The True Cost of an Open Source Website

Posted / 21 December, 2015

Author / Enginess

open source software

It’s not that open source is bad – in fact, we build websites with it when it’s the right tool for the job – it’s just that it’s usually more expensive than what’s expected.

Open source websites are usually billed as budget options that get a site up fast and cheap, with minimal recurring costs. However, the cost of actually launching a site is often higher than the initial price tag.

Depending on your requirements, the cost of customizations can add up fast, and the cost of supporting and updating your site can also surprise some would-be open source customers.

All of this is in addition to the opportunity cost of having a site that wouldn’t be optimized for your organization.

It’s not that open source is bad – in fact, we build websites with it when it’s the right tool for the job. It’s just that it’s usually more expensive than what’s expected.

Whenever the topic of proprietary vs open source software comes up, the question we often hear is:‘so, why would I pay for something I can get for free?’ Which, frankly, is a fair question.

If there were two fruit stands, and one was selling grapes for $1 and one was giving away all the grapes we could eat for free, of course we would take the free ones! That’s just common sense.

In most cases, that’s the impression of open source vs. proprietary. Proprietary software is the grape seller. Open source is the friendly free-grape giver. But that impression does not match the reality.

In this article, we look at the true cost of an open source website. And very quickly, you’ll realize that open source solutions are a far shot from free.   

What is open source software?

Open source software is software that’s offered to the world at no cost with no licensing, patents, or restrictions placed on it. You can use it however you want.

Many common applications, operating systems, and websites are built on open source software.

For example:

These are all open source. So open source software is probably more prevalent then you might think.

But when it comes to websites, we’re only going to focus on that first one – WordPress.

First, because it’s the most popular website platform in the world right now at some 15.6 million websites, and second because the lessons of a WordPress site can be applied to most any open source website discussion.

What they tell you about open source websites

wordpressHere’s how the open source process is supposed to work: You’re a company and you need a new website. No problem!

You look into proprietary CMS software and development and decide that the upfront cost is too expensive, and you go onto Upwork or another freelance website and find a developer. Or maybe you go straight to a hosting company that has a WordPress special, with a setup fee and recurring cost to get you going.

However you do it, they tell you to choose a theme for a WordPress site from a website like ThemeMonster or ElegantThemes. You pick your theme, the developer sets it up for you, picks a hosting company (if you went the Upwork route), gives you some guidance on how to put in your copy (it’s all lorem ipsum right now), connects you to Google Analytics, and you are all set.

Total cost, probably less than $500, with an annual running cost of maybe $120.

First year total: $620-odd dollars. What a steal, right!?


What actually happens with open source websites

First, let’s point out some obvious problems with the above website plan.
  • No conversions or success KPIs established. What do you want the site to do? That fundamental question needs to inform the development of the site, but it doesn’t with an open source, pre-themed WordPress site.
  • No consideration of copy. Hiring a copywriter isn’t built into the cost of a WordPress site at all. And since your copy is the most important thing on your site, it’s probably something you want to hire an expert to do.
  • No A/B or user testing. It’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to get a website 100% right the first time.
The core problem with this sort of quick and dirty website development is there’s not adequate strategy and planning to have a viable profit-generating product at the end.

For example, without copy influencing design, you might end up with many aspects you just don’t need, like side menus, carousels, extra page templates, and more.

It also means you’re going to be jamming and jury-rigging your website from the very beginning. Second, the cost of changing a templated solution like the one we outlined above is often enormous.

Templates are designed to be implemented and then pretty much left alone – the code is very stable, but also very hard to change. So every small tweak that you want to make means potentially hundreds or thousands in developer bills.

Plus, there’s no guarantee the developer you hired to implement the site will have the expertise to change what you want in a reasonable way while also prioritizing long-term, simple administration.

Opportunity cost

In addition to these costs, there’s also the opportunity cost of having a low-quality website.

The lack of personalization and differentiation, the mismatch between design and copy, perhaps poor coding and the general ineffective application of the website to your unique needs means that your site is not going to be as good as it could be.

It might look nice, but all these factors are going to have a negative effect on your conversions, whether that conversion is a sale, a sign up, a follow, or a subscribe.

Some consequences might be:

  • Copy that doesn’t convert
  • A design that doesn’t stand out, so a higher bounce rate
  • Excess code for unused features of the template, leading to a slower site, leading to fewer conversions
  • Information architecture that doesn’t facilitate user flows
At the end of the day, your site just won’t do what you want it to do.

Hard numbers

Let’s re-examine the ~$620 website.

You have an initial cost of $620. One week of copywriting at $1,000 and three design tweaks, at $200 each, $600, and your cheap site is now coming in at $2,220. Which, a lot of you are probably saying, is still pretty cheap.

But consider the opportunity cost and consider the fact that none of this has been tested yet and consider the fact that this is simply the cost of getting your site off the ground.

Optimizing your site while starting from this point might cost thousands more. Suddenly, with a $2K price tag and the cost set to spiral for a sub-par result, open source websites are not looking like such a good deal.

Of course, they can work for some people. Some companies have very limited needs.

Say you’re a small, part-time e-commerce store selling something very specific, such as vintage replacement parts for Mustangs from 1957:

  • Your traffic is going to be extremely pre-qualified (who visits a vintage car replacement part site for 1957 Mustang’s ‘just to browse?’ No one.)
  • You don’t have many competitors
  • You don’t need to worry much about SEO because the search terms are going to be very precise – how much competition is there going to be for the search ‘1957 Mustang Fender Chrome Plated Buy Used?’ Probably not much.
  • It’s much more a case of whether you have the product or not, and less a case of convince and convert.
So sometimes, a highly templated, simple, cheap, out-of-the-box solution is fine. Another case would be if you or someone on your team has the available time and technical skill set to tinker with the site. Then a templated solution is good to get you started and you can have fun fine tuning the rest.

But for the vast majority of businesses, neither of these are the case. Most businesses have competitors and most companies don’t have in-house staff to make technical changes to a website.

So, in addition to the higher up-front costs, the opportunity cost of open source software is significant.


When things go wrong

The final hidden cost of open source software is when things go wrong.

Software support – both the guy who you call to help you fix your problem and the guy who develops the bug fixes that you didn’t actually know were problems – is what you pay for with proprietary software. And that’s the hidden cost of open source.

Each time your site breaks, you need to hire a developer to fix it. Each time there’s a slight bug, you need to update your site yourself, or develop a patch to get around it.

Again, if you’re technically minded, this isn’t so bad – most open source platforms have a community you can rely on.

But if you have better things to do, the cost of contracting out every single time adds up fast.

Wrap up

Websites built on open source platforms like WordPress can be a good way to get a site up fast. And for some businesses, they’re perfectly adequate.

But before you swoon over big rewards at low cost, factor into your analysis:

  • The opportunity cost to your business of having a website that is less than ideal
  • The cost of hiring a copywriter to actually fill your website with converting copy
  • The cost of the inevitable design tweaks that you want to make
  • The cost of maintaining your site in the long term
It’s not that open source websites are bad, it’s just that they typically cost much more than the perceived initial price tag, and in the long run proprietary software is far more competitive than most people think.

You need to consider the true cost of an open source solution before jumping the gun for the low investment now. Because you might end up paying for it later.

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