The agency that built my website wants to charge me a monthly maintenance fee. I had no idea that there was going to be a website maintenance cost and now I'm wondering if they're just ripping me off. Is this a legitimate thing? And if so, how much should website maintenance cost?
Lanny P. – Atlanta, GA
Thanks for the question! This is a big point of contention with a lot of web design clients.
The short answer to your question is, "Yes, this is a legitimate fee." However, that doesn't mean you're not getting ripped off and it doesn't mean the agency you're working with is doing this correctly.
Let's talk about it...
Website Maintenance Cost vs Website Hosting Cost
Website maintenance and website hosting are not the same thing.
Website hosting is storing your website files on a server for you and serving them to visitors who request them (by typing in your website URL). There's a little bit of "maintenance" overlap here because the servers do have to be maintained, upgraded, kept secure, etc. but that's typically not on the agency to handle.
See, when you pay an agency to host your website, they're not actually hosting your website. They're almost always partnerning with a preferred web host to host your site. They're effectively "re-selling" the hosting to you (it's actually called "re-seller" hosting).
While this seems a little shady, it's not. Agencies have hosts they prefer for many reasons (the performance of your website is a legitimate one) and there are tons of benefits to them AND you for keeping everyone under one roof.
Full disclosure, all Digital Gravy client sites are hosted with our preferred partner, Flywheel. I'll publish an article soon about the access an agency should give you to your hosting for full transparency and exit-ability.
Where website hosting is very hands off for an agency, website maintenance may not be (depending on the package they're actually selling you). Since all agencies structure their website maintenance packages differently, you'll need to compare the cost with a list of deliverables. More on that in a moment.
If your website is built on WordPress (recommended), for example, there are certain things that need to be done every single month to keep the website running smoothly and to prevent any security issues.
Additionally, there are other important things that an agency might include in their website maintenance package. Let's take a look at a list of deliverables for a sample website maintenance plan that we offer at Digital Gravy...
Website Maintenance Cost: Looking at the Deliverables
Pro Tip: If an agency or freelancer isn't giving you a list of deliverables, then they're definitely ripping you off from an accountability standpoint at minimum. All costs should be disclosed toward the beginning of the web design process.
At Digital Gravy, we charge monthly maintenance fees ranging from $75/mo to $495/mo+. These all depend on the client's needs and the size of the website.
Let's take a look at the deliverables for one of our mid-range packages (we call them management plans, not maintenance plans):
We've already discussed how hosting works as part of a website maintenance plan. Flywheel charges agencies $20/mo per site at the maximum, so even if that was passed along at cost, your website maintenance cost is already close to $20/mo.
Flywheel actually performs daily backups automatically, so this doesn't really take up any of our time. There are times when we must access backups, restore the site, check for issues, etc. which does get factored into the cost here as a standard (the whole idea here is to make everything less of a headache for you, the client. We want to be able to do our work without getting cost authorization, nickel and diming, etc.).
We install SSL certificates for clients at no charge and the SSL automatically renews. However, just because there's an SSL certificate doesn't mean a site is in compliance with SSL guidelines or that the green padlock will show in the browser. If unsecured items are uploaded or called incorrectly on the page (can happen when clients upload or edit things and don't know what they're doing, for example), it can cause SSL issues that must be tracked down and fixed.
Flywheel handles security beautifully and I've never had a single site or client site hacked on Flywheel hosting. With that said, when security issues do occur and Flywheel notifies us of the threat or the issue, we take action to resolve it immediately. Our clients just receive a report of what happened and what was done --- no headache for them.
Maintenance & Conflict Resolution
We make sure WordPress core files, theme files, and plugin files are all up-to-date. When these files go out of date, they create security holes, so it's important to make sure they're up to date at all times. We also make sure to do a manual backup before updating files and then we check the site after each update to look for conflicts and issues. If any conflicts occur we track them down and fix them.
All of this takes time and organization across dozens or hundreds of clients and none of it is on your plate to worry about.
We use special software to monitor website speed across all our client sites. When we're notified of a speed issue, we diagnose and fix it. We also use special software to make sure all images on the site are optimized for the web (even when clients upload full resolution photos without telling us). These advanced software programs cost us money directly and there's a time component involved in managing these tools and processes as well.
Visual Page Editor
All clients are welcome to make edits to their site using the simple drag-and-drop visual page editor we install. This page builder would normally have a direct cost to the client of $89/yr, but we include it in our management plan.
Dynamic Lead Conversion Forms
Designing and building a website that actually grows a business requires more than just basic contact forms. We use sophisticated software with advanced lead capture and display features, conditional logic, dynamic logic based on other known data points (such as tags in a CRM), split testing, and so on. There's a direct cost to our agency for using this software and then there's the time we spend managing the forms, managing split testing campaigns, and more. All this gets baked into the website maintenance cost.
Monthly SEO & Technical Site Audits
We use special software to run monthly audits on every site paying for this level of management. The software checks over 120 different aspects of a website to make sure it's technically sound and not experiencing any issues that would cause user experience or ranking problems. We review the report every month and make any necessary adjustments and optimizations.
Custom Analytics & Conversion Tracking Dashboard
We build a custom analytics dashboard for all clients on this maintenance plan so they can click a private link and have live access to all the important metrics of their site in a way that makes sense (outside of convoluted systems like Google Analytics).
This is valuable to the client both from an understanding of how their website is performing, to accountability on our end (showing progress toward the goals we've set for the site).
30 Min/Month Strategy Consultation
Last but not least, we take pleasure in touching base with our clients on a quick call every single month to discuss how their website is doing and performing and offering suggestions for what to change and what to do next.
If You're Not Getting Anything Tangible in Exchange for the Website Maintenance Cost, Something is Wrong
If you're paying a maintenance fee, but you never really hear from the agency you're paying, something is definitely wrong. They should be sending you reports and contacting you in some form or fashion each month.
At Digital Gravy, we're adamant that a good website is never done. As a marketing tool, your website needs to be under constant development, optimization, and testing/tracking.
As an agency, we go well beyond web design. We're online marketing strategists for our clients, showing them how to put their website to better use each and every month to increase leads, calls, rankings, and sales.
Website Maintenance Costs Are All Over the Board
Here are some average website maintenance costs to give you an idea of what range your site should be in.
Do Website Maintenance Costs Include Ongoing Design & Development?
Keep in mind that some agencies offer maintenance packages that include ongoing design and development. While this technically is a "maintenance" thing, it makes it easy on everyone to have things lumped together in one fee (as long as the deliverables are individually listed).
If you're on a plan that includes ongoing design and development, it would make sense to see much higher costs. However, you should make sure you're getting a discount over the regular hourly rate for design and development in exchange for adding those services on a retainer of sorts.
Also, you should be given a report every month detailing what was done to fulfill those services. Don't pay for ongoing design and development to an agency who expects YOU to tell them what to do every month. They need to be driving the strategy if they're selling you on an ongoing development package.
Website Maintenance Cost: Final Thoughts
Website maintenance and management is a necessity for businesses. Considering that site speed, performance, user experience, etc. all massively influence conversion rate and rankings, a poorly maintained site could cost you tens of thousands of dollars in lost business and lost opportunities (easily).
While you might feel like website maintenance costs are an expense, they're very much an investment given you're working with a solid agency who is actually doing their job, charging you fairly, and driving the strategy behind your website's growth and rankings.