You’ve probably seen the promises made by free website providers on TV and online ads. Smiling business people click a few buttons to create a web page that will drive a throng of happy customers to their doors. It’s so easy your ferret could do it. And it’s FREE! What could be wrong with that?

Are you a web designer?

The problem is that most people know as much about making an effective web page as the afore-mentioned ferret. It’s not that you’re dumb (and we mean no disrespect to ferrets); but you simply don’t know what you need to know about web sites. Today’s technology reduces the barrier to building web pages to almost nothing, but that technology won’t help you build the type of messaging, content, search engine optimized elements and social media linking strategies that are the basis for success on the modern Internet.

Maybe a small-monthly fee will help

For anyone who has travelled down the dark, slippery road of “free”, you know that “free” is a relative term. In many cases, “free” lasts only as long as a trial period before the monthly hosting fee kicks in. So it’s not really “free” at all. But some services remain true to the promise of a “free” website, only then come the daily or weekly up sells for the many services that the “free” provider charges for: professional design, SEO, pay-per-click ads, security, e-commerce, web training and lots of things that sound quite impressive and necessary and will soon have you shelling out big bucks every month. And it never ends because the business model that free is built on is anything but free. It’s the old “giveaway the razor so you can sell razor blades” model. Those who fall into this trap can end up paying hundreds of dollars each month for a website that they built in half an hour and which does them absolutely no good.

When free actually works

Alas, free website builders are only of value in the hands of a someone who understands the importance of researching keywords for SEO, building-in proper metatags, optimizing on-page content, crafting messages and navigation so that visitors understand what the website is all about and where to find the information they’re seeking. And that’s just what goes into the page. You need to broadcast your content somehow, and that means you need a working social media strategy, which in turn means that you need to develop a social media community that will share your content. Any of this seem out of your comfort area?

Consider the real costs of a “free” website

Marketing online has become a super competitive space in the last five years or so. Successful companies hire teams of pros to present quality content in a way that will get found by potential customers and influencers. At the opposite end of the spectrum are businesses that have no website, but they won’t be with us long so you can forget about them. In between are the businesses that have a web presence but it’s not done properly. Every day these businesses are falling further behind their savvy competitors, not only as measured by new customers, but by the equity they build on Google and Bing for keywords that would bring new customers if implemented properly on their websites. Doing things right makes your website more visible little by little, day by day. It’s like exercise. Do it a little every day and over time you’ll see positive results. Do it for one hour on one day and say, “Okay, that’s enough. I’m fit as a fiddle.” That’s just fooling yourself. In the end, the real cost of “free” is that over time you’ll lose visibility compared to your competitors.

So what’s the best alternative?

Once you take “free” off the table, realizing that you can’t devote 10,000 hours to become a web master (based on Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” to become a master at something) and that those 10,000 hours, charged at whatever hourly rate you normally charge customers is likely to be worth a heck of a lot more than what you’re going to spend on a website, you need to think about the value your website will bring to your business. Let’s say you’re in commercial real estate and one sale will net you $250,000 and you make three sales each year. Is paying $10,000 for a website that lands you an extra sale every year too much? Let’s calculate: if it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something then you’re essentially getting expert-level knowledge for $1 per hour. That’s a pretty good deal, and since you pay the development cost just once, it gets amortized over time thus reducing that cost over the life of the website.

So hire a professional web developer or go home and play with your ferret

If you’re serious about your business (and if you’re in business you’d better be serious about it) you need to go with a pro. Do you take your contracts to a lawyer or let your cousin look at them because she’ll do it for free? Do you go to the hospital with a broken leg or let your wife splint it with two-by-fours because its free? Would you rather have a professional pilot with thousands of logged hours fly your 787 or Ed, across the aisle, who will do it for free since “these things practically fly themselves these days.”? ‘Nuff said.