Sticker shock. That’s what Terry Sullivan got when he shopped around to have a website professionally designed for his new catering business.

“I looked into it, and it was between $4,000 and $150,000… that’s pretty expensive,” says Sullivan, founder of Texas Prime Caterers near Dallas, Texas. “I had just started a business, and I didn’t want to spend that kind of money.”

So Sullivan did it himself. After obtaining a domain name and a hosting agreement through 1&1 Internet, he started building. In about nine hours, he had a basic website without e-commerce capability. Not bad for a chef with no code-writing or graphic design background.

To build his site, Sullivan used Wix, a publishing platform application that allows someone to design a website in Flash without knowing code and without using a template. Launched in 2006 as a free service, Wix now offers a $9.90/month premium service, too. Unlike the free version, the premium service offers hosting and does not carry Wix-generated advertising, explains Wix co-CEO Allon Bloch.

D-I-Y Web design grows up

Wix is one of the newer do-it-yourself Web design applications that are allowing small businesses and individuals to design or augment their own websites and social network pages cheaply and more creatively than ever before. Using Wix, users can drag and drop a wide range of content into their sites. Weebly, a rival app, uses a template and simple step-by-step instructions, as well as free domain hosting. Weebly also offers a free service, as well as a “pro account” for $3.99 a month with additional features.   

Meanwhile, inexpensive domain-name and hosting services are plentiful in the marketplace, and many of them offer sitebuilding services. Likewise, many Web design firms offer cheaper do-it-yourself options. The result is a market that makes it easier than ever for smaller companies to do everything from find a domain name to power up their site faster and more cheaply than ever before.

Wix’s Bloch notes that, between small businesses and personal users under 35, there is a growing market for technologies that let people design their own websites and personal pages. “Artists, designers, musicians, they are wanting to create their own sites,” he says. “And people under 35, their lives have been on the Internet. They want their social pages to reflect who they are.” Moreover, the technology allows people to easily update or change their sites without involving a designer, and yet another layer of expensive design, says Bloch.

But attempting to design a site that is at once professional, informative, and easy to navigate is not without risks. Sullivan admits that one client pointed out a host of spelling and grammatical errors on his catering site. “It hasn’t hurt my business any,” he says.

But for some businesses, it could.

Sometimes it pays to hire a pro

“You want your site to look professional, or you could lose business,” says Jim Dittman, co-owner of w3.com, a full-service sitebuilder site based in Birmingham, Ala. Errors in the pages, or advertising that diverts attention from your page, “isn’t considered very professional,” he warns.

Moreover, adding features such as e-commerce or database functionality can get complicated if you don’t know the ropes, experts say. “If you’re putting in an e-commerce platform, you need to know, will it work? Will it integrate with your accounting software?” asks Susan Wade, spokeswoman for Network Solutions, a Herndon, Va.-based sitebuilder firm.

Both Dittman and Wade note that professional Web design services don’t have to run in the thousands of dollars. A three- to four-page site, says Dittman, could run as little as $700.

Wade advises that users try different options out first, and really think through what they want in their site before proceeding. “No matter what option you choose, you need to have a clear idea what you want your site to do for you so you can keep costs down,” she says. “Concept spread -- that’s what will cost you.”

SIDEBAR: D-I-Y Website Design Apps to Know

Do-it-yourself website design apps becoming easier to use and more sophisticated than ever. Here are a few to keep an eye on:

  • Wix: A Flash-based app that you don’t need to know Flash to use, Wix allows users to drag and drop content into their site freestyle, meaning that there’s no template in sight. Basic service is free, but users must first obtain a domain name and a hosting service, since all sites require a host. The free service features advertising. A premium service ($9.90/month) features no ads, and provides hosting. The company plans to offer domain-name search services soon.
  • Weebly: Weebly’s simplicity allows users with almost no tech skills to form a website or personal page using a template. Moreover, says Weebly co-creator Dan Velti, it does not use Flash, thus making it easier for search engines attempting to index and rank the site. The app offers free domain hosting; its pro account at $3.99/month offers password protection, larger file size uploads, and an embedded audio player.
  • Sprout: The Sprout app is not a sitebuilder. Instead, it allows users to trick out their existing website, blog, or page with rich media content (also known as a widget, mini-site, or mashup), such as a streaming video, real-time poll, or chat function with ease.