Free is not always the cheapest option!

Free is not always the cheapest option!

For small business owners times are indeed very tough. However with the difficult economic environment there are also opportunities. Promoting your business online has never been more accessible. As we head into 2014 there is really no excuse for not having a website for your small or medium sized business. The simple fact is if your direct competitors are on the web then they are taking business and clients from you.

So where to start? It can seem like a daunting task to venture onto the world wide web for the first time. For the purposes of this article we’ll assume that you have some knowledge of the basics of websites, servers and content management systems. You will have spoken to a number of web designers and received advice on what CMS is best for your business. Now armed with all of that information you need to make a final decision on the system that will power your online presence.

When it comes to website design and development the attraction of free, open source and cheap content management solutions is understandable. They appear to offer everything that you might need for promoting your business online. And to be fair some of them do a reasonable job.

There is no doubt that Wordpress would not be the world’s most popular blogging tool if it wasn’t free. Not so long ago Wordpress was one of the most accessible of a small group of blogging tools. At a time when bespoke systems cost thousands, Wordpress offered complex functionality for the unbelievable price of absolutely zero.

Now though, there’s a huge selection of free and paid content management systems from Drupal to Contao, Craft to Expression Engine, TextPattern, Joomla etc. So the choice for business owners is even greater and perhaps more confusing than ever before. Added to that there’s a huge range of hosted solutions such as Wix and Weebly, SquareSpace and Webs. And then there’s Facebook.


Just as you can spot a cheap suit in a business meeting, a free-hosted website often screams DANGER before you even read the opening paragraph! Saving money on the design and development of your site at the expense of your professional business image isn’t really all that clever.

Remember online, as well as in the real world perception is very important. If you are perceived to be cutting corners with your own business image can you expect your own potential clients to pay YOUR fees?

Free web builder services and hosted platforms have exploded in recent years. They have varied feature lists and a bewildering array of options.

In general though we can evaluate them by looking at a few key questions:

- Who owns your content and what happens to it if the service provider goes out of business?

- Can you at any point in the future either export your content

- What kind of adverts are being displayed to your clients in order to support this free service? Have you noticed how much sponsored posts and sidebar ads have increased on Facebook?

Speaking of Facebook how much does it now cost to reach all of your followers with your latest post?

OK so we’ve (hopefully) talked you out of using one of the “free ’n’ nasty” site services - where to next?


The open source movement is an amazing resource, it’s fair to say that the web would not be what it is today if we were tied to the proprietary systems of the nascent internet. It has enabled millions to get online, publish content and reach new audiences for business and leisure.

There is now a huge range of open source solutions to choose from but for the sake of this discussion we’ll just mention a few of the more popular systems. Wordpress, Drupal and Joomla power millions of websites and are all free to download and install.

In contrast the commercial systems have a huge range of costs. From the high costs of enterprise systems such as SiteCore, Movable Type and Sitefinity to the 300 dollar systems such as Expression Engine and Craft it can seem difficult to justify the cost of a paid CMS when there are free alternatives.

It’s important to mention out that the point of this article is not to trumpet the virtues of one CMS over the other and not to resort to the simplistic “My favourite CMS is better than yours” type of argument, there are already plenty of such comparisons on the wide world web!

However we do need to specifically mention some issues with the free systems that can cost you money.

- Drupal while undoubtably powerful has a very steep learning curve for developers. For end users too it can be difficult to get to grips with how it works. As a platform that is in constant development it has suffered from backward compatibility issues that make upgrades complex and potentially expensive as outdated code may need to be rewritten.

- Joomla has struggled to overcome it’s poor security reputation and is still regarded as having poor usability.

- Wordpress too has had a number of security failures in the past. Many put this down to the sheer volume of Wordpress sites being such an attractive target for hackers much in the same way as Windows has always been more prone to malware than Apple’s OS simply by virtue of marketshare. The cost of rebuilding a site following a security breach can be significant, not to mention the loss of customer confidence.

- Does your free CMS require an expensive dedicated server just to run at an acceptable speed? Some poorly coded solutions have very high resource demands and simply will not work on a shared hosting environment necessitating the use of expensive dedicated hardware. Even the ubiquitous Wordpress does not natively handle high volumes of traffic without a performance hit.

- And finally one of the biggest costs of taking a DIY approach to your website is your own time. As a small business owner time is one of your scarcest and most precious resources. So how much time can you afford to spend on building your site?

It would be foolish to pretend that using a paid CMS gives you instant immunity from these issues. But the truth is that companies that derive their profit from selling such systems have a vested interest in ensuring that they are as secure as possible. With open source products the technical support tends to be community-based whereas most paid CMS developers will have their own support teams that frequently have direct experience with building the product.

So to conclude we can say that there are no perfect solutions. Trying to decide on a content management system that is best for your business is not easy. And as much as we quoted specific systems here such as Expression Engine, Craft, Wordpress and Joomla it’s not really a question of which CMS is better. The real moral of the story is that there can be hidden costs in any system but when they suddenly appear as a result of using an open source or otherwise “free” solution it can be difficult pill to swallow.

But with some planning, research and good judgement you can avoid the pitfalls that lay in wait for all first-time site owners. Seek out reviews and articles about each of your shortlisted systems, read the comments on each review, they are sometimes more revealing that the article itself. And remember FREE isn’t always the cheapest option.

For more information on how to get your small business on the web, contact Frequency now.