The two main ways to create a documentation website are to use a documentation platform or to build it yourself (e.g., by using docs-as-code). How you choose to create a documentation website will have a significant impact on its cost.
For example, we ran a survey on the Documentation and Technical Writing Management Linkedin group where we asked about the cost of running a docs-as-code setup.
Around 47% of the responders said the cost is over $5,000/year.
The first survey was based on the assumption that DIY costs are low; some might say that it is free.
As someone suggested in the comments, we reran the survey with the higher amounts. So we did run it on the /technicalwriting subreddit.
Over 68% of the respondents answered that the cost of building and maintaining an in-house documentation system is over $10,000.
There is a wide range, so we asked a couple of specialists that work with these systems. Deborah Barnard, a technical author from the UK and active member of the Write the Docs community, said:
The short answer to costs is "it depends." You could get set up completely free (a static site generator and theme, and a free Cloudflare Pages tier, for example). Do keep in mind the time costs. However, a basic setup doesn't take long, especially if you are already familiar with static site tech and choose a good theme.
At the other end of the scale, if you choose to do something heavily custom (such as Stripe's approach, with a custom markdown parser, custom theme, and so on), then you're effectively building a whole product and will have the associated development, design, and project management costs.
You may find free, open-source platforms attractive, but you'll need to pay for hosting and developer time, thus potentially not controlling the total cost.
On the other side, a documentation platform can cost as little as $30 per month or as much as thousands per month, depending on the requirement. However, the average software and product documentation portal price will cost around $100/month.
The cost of documentation platforms can be pretty easy to manage, and they are generally easy to set up.
The elements of creating documentation
If we are to break it down to the core components, you need three elements to build documentation.
- an editor to write the content
- a way to share and host the content
- a workflow to review and support the collaboration with subject matter experts
Docs as code is a response to the question of what would happen if we approached product documentation from a software development perspective? Tom Johnson from idratherbewriting.com defines the docs as code process as having the following characteristics:
- Using plain text files, usually in .md format
- Git for file management or collaboration.
- Text editors to write the content
- Continuous publishing (CI/CD) and validation scripts
- Using static site generators for the website
Some say that it's more of a way to collaborate with developers, and it is not technical writing centric - it lacks content reuse and has a rigid structure (think localization, for example).
There are solutions for the shortfalls of do-it-yourself, but building tools on your own time is not generally a good idea.
So you could end up needing to integrate solutions for the search, set up a verification pipeline, set up link checking, choose a static site generator, set up the website to publish to, and integrate all of the above.
This would preferably be done by a team, mainly because sometimes it's too much to ask a solo writer.
Compared with an in-house system, a documentation platform considers these aspects to provide an easy-to-setup and use tool for writing, collaborating, and publishing product documentation.
Like any other proprietary software, this means you hand over some of the elements you could control, and in exchange, you get a feature-rich tool.
Even more, the focus of any documentation system should be to support collaboration and reviewing with both technical and non-technical teammates because that's where the real work happens.
Things that influence documentation website costs
There's no such thing as $0 cost for building anything.
You might use free, open-source software, but the cost associated with someone who knows how to set it up might range around $100K-200K / year. Some technical writers know how to set this up, but usually, they are ex-developers, and companies that go this route might take up to a year to implement 100%.
If we consider the typical website costs, according to WebFX, the average cost of building a site ranges from $12.000 to $150.000, and the average cost of maintaining one range from $400 to $60.000 per year. And this is for a typical website.
So why these large ranges? That's because multiple elements influence the cost of a website.
The first and most important choice you'll have to make is whether you use open source or software like Archbee.
Open source is free to download, but you'll have to account for other costs like hosting, SSL certification, CDNs, and image optimization, not to mention the time spent to set it up. Additional tools also help you secure, update and maintain the website.
Search is one of the essential elements for customer-facing documentation, and if you need to implement a powerful search engine, this might add up to the cost.
With SaaS, you won't worry about hosting, security, performance, search, and uptime - that's why you pay the monthly fee.
The cost of a general CMS can range considerably. Contently for example ranges from $3,000 to $25,000 per month.
Since web hosting is included with the SaaS offering, you only have to factor in hosting costs for the open-source solution.
Most providers offer different hosting services, including shared, managed, VPS, and dedicated hosting, ranging from about $3 to $400 per month.
SSL Certificate Costs
An SSL certificate is a standard security technology for securing information between a visitor's browser and your website. Because it ensures that sensitive passwords and payment information remain private, visitors expect your site to be encrypted with SSL.
If your hosting provider does not provide SSL, you'll need to purchase one from an SSL certificate provider. While a few providers offer free SSL certificates, most range from $7 to $250 per year, depending on the provider.
Fortunately, the hosted documentation platforms like Archbee will include an SSL certificate in your plan.
The selection of extensions can vary drastically from platform to platform.
For most open-source platforms, you're not limited to the features provided out-of-the-box. You can download or purchase extensions to add features to your site. For example, if you need to gate the content and control who has access to the portal, there is a third-party solution that you could implement.
Other platforms that support an app marketplace might have extensions that can generate a portal, for example, Scroll View for Confluence. But this is not built to enhance the user experience but to find a workaround for an existing tool.
The average cost of maintaining a website ranges from $400 to $60,000 annually. The most common maintenance costs are domain SSL certificates and software or hosting renewal, and other expenses might include purchasing additional extensions or investing in a major website redesign.
Content ($35+ per hour)
In terms of the cost of running a documentation website, content is probably the most expensive element.
Content creation involves heavy collaboration and creativity, often involving research and technical ability, especially for software documentation.
Also, think about how long it took to get the knowledge you have about your profession. It doesn't just happen overnight when a technical writer tries to become a subject matter expert. To avoid this learning curve cost, a writer may work with SMEs in their content development process.
Also, most of the time, the writer will spend 80% of their time getting the resources they need to write, and it happens that only 20% of the time they actually write.
A typical process to move conceptual ideas from a subject matter expert's mind to something the non-specialists can digest and understand might look like this.
That said, content is one of the most important investments you will make in your documentation website and requires regular updates.
Here's a helpful table that outlines these expenses.
What should you choose?
Budget is always a consideration. You can launch a documentation portal for as little as $100, but you'll likely have to spend more than that to get it moving.
Let's take another look at a real example. Recently ClickHouse launched its rebuilt documentation website. They were in the market to get a new documentation management system and ended up going for Docusaurus. For this to get done, it took two weeks.
Speaking about Docusaurus, Archbee is actually a very good and performant option as Docusaurus alternative!
Now, this is how many software companies start. It's markdown based, they have control over many things, and there is a but.
Here is what Travis Long, Co-founder of devdocs.work, said - a technical writing agency helping companies like AWS, Google, and Oracle with their documentation projects.
There is no one-size-fits-all or even relative ballpark estimate I could give you for all docs as code buildout. Every team has different needs and objectives and will thus require varying degrees of customizability. Does a docs team want the ability to field customer feedback on their help center pages with a comment section or upvotes/downvotes, for example? Is the team moving from old unintuitive legacy systems that you have to manually adjust the style/backlinks and assets on every individual page? Things like this can massively shift the size and budget of a project.
Docs-as-code vs. documentation platform
There is no right or wrong here, and it's just a big "it depends." But here are a couple of things to consider.
There are substantial hidden costs in maintaining tooling, and there are a lot of false assumptions about the need to use such a system, especially if the company needing the docs isn't sure of what features they would need 1-3 years down the line.
Suppose we're talking about Stripe quality docs. In that case, you're talking about > $1.5M salaries (for docs dedicated people) per year to keep docs infrastructure + tooling top-notch, not mentioning actually maintaining the content itself.
Ryan Paul, technical writer and engineer in the Docs Product team at Stripe, discusses developing the new authoring system for their next-generation documentation platform.
Sometimes even medium-sized companies spend years building on top of docs-as-code tools. Eventually, they find themselves spending most time maintaining the tooling, bug fixing, and adding features rather than writing content.
As you are looking to hire a technical writer, the pool of potential candidates might be smaller if you have an in-house system. Not all technical writers are keen to learn a new setup - are they comfortable with how to push/pull/merge/PR works?
Also, there are other internal things to consider - what is the reviewing process - do stakeholders expect to get the review in the format that it will be published?
There are multiple elements to consider, and choosing the right software, will depend on the resources you have rather than the cost since both can be either affordable or expensive.
Start building your documentation site today
As you can see, the cost of a documentation website isn't crazy expensive. But if you want to add custom features or have specific requirements, it can increase the total cost.
Archbee is flexible and lets you choose how much you want to spend upfront so that you can build a documentation website without the engineering headache.