It used to be that the only way to get a decent website was to hire a web design and development team. But times have changed and there are many more options for companies or individuals needing a website.
Occasionally someone asks me to create a simple website for free or low budget, which I can’t afford to do. Website builders such as Weebly and SquareSpace can meet not only their needs but even those of larger companies. Because these sites offer many pre-designed templates, the bulk of the production work is uploading the content, which is best left to the website owner who will most likely be maintaining the website as well.
Not everyone has the budget to hire a professional. These website builders are perfect if you don’t need custom solutions, such as special interactive features, custom databases or unique visual solutions, not to mention marketing strategy, search engine optimization expertise or professional written content. They are subscription based and hosted on the company’s server, not your computer.
A few benefits and features include:
- No need for outside monthly hosting fees.
- Variety of pre-designed templates that allow for some customization.
- Create pages with drag-and-drop content modules. You don’t need to know a bit of code.
- Automatically create mobile/tablet versions of your site.
- Crop and resize images inside the website builder.
- E-commerce and blog functions.
- Add your custom domain to the URL.
- Easily add social media accounts and e-newsletter/mailing list signup.
- Support forums to post how-to questions.
If you don’t need a custom, from-the-ground-up website, this post is for you.
Caveat: There is much more to a website than simply picking a template, creating some pages and adding text and photos. Professional designers, copywriters, marketers and developers have a wealth of knowledge and skills that go way beyond pre-designed templates. You can have a website that people can’t find, that doesn’t resonate with your ideal client or that doesn’t reflect your brand. Even some of the customers using SquareSpace undoubtedly had designers playing a big role.
Before digging into these website builders, we should consider the whole picture so you know what type of help you need and what you can do yourself. A website project is a spectrum along which the following considerations and tasks fall, such as:
- Strategy: Why are you creating the site and what do you want it to do? Who are your ideal visitors? Are you selling things?
- Marketing: How will you get people to your site? How will you incorporate social media? Will you be blogging? Do you understand SEO? Do you have a mailing list?
- Structure: How will the site be organized? How many pages? What are your types of content? What functions do you want?
- Visuals: Do you have a visual brand identity? Do you need one? Where will images come from for your blog or products and services? How many photos do you have?
- Messaging: Do you have a story? Do you need a copywriter?
- Technical: Are you willing to set the site up? Do you have a domain name? Do you have a web hosting company? Do you want a custom domain email address? Are you willing to add your content (text and images)? Do you want to customize an existing template? And many more…
- Maintenance: Do you plan to maintain the site yourself? Will you hire someone to do it? Do you want/need some initial training to use one of these sites or will you go it alone?
So when someone asks, “Can you design a simple website for me?” you can see the issue isn’t so simple.
If you’re an artist with a small budget, it makes more sense to upload text and images yourself, otherwise known as populating the pages. This could take hours or days depending on how much work you want to display. If you need copywriting, social media/marketing or search engine optimization help, it’s best to hire a professional.
You will need to learn your way around the interface of whichever service you choose. Since you will be maintaining your own site, you’ll need to know how to use the interface. Just like anything, it will feel awkward at first. Diving in is the best way to learn. To speed up the learning curve, you can also hire someone to walk you through the initial setup steps and interface. A little boost never hurts.
The basics of website builders
These sites function in similar ways. You create an account, and then you will be in you dashboard—the back-facing area of your website. Read the pricing structures to figure out what is best for you. Weebly is free with limitations. SquareSpace gives you a 14-day trial, plenty of time to create a site, after which you’ll pick a pricing plan. You will be prompted to choose a template. In some cases you can view other sites created with the same template. Aside from some slight variations, such as the size of the space to add a logo or the format of the main navigation, most templates are similar to one another. The templates really just get you going. You can add a variety of modules by dragging them onto a page, such as text boxes, image galleries, buttons, line rules, etc.
In about an hour you can do everything on this list. You don’t need to publish anything to the world just yet.
- Pick one of the website builders or test more than one. This will require setting up an account. You can cancel later.
- Browse through the templates. Choose one. You can change the template later without affecting your content.
- Watch how-to videos (but skip the promo videos, which are marketing fluff).
- Familiarize yourself with the dashboard. Click through the various tools. You won’t break anything!
- Create some pages and test out the content modules, such as adding a slideshow, text boxes or uploading images.
- Select colors and fonts.
- Write a draft blog post.
Note: to maximize SquareSpace’s 14-day trial, sketch or outline the pages of your site in advance (About, Work, Contact, etc.) and have some images handy.
Weebly vs. SquareSpace
Both allow you to back up your site. Wix, for example, has no backup feature (at the writing of this post).
Neither site has:
- Custom domain email. You have to use Google’s mail app or another third-party option.
- A library that holds all the images you’ve used. This means, to add the same image to another page you have to upload it again (there might be a workaround I’m not familiar with).
- Very easy to use.
- Decent template designs, though not as beautiful as SquareSpace.
- E-commerce. Get more detailed information here.
- Free version
- Not too many bells and whistles.
- Not really a con but the template designs are fairly basic.
- Blog: No “recent posts” widget for the home page. There is also no “subscribe by email” option.
- You can’t add alt text to images in a gallery (not great for search engines or having images pinned to Pinterest).
Read a full Weebly review here.
- Beautiful templates.
- Lots of example sites built with those templates.
- Lots of styling options. Great for power users who want a lot of control before even editing the CSS.
- Great e-commerce tools.
- Good tutorials.
- Good control over SEO.
- Not as intuitive an interface as Weebly.
- Example sites are enticing but you have no idea how much custom work was done to achieve the results. Don’t expect the same.
- So many styling options that it can be overwhelming to someone wanting to create a simple website.
- Somewhat fussy process for rearranging content blocks.
- Cost: No free plan. To sell more than 1 item, you will start paying $18/month. This is high if you also have a web hosting company to host a custom domain email address.
- No “subscribe to posts by email” option.
Read a full SquareSpace review here.
What about WordPress?
WordPress has a steep enough learning curve that isn’t evident at first glance. It’s very robust, and because it’s open source, there isn’t one central support section like there is with these other website builders. Since this post is meant for people who want to quickly and easily build a site, I don’t recommend WordPress. However, I’d like to give a nod to the folks at The Theme Foundry who have created a drag-and-drop WordPress theme that I used to create this site. It’s called Make. I know just enough techy stuff to stumble through WordPress so that I can have the kind of features I want. Plus, I prefer to self host my site. Read a comparison of WordPress and SquareSpace.
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