How much do business cards cost?
How much do you have to pay for a computer? Or a phone?
How about office space? How much does it cost to rent an office?
The answer to every single one of those questions is exactly the same: it depends. It depends on dozens of criteria that, depending on the choices you make, all affect the bottom line price you'll pay. If anyone came to you and told you that they would rent you an office for $300 per month, with no other details, you wouldn't sign. You'd probably ask all the usual questions: how big is the space, does it have the amenities I need, is it in the part of town I want, etc. Without asking, you might end up with a $300 per month cement room without heat or electrical outlets. No business owner would sign a lease without understanding what their money was buying.
We've all been in offices and seen offices before -- we know what information is important in order to rent one. When it comes to web sites, however, it's harder to know what the price quote you're getting really means. When presented with ten pages of technology language, many business owners and non-profit managers understandably can't decipher the details -- and many price quotes are poorly written. We've developed a quick way to separate out the pieces of a web site price quote that lets you see how your budget is being spent.
This is almost always the most expensive piece of a technology project. Depending on how unique your project requirements are, your design firm will spend many hours engaged with it. This time will either be hands on with code and design tools, doing research on the best options for each project component, or in direct consultation with you to plan and execute the project. If this piece of the project gets shortchanged, then the only way to make it up is to spend money on...
There is almost always some programmer somewhere who has built something very nearly perfect for your project. The more specific the need is, the more likely that the perfect thing developed to fulfill that need will be expensive. For example, if you need a plugin to display your Facebook feed on your web site, you are in the company of millions of other web site owners, and that little piece of code to display your Facebook feed is available for free online. However, if you want a special component for your web site that keeps track of how often someone mouses over each colored tulip in your page background, records that information, and displays it in a pie chart on your home page, that's certain to cost you something. If the person you hired isn't building that piece of functionality, they'll have to buy it from someone else. Between commonly-used-and-free and highly-specified-and-expensive is a wide range of code and prices.
Every single thing on your web site needs a home somewhere, from your logo and the text on the page to the list of people who signed up for your e-newsletter. Space up in the cloud comes at a cost, and if the cost isn't reflected in the project quote, you'd better ask about it before you sign a contract. Some design firms expect that you already know and have arranged for this space, and knowing those costs up front -- even if you'll be paying them to someone other than your design firm -- is crucial to your meeting your budget for any project.
I've written about contracts and requirements documents in the past, and I can't overstate how important it is to have all the details you can before you embark on any web site project. Find out what your money is buying for you. Without that knowledge, you may as well sign a lease without ever visiting the office.