Low-cost website builders have become surprisingly good

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A client wanted me to evaluate Weebly, a self-service website builder. She planned on using Weebly for a separate branch of their organization.I confess, I was very skeptical. After all, this was a big company that usually spends hundreds of thousands of euros on their web renewal projects.

North Patrol is a consulting firm specialized in the design of digital services and information systems. We shape ideas into a vision and service concept, find the best architectural and technological solutions, design a functional user experience, and compete to find the ideal partner for implementation work. We do not sell implementation projects, nor do we sell licenses; we are genuinely on the side of the customer.

2 June 2015

Perttu Tolvanen

But this time their requirements were pretty simple, and they knew that this wouldn’t be a permanent solution. They just wanted something nice and easy. And choosing a hosted, turn-key solution was not a problem since they have some in-house web design skills.

They wanted really good tools to manage the content and integrate their analytics and marketing tools into the website. Plus they had several language versions and different editors for different sections. Not your typical ‘café website’ requirements, but nothing overly complex either.

My initial reservations about Weebly were not quite wrong. Weebly (and its main competitors Wix.com, SquareSpace and WordPress.com) is very much concentrated to serving small businesses. It isn’t a sophisticated content management tool. You basically pick a template and start trying out things.

That said, it turned out that Weebly can also do a lot of neat things. You can embed anything you want. You can even add your own Javascripts. Basic editing is extremely easy. SEO is taken care of. You can even set your redirects from the user interface. Content is also stored inside structured elements so that changing the theme or the layout doesn’t lose your content.

Not everything is perfect, but it turned out that what isn’t didn’t matter so much.

For example, Weebly doesn’t have language version management, but you can copy your website and make it identical with the master version. Not very sophisticated, but works very well if you only need a couple of languages. Also, you can’t re-use content elements, so working with a bigger website probably becomes somewhat frustrating at some point.

Weebly also doesn’t have a lot of capabilities for doing anything dynamic with your content. It doesn’t really have anything for recommendations or building dynamic listings of content based on tagging. So building a highly dynamic front page doesn’t happen very easily, if at all.

Oftentimes, shortcomings like this might be show-stoppers, but not in this case. The client adapted her requirements a little bit and put the in-house web designer into work.

Final notes: Big websites that have a lot of content probably won’t come out very well with the low-cost website builders, but doing high-quality digital marketing or fancy layouts is not a problem. Therefore I can see a bright future for these tools as a secondary tool even for bigger clients. They are perfect for things like campaign websites or conference/event websites. You can even do targeted and automated email marketing with these websites now that they support custom Javascript tags.

PS. To be fair, if Weebly interests you, please check out Squarespace, Wix and WordPress.com also. They are all interesting systems that have a lot of funding behind them – so they are racing hard against each other and pushing the limits what you can expect from these low-cost website builders.

Perttu Tolvanen

Perttu Tolvanen is a web concept design and content management system expert.

Perttu consults with clients on project planning and defining requirements, and supports customers in selecting content management systems and implementation partners. His areas of specialisation include facilitating concept design workshops and selecting content management systems.

Perttu has ten years of experience with web and intranet projects, including serving as a project manager and consultant. Earlier in his career Perttu has worked in procurement and as a project manager at a large media company, a content management system consultant at a large IT company and an independent, neutral consultant at his own firm. He is also a well-known seminar speaker and blogger. Perttu is also the editor of Vierityspalkki.fi, a Finnish blog about the Finnish internet and its creators.

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