Options for your new website

Posted by Keith Jolie on Thursday, December 4, 2014 Under: local business

I work on websites almost every day, but my focus is on improving the client experience and SEO (search engine optimization) - not so much about building sites.

A few people however have asked me recently about site-builders and I'd like to give you my quick take and some links that might help you if you're hoping to find a service to help you build out a website easily (i.e. no coding knowledge) and affordably.



While learning to code like a pro (check out http://camptech.ca/ ) and building your own website, or hiring a pro (probably money well spent, but still costly) to build a website for you are some of the best options in terms of getting a website up and running there are alternatives.  Lately in fact there are so many self service site-builder services popping up that it’s hard to keep track.  There are still really great reasons why you may need to build out a fully custom site from scratch but for a new small business, these site builders are often everything you’ll need.


I'd love to hear your experience if you've used these services, leave your comments below.


Ok so, here it goes…


Key Advantages


Quick and easy!  

If you need a website pronto...stat...rapidement...sitebuilders can have your basic site up and running for the world to see in a few hours.  Usually the first step is to choose a theme, which is simply a preformatted website with fonts colours and formatting all set up for you.  You choose the one you like best and then customize it to reflect your need.   Most of the sites work with content widgets that you simply snap into place on the web-interface putting text where you want text, pictures where you want pictures and other functionality just through drag and drop.


Changeable

Don’t like the look of the website you created yesterday?  No problem.  In most cases you can simply select a new theme and automagically your whole site takes on a new look.


No coding

You don’t need to be a technical genius to use these sites.  All the coding is done by the site-builder so it’s more like using Word or Powerpoint, where what you see is what you get.  Even incorporating ecommerce has become almost plug and play, so if you need to sell products on your website, you can still use these platforms.


Some Challenges


Less flexibility

Because you are working with templates, you may find that existing colour themes or layouts don’t exactly fit the way that you want your site to look or act - and unfortunately you’ll either need to pick another theme or just suck it up.  Many of the editors however do give you pretty granular control over colours, fonts and other factors that you would have had to learn CSS programming to accomplish not too long ago.


Integration with other systems

If your website needs to pass information back and forth to a database, or you want to embed certain tracking elements into the site, you probably won’t be able to.  Once you get to this stage, it’s time to pony up for a real website developer.


SEO

Many of these sites (including the ones I’ve listed below) do a good job of the fundamental SEO elements that need to be hardwired into a site, but some don’t...so buyer beware.


Portability

If you decide one day that you’d like to jump ship to another provider...in many cases, you can’t.  Some sitebuilders allow you to download your site, but I’ve never tested any of them, so this may or may not work.  Probably the biggest advantage (and to some extent risk) of hosting your own site is that you can move it to another server without too much difficulty and with possibly no impact to your search rankings.  If you think you’re going to grow out of your site-builder site some day, it may be best to start with a self hosted site right from the beginning.

The hard costs

Domain and Hosting

The first thing I would say is that registering a domain and paying for hosting (either through a website management service or using a hosting service where you build your own site and maintain it) has a starting cost of between $5-$50 for the domain registration per year, and then another $5-20 for a low bandwidth site per month.  Many hosting sites also provide an incentive for paying for a whole year in advance, so your total cost might be between $100 and $200 per year.  I'd recommend registering your domain as the first step (look at domain registration services like godaddy for the cheapest rates, but others are recommended as well).  Be careful to read the terms and conditions for whichever service you're considering.


It's worth mentioning that if you already have a domain registered, your site builder will have options to point that domain to your newly built site - if they don't, choose another service.


From an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) perspective there are two things that you should consider.

1.  Search engines consider how long the domain has been registered as part of its ranking criteria, so the sooner you have your domain registered the better, and the sooner you have the site built, the better.

2.  Search engines also consider when the domain expires, so if you are able to secure the domain for multiple years - go for it.  It will help your search ranking.


If you still need to be 100% free, here are some common service terms that most of these providers work under and that you should be aware of.:


1.  If the website builder is "Free" then you'll probably have restrictions on what you can do such as:  


-Advertising for the company that you're using may appear on your site.

-Using a customized domain name (i.e. www.yourname.com ) may not be possible

- Limitations to the editing capabilities on your site (CSS, length of text, and design templates) will probably be limited.

- Your ability to attach your website to services like Google analytics, webmaster tools, and google+ may be limited although many sites make this possible.  Just be sure that you can do this before you commit significant time to a site.

- ecommerce is another concern.  Many "free" services DO NOT include the ability to create ecommerce sites.


All that being said, if you are starting a business and need to keep your costs low until your revenue builds, many of these services are a great way to get information about your business visible on the web. They also allow you to adjust your subscription as your needs change.


If you are going the 100% free hosting route, one thing you can take advantage of is *Domain forwarding*.  Once you register your domain with a domain registry, there is usually the ability to forward that domain to another URL.  So for instance if you were to build a free site with Yola (one of the services discussed below) you can point your URL to yola.yourdomain.com .  This is certainly not ideal as any visitor to your site will see the yola.yourdomain.com address while visiting your site.  However, again if you are looking to keep your costs down, you can do this and then later upgrade to a package that allows you to use your own custom domain.  Note that this approach has negative implications for SEO - you're not likely to become a top website in your area of specialty and if you do, then decide to move your website to your custom domain, the search engines will likely see your updated site as a brand new site and your search ranking will plummet.


Alright...with all the warnings out of the way, here are a couple sites that you may want to check out, as well as some links to articles that may help you decide.


Some Options


Squarespace


Squarespace has one of the coolest looking interfaces - very slick and great template designs.  That said, it's not the most intuitive tool on this list.  You'll need to spend a bit more time up front getting used to it, but once you do - you'll like it.  Squarespace is definitely more geared towards the visual aspect of the sites they produce, so if you are a photographer, restaurant, musician, retailer or any kind of business that relies heavily on how your product looks or makes people feel - this is probably the best site for you.  They provide a robust ecommerce solution that looks really great, and their blogging platform is equally well done.   Because their layouts are so visually oriented, a website that needs to present lots of information may seem crowded in the templates they offer, but the clean designs may make up for that.  To some extent that’s a matter of taste.  All Squarespace sites are responsive in design, and will look great on a phone, tablet or desktop.  If your audience is primarily mobile (restaurants, retailers…) this may be your solution.


Yola

(disclaimer - I've used Yola for a few sites that I manage including my own) I find Yola's interface to be very user friendly and functional.  I like the simple integration of SEO elements into Yola’s interface.  Site wide parameters for analytics and webmaster are easily added and page level markup is equally accessible with tutorials and help built into every step.  They have stopped supporting blogs natively on their sites and instead have integrated Tumblr into their sites through a widget.  This means you'll need to maintain your blog through tumblr but when you do, it will be automagically updated on your site.  Yola has ecommerce widgets that you can embed on your site simply with integration with paypal. Yola also integrates email marketing tools from Constant Contact, Appointment Scheduling through Full Slate and a number of other useful services that are available as widget plugins.


Finally, Yola has recently introduced HTML 5 as their standard for the backend code that powers their site templates and many of their design templates are now responsive.  This will likely become the new standard for Yola.


Weebly


Almost identical in terms of offering to Yola - another good alternative - free sites don't expire.  This site builder offers ecommerce functionality and blogging (native) and other widgets, but not quite as extensive as Yola. They also are also moving to responsive designs that scale to the device they are being viewed on, but again this functionality is limited to certain themes at this point.  Many users find Weebly to be the most user friendly (easiest to use) site-builder.  Weebly allows you to export your site - should you decide to move on to hosting your own site.


WIX


Quite a few clients that I've worked with have used WIX and the interface is pretty good.  They also have buildt in SEO optimization tools which are handy.  They support native blogging with lots of options to create a great looking blog on your site and ecommerce is part of their offering.  At this point, Wix does not offer responsive themes however I anticipate this will change.


GoDaddy


"sites for as low as $1 a month..."  ok..that's not free...but it's practically free. You get 50 templates to choose from and a custom domain, so worth looking at.  For $5 a month, you get email, decent bandwidth and storage.  If cheap is your goal, this may be your solution, but out of these options I’d look at one of the others before jumping on the GoDaddy bandwagon.  That said, GoDaddy is still one of the cheapest options for registering a domain, at which point you can use any one of these services to manage it.


There are many many more services out there that I haven’t touched on here.


For more side by side comparison of each of these services you can check out these links:


http://www.websitebuilderexpert.com/website-builders-comparison-chart/

http://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/best-website-build-websites-free/

http://www.anblik.com/list-of-top-10-best-website-builder-to-create-your-own-free-website/



In : local business 


Tags: "website advice"  "site-builder comparison"  site-builder  free website hosting  "small business advice" 
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