A website can’t be measured in pages

For a long time page count has been used as a unit of measurement in web design and development. Clients will often phrase a pricing enquiry by asking “how much would it cost for a (x) page website?”, and when quoting on a project it can be tempting to measure the required effort in these terms. Some web developers go a step further by assigning a fixed value to a page, and sell page-based website packages to their clients: a 5 page website for $800, a 10 page site for $1,500 and so forth. This approach is shortsighted for several reasons.

All pages are not created equal

A page is not a one-size-fits-all unit of measurement. There are many factors to take into consideration: the needs of the site’s audience, the complexity of the desired feature set, the quality of the design, the time required to perform testing, the level and complexity of database interaction, and so on.

Would you measure the effort required to develop a website like Facebook or Twitter in ‘pages’? Of course not, and I don’t think any website can be quantified simply on the basis of how many pages it includes.

Assigning a fixed price to a page, or assuming that one page is much the same as another, greatly increases the chance of underestimating the effort required to build a site. If you neglect to properly consider all aspects of a project’s scope then you cannot accurately quote on the job. Even if you meet your cost estimate it may be necessary to omit functionality or skimp on testing in order to stay on budget.

Selling yourself short

Selling page-based website packages isn’t just an inaccurate way to gauge project scope, it is a questionable way to turn a profit.

By treating a web page as a quantifiable unit with a measurable value, you position yourself as a service vendor rather than a web professional (for more on this distinction see Design Professionalism by Andy Rutledge). You risk being lumped together with every web monkey offering bargain basement website packages, and your client will view their relationship with their you as akin to shopping at a department store or supermarket, where every retailer offers an identical range of products.

Marketing your services on the basis of quantity also leaves you no option but to compete on price. If one web developer sells a ‘page’ for $200, and another for $100, why would a client choose the more expensive option? There is always going to be someone who can undercut you, and for a freelancer or small studio competing on price isn’t a sustainable business strategy.

Forget about pages

In the Web’s early years the concept of pages made more sense. Most websites were built using static HTML, their content comprised entirely of text and images. There was a certain equivalency between pages. Today’s average website is far more sophisticated, and may include dynamically generated content, AJAX interactions, a content management system, embedded video, integration with third party APIs and advanced social features. The myriad possible approaches to the task of building a website render the idea of a ‘page’ virtually meaningless.

A website’s architecture is an essential component of its specification, and understanding the way a site’s content is organised is key to establishing the project scope. But that understanding needs to be informed by more than just the number of pages the site will comprise. You need a firm grasp of the project requirements before you can think about quoting the job, and using page quantity as the sole gauge of effort will inevitably leave you under prepared.

22 thoughts on “A website can’t be measured in pages

  1. Jonathan, good post, I’m in total agreement on this.
    Once upon I time I thought I’d try this “easy” quoting method. 9 times out of 10 you’ll end up putting far more effort into this project than you quoted for. For the other 1/10 times you might end up making a lot more than was actually deserved, and this isn’t exactly worth the 9 other times it worked out bad for you.

    Some potential clients still don’t understand the how much can go into each page and the differences between them. As you said once upon a time this might have worked okay on 100% static sites. But we’re of course in the age of blogs, CMSs, eCommerce and the like, all of which aren’t exactly static. So sometimes our customers need to be informed of this and typically they’ll understand the need to quote using a more accurate method.

    Good read.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Thanks Jordan.

    It’s interesting to hear about your experiences selling pre-defined website packages.

    I’ve never marketed my services that way, but like any freelance developer I grapple with finding a balance between describing a project scope in terms that a client can understand, and accurately estimating the effort.

    I always cringe when a prospective client asks me “I want a 10 page website, how much will it cost?”. The smart ass answer is “How long is a piece of string?”, but I phrase it more diplomatically!

  3. Kaitlyn says:

    I wholeheartedly agree! As a new freelancer I had wondered the best way to go about pricing for my services. I saw some large companies charging by the page, and I thought it just didn’t make sense. I chose a variable hourly rate because of some of the very things you just mentioned. Great article.

  4. Marcus says:

    I started out charging per page many years ago, this approach just did not work. One client asked if they could merge the contents of two pages into one to save money!

    My advice for estimates or quotes is do not skimp on details, list out absolutely everything that is involved, even the small things you may overlook like pointing a domain or adding an email etc. as it all takes time.

    This detailed approach tends to get across to potential clients the fact that there is a lot of work involved as opposed to just listing “3 pages” on an estimate, they can see much more value in your service and treat you more like an expert as a result and not as a person on a checkout swiping HTML pages through a bar scanner.

  5. Jonathan says:

    @Marcus Combining two pages into one to save money… that is classic! I like you supermarket checkout analogy too, it’s a good one.

  6. Shrirang says:

    useful article.

  7. Zap Media says:

    We never price a new project based on web pages (this would be so 1990’s). All of our design/development time is based around the build itself, how functional the site will be.

    We deliver to the client an unbreakable website skeleton, from this point they can do whatever.

  8. I agree with Zap Media, sadly everyone this article applies to probably won’t read it since most freelancers or studios who still do this are not with it anyways. Good article.

  9. Jonathan – This is exactly correct. A well done landing/conversion page, for example, can cost more the rest of an entire website.

    There is a reason I still include an estimated number of pages possible in my small business website packages. Number of pages is something clients can easily understand to differentiate one option from another.

  10. Jonathan says:

    @Shaymein It’s certainly possibly that I’m preaching to the choir! But I think these sort of issues have relevance to web designers/developers at all levels, especially those who are just starting out and are unsure of the best way to price their services. If my post convinces even one or two people to think more carefully about the way they price projects then I think that it has served its purpose.

  11. Matthew says:

    I often grapple with quoting and pricing and I have read all of the books about the best way to do it and still struggle.

    I dont agree with pricing per page and I have a HARD time guessing the amount of hours it will take me to complete a project as I often go over the estimated hours because I am a habitual perfectionist (to my demise at times) so is there an alternative way to price it out without taking complete advantage of either party (client/customer)?

  12. Jonathan says:

    @Matthew I’m a firm believer in tracking time I spend on every task and project. That way I when considering a project that has a similar scope to one I’ve done in the past, I can estimate the effort based on the number of hours/days based on the actual time I spent on the completed project. And also I know if I’ve spent longer than I estimated, and can (hopefully) learn from my mistake.

    Another technique I use is to add a ‘buffer’ to my quotes. I tend to underestimate, so I’m now in the habit of routinely adding an additional 20% to my estimates which allows room for movement. This is especially important for new clients, since I don’t know if the client will be quick or slow with approvals, revisions, and so forth. For existing clients it’s easier to estimate accurately.

    I still grapple with pricing though, it’s an ongoing challenge!

  13. Matthew says:

    I agree and I will DEFINITELY try the 20% markup as I just recalculated a quote I did and I wouldve been much happier with that than the quote I gave. Undervaluing yourself is the worst.


  14. Marcus says:

    Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a website that you could enter specs of a quote and a community of designers would suggest costs.

  15. Matthew says:

    ha, yea but its also like a secret. I’ve noticed that people like to hold how much they charge people to themselves. Its mostly a guessing game and having to read your clients and having a set minimum that you cant go beyond.

    Like you said, its competitive, everyone calls themselves a “designer” and with templates that go for $35, no longer are the designers in complete control.

  16. 100% agree.

    I’ve never liked the idea of saying I’ll build you a 5 page site for $x and every page after that will cost you $y. It’s not practical at all and given the example of Facebook and all the other up and coming web based apps out there, it’s no longer about ‘pages’ and more of functionality.

  17. I’ve built up my web design business over several years purely on word of mouth, and have stuck to this very train of thought over that time. However, to stay successful in business, you have to be willing to move with the market. To use the word cannot in business will be detrimental to your cause.

    If you want to consider yourself a web developer, you should work for someone else. If you want to run a business, you need to stop thinking of yourself as a web developer.

    Jonathan’s post is an opinion born out of the same frustrations I’ve had I’m sure in this industry, rather than being factual. There is a market for page based website packages, because there is market wanting that. I also get frustrated when I get asked how much do I charge for a website, but ask yourself, anything you buy for yourself, your business etc, you’ve bought knowing the price. My response would often be to that question, well how much do you pay for a house? But, I can buy a house package that covers everything right down to the tiles and fittings. Or I can choose to find a company that will do a custom build for me.

    Many businesses do just want the website with the Home, About, Services, Contact format, so why not make it easy for them with a package with a template you know works on all browsers, and you just have to change the colour scheme and the logo.

    Us web designers like to think we’re a special breed, and get precious about our artistic integrity, but we have to realise we offer a product that is now viewed by many as off the shelf as a tub of butter.

    The web developers now raking in the big dollars either own or work for high quality template clubs. Check out the Envato network for one, a couple working as freelancers change their point of view and their business model and now run a huge multi million dollar operation.

    As web development businesses, we will become more and more just resellers for these operations. If you’re building a website from scratch that has a budget of less than six figures, you’re kidding yourself.

    The web development businesses in my community that are flourishing, that are turning over large revenues, and building their staff numbers, all have two things in common, they offer website packages on their website, clearly priced, and their portfolios are hardly earth shattering web designs.

  18. Just want to add, Jason your example of Facebook isn’t a particularly good one. What is it we all have on Facebook, be it for our personal or business profile? A page.

  19. Jonathan says:

    @Phil Warburton That’s an interesting perspective.

    I have to disagree with your assessment that a website with a budget of less than $100,000 isn’t worth building from scratch. Many web applications and websites are produced for well under that figure. I’ve never developed a site for that figure, nor have any of the freelancers or small web agencies I’ve worked with.

    It is depressing to imagine, as you seem to suggest, that the only way to turn a healthy profit is on the basis of a mediocre portfolio built from other designer’s templates.

    What you’re describing is a race to the bottom, and in that scenario no one wins. Clients end up with cookie cutter websites that lack originality, and web designers and developers are forced to bang out sites at the lowest possible profit margin.

    You cite Envato as a success story. I might point out that Envato are not in the business of building websites for clients, they are (primarily) in the business of selling other designer’s website templates. Envato are undoubtedly doing very well from their business model, but can the same be said for the designers selling website templates through ThemeForest?

    You are comparing two very different things: content creators, and content vendors. Apple are doing a roaring business with the app store. Does it therefore follow that app developers are also getting filthy rich? Sadly that is not the case.

    In your second comment you mention Facebook. I think you miss the point of the example. Lets imagine you were charged with the task of building Facebook from scratch. Would you cost the project by totaling the number of registered users, and multiplying that figure by a fixed price representing the cost of building a ‘page’?

    Lets imagine that the site launches with ten users, each with a one-page profile, and that a page is worth $200.That makes the cost of developing Facebook $2,000. Quite a bargain!

    Or perhaps you would base your costing on the number of users the site currently has, about 500,000,000, in which case the cost to develop Facebook would be $100 billion. A little steep, no?

    Or, more sensibly, would you estimate the cost required to build a content management framework that allows users to manage their own profile, and create pages themselves? In which case, ‘pages’ hardly even enter into the equation.

  20. Hi Jonathan

    Firstly I want point out, I completely agree with your sentiments… as a developer, and from an idealistic point of view

    You’re exactly right, many websites and apps are produced for under $100000. This figure is perhaps a little extreme, but you have to ask yourself, what does this project cost me as a developer, my business, and my lifestyle, and is it going to turn a profit. How many of us slave away on next to no sleep, keeping the coffee industry alive, because we want to produce something ‘original’, whilst keeping to a minimal budget.

    There is a race to the bottom unfortunately, in any industry. I just read last night of a wordpress template club, reducing their yearly membership fee to $5. Crazy huh?

    You need to understand in any business, the profit margin in percentage terms, on a product generally will reduce the more expensive its price (disregard the wordpress example above, that is just stupidity). In my career in electronics sales, I didn’t get bonuses for turning over large dollar values of stock, I got them because I sold lots of accessories with high profit margins.

    Again, you’re right, many clients do end up with cookie clutter websites, and previously my position was to sit and whinge about the unqualified, unskilled ‘web developers’ delivering these websites. I just had a meeting this week with a potential client who had an absolute nightmare of a website, and were told to update the site, they would have to purchase and learn Dreamweaver!

    But if I, if we, developers who value our craft, can offer a product or package, that we know meets standards, functions appropriately, is Search Optimised and looks good, perhaps at the sacrifice of some originality, and comes in at a price point that is competitive and profitable, we can go a long way to getting rid of the grubs who don’t value our industry.

    The point I wanted to make previously, is you can’t say websites cannot be quoted on a page basis. The fact is, there is a market and huge demand for this way of thinking. There is also a market and a need for custom built sites. Consumers want and to be matter of fact, should have choice.

    My point about Envato you’ve missed. The point is you need to be willing to re-examine and change your business model. The owners of Envato were in the business of developing websites and apps for clients, but changed their business model to developing websites and apps for other website developers. Some developers are making good money through Envato, five figures monthly. And those that are, well you could argue their work is the most original and well built.

    Here in Australia, (US I think as well) our biggest chain of bookstores, went bankrupt. They ignorantly continued with their business model opening massive stores thinking people want to spend hours perusing and reading their books, and failed to see or accept the market shift. Many more large retailers will suffer the same fate.

    So again the point is purely, your business needs to meet the market, the market won’t meet you.

    With Facebook, firstly my point is this. Facebook promotes the idea of having a ‘page’, whether it be a personal page, or business page. This is the word that Facebook uses, ‘Page’. If you want to promote your business on Facebook, you’ll ask your friends to ‘Like’ your ‘Page’. If the word ‘Page’ wasn’t already ingrained in our online culture before Facebook, it is now. So I guarantee you, small business owners will come to you wanting to know how much you charge in terms of pages.

    This leads on to the next point of building the site. Some websites can be quoted in terms of pages, some can’t. Building a social network is obviously one that can’t and I would advise the client, that quoting in terms of pages is not going to be realistic or cost efficient for them.

    How would I quote this, to answer your last question. No I would not estimate the cost to build a content management framework. Its already been built for me. There are already great CMS frameworks out there without having to build another one. I just need to factor in how much the appropriate one is going to cost to purchase if at all, and other necessary components. My main estimate inclusions would be in regards to the theme, hosting requirements and training.

  21. Jonathan says:

    @Phil Warburton Thanks for clarifying some of your earlier points.

    You’re right that I drew a line in the sand by my choice of the word “cannot”. I have adopted a position in relation to how I market my services and price projects, and that’s what I wanted to put across. But I take your point that it is quite possible to attach a fixed price to a page, and that a market exists for fixed price website packages. It’s just not a marketplace I choose to compete in, or a pricing model that I advocate.

  22. Marcus says:

    I have noticed over the years people that do charge per page in a lot of cases have turned out to be middle men companies with no in house designer, who use sites like 99designs and take a joomla or word press and duplicate without much customisation for each new client they get. These are the most frustrating competition I have had to go up against. When meeting clients who have already met a middle man type operation, you have a tough job explaining why custom website is better for there business as they have been bamboozled by the middle man about unlimited web pages for xxx amount. They are often sold the all you can eat buffet scenario of web pages, which does not take into account usability, customer journey, target market etc. Anyone else frustrated with kind of thing?

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