Building a business website: why you should (mostly) avoid the DIY option
Creating a business website requires specialist design skills and technical knowledge: neither of which are necessarily in the toolkit of the average business owner. And yet having a professional website is increasingly a matter of necessity rather than choice. Stir in a measure of financial restraint and the traditional choice of hiring a web design firm for a four-figure fee is simply not a viable option.
So what are we left with? PC Pro reader Grahame Berney got in touch regarding this very dilemma. As a designer himself, Grahame is constantly being asked by small businesses how they can have a professional web presence without breaking the bank.
Most small businesses opt for one of two approaches. The first is to ask whoever handles their letterhead and business card design to knock up a website. This can sometimes work but often results in an expensive website created by a non-specialist who then charges for each update. For the truly cash-strapped a trip to a PC retailer to pick up a copy of “Mr Site” or similar is often the order of the day. Sadly, I have yet to see a site created using a template-driven CD-ROM that could, however generously, be considered “professional”.
And so, in desperation, many small business owners look to the online site builder tools. I’m not sure they expect to end up with a professional website using these tools – by this point they’d settle for “acceptable”. Is it possible, then, to create a credible website using an online tool?
I’m evaluating the range of site builder tools to find out what can be achieved by a non-technical business owner. I had already reviewed the Getting British Business Online initiative with disappointing results. I’d also tested 1&1’s MyBusiness product which, so far, has proven to be the only service that produces acceptable results (you can read my review of 1&1 MyBusiness here). Next on the lists is Webs.com which claims to be powering 50 million sites.
On the plus side Webs.com is very simple to use, as you’d expect of a product aimed at non-techies. The free version provides a URL that’s a subdomain of webs.com – in this case I selected candle-making.webs.com. Once you’ve selected your site name, you choose a category for your site and browse the available templates. Oddly, the choice on offer doesn’t reflect the category so there’s no help in deciding what might be a good design for your business type.
Webs claims “300+ templates” but it seems to me that this includes all the colour variations so the true figure is a fraction of that. Once you’ve found a template you’re prepared to accept, you can then choose some pages to add. There’s not a lot of variety here and it doesn’t look as though it’s possible to have a completely custom structure for your site.
You can now use Webs’ SiteBuilder to add content. I didn’t find this particularly easy – it’s especially hard to edit pictures once they’ve been put in place. Although it looks superficially like a drag and drop interface, in use the editor is rather clunky. You can add functionality via “apps” which include blogs, calendars and FAQ pages as well as an Etsy Store (useful if you’re a craft retailer) or CafePress shop.
The free service is ad-supported and you have no control over which ad might appear. For a business, it’s essential that you have your own domain name and for this you need to subscribe to the Enhanced or Pro packages costing £66 and £158 per year respectively.
Overall, I’m unimpressed. I don’t believe it’s possible to create a professional business website using Webs.com and even if you were prepared to invest the considerable time necessary to achieve a reasonable result, Webs doesn’t offer any export function so you’d be stuck with them long after you’d outgrown the service.
So far, I’ve not found a service that would produce a website that’s even close to what you could expect from a skilled designer so that’s still the route I’d recommend in most cases. If the money simply isn’t there, or for off-line businesses for whom the website is little more than a business card, the only worthwhile service I’ve seen so far is 1&1’s MyBusiness. I’ll keep looking: suggestions welcome!