, you may not actually own your website


  • Look for an SEO friendly template that is responsive
  • Good looks aren’t enough- ensure the template is easy to navigate and use too
  • Avoid getting locked into any long term hosting plans, always keep your options open
  • Try and be strategic in which content is used where on your site, considering the user.

The fast solution: A template from an agency

If you’re looking for an affordable website but the thought of having to set it up yourself sounds like too much of a hassle, you might be better off paying an agency to set it up for you. This will be a lot faster than setting it up yourself, so it's a good option for those looking for a fast turnaround.

When you hire an agency you’ll also benefit from their expertise regarding design, user interfaces and user experience, so it’s great for those without this knowledge. While DIY sites are great options for certain circumstances or businesses, I’m of the opinion that if you want a professional looking site, then it’s worth hiring a professional to create it for you. A developer with knowledge of HTML and CSS can tweak certain aspects of the site that you might not be able to, such as colours, spacing and special features, although, keep in mind that when it comes to customisations, the sky is not the limit. They may be able to change more than those without coding knowledge, but will still be limited by the parameters of the template.

This is a nice segue to my next point–it can be hard to find a template that suits your needs completely. A template is supposed to have broad appeal, but it won’t necessarily fulfil all your specific marketing needs. Template sites are great if your site is acting as an online brochure/business card only, or if you have a very simple marketing strategy. Beyond this, you may find that a template site can be limiting.

Again, if you have a budget, try and invest in your site, rather than finding the cheapest agency out there. While cheaper agencies may have more affordable base rates, they may charge more for items that come standard for other agencies such as SEO, additional pages and support etc.

Remember to compare features and do your research! 

Great for:

  • People who are looking for an affordable website with a small budget 
  • Those who are time poor or would prefer someone else to set up their site
  • Those looking for a website with a quick turnaround
  • Solo artists, startups, bloggers


  • Affordable
  • Saves your time and energy, compared to a DIY job
  • Can have a faster turnaround than a custom site
  • An experienced professional can ensure your site looks great and is user friendly
  • Depending on the provider, ongoing support may available for technical issues, security or updates


  • Your website will be restricted by the parameters of the template, so there may be customisations that are not possible. 
  • Your website may end up looking generic or ‘cookie cutter’


  • Ensure your site is SEO friendly, ‘lightweight’ (in code) and responsive
  • Always look for a website designer/agency with a great portfolio
  • Look for companies that will work with you to wireframe (map out the content) on your website to ensure the most conversions
  • Look for companies that can offer ongoing support and assistance
  • Look for companies that use a well supported CMS (e.g. Squarespace, Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal)

The long-term investment: custom websites

For those of you who have a bigger lead in time and a larger budget, a custom solution will give you access to a branded website with the most flexibility.

As mentioned above, when you use a design studio or agency, you’ll benefit from their team’s expertise and knowledge in website building, user experience and strategy. A bigger budget will also allow for more of their hours dedicated to the project. This means that there’s time to develop a comprehensive strategy, write content, optimise the site for search engines, add special features and integrations, conduct extensive testing and make revisions.

If you have the money to invest in your site, this additional time spent will allow you to make the most impact online and achieve your marketing goals.

If you’re willing and able to invest in a custom site in the short term, and you work with your web design team to build a solid strategy around your site, I believe this will give you the best results for the long term.

Great for:

  • People who are looking for unique, branded website
  • Those who have the time to wait for a custom site to be developed (anywhere between 2 - 6 months)
  • Businesses that require custom features or integrations for their site


  • There are far fewer limitations in what can be achieved compared to template and DIY options
  • Websites will be built with a clear strategy and purpose with input from a team of professionals so are likely to achieve better long-term results than cheaper template and DIY options
  • Website is likely to be ‘lighter’ in code as it will be custom built for the intended purpose with no superfluous functions, making it better for SEO purposes


  • More expensive than DIY and template options
  • May take longer to be developed than template sites


  • Always look for a website designer/agency with a great portfolio.
  • Look for companies that can offer ongoing support and assistance
  • Look for companies that use a well-supported CMS (e.g. Squarespace, Webflow, Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal)

The cost of a cheap website

Whether you’re building it yourself or paying an agency, purchasing a website can be a daunting task. No matter which option you choose, you’ll be required to invest time, money and resources into developing it, so it’s never risk-free.

While I strongly believe that a custom site is worth investing in if you can afford it, I understand that it's not an option that is available to everyone.

No matter your choice, be sure to do your due diligence before entering into any contracts. If it sounds too good to be true, it may well be. There are many different aspects that go into building a website, so consider what you are really getting with each option you investigate.

Research different companies, look at portfolios and consider the time that will be spent on your site. Pick the solution that best suits your budget, but don’t forget to consider how it looks and functions too. A website that under performs puts you at risk of losing patronage and sales, and that will cost you much more in the long term.  

If you want to learn more, check out this article on the seven secrets of a successful website.

What are your thoughts on which website option to choose? Have you had success using a cheap option? Let me know in the comments below. If you found this article interesting, don't forget to share!

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Written by

Lisa D'Andrea

As our brand strategist and website copywriter, Lisa loves helping people clarify their message so that people listen.


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