Web designers have always disliked the idea of business owners creating their own websites. This isn’t because it means less work for them, but because, more often than not, the resulting site offends their sensibilities.
Business owners are traditionally much better at running businesses than they are at coding and design. Those that try to juggle both tend to make a mess of one. It’s also much more cost-effective to get a web designer to create a site for you – you waste less time learning to do it yourself, and are more likely to get a good result.
Over the past few years, this reasoning has lost some of its lustre, particularly for startups with very limited budgets. Open source content management systems (CMSs) like WordPress and Joomla, along with drag-and-drop, self-design services like Big Commerce and Shopify, have given those with relatively little knowledge of web design the ability to create business websites cheaply and easily.
It is possible for you to create a functional website for your business, whether you run an online retail store or a bricks-and-mortar operation that needs the web equivalent of a shiny brochure. The key to doing it well is to have a good idea of what’s possible, and to understand that creating a good site doesn’t have much to do with bells and whistles.
1. Hosted web design services
There are two basic options for small business owners that want to design their own website: hosted web design services or open-source content management systems.
Hosted services are the simpler, less versatile alternative to open source CMSs. Sites like Shopify and Big Commerce are tailored specifically to create e-commerce stores, while alternatives like Squarespace and Google Sites offer more open-ended options for web design. These platforms are typically priced on a month-to-month or yearly subscription basis. Users choose from an array of templates – or basic structures – on which to build their site, and then arrange the site structure, look and feel with a drag-and-drop interface. Every element of a template is changeable, but users are usually restricted to the options set by the template. These services also offer the ability to edit the code of templates, but for someone lacking experience in web coding, this defeats the purpose a little.
Kelly Brough, CEO of online toy store Oola, designed her online store using Shopify. She claims it took her approximately a week to get it up and running.
“Shopify will give you all the components you need from content management, inventory management, and your front end for consumers through to the shopping cart,” she says. “You don’t need to do any technical development to start using it, and all you really need to do is configure the look and feel and upload your products in order to start using it.”
When choosing a hosted service, it’s important to investigate how easily it will integrate with your existing systems. One of Brough’s motivations for choosing Shopify was its wide range of APIs (application programming interface). An API is a feature of a website that helps one piece of software (ie Shopify) talk to another (ie your offline inventory system).
“If you want to do something like add additional capabilities to provide different product information to what you have – if you want to collect product reviews, if you want to tap into some of your product information to create product feeds for marketing purposes – those things require you to use the API to pull out that information from your core system,” she says.
The only trouble she encountered was that she didn’t have the technical expertise to make use of these APIs, and had to hire a freelance web developer to make the changes for her.
Besides the need to outsource these types of modifications, there are a few drawbacks to using hosted web design services. The most notable shortcoming is that any template you choose is unlikely to be unique to your business, meaning that other web stores that also use the service may have a very similar feel to your site. Another downside is that these services often only cater to the most basic of web design requirements – many businesses will need to outsource a fair bit of modification to get the site they really need. David Kellam, founder and IT director of CoreMind, used a number of hosted template-based design services in his former role as managing director of a web development firm.
“I tried dozens of them at the time, and I found myself unable to make something that had that basic design balance of consistency and layout,” he says. “With most of them, I very quickly needed to do things that I would otherwise do if I was just building it from scratch.”
He suggests that services like Shopify or BigCommerce will better suit businesses willing to change what they do slightly to suit the design platform. The more specific and complex your requirements, the less suitable these services will prove to be.
“We started with Volusion, but after the design phase, we actually realised that it didn’t work for us,” says Magda de Berg, owner of Toy Universe, of the hosted self-design service used to create her first business website. “It wasn’t technically advanced enough in that their SEO was very poor – they didn’t have SEO-friendly URLs, for example.”
In addition to SEO troubles, de Berg found that the software wasn’t well suited to retail stores with large ranges of products. Without the ability to export and manipulate orders in bulk, each product and sale had to be manually processed by the business.
“We were very much going for the look and feel of the website when we first started out,” she says. “What we didn’t do so well was the technical back end that would help all the search engines look at our website and actually list us on Google.”
2. Open source CMSs
Making a website using an open-source CMS may prove to be a more challenging proposition to someone with little experience, but it’s by far the preferable alternative to hosted design services. It gives you more control over the design of your site, and makes it easier to modify and expand as the business grows.
As with Shopify, the open-source CMS approach starts with the user choosing a template that will dictate the basic look, feel and functionality of their site. The major difference is that the software is free – anyone can use it without having to pay a licensing fee or subscription. Also, because the CMS is open source, anyone can edit or modify it. This means that there is a much greater range of templates to choose from, and users aren’t limited to those offered by the CMS itself – there are countless ‘theme’ libraries, such as WuThemes, that have thousands of templates for sale.
Typically, the best templates or themes have to be bought, but the cost is rarely more than a couple of hundred dollars. Once a template is chosen, it can be modified fairly simply with the use of plug-ins. A plug-in is an add-on that adds a new function to your site. If you need to add a Facebook button to your site, or need a tool to improve its search ranking, you can find plug-ins to help. It’s also important to understand that if you choose to use a CMS, you will have to host the site yourself, at an additional cost of between $8 and $30 a month.
Although there are a number of open source CMSs available (most notably Drupal and Joomla), the most commonly encountered system among small businesses is WordPress.
He points out that another benefit of choosing WordPress is the ease with which it allows users to shuffle through themes until they find one that best suits what your business needs.
“Even though WordPress might not be the technical ideal, it’s very friendly to get started,” says Kellam. “It’s got an in-built theme builder, for instance. You just search for a theme and install it, and if you don’t like it, five seconds later you install a different one. If your company’s logo is purple and blue, you can find a theme that contains those colours. You could be up and running for a couple of hundred bucks, if not less. You could theoretically do the whole lot for free.”
Know what you want
Although WordPress makes it simple enough to begin making a website, those without a small amount of web design experience are still likely to struggle with the more technical aspects of fine-tuning it to their requirements. If you run up against problems when piecing the first draft of your site together, the best course of action is to outsource. This means visiting sites like Freelancer, Guru, or Elance, and finding a web designer that fits your budget and has experience with your chosen CMS.
As soon as you bring a web developer into the equation, it changes the nature of the ‘do it yourself’ approach significantly. In order to get the best value for your money from a designer, you have to be able to give them very specific instructions about what you need for the site.
“You need to give them a constrained technical problem, such as ‘I can’t make this image appear over here’, or ‘I want a page layout that looks like this’,” says Kellam. “If your project is more complex than what you described, it’s possible they’re just going to stuff it up.”
Regardless of whether you settle on WordPress or a platform like Shopify, creating your own site requires you to think like a user experience designer. You need to be able to weigh what you need against what the CMS and template you choose are capable of doing. Oola’s Kelly Brough suggests that considering your customers’ needs will help with this process.
“You want to think about some of the key features that are non-negotiable from a customer perspective, and make sure that the software you choose has those,” she says. “Have a clear view of what your non-negotiable items are.”
She notes that the same attitude should apply to the platform’s back end functionality, as this is what you’ll be using every day to update the site once it’s live.
“If you have a separate inventory system that you must be able to integrate with, check that first, and make sure that will work,” says Brough. “If you have a particular system that can’t be changed, make sure you can make that work. It will save you a lot of time down the track.”
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