The days when you had to pay enormous amounts of money to have a website designed from scratch are long gone. Thankfully for small businesses, the dynamic communities around open source content management systems (CMS) like WordPress, Drupal and Joomla have resulted in the advent of the template-based website.
The idea is simple: you establish what you want to achieve online, choose which CMS is best suited to that, and then browse pre-designed templates. The practice is slightly less simple. There’s a certain degree of compromise involved – unless you can afford a web designer to tweak your chosen template to match what you had planned – and it’s unusual to find a design that solves all your problems straight off the shelf. Which brings us back to the old-fashioned and undesirable notion of a bespoke website built at great cost to the business owner.
Find a template
You might be surprised to learn that the use of templates and free, open source CMSs is actually incredibly common in the world of web design – so much so that it’s the standard approach of many freelance web designers. More surprising, however, is that the template-based approach is used by minor and major sites alike. Unless you know what to look for, it’s difficult to tell a bespoke website from one that’s based on a modified theme.
A good example is Buyii.com.au, a daily deals aggregator site created by serial entrepreneur Zhen Lim. The site’s a relatively sophisticated idea, collecting data from businesses like Groupon and Spreets, and compiling it all for deal-hungry consumers to browse and compare.
“Basically, we have an automatic RSS feed generator, so we take feeds and data from our partner sites, group buying websites. They submit us details like title, description, and time end of each deal,” says Lim. “This is all fed into our database, and then it publishes a post for every deal that we’ve published on our website.”
What isn’t immediately obvious is that the whole thing is built on WordPress: a free, open source content management system (CMS) originally created for blogging. Lim explains that although the site is based on a humble platform, the template it uses is quite complex.
“Buyii is actually highly customised. It runs on a really highly optimised, HTML5 theme,” he says. “The template was crowdsourced through a competition. I use crowdsourcing quite a bit, through websites such as 99 Designs. We selected the winner, and from there we took on a developer to skin that into our WordPress site.”
The reason Buyii uses WordPress as its basis comes down to the fact that the CMS is open source. Since open source systems aren’t owned by single company, any developer is free to create functional modifications (referred to as plugins) that the system’s users can then ‘bolt on’ to their websites at the click of a button.
“A plugin changes the way that the CMS actually works,” explains Robert Steers, managing director at Creative Development. “A plugin might make an addition to a system in any number of ways. It could be the way the images look, or it could be adding a gallery function.”
Given that Buyii was going to be a data-based site with high traffic, Lim knew it needed a CMS with plugins robust enough to help it cope.
“We needed a CMS platform in which we could manage posts and deals, and that had really good search engine optimisation plugins to be SEO effective. That’s paid off quite well,” he says. “The other main thing was, in order to manage the traffic, we needed a CMS platform that had caching and a whole bunch of optimisation already included in the platform, because we were going to be a very high traffic site. That, again, has paid off quite well, in that the caching has really helped us manage the traffic levels that we get.”
Given the demands of its audience, Buyii was always going to need a relatively elaborate and advanced take on the template approach to web design to function properly. The process of creating Tee Junction, a custom t-shirt printing company and one of Lim’s earlier businesses, was much simpler. Settling on a different open source CMS called Joomla, Lim created a wireframe (a visual draft layout) of what he wanted for the site, which included a header, a menu detailing general content areas, and the layout of the site’s homepage. He then browsed template providers for a layout that could match what he wanted to achieve, and bought one for around $180. After a colour scheme change and the installation of an SEO plugin to ensure the site ranked well for t-shirt printing in search, Tee Junction was operational.
“The total cost to setup and go live was about $500 and the site now turns over $35,000 in revenue per month,” says Lim.
Choosing a CMS
Building a website from a template upwards is not necessarily a walk in the park. It helps to have a modicum of knowledge with respect to writing HTML (much of which can be gained for free from tutorials at web standards site W3Schools). It’s also wise to employ a web developer, at least as a consultant if not in a hands on role. This is especially advisable for CMSs like Joomla and Drupal, which offer greater capability at the cost of being more technically demanding.
Before you settle on any particular CMS or site layout, it’s important to establish exactly what you want to achieve with your website.
“Wordpress is great for basic users and small businesses who might really only want a blog or to make some small changes to their front page every now and again,” says Creative Development’s Steers. “But it’s not built for having multiple users who are all updating different sections.”
He suggests that Drupal or Joomla are better suited to sites that need to accommodate a multitude of users, due to their more complex permissions systems. While WordPress gives administrators the ability to create different levels of authority, the other systems allow administrators to restrict contributors to particular sections, making the prospect of managing larger sites much simpler.
Often, larger companies with more complex ideas for online businesses settle choose to use WordPress due to its underlying simplicity. Steers notes that both Fastcompany and the My Telegraph sites both operate on the CMS, and with good reason.
“I think it’s because they’ve gone for some sort of a blogging methodology, which is just kind of a two-step process,” he says. “There’s a writer who puts the information in and there’s a publisher who hits publish, and there’s no arguments about anything else in between.”
Despite the greater possibilities offered by Drupal and Joomla, Steers notes that there is much to be said for the simplicity of WordPress. He explains that installing plugins in the more complex CMSs involves a considerable degree of cross-referencing on the part of the administrator, whereas in WordPress, it often only takes a single click to install and start using a plugin.
“The main thing is don’t overcomplicate things. For an average user, you can do so much in WordPress, whereas most people need to talk to a developer when they’re dealing with Joomla or Drupal,” he says.
Image credit: Thinkstock