We've all heard the phrase "You get what you pay for" and deep down we all know it is true. But as small businesses operating on a low budget, it's easy for us to get into the habit of going for what's free when it comes to our websites. The problem is "free" or "cheap" for hosting and other foundational resources comes with major limitations that are costing you much more than you are saving.

WhimzieQuiltz.com is a small business website that has done a great job with messaging. It's clear what this business does (design and create custom quilts), what its unique value is (free no-obligation designs), and what the goal for the site is (submit a design request). The messaging is consistent, personable, and convincing. The calls to action are prominent and inviting on every single page. But ...

... there are some major technical problems being caused by the free or cheap hosting that it being used. Most problematic is that the content is not being hosted on the actual domain. The primary domain for the site is at

http://www.whimziequiltz.com/

However, the content is all on

http://home.san.rr.com/whimziequiltz/

and is being pulled from this secondary website and being displayed on the main site using frames.

As a result, the URL doesn't change as visitors browse the site. If you are on the home page, it's http://www.whimziequiltz.com/. If you're on the about page, it's http://www.whimziequiltz.com/. If you're on the gallery page it's http://www.whimziequiltz.com/. And thus the search engines have only indexed one page for http://www.whimziequiltz.com/. Additionally, there are no unique page titles that show up in the browser window to help visitors know where they are in the site.

The free hosting domain does have unique URLs for each page as well as title tags, and these have been indexed because the search engine bots read them in the code even if people can't see them. But all of those search results are going to the wrong domain.

Additionally, there's an ugly banner obscuring the content at the bottom of the page which detracts from the message, design, and credibility of the website.

Biting the Bullet and Paying For Good Web Hosting
These, and many other problems that come with free and cheap hosting, could easily be avoided by biting the bullet and spending a little money on your website. I'm not even talking an expensive investment, I'm talking $120 a year tops. That's not much when you discover just how many sales you are actually losing due to a less than functional website.

There are plenty of inexpensive hosting plans out there from which you can choose to suit your needs. Look for a host that uses cpanel for it's admin interface; cpanel is very easy to use even for the least technically minded. If you are looking to use WordPress software to run your website, be sure to choose Linux hosting. WordPress does not run on Windows servers without hours of finagling from a knowledgeable programmer. Other things to be sure it includes are:
  • Email addresses
  • FTP access
  • Log files (needed for some analytics programs) and stats
  • Ability to add sub-domains
  • WordPress/blog software compatible
Recommendation: We use Bluehost.com for our own company website (we're a small business too!) as well as for all of our hobby blogs. As a marketer with only a little technical background, I purchased my domain and hosting through them and was able to install WordPress myself from my control panel and set up my website with very little help. The account only cost me $95 a year. Bluehost has many great features, good support, and has been very easy to use.

Make Use Of Open Source Software
Open source software like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal are content management systems that you can install on your website for free to easily design and maintain your website. There are templates you can use and modify, plug-ins for just about any need, and great forums and help sections for support. These programs, not the hosting, are where you can save money but still get great value.

We use WordPress.org for our company website, our blogs, and almost all of our small business client websites. While it is technically blogging software, it works very well for creating static sites, or a combination of a static site with a blog. Some of the key WordPress features I like include:
  • Easy to add and update posts or pages
  • Tons of different design templates available
  • Plug-ins for any need imaginable
  • Great support and help information
  • **Very search engine friendly
Note: WordPress.org and WordPress.com are not the same software. Wordpress.com provides free blogging websites like the Whimzie Quiltz blog: http://whimziequiltz.wordpress.com/. Wordpress.org provides software with much greater functionality for use on a domain and hosting account that you own.

Easy to Design
There are tons of great templates available, and more are added regularly. With just a little bit of technical knowledge, you can replace theme images with your own, edit colors, and make the template your own. Now, people are even starting to create templates with an editing page that allows you to change colors and upload images without going into the code.

WordPress Themes allows you to search based on features such as color or number of columns. Look for a theme that has at least two columns and ensure that it is widgetized (which means that it is set up for you to automatically add and use plug-ins).

Easy to Customize
One of my favorite features of WordPress is the thousands of plug-ins that are available (for free) for almost any need. A few that I love and recommend are:

Recommendations for Whimzie Quilts
Whimzie Quilts already has solid content, a great product, and a clear and compelling message. Now we just need to fix these major issues with the way the site is coded and hosted so that it will perform better not only in the search engines, but for visitors on the site. Spending some money on a hosting accounting and rebuilding the website using WordPress.org and a WordPress template is very do-able and will solve all of these problem areas.

Using free or very cheap hosting actually costs you more money than purchasing a decent hosting account. By spending just $100 a year on hosting, you now have access to great free software like WordPress that you couldn't use before. You will gain so much value by using good hosting and software:  a search engine and visitor friendly site, a site that looks and functions better and is thus more credible, a site that is much more flexible, and one that is much easier for you to manage. What's not to like?  


October 10, 2008





Jackie Baker is an internet marketing analyst with SiteLogic Marketing (http://www.sitelogicmarketing.com) where she focuses on auditing websites as well as SEO, social media, usability, and information architecture consulting. She comes to the industry from a marketing/PR and website development background. Jackie maintains an active presence online through her blog RegardingHorses.com (http://www.regardinghorses.com) where she shares her love all things equine, particularly therapeutic riding.






Comments(1)

You’re not the first person to tell me I need to pay for hosting, but you are the first to really put it in a business perspective: it’s costing me more – in terms of functionality, credibility and lost business – to have free hosting.

My next priority is going to be finding a good web host and transferring the site over.

Thank you for reviewing my webpage as part of your Site Clinic series. I've learned a lot by reading past issues but it's especially nice to get the benefit of your insight personally! I just hope others can learn from my mistakes, too.

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Search Engine Guide > Jackie Baker > Site Clinic: When "Free" Actually Costs More