Close-up view of eggs, quail's, hen and artificial in a basket with US currency notes

If you're setting up a new website, you may have considered an all-inclusive service that provides ready-to-use templates, domain name, website hosting, search engine optimization (SEO), credit card payments and other amenities - all for a monthly fee of about $60. Some companies even offer a free trial of 30 to 60 days, with a money-back guarantee.

For a mental health professional on a budget, this may seem like a really good deal, compared to the upfront cost of hiring a professional web designer, or the time and learning curve required to set up a website yourself. However, those monthly costs can add up. It's similar to renting vs owning. If you think you're going to have a website for more than two years, it's usually a better investment to have a custom-designed website than to pay a monthly fee in perpetuity.

Consider that after 5 years of monthly payments you will have paid $3,600, which is way more than what you'd probably pay to a top custom designer. Plus, you will own your website for life.

"But what about all those extras, like hosting, submission to search engines, credit card processing SEO, domain name and other stuff?"

Many such features will cost you no extra when you build your own site or have it designed by a professional. For example, good web designers routinely include SEO and other features to get your site recognized by search engines. While some all-inclusive services boast that they'll submit your site to search engines, this is no longer necessary, as search engines are much better able to "notice" new websites than they were a few years ago. And you can easily install Paypal credit card payment buttons on your website by copying and pasting a few lines of code supplied by Paypal. Similarly you can copy and paste code from Google Analytics to track your website traffic.

Other add-ons such as a blog, secure contact forms, "responsive" design (which adapts itself to smartphone, tablet and computer screen sizes) are all standard now, even in the simplest free web templates.

All-inclusive services do typically include features that cost money if you build your own website or have it done for you. For example, your domain name (yourwebsitename.com) runs $10 to $15 per year. You also need a web host, which stores all the files that comprise your website. Hosting costs as little $50 to $70 per year. Some web hosts will include a domain name for free if you pay annually, and some web designers will provide free hosting.

Thus, at most, you'll pay about $85 per year for domain name and hosting. If you shop around for special deals you'll pay even less. At the time of this writing Godaddy is offering domain name plus hosting for $12/year.

More than cost vs convenience - What the all-inclusives hope you won't notice

Consider the following scenario:

You're not sure what you want or need in a website. The options are so confusing, that you decide to go with an all-inclusive service. They give you a few layouts to choose from, with color scheme variations. You fill in all the information about your practice and add other content. They take care of the administrative tasks. So far, so good. You don't mind the generic, cookie-cutter look; nor do you mind paying the monthly fee - even for several years - because to you, the cost is worth the convenience.

Then let's say after a couple of years you want to add a module or function, but the all-inclusive service does not offer it. They may or may not be able to accommodate you. If they can't, you can always move your website somewhere else.

Or can you?...

What many all-inclusives DON'T warn you about (although it's buried in their terms of service) is that while you own the content of your website (everything you wrote and all the images you posted) you don't own the web design or anything provided by the company.

Thus, if you move your website, you'll have to start all over again with a brand new design. Furthermore, you may have difficulty retrieving content that is integrated into the company's proprietary structure, such as specially-encoded files, or forms developed from their templates.

Reminiscent of the "Hotel California" song, where you can check in but never leave, many all-inclusive website companies make it very inconvenient and expensive to switch.

alt_option_keyAlternatives

1. To establish an immediate web presence set up a free blog at Blogger.com or at WordPress.com. You can list your office address and other practice information in your profile, and the blog posts you write will show up in a Google search of your name. Later, when you set up a website, you can import  your blog content.

2. Set up a DIY WordPress site (different from WordPress.com blog) using free WordPress.org software. Most commercial web hosts have links to install WordPress with a couple of mouse clicks. From there you can choose from thousands of free and low-cost template themes. If you've never done this before, there's lots of help online. Many web hosts provide instructions or video tutorials. Or search Google for install wordpress tutorial. If you go this route, be sure to install security plug-ins to protect against hacking.

3. Have your site designed by a reputable web designer who is familiar with the needs and interests of mental health professionals. The best way to find a web designer is from personal recommendations. Ask colleagues. Check out the websites of other mental health professionals. If you like their website, write to them for the name of their web designer. Also ask about customer service, which is just as important as artistic and technological expertise. Find out whether the person is easy to work with, responds to questions within a reasonable time frame, and communicates clearly. TPI has received great feedback about MyPracticeSites, and has arranged for readers of this blog to get a 5%-10% discount.

Image credit: By Gerolsteiner91 - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3451719