A giant “FREE” sign always a great way to get customers to beat a path to your door, whether you’re a brick-and-mortar operation or you exist mainly in cyberspace.
But when it comes to building or updating your website, this rule still applies: There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.
Another familiar rule also applies: You get what you pay for. (See “webpagesthatsuck.com” for entertainment.)
If your business, nonprofit, government agency or education institution is about to build a website or launch into an update or a redesign, here are some translations to help you make sense of the Geek speak vocabulary your tech tribe (or designated web hitter) will soon be bringing to you.
(By the way, that's a public domain image that's perfectly legal for me to use. I got it from Wikimedia Commons, a really great image database).
Don’t care to learn Geek speak or don’t have time? Skip to the bottom to see what you really need. (No one will know.) The answer really depends on whether you're a Goliath (a giant, with legions at your disposal) or a David (a scrappy, scrawny little guy ready to take on the giants).
To Code, or Not to Code?
HTML coding – Talk Like an Egyptian. Dilbert writes it and Geeks may love it but no one else does. To non-techies, it looks like hieroglyphics, or even worse: algebra. HTML is the underlying string of letters and symbols and numbers which make everything on the web and in your email and on your computer screen appear the way they do. If you want to open up the hood and peer into the conveyor belts, chain reactions and gerbils on treadmills running what you see online, find the “View Source Code” browser tool and take a peek. It’ll look something like this:
Had enough? No one creates websites by coding from scratch anymore, unless they’re part of the development unit of a WYSIWYG or CMS company and they’re testing a new webpage or template recipe. Why? For the same reason no one makes mayonnaise from scratch anymore, unless they’re a celebrity chef. There are so many pre-made versions for budget to gourmet tastes (and prices) available in the market, no one needs to.
If anyone suggests to you that you hire a Geek to build your web site by hand-coding the html “from scratch,” smile and nod and then never talk to that person again. Definitely do not give them any of your money. There’s never going to be any free lunch in this option.
WYSIWYG – “What You See is What You Get” web software programs. A decade ago, everyone was using them; Microsoft was wrestling Macromedia to see if FrontPage (remember FrontPage?) or Dreamweaver would win world domination. Dreamweaver and Macromedia won, and then Adobe, the pdf powerhouse, swept in and bought Dreamweaver. Dreamweaver is about the only WYSIWYG left standing now.
And it's being replaced by "cloud" web creation and editing systems like WordPress and Wix. (WordPress is popular but Wix is way better for most non-techie humans. And neither one is paying me to say that.)
"Cloud-based" anything just means you have to have an Internet connection and an account in "The Cloud" (web storage servers owned by companies like Apple and Facebook and WordPress and Wix that charge you to store their stuff) to get to your stuff. When it's a website creation and hosting program blended together in one package, techies call it a "Content Management System." Especially if it'll send emails and enewsletters for you too.
What's the trend look like for software programs that let you create websites? My bet is on Wix (and WordPress) for websites of the future. Facebook got everyone comfortable with logging into a semi-private area on the Internet to communicate.
The “No Free Lunch” fine print: Unless you have a web designer and editor on staff, you’ll need to pay a designer to create your website (a fixed cost depending on how large your site is and what you want in it.)
Also, if you want to maintain your website in-house after it’s done (have your employees make future changes and additions to it), you’ll need to buy your own copy of (or license for) a web design software like Dreamweaver for a couple hundred $$$.
Or, you could pay Adobe $50 a month to join their “Creative Cloud.” Your staff can log in to it and use Adobe technology like Dreamweaver and Photoshop and InDesign to create your communications, electronic and print. You'll need to pay someone trained in those programd to do it.
But if you’re not going to make daily or weekly future changes and additions to your website, that probably isn't the best thing for you.
Decisions, decisions, decisions...
So what is the best choice for you and why? Weigh your options or skip to the end to find out.
CMS – Content Management Systems. Some are proprietary, meaning all the coding squirrels on treadmills that run under their hoods are secret/not shared. Go with a proprietary system and you’ll need to use their designers (at a cost), or their preset templates and designs, AND you’ll probably have to host your website on their servers.
The “No Free Lunch” fine print here is pretty easy to see: you’ll pay more for website hosting if you go with a proprietary CMS system. Contrast the monthly $25 to $40 cost of a very small-scale proprietary CMS contract with the $14-$17/month monthly fee for business hosting packages offered by vendors like Verio.com (the ATT of Japan) or GoDaddy or Wix.
The most popular CMS programs currently are "Open Source" -- so-called “free” website software platforms. Open Source programs have been created by thousands of passionate paid and volunteer web developers around the world who really, really, really believe that THEIR software is the ultimate best. And all others are for wimps.
The big three (well, big two) are WordPress and Joomla (two U.S.-based organizations). Drupal (a Dutch outfit), lags behind Dreamweaver in popularity and use currently – but it seems to be amassing fans in U.S. branches of government and education.
Currently, WordPress is the most popular CMS software platform in the U.S. and globally, in that it has more Facebook fans and is Googled far more often than Joomla or Drupal.
Each has fervent devotees. Each use slightly different vocabulary to refer to similar features they all offer. A quick survey of “compare and contrast” articles on CMS platforms shows techie bloggers generally agree that WordPress is the easiest for “non-Geeks” to use. It originated as a software package for bloggers (writers), so it was originally built to handle words and photos.
The “No Free Lunch” fine print on CMS: Devotees and developers of WP, Drupal and Joomla will all swear that their systems are easier to use and way better than that old fashioned stuff like Dreamweaver, and heck, they are FREE. But -- and it's a big BUT -- you and your staff will still have to learn how to use them after someone builds your website. And most of them are built and maintained by volunteers outside the U.S. Who knows what kind of tracking and snooping is going on in that Open Source Drupal website you just built? I don't.
And the big Open Source web software programs are not “easier to use.” Or even easy to use, if you don't have a degree in computer programming or web design. There is an entire business sector full of private firms who employ professionals to use Drupal and Wordpress to create good looking websites for clients. And another industry of professionals who charge fees to train people to how operate their open source CMS software websites after they've been built. They’re all over YouTube with “free” advertorials.
But if you're a huge company, and you need to add new content daily or you have an extensive catalog of merchandise or an ever-changing array of videos you want to put online, an Open Source CMS platform may be the ticket for you. A CMS platform is also good for firms and organizations with many people and departments who will be working on many different parts of the same website. Using CMS means one or two (or all) of them won’t be able to crash it. Fatally.
BBC America and Variety use WordPress. EBay and GE Transportation use Joomla. The White House website runs on Drupal; so does the 9/11 Memorial website.
(For another good explanation plus graphics on WordPress vs. Drupal vs. Joomla, see this 2011 blog article by webnethosting.net.)
What if you're not Goliath? What if you're a David?
If you’re a small business, a small nonprofit, a sole proprietor, or even a mid-size band of web warriors blazing trails in new territories, what's best for you? If you’ll only have one or two staffers (or a freelancer) adding limited content to your site weekly, monthly, or quarterly -- use Wix.
In saying this, I'm cutting myself out of a lot of business. But literally, if you can make a PowerPoint presentation, or add text boxes and an image to a Microsoft Word document -- you can create and maintain a fantastic professional website with Wix.com.
The hitch is you have to buy one of their premium web hosting packages ($14.99 and $17.99 at the lower end) and host your website on Wix.com (after you've secured your domain name, like www.thisismywebsite.com).
They have hundreds of templates that are easy to change. It's easy to upload photos. You don't have to Photoshop them or do anything to them to get them the size you want. You can make photo galleries. Slideshows. Video galleries. You can switch to "device view" and see what your website looks like on phones and tablets -- and fix any weird display issues there without affecting your web display.
And you don't even have to know how to do any of that stuff when you start. It is SO Easy.
Of course, it still helps if you hire a reasonably-priced professional to write your web copy and create some good photos for your site and train you how to use it. Or help you pick a template and adapt it for your needs -- or design you a Wix website from scratch. (That's where we come in.)
So, if you’ve outgrown your old website and you’re not sure where to go next but you know you need to do something – now you know.
Once you decide that, you can straighten out your social media presence. Facebook v. Twitter. To tweet or not to tweet? And what about YouTube? And then there's Instagram now. How do you keep up?
A discussion for another blog.
Teresa Mariani Hendrix has led clients, colleagues and friends through the web wilderness without losing any of them so far.