Choosing the right platform

In today’s web-savvy world, there are countless ways to develop websites in easy “drag and drop” editors such as Wix, Squarespace, BigCommerce, Shopify,  and Weebly.  Unfortunately, these tools assume a lot about their users and still leave a lot to be desired when it comes to meeting their needs.  At JBTheory, we keep an open mind and look at new tools objectively to find out if they could meet the needs of our clients.

One of the more complicated to explain is WordPress.com.  WordPress began as a free, open-source, platform for developers to host on their own server and design blog-style websites.  Since then, the platform has evolved, now in its fourth full iteration, to adapt to the changing world around it.  WordPress.org still provides this free platform which can be hosted on most any server, however, the creators of WordPress have now expanded to a fully hosted solution where users can build a blog, just like a Wix or Weebly website, using a template-based service.  WordPress.org is free forever as a platform for building large, dynamic, websites.  WordPress.com is a paid platform with limited capabilities.  It is important to understand this difference as it pertains to finding the right tool for you.

We base our assessments on tools on five key components: User Friendliness, Responsiveness, Capability for growth, Cost, and Reach (SEO and Social Media Integration).

User Friendliness

All of the template-based services we have found have a large focus on user friendliness.  They strive to make every decision about design and content easy for all users.  With the exception of Google Sites, each platform is very similar.

Responsiveness

While they all have a different approach, Weebly, Wix, BigCommerce, Shopify, and Squarespace are all very capably of cross-compatibility.  Sometimes this comes at a financial cost for users as some features that they would like are only available if they pay for a membership.

Capability for growth

Growth is the hardest thing for any template-based service to manage.  The question isn’t “Can they grow?” however, the question is “How long will it take for my website to reflect my growth?”.  The most common time-consuming task of creating a website isn’t the initial design or even the basic pages, but developing and maintaining an online store.

Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace have similar approaches to a store; add a product block, choose the product to display, add content, save, and style as needed.  Sounds easy enough, but what if you have 100 products to input on your website before you can really market it?  On average, even a fast user takes 5-7 minutes per product to user this method, assuming they already have the content (title, description, and image) they need for the product.  That quickly translates to 8-11 hours of time just on putting in products.  Add that to 5-6 hours of setting up the rest of the website and users spend 13-19 hours developing their website initially, and every time they add 5-6 products, the cycle begins again.  This can be especially taxing if a website is an expansion on an already thriving business.

Shopify and BigCommerce are more adept for the growth of an online store, providing users with a much faster setup where they can toss in content, throw in an image, click publish, and move to the next product.  This setup makes the time to add each product much faster (1-3 minutes per product) which saves a lot of time and effort for users.  However, their shortfall is that the design of the website suffers for this kind of ease.  Websites designed with these service are easy to spot with fast transition times, blocky sections, and limited theme sets.

In short, there’s a reason stores like Best Buy or Target don’t just use a service like this that seems to have online stores “figured out”.  In the end, if you can’t have your website look good, function well, and grow with you then the website is largely useless and can even drive customers away from your stores.

Cost

Let’s face it.  The question always comes down to cost.  Users can sometimes accept that a platform they’ve chosen and developed a website in isn’t capable of doing certain things or takes time to accomplish some thing things if the cost is low.  By far, we find that Weebly, Wix, and Squarespace do the job relatively well for most marketing websites, while Shopify and BigCommerce do the job for online stores pretty well.  What

I even got my start working on Weebly.  The tool provides for rapid development, relatively nice themeing, and gives access to the stylesheet so that users who know CSS can snaz up the design beyond the basic functionality.  However, as I got further in development and expanded my experience, I found that costs were high and the return on investment was low.

Template-based websites make their money through memberships and “pro features”.  Pro features are usually things that basic users can maybe live without, like hosted video and audio (ie. videos that only live on the website instead of YouTube videos), branding, and other features.  Weebly, for example, lets users create a free website and will even host it for free!  However, these free websites have Weebly’s branding in the footer, Weebly’s favicon (that little image next to a site’s name in a browser tab), and the free domains are yoursite.weebly.com.

While it’s normal for a developer to advertise themselves as the developer of a website, template-based websites tend to “kick it up a notch”, which can detract from the branding of the individual or business using the service.  One of the largest fields in web design is User Experience Design.  People in this position have 1 main job: make sure our users don’t just see us, but experience who we are just by visiting our website.  Branding by a template-based service detracts from the User Experience and clutters the brand.

In order to have quality user experience for the audience, with all of the needs and features you need for your website, will require a membership, plus the cost of a domain (Weebly and Wix sell domains through their own system).

Let’s do the math:

  • Standard Template-Based Service
    • Domain:  ~$36 per year
    • Hosting:  Typically free
    • Pro Membership:  ~$49
    • Monthly cost: ~$9.99
    • Time spent: 6-20 hours of dedicated time to set up initially, approximately 10-20 hours per month to maintain: (assuming minimum wage)  ~$1,895.00 per year
    • Total: ~$1,979.99
  • Template-Based Store Service
    • Domain: ~$10 per year
    • Hosting:  Typically free
    • Membership:  $29.00 – $299.00 per month
    • Time spent: 5-15 hours of dedicated time to set up initially, approximately 10-20 hours per month to maintain: (assuming minimum wage)  ~$1,848.75 per year
    • Total:  as much as ~$5,446.75 per year + a percentage per transaction

Reach

What’s the point of a website if nobody sees it?  A website’s reach is based on how it’s Search Engine Optimization and Social Media connection.  It sounds simple, but accomplishing this is a lofty goal for any website.

Social Media connection is the “easy part”.  By connecting a Facebook page, Twitter account, and/or YouTube channel, any business has a basic connection.  Enhancements to this include share buttons on content that will task your web audience to share links from their website on their own social media accounts, embedding timelines to show visitors to the website things that your Facebook page is publishing, etc.  Keeping this connection alive with provocative and meaningful content keeps the cycle of audience involvement going.

Search engine optimization is another bear entirely.  There are many factors that go into SEO and each effects a website’s reach in drastic ways.  For instance, websites that are not mobile responsive (ie. hard to read on a mobile device) are automatically suppressed by search engines.  This means that even if everything else is right, a website that isn’t mobile responsive will show up below almost everything remotely related to it when users search for it using a search engine.

Beyond that, a website’s meta information tells search engines what the website is for or about.  A specialized sub-language to HTML called “Shema” provides in-page markup which tells search engines about important things such as phone numbers, mailing addresses, etc.  Without it, some search engines will just read it as body text and report back that there is no phone number listed on the site.

Template-based services all try to meet the needs of their clients by giving ways to serve up this information to search engines but only someone who really understand SEO will really know what all to look for and fill in.  Weebly, for instance, buries the meta information section inside the settings for the website.  Schema has to be added by writing body text which contains schema information in HTML and manually tagging it with schema, which assumes users 1) know Schema and 2) know how to use it.

In conclusion, finding the right platform is the key to saving time and money.  I started JBTheory, LLC to take the job of designing, developing, and maintaining a quality website off the plate of my users.  By developing our own themes and plugins, we keep costs down without sacrificing quality.  We build our websites using the platforms and systems that will best meet the long-term needs of our clients and stay on with them to maintain these websites for our clients.  Overwhelmingly our client feedback is that our clients love that they can just send us an e-mail and trust that we’ll take care of the rest.  With quality design, we meet the needs of our clients and get high marks in all of the 5 categories used to measure the quality of our websites.