Building your own website can seem like an appealing alternative to the costs of having a professional do it. There are some great tools out there, if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, and some genuinely great ways entrepreneurs can establish a web presence at minimal cost. But what you don’t pay for nowÂ now can cost you later. While the immediate savingsÂ can be tempting, in the long run, creating a website yourself isÂ not always the best value.
One of my goals is to facilitate the web design process for small businesses. This is why I offer consultation among my suite of core services. It gives me the opportunity to advise on the best options and tools available, whether a client isÂ looking to build their own site or just trying to figure out where to begin.
I can help them avoid common mistakes and navigate potential pitfalls of popular web building tools. And there are a lot of them.Â This article is broken into two parts. In theÂ first we’ll explore some of the tech and tools that enable the average personÂ to tackle web design on their own. In the second, we’ll look atÂ the various reasons why doing so can often create more problems than it solves, and why itÂ may not be the best option for you. Let’s get started.
How to build your own site…
- Understand the Drawbacks
- Choose the Right Site-Builder
- SelectÂ the Best Theme or Template
- Plan Ahead
- Best Site-Builders
Why you probably shouldn’t…
- You’re not a Designer
- You’re not a Developer
- Your Siteâ€™s Only as Good as its Content
- Current Value vs. Future Cost
- Nowhere to Go
How to build your own site…
Isn’t technology swell.Â There are tons of great tools available for the intrepid self starter, from e-commerce venues like Etsy and Amazon Marketplace to full fledged WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get), drag-and-drop site-builders like Wix and Weebly. However, as the saying goes, with great power comes great opportunity to shoot yourself in the foot (I may have modified that slightly). The following tips will help you navigate the treacherous waters of do-it-yourself web design while avoiding metaphorical foot shooting off. I’ve also included a list of the best DIY site-builders available.
1. Understand the Drawbacks
The next section discusses some of the drawbacks of DIY site design, so be sure to read on. ButÂ even if you’re determined to do it yourself, knowing the cons is just as important (if not more so) as being excited about the pros. Don’t just jump on board with the first web builder you find. Research your options, check out the different tools available, read reviews, andÂ look at comparisons. Evaluating the goals of your site, comparing your needs to the capabilities of the tools you’re considering will help you avoid costly re-designs. Some of the drawbacks you should be aware of are:
It’s an investment of your time.
Even the easiest drag and drop editor will take some time to learn the ins and outs. You’ll also have to take the time to set up and manage all your pages.
You’re on your own.
Technical support and a pre-built theme will only take you so far. Beyond that your SEO, content and marketing strategy are up to your best guesswork. This also applies to any creative decisions you make. You won’t have the benefit of a professional opinion.
This is discussed in more detail below. Most site-builders will lock you into their system, with proprietary tools, and long term contracts. This is fine if they offer everything you need both now and in the future. If not however, extricating your site from their control can be problematic.
With convenience comes limitations.
By simplifying the complex world of web design, site builders often sacrifice features, flexibility, or SEO considerations to offer a palatable user experience. You don’t always know what you’ve sacrificed for convenience until it’s too late.
2. Choose the RightÂ Site-Builder
There are different approaches to entering the webspace and not all of them are right for you. While every business should have a website, if you’re just trying to turn a hobby into a side-venture, or have a nearly nonexistent budget, a full fledged website may not be possible. Even “free” website builders may not be the most effective venue for what you’re offering. The aforementioned Etsy for instance, is a ready-made way for craftspeopleÂ to quickly open an e-commerce storefront and test the waters before committing to the time investment of creating and managing your own website. Here are some important things to consider when choosing a site-builder:
Will you have access to the site code?
Are third party plugins available?
Apps from third party companies and social media outlets extend the features of your website beyond the site-builder’s own capabilities. These can be particularly helpful for more advanced features like aÂ membership sectionÂ or e-commerce solutions.
Do they offer the features you’ll need?
Make sure the site-builder meets theÂ current andÂ future needs of your website. Do you need e-commerce? Will you be blogging? Will your site have a forum?Â Different site-builders have different strengths and weaknesses.
Is their technical supportÂ helpful/responsive?
Reading reviews should give you some insight into this. Always check out customer feedback and professional reviews from multiple sites. Try reaching out to the company you’re considering to discuss features and see how willing/responsive they are. Often the best tech support is offered with theÂ premium packages.
Do they require long term contractual commitments?
Committing to an extended contract means your site isÂ married to the site builder and its features (or lack of) for the duration of the agreement.
What will itÂ cost?
The term “free”Â can be a little misleading. It’sÂ sometimes used to lure prospects in, with hidden, after the fact sign-up fees required in order to actually launch your site or access features and support. Most of the better site-builders are more transparentÂ about their pricingÂ but allusions of value associated with DIY solutions areÂ often misleading. Regardless of which approach you take, unless you don’t mind ads or other third partyÂ branding encroaching onto your site (and you should if you want to look professional),Â you’re still going to be paying some type of hosting or service fees.
3. SelectÂ the BestÂ Theme or Template
Consider your business model, your products and services, yourÂ content, copy and images. Decide what features you’ll need. Based on your requirements choose a template/theme with layout options closely aligned with your goals. Drag and drop builders typically offer decent flexibility, but the less you have toÂ wrangleÂ the theme to conform to your wishes, the cleaner your site and the more efficient your code will be.
Most DIY platforms organize templates by industry which can be helpful. The best site-builders have professionally designed templates, lending brand credibility to your company as long as you preserve the creative integrity of the original design.
Also, keep in mind that some site-builders will not allow you to switch themes once you’ve committed to a design (The Wix support forums, for instance, are filled with people confused andÂ frustrated over not being able to change their theme).
4. Plan Ahead
This seems kind of obvious but it’s worth mentioning. In light of a lot of the previous cautions and considerations, going into the process with your eyes open can save you time, hassle, and money down the road. Consider the points I’ve already mentioned. Plan your site design and consider your marketing strategy. Lastly consider, not only the current, but also future needs of your business. See Nowhere to Go for more info onÂ why anticipating the future is critical.Â Good branding and web design begins by asking seemingly obvious questions about the nature and goals of your company. We do this because the answers aren’t as obvious as you might think.Â Assumptions are the unseen enemy of good design.
The Best Site-Builders
This is by no means a comprehensive list of do-it-yourself website creators. But I’ve browsedÂ through dozens ofÂ “best of” site-builder lists and reviews to compile the following short-list of the top ones to consider. For more information on each,Â Website Builder Expert has some fairly comprehensive reviews and Site Builder ReportÂ is a great resource. The ones listed here are the best bets for the needs of an average site. There are dozens of site-builders out there including some that specialize in certain areas like the e-commerce platforms offered by Shopify and BigCommerce. If your site has unique functional considerations be sure to do some research.
Wix is oneÂ of the oldest, and overall best site-builders available. It has a huge selection of templates, a rounded feature set, third party app market, and is relatively easy to use. A more in-depth review.
Weebly is probably the easiest drag and drop site-builder to jump right into. It also allows you to access to your codeÂ for greater control. A more in-depth review.
Squarespace is one of the sleekest looking builders out there, with some of the best, most beautiful themes available, and extensive editing features.Â A more in-depth review.
It’s a relatively new platform, but one of the best, most powerfulÂ WYSIWYG drag-and-dropÂ editors. The assumption with Webflow however, is that you’re more comfortable building your site without the aid of a template. Webflow is aimed a bit more towards designers than the average consumer.
LackingÂ the polished marketing of the typical “all-in-one” site-builder sales pitch, WordPress is in my opinion the most powerful option on this list, and probably the best balance between a site-builder and a fully equipped CMS.Â There’s too much to go into here, but if you’re interested in creating your site with WordPress I’d recommend a premium drag-and-drop equipped theme like Divi by Elegant Themes, or using a solid, SEO friendly framework likeÂ GenesisÂ from Studio Press.
Why You Probably Shouldn’t…
There are a lot of shiny gadgets and services marketed atÂ the do-it-yourselfer that make the complex world of web design and online marketing seem so simpleÂ you’d wonder whyÂ you would ever need a professional to do these things. In this case I’d prefer the term “suspiciously simple”. Because they’re eager to sell you on their service, site-builders and those that advocate them tend to gloss over the complexity of proper web design, cheapening the entire industry in the process. A professional designer is far more than a conduit between you and web technology. While “Free” website builders indirectly portray them as an outdated middle man, there are good reasons why their skills are highly relevant to your needs and the success of your company’s website.
You really do get what you pay for. Considering theÂ site-builder sales pitch is predicated on the concept of too good to be true value, you should be just a little suspicious about what you’re getting, or more importantly, what you’re not. When deciding whether or not to hire a professional to design your website, consider the following:
1. You’re Not a Designer
And that’s okay, you’re an (insert what you do here). But if I asked you to explain what Affordance is, or Common Fate,Â whatÂ would you say? What about Exposure Effect? A good thing? Maybe. How about The Rule of Thirds or Constraint?Â Who knows, right? Designers, designers know. Not only are these fairly commonÂ industryÂ terms but they’re ones that couldÂ potentially impact the quality and effectiveness of your site.Â That isn’t to say that just because you don’t know whatÂ the heck theÂ Biophilia EffectÂ is that you don’t have good creative instincts, it’s just that designers are better equipped to make informed decisions every step of the way.
Font treatments, color pairings, element arrangement, and spacing all incrementally contribute or detract from the quality of the site. Design is a fluid processÂ of intuitive creativity. It’s an ongoing series of incrementalÂ decisionsÂ that culminate in something functional and beautiful, or…uh,Â not so much. Web designersÂ draw onÂ years of experience, training,Â and instinct during the course of this process. Even small seemingly unimportant details are informed by the depth of their profession.
Every specialized fieldÂ represents a unique skill set and area of expertise, and web design is no different. You might be a creative person but there’s a wealth of specialized knowledge involved in creating and organizing the myriad of content (copy, graphics, images…) that comprise a website, into an attractive, effectiveÂ user experience. If you’re not a designer, there’s a good chance your website will betray that fact.
Even if you’re working withÂ an expertly designed template, every alteration to it becomes a creativeÂ risk.Â I’ve seen beautiful templates simply obliterated by cringeworthy design choices of well meaning people who just didn’t know better.Â On the other hand, using a cookie cutter solution and not customizing it extensively means your company site looks almost identical to someone else. The generic anonymity of themes can be harmfulÂ to brand credibility. So too can a poorly customized one. Either way as a non-designer, creating your own website can be a perilous endeavor (that sounds a bit dramatic but you get the point).
2. You’re Not aÂ Developer
Beyond the cosmetic, there’s also an almost overwhelming amount of web conventions, best practices, and technology to keep track of. UX (User Experience) design for instance, SEO, Conversion Centered Design, inbound links, and so on. A website-builder will help you get a site up quickly, but don’tÂ assume that itÂ has your back when it comesÂ the more strategic aspects of the design and marketing process.
NotÂ knowing design/web conventions, technology, and best practices can hold your site back.Â There’s a difference between functionalityÂ and effectiveness. Anyone can swing a sword but not everyone can do it without chopping off their toesÂ (In this metaphor the sword is your website and your business is your toes.).
Site-builders do most ofÂ the heavy lifting in terms of coding your site, and the good ones know it’s in their interest to incorporate solid designÂ conventions where possible, but there are still trade-offs.Â The code produced by site-builder software, for instance, is often redundant and bloated which can effect page load speed, and consequently, your site’sÂ ranking on SERP’s (Search engine results pages). This is something you’re most likely not going to be aware ofÂ unless you’re a web designer. And that’s just one of many. There’s also your sitemap and link structure, your content strategy and conversion funnel. Even button text can impact your success.
Just becauseÂ site-builders allow you to ignore the more technical aspects of your site doesn’t mean you should. Understanding the inner workings of web technology and how it impacts the performance of your site is valuable knowledge. This principle also applies to any other aspect, from the design of the site to its marketing strategy. The bottom line is, if you’re going alone, you’re leaving a lot up to chance, including the success and competitiveness of your website.
3. Your Site’s Only as Good as itsÂ Content
Even if you’re confident in your creative skills, assured of the site-builder’s technical capabilities, and comfortable with your online marketing strategy, there’s still another very critical element to consider. Not including strategy, there are three base components that go into the design of every website; the design (how it looks), theÂ code (how it works), and the content (how it sells). Site-builders take care of theÂ code and give you an assist on design, but one thingÂ they sure can’t do is write compelling copy. But hey, two out of three isn’t bad right? Sort of.
There’s a saying in design: Content is King.Â Code and design aren’t exactly peasants; all three are vital, and rely on the others, but it’s content that brings home the bacon. You like bacon right? A site can be well laid out andÂ functional but if the copy is weak,Â your images are poor quality, and your brand is on life support, then it’s not really going to matter how nice your site looks and runs. It won’t convert.
At the outset of the design process, professionally written, keyword rich, audience friendly copywriting is almost always lacking. The brand is usually a bit fragmented as well. The logo is dated, there are several different versions of it, and images are often low resolution, poorly lit, orÂ lack compelling composition. A content audit is an essential first step of the web design process. Being content-self-aware, understanding the gaps, and knowing your limitations is important to formulatingÂ an effective content strategy.
4. Current Value vs. Future Cost
Speaking of self evaluation…Being honest and realistic about your creative and technical capabilities, your time, goals, and budget is the best way to avoid future headaches. Assumptions about your strategy and content are easy to make and it’s tempting to jump on board with a site-builder the minute you decide you need a website. But likeÂ I said it earlier: What doesn’t cost you now, can still cost you later.
Professional web design can seem expensive, but the question isn’t how much the designer’s time is worth, but how much yours is. Because you’re most likely be spending quite a lot of it. Can you spare enough of it to do the job right? Remember you’re banking your company’s onlineÂ success on it.
Researching site-builders, learning a particular one, and setting up your website all take up your valuable time, to say nothing of content creation and refinement. And that’s just your time up front. If you hit a wall down the road you may still end up calling a professional to troubleshoot your site, or even design you a new one if you decide you’re in over your head.
Time is money, so it’s costing youÂ either way, but if you’re designing your own site you’re paying for a product created by an amateur.
5. Nowhere To Go
And what if you do decide you need professional help? It can be more costly to discover this after the fact than before.Â Even if you don’t mind the idea of hiring a professional to fine tune some things later on, the capabilities (or lack thereof) of the site-builder you’re using can have a a huge impact on how costly those revisions will be, or whether they’re even possible at all.
One of the biggest drawbacks of site-builders are theirÂ hermetic eco-systems. In many cases the themes, code, and hosting for your site is entirely confinedÂ to the theirÂ proprietary platform (If not owned by the site-builder outright). FeaturesÂ and site capabilities are also dictated by them. Third party appsÂ can supplement a site-builder’s own limitations but they still exercise control over which pluginsÂ they choose to support.Â Even if you like the company you’re with at the moment, the fact that the site you’ve invested so much time creatingÂ isÂ at someone else’sÂ mercyÂ should give you pause.
In many cases you don’t even retain any realÂ ownership of “your” site. You’re kind ofÂ just renting it. If your business outgrows the features theyÂ offer and you decide to move to another host or CMS, you’ll probablyÂ have to leave your current site behindÂ (This is why being able to export your site code is a big deal). If you’re serious about your site and its future, thisÂ is an unsettling prospect.
Some site-builders are more lenient than others. WordPress for instance, is an endlessly flexible platform and as previously mentioned, some site-builders will allow you to export code. Still, the possibilityÂ of having to startÂ again from scratch should be reason enoughÂ to think long and hard about whether or not the value of a site-builder is worth the potential cost.
Depending on the needs of your site, yourÂ ambition in the online space, your budget, and willingness to get your hands dirty, it is possibleÂ to create and manage your own site with the help of a site-builder. Never take the process or decision for granted, however. There are a lotÂ of potential issues you need to be aware of, and problems you can create for yourself if you’re not careful.
There is a lot that goes into proper web design.Â Easily more than meets the eye. Having a small budget isn’t a crime, but it’s important to understand the value ofÂ professional web design services and why seemingly less expensive do-it-yourself buildersÂ are more of a superficial substitute than a legitimate replacement.
If you’re interested in learning more about the web design process, or whereÂ to begin with your own website or brand, give me a shout.Â As a small business advocate, I enjoy the consultancy processÂ and wouldÂ love to sit down and discuss your project.