The Cheap and The Quick: Part 1

Speed is king on the web. Having a faster website than your competitor can mean the difference between keeping or losing a potential customer. A question that has been bugging me though is; should speed be king when it comes to having your site created?

There are many routes to getting a website online quickly. Two of the more popular options are “One-stop Services” and “CMS Plus Template”. This post will focus on the One-Stop Services, and a second post will cover the CMS + Template route. Each has advantages for a very specific type of company. However, they also have drawbacks that are not immediately obvious to those of you new to website ownership. Drawbacks that are capable of seriously handicapping your business. If you are considering one of these options, it’s worth your time to learn a bit more about them before committing to one.

The names should be familiar; SquareSpace, Wix, GoDaddy, and Google Sites, are just a few for the bigger players. One-stops are fine if you need a web presence in the shortest possible amount of time, for the least amount of money, and have very basic needs that are unlikely to change. If that sounds like you, great. Stop reading and get to work on your site. The rest of you, keep reading.

Any of these services will get you online in a matter of minutes, often with a “custom” domain included. All you have to do is have your credit card ready; and an hour or so to choose a template; add you content; fiddle with colors; add your logo, and you are done. The free templates look good and deliver your content responsively (a.k.a. mobile friendly, adaptive, etc.) on just about every device out there. To top it all off, the service is not only cheap, but as fast or faster than anything out there costing twice as much.

So why in the hell would you not go with a service like this? Well, for starters, let’s look more closely at that free template. Speaking strictly from a design perspective, you are at an immediate disadvantage because the template you are using is also being used by hundreds, if not thousands, of other websites. Whatever it is your business sells, it is probably unique in some meaningful way, right? How do you expect to communicate this to your potential visitors if your website looks like every other site out there?

You might not know all the ingredients, but you know the recipe. I’ve had people ask me on more than one occasion if a given company was bought by their competitor because their sites looked virtually identical. In a world where every business is online it’s more important than ever to stand out from the crowd. The only way to do this is to invest in a uniquely designed website that uses well considered design to engage your visitors and emphasize the unique things about your product. Dumping content into a template is okay for the very short term, but a big part of creating a lasting presence online is having your content wrapped in a design that addresses your businesses specific needs.

There is another downside to these themes I’ve discovered after being asked to wrench on them for many years. If you work with exactly what they give you, nine time out of ten, everything is going to be great. If the day comes that you need more complex functionality than the template provides, you’re up shit creek.

To their credit, the developers who create these templates do an amazing job of ensuring everything they can think of is designed to work flawlessly. What they cannot account for is how their template will work after changes are made to their code. So, you either risk having a site that doesn’t work properly, and is by an order of magnitude more difficult to keep updated, or you don’t add that functionality you wanted and muddle on.

There are many other things to consider with templates. For instance; does it work on older browsers? If the bulk of your customers use an old brick of a PC running Windows 7 and Internet Explorer E8, the site may not display properly or function at all.

Does the template rely on numerous code libraries? Code libraries are big blocks of code that do lots of wondrous things and make it easier for a developer to code/prototype a site quickly. However, they can drastically slow down how quickly your site loads. Worse still, if one of the libraries doesn’t load, or has an error, your site is broken and your visitor is gone.

Is the template updated regularly? Good developers continually update their templates to ensure they work on a wide range of browsers and devices. However, it is also common to see a developer drop support for a template, leaving you in a bind if there is ever a problem with it.

Okay, so maybe quality design and speed aren’t your thing. You’ll be fine as long as the hosting and domain are cheap or free, right?

Almost without exception, the cheap hosting provided by One-stops is secure and fast. What happens when your website grows to a point where you need more bandwidth (i.e., the amount of data you can transfer each month), or more features like additional emails, forms, their “SEO package,” or more storage? Suddenly, you’re monthly rate is less of a deal. In certain cases traditional hosting (i.e., the kind you buy and manage yourself) becomes the better deal.

Where you can get into some more serious trouble is with that free domain. I advise all my clients to purchase a custom domain through an established registrar like Media Temple, Network Solutions, GoDaddy or NameCheap.

Prices vary for the same domain depending on the registrar, so shop around, but do make the investment. $30 a year for a domain may sound like an unnecessary expenditure when all you want is a basic website. However, not owning your own domain means enduring the completely avoidable headache of rebuilding your online presence when you want, or have, to move your site.

This is an incomplete list of tasks you’ll want to do to ease the pain during your transition:

  • 6 months before you move, alert your visitors about the upcoming domain change.
  • Figure out what a 301 redirect is, and do what ever that is so people can get to your new domain automatically.
  • Continue to pay your old host for another 12 months to keep that sight up so you can forward visitors to your new site
  • Reprint your business cards
  • 3 months before you move, email your visitors again about you new domain. Hope the pay attention.
  • Update your business filings
  • Change all your social media channel settings
  • Recreate graphics as needed
  • Rewrite your copy as needed

Why do you have to do all of this? Because everything you have built up behind “mycompany.cheapwebsites.com” disappears as soon as you move. Yes, you can move your files, with some effort, but everyone who tries to visit you at the domain you built your online business on will see, “404: Page Not Found!” (unless you do the tricky 301 redirect thing). You will also be starting over with a new template, which means you will have to re-enter every piece of content from your old site by hand. How many products does your company have again? Do you think anyone bookmarked one of those pages?

The $30 you pay for your domain is buying you the freedom to manage your website on your terms. Custom domains are easier for you visitors to remember, and help build trust in your visitors. Moving your files to a new host will still be a painful lesson in not doing things right the first time. The up side is, it will be a fairly transparent switch for your visitors, and you will have not run the risk of losing business needlessly.

Hopefully, this post doesn’t paint too bleak a picture of One-stops. Companies like Wix and Squarespace are a great deal, but only for a very specific (i.e., small) set of users. If you are looking to make a little extra money of your hobby, start a blog, or share recipes, there is no better option. If you have bigger goals though, think seriously about the long term effects of choosing a One-stop. It will cost a little more up front, and probably take a little longer to get online, but having a site that actively works for you business, and gives you more freedom to change and grow, is more than worth it.