The Website Building Problem
As a consultant, I am continually looking for modern tools to help my clients build websites. Recently several web site builders have appeared that combine Hosting and Website construction in a single place and for a single small fee.
In the past few years I have come across more and more clients who have been held hostage to the old way of doing websites. The old way uses off-line tools like FrontPage, DreamWeaver or other tools that run on a desktop computer and then upload the website pages to the hosting service. Clients run into several problems when these tools are used.
- These off-line site building tools are expensive [ several hundred dollars], require special training and must be upgraded over time.
- Often the clients can’t find the person who built their site, or it costs too much or that person has lost vita information about the site because it has been months or years since they made any changes.
- The hosting service may be going out of business or changing it’s terms and so the site expert needs to be contacted to move the site to a new hosting service. The client may not have the credentials or expertise to sign into the site to back it up to migrate to another hosting service.
Modern sites utilize a CMS or Content Management System. There are many out there, but only in the past couple of years have they started to appear that work for the novice user. A CMS separates the “content” of the site from its “Look”. The text and pictures are stored separately from the “Theme” which directs how the page is laid out on the browser page. Also sites using CMS’s are not built on your local computer and then uploaded. Rather they are built on the site itself, using the browser and software running on the site. So there are no expensive and separate tools to buy or learn to use.
The first CMS’s to appear were Forums like phpBB and SMF, and Blogging software like TypePad, and WordPress. These platforms provide simple interfaces to make entry of new content as easy as writing an email. But they are highly structured, fora and blogs in different ways, and so a small business site may not fit their defined structure.
There are more complicated CMS’s available like Joomla, Drupal and phpNuke which have a very flexible structure which would allow them to support a large business or a large community portal site. But these are truly daunting for a novice to administer. If a client requires a very flexible layout with many features and have more than a half dozen contributors to the site then one of these might make sense. They allow log-in and sign-up of members and allow multiple roles to be assigned to members to allow them to only read, or comment, or contribute whole articles and otherwise manage the site.
In the past I have built sites for clients using a free blogging platform called WordPress. While WordPress is a blogging platform, it can easily be adapted to provide a simple website for a small company.
My goal for my clients has been to build a site and then leave it in their hands to make changes. WordPress does allow a client to make changes almost as easily as editing an email message. Additional complexity arises when dealing with:
- Understanding the different types of content: Pages vs Posts.
- Embedding images, videos, or music samples.
- Advanced formatting such as multiple columns or tables of any kind.
- Adding forms to collect information.
- Doing any kind of e-commerce to sell items.
- Updating the WordPress software, which is a frequent requirement to plug the all too frequent security issues that are found.
WordPress requires constant management to upgrade it and upgrade the several plugins that you will need to manage your site. Any site requires a few plugins since OOTB [out of the box] WordPress doesn’t do some of the things required to have a site. At a minimum about five or six plugins are required and they go through constant updates.
Future Site Building Requirements
While I still use WordPress for my own site. I will no longer be recommending it for clients. I want to find a single solution with the following qualities:
- Hosting and website building combined in one site.
- A simple robust and full featured browser interface to create all content and to change the theme of the site.
- Customizable themes to allow sites to be “Branded” by my clients for their businesses.
- Automatic updates and backups. This means that the client will never need to back up the site or perform updates to fix problems.
- Some knowledge of SEO [search engine options] to allow the clients to set up tags etc for the search engines. [ I use Google Site maps plugin for WordPress.]
- WYSIWYG editing of the content preferably with styles.
All the features to build a simple business site. These include:
- Individual pages like the home page, about, contacts etc.
- Knowledge of map pages and other such special pages is nice too.
- Blog management.
- Photo galleries, or the ability to make them. With pictures and text and the ability to adjust the layout.
- Forums for some of the clients, but not most of the clients.
- Integration with e-commerce so that clients can sell items from the site.
- Forms to take contact information and ask questions via email.
Some advanced features include:
- Import pages or information from other sites. SquareSpace can import some blogs for example. So far I have not seen a site builder that will import a normal website.
- Export pages to allow the content to be moved to another site. It would be good to not be trapped on a site builder with no easy way to take the site elsewhere should the company go out of business or their terms become unreasonable for a client.
- The ability to embed other more complex services in the site such as databases.
There is a list of many of the website hosting / building companies on this page. It looks like this fellow used Yola to build his site.
I’ve heard much about SquareSpace and I took a look at it. But while they say that you can have a site for $12/mo, such a site only has 10 pages, which is too small for any of my clients. To have a reasonable site with Squarespace requires $20 / mo. This is pretty steep for many clients. As a comparison, the cost for a hosting site from many of the hosting suppliers is about $5 / mo and any of the various CMSs such as WordPress, Coppermine [photo gallery] and SMF [forum] are all free.
But SquareSpace has the right idea. The site is backed up, and updated automatically and they have all the features above. For clients that are not scared off by the $20/mo price, it looks like it will work for them. But their free trial is limited so it is harder to evaluate it in depth.
LunarPages hosting, which I recommend as an excellent, high performance and affordable hosting service, has a service called QuickSite. At $12.95 / mo it is reasonable. There is a demo, but without a full trial time I was not really able to evaluate the service.
Using the demo I was able to see that the page builder is not fully WYSIWYG. Also Quicksite does not appear to have templates for blogs and photo-galleries, so all the pages will have to be built manually.
I’ll be taking a look at Virb too. They seem like they have the right idea, but they don’t make it that easy to get going because their free trial has a time limit.
Now I’m looking at Yola and it appears to have all the features above as well with only a few little glitches so far. I’ll post my detailed thoughts about Yola in another post. This unlimited trial site is just what I need to make sure that it will work for my clients. You can find my test site at Yola here.
After an afternoon building a site, Yola to be a robust and functional service. At $49.95 / year it is very affordable.
The Yola builder is almost completely WYSIWYG, so building pages is much more intuitive. There is a blog template which makes it easy to have a blog on the site along with the other pages. Since the Publish function is controlled by the user, a number of pages can be changed before any of them are published. When linking to pages in the site, you select the pages by page name rather than using http style addresses. I’ll do a more in depth report of Yola in a separate post.
I will be studying how to build themes for Yola to customize sites for my clients.
Other Types of Sites
There are two other types of site organizations that we have not discussed. These site formats are not suitable for a general small business site, but they may have their uses for some clients.
A forum is a discussion site which work well for discussions where an archive of previous discussions and organization. There are several different sites out there that allow you to build fora. One that I have looked at is Lefora.
A wiki is a community site similar to a forum, but rather than discussions, a wiki is designed to capture information created by a community of users. The best example of a wiki is the wikipedia that we all use almost every day.
Wikis are easy to manage, but their community contributor nature makes them unsuitable for a personal or business website, unless you want everyone who stops by to potentially make changes to your site.
Recently I built a simple wiki here to understand how wikis operate and the content creation process to build and maintain a wiki.
There are a few new companies that are combining website building and hosting into a single service. These services are not yet mature, but a few of them are useful enough to work for some clients. I will continue to evaluate new sites to suggest to my clients.