How Long Does It Take To Build a Website?
Posted by Corey Smith on Oct 12, 2023 7:50:00 AM
Leading a web design and development team can come with all sorts of challenges. The most common challenges come from two key areas. First, the competencies required to build a website are the broadest of all in the digital marketing space. Second, most agencies don’t treat web design and development as a function of marketing. Before I get into the real answer of how long it takes to build a website, I just want to touch on those two items above.
Digital Marketing Skill Sets
There are certainly a broad set of skills required for digital marketing (well, all marketing for that matter). Generally speaking, most digital marketing skills are siloed in their specialties. Some of the skills are cross-trainable... meaning that if you are good at one, you are likely capable of being good at another.
Here is a list of just a few of the digital marketing areas. The skills required for each can be very unique:
- Social Media
- Paid Social (yes, it’s a different skill than social media marketing)
- Email Marketing
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
- Paid Search (Google ads, etc.)
- Affiliate Marketing
- Influencer Marketing
- Web Design & Development
What makes it even more difficult is that if you are in a direct-to-consumer space (i.e. you sell stuff online), that’s very different than if you are in the business-to-business space (i.e. you primarily want leads so a salesperson can sell).
Now, enter web design and development. I’ve written a lengthy post on the skills required to build a website. You can read that post titled What Skills Do You Need To Build a Website? if you want. But here’s a short summary of some of the top skills required:
- PHP/TWIG/ASP.net/Liquid, etc
- Adobe Design Software
- Wire-framing and Prototyping Tools
- Server Management
- Version Control
On top of those skills, you’ll also need to understand the basics of all the other competencies. You’ll need to know how your website will work with SEO, lead capture, paid ads, etc. You’ll also need to understand how to configure website platforms like Drupal, WordPress, HubSpot, Shopify, BigCommerce, etc. (Let's not even get started on integrations.)
It’s possible for one person to become a specialist in all the aspects of one competency like SEO or Email Marketing. But the breadth of skills in the design and development space requires so much more. And yet, we try to treat it as if it’s the same.
Web Design and Development Are a Function of Marketing
I built my first website in 1996. I poured my heart and soul into it and it was, how do you say it?... so not good.
When I started Tribute Media in 2007, I was getting better. In the 16 years since, plus the various agencies I’ve worked with, hired, worked for, and consulted with, I’ve found one thing that often separates the good development agencies from the bad. The good ones understand that the website build isn’t why they are in business. They are there for a much greater purpose.
Fun fact, as of February 2023, according to Forbes, there were about 200,121,724 active websites globally. When they were built, they all had one thing in common... they didn’t care about building a website. They cared about selling something, marketing something, teaching something, doing something, etc. They cared about being present for their audience and accomplishing key business objectives.
In my little niche of web design and development, web design is a function of marketing.
It’s a platform to market and sell a product or service. It creates a way to bring awareness and then guide people through their buyer’s journey to make a buying decision.
In every case over the last 16 years that I have failed, or other agencies I’ve known have failed, it’s because we have forgotten our purpose for existing.
How Long Does It Take To Build a Website?
Do you feel like I wasted your time on that preamble? I don't think I did, because I think it’s important to understand the challenges that a web team might face in order to understand the length of time it takes to build a site. If your web team is missing competencies, that’s going to either increase the length of time to completion or cause you to create an inferior product—likely both.
So, moving on...Let’s explore the main phases of a web project.
The design phase is far more involved than just creating pretty pictures. This is where we think about the purpose of the website and create messaging that will cause our site visitors to do what we want them to do. This is where we ensure we understand the requirements of all the features and how they all fit together cohesively.
The most common reason why this phase can take longer than it should is when clients or teams alike get stuck in analysis paralysis. I’ve seen companies large and small get so hung up here that they spend months wondering if a color should be chartreuse or teal (yes, it’s been that trivial). I’ve seen people stop the process here because they think they need to consider more and more features.
There are certainly exceptions to my rule of thumb, but I typically think that this process should take about four to six weeks from the initial strategy meeting to completion of this phase, based on most small and medium-sized business websites (B2B or B2C). It can be faster if you put more effort into it, but I do think that there is value in designing something and putting it on the shelf for a few days to make sure you are making the best decision with the data you have.
A legitimate reason why this might take longer could be that your business requirement is for a custom app design (like a product configurator or some custom functionality). We counsel our clients to make sure that we have a clear business need for that feature on the launch of the site if we allow it to hold us up. Another legitimate hold-up could be simply having the right resources available for the design requirements.
At the end of this phase, all your assets should be gathered: Content, Images, Product Information, Content Offers, CRM Requirements, Server/Hosting Requirements, etc.
The build phase is what I like to call the “fingers on keyboards” phase of the project. At this point, the strategy is done. We know how everything fits together. Starting this phase before the assets are ready and before the design is complete is a very common reason why the build phase can take longer than it should.
This is not the time to be figuring out which tech to choose. It’s not the time to wonder what graphical element is best. It’s not the time to wonder if teal is better than chartreuse.
In my team, we have an ongoing debate on this next scenario. My opinion is that content should also be written for the site before this phase. Any decision that is not made before this phase will slow the project down. Sometimes it feels counterintuitive but a proper strategy on how things will fit together will create a better product faster. It will allow you to get to the purpose of your website more quickly.
Generally, I feel that most small to medium-business websites should be in this phase for about six weeks or so. This is a good area where, if the design phase is done right, we can move faster. We can get more talent to do more things faster.
There are certainly reasons why this phase can be extended. If your small to medium-business website has 450 pages of content that need to be loaded, then that will extend your time. If you have 250 products and have decided that each product page needs a unique touch, then that will extend the time. If you have a custom application that is being created to fulfill a business objective, then that will extend the time.
Under no circumstances, in my opinion, should this phase be stalled because an important strategic decision hasn’t been made. If that’s the case, then something was missed in the design phase.
The most common problem that comes up in the testing phase is that not enough time is given. For most websites, if the build is done right, this step shouldn’t take more than about a week or two. If there are advanced items like custom apps, advanced user interaction (like a user dashboard or a custom B2C checkout), or some unique design elements, the time for testing should be longer.
While it’s important to get a website live as quickly as possible to achieve business objectives, this is one phase where it can be good to slow down just a little bit. Testing on all modern browsers should be a requirement to ensure desktop and mobile compatibility. Testing for basic accessibility should be considered critical (but if the design was done right, this shouldn’t be a big deal). Your site likely will not be search engine optimized (that’s a whole other discussion) but should have the basic hallmarks of a website that is clearly ready for SEO optimization (image alt tags, meta descriptions, etc).
Don’t rush this phase, but also understand that nitpicking will not help you. Getting your website online is critical to making sure that you achieve your goals. Read more about that process here.
Go Live Phase
It may seem simple to say, “Let's take the site live.” The actual act of taking a new website live is generally pretty straightforward, but there are things about this process that can take a bit of time. If it’s a new website, then I usually plan about a day from the moment we get the approval to the time we can go live. I like to plan in advance because I might want to do it on a Friday at the end of the day or early in the morning in the middle of the week.
But there are certain things that we can’t properly test until after the site is live. While some testing can be done before we go live, sometimes we need a live site to do a final verification. If the testing phase is done right, the errors should be super minimal. But, some things I like to make sure we test for after the site is live could include:
- Image Alt Tags
- Page Meta Descriptions
- Accessibility (basic functions)
- Broken Link URL forwards for old URLs to new URLs (avoiding 404 errors)
This phase starts with the website going live and ends when all the things we thought were checked out are actually working.
What’s the Real Answer?
How long does it take? Well, that depends on a whole slew of things. If anyone says, "If you buy today, then we guarantee we can have your site live 12 weeks from today"- they are likely going to disappoint you. Each phase above needs to happen sequentially. If you try to skip steps or they happen out of order, things will take longer, your product will not be as good as it should be, and you will not be as happy as you deserve.
I’ve built simple, template-based websites from strategy to live in less than four weeks with no worry of rushing. I’ve had more complicated sites take up to 16 weeks with no stalling on the client's or our team’s side.
The real question you should be asking... What is the process you will employ to ensure that the website build is as efficient and the timeline is as reasonable as possible?
Written by Corey Smith
Corey Smith is the founder of Tribute Media and serves as the Managing Director for Tribute Media. He is also the VP of Web & Creative for Hawke Media.