Recently a colleague asked me to produce a web site for her on Squarespace.  If you’ve never heard of Squarespace, they are an online “do it yourself” web site publishing service.  They host your web site for a monthly fee, and you use their software to create it.

This prompted me to open a test account and do a  mini review of Squarespace and their services Skip ahead to mini review of Squarespace

It also begs the question:  Why hire a web designer at all?! More on this later….
Skip ahead to “Why hire a designer?”.

First, I’d like to say that Squarespace is the best user interface I’ve seen for creating and editing an “Instant” web site.  This includes Go Daddy’s WebSite Tonight and Yahoo’s SiteBuilder, among others.  Having said that, I’ll list some pros and cons for using these services in general.

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PROS – Hosted Website Building Software

  • Can be quick, easy and cheap to get started.
  • Website owners can easily edit most content on their site.
  • The web host will keep the software updated, so you won’t have to.
  • You may get more functionality for less (IE blogs, calendars, guestbooks).
  • Since these sites are database driven, your content (IE blog entries, text, images) can more easily be, stored and re-arranged.

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CONS – Hosted Web Site Building Software

  • Higher monthly fees for web hosting, which may ultimately end up costing more than a custom web site.  You may be forced to pay for an upgraded status just to get a specific feature (IE a calendar) on your web site.
  • No matter how easy it sounds, those who want to build or edit a site must learn new software, read instructions and generally be motivated to problem-solve.
  • You are married to your web host, since they own the software.  Moving your web site to another host would be difficult to impossible.   Taking your templated site design with you when you go would probably be a copyright violation.
  • Like all user interfaces, web building software has limitations when compared to custom designs.  Sure, you can get your logo to appear on your web site.  But can you get it sized right, with the right background color, in the right place?  There is no comparison to what a good designer can do when working directly with the HTML and CSS code.
  • Since these sites are database driven, pages may be slower to load, and search engine optimization may be compromised (depends on your host / software).

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Looking at the “CONS” list above, you might  be ready to write off this option altogether.  Certainly I would say that for most people, a custom designed web site can more effectively meet your needs and be  more cost effective in the long  run.

BUT…
If you’re on a budget and you need to make lots of updates to your site after it’s built,  hosted web site building software may still be a viable option.   And if you really just want to “slap up a page” and get started, it’s definitely worthy of  consideration.

Now let’s say you’d like some level of  customization, and want to make sure things get done correctly, so that you can build on your work later.  Why not consider hiring a web designer to help you?  Here’s some food for thought:

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Why Hire a Web Designer (with Hosted Site Building Software)?

  • You’ll get started on the right track. A good designer can advise you on what service to use and how to avoid some of the pitfalls.
  • You’ll get started! After all, sometimes this can be the hardest part.  Why not hire a pro whose job it is to cut through some of the confusion, keep you focused and help you reach your goal?
  • It may be less costly than you think.  I discount my services up to 30% when using web site building software (assuming it’s a good host / software that saves me time rather than adding to my workload).
  • You’ll get the design customization you need. A professional designer can work with (or around) the limitations of the software to make sure your logo and branding fit with the website.  One way this is accomplished is with image & graphic software such as Photoshop, and the associated skill set.  What the web hosts don’t tell you is this:  If you lack image processing skills, you simply will not be able to customize your web site.
  • You’ll get the functionality you need. With professional help, you can analyze your present and future needs first, then decide on the appropriate host and level of service.  This way you are more likely to pay for what you need, and not pay for extra bells and whistles.  And, of course, your web designer will make sure the widgets work!
  • You get help interacting with your web host. It seems like tech support people sometimes speak in foreign tongues.  In reality, there are simple terms and concepts that can eliminate the language barrier.  Your web designer can get you started with these as s/he tackles the “start-up” issues.  Later, you’ll be familiar with the system and how to get the help you need directly from your web host.
  • Your designer can give you some advice and / or training on how to edit your website. Once you’re up and running, you won’t need to call the web designer every time you have fix a typo.  No more designer dependency!

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Finally, here are my impressions of  Squarespace, as opposed to other similar “build your own” solutions. Please note that this isn’t meant to be a full-on review.  It’s just my opinion, after using the software.  I did open a trial account and create a web site, visible here until November 7.

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Squarespace PROS

  • User-friendly, intuitive interface
  • Good help /support documentation
  • Good selection of widgets and functions
  • Reasonable monthly cost ($8 – $50) for various levels of service
  • Pricing information is straightforward and easy to find
  • Some direct access to code allowed (designers can make modifications)

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Squarespace CONS

  • Should you decide to change web hosts, the site would not be movable.  This applies to all hosts that offer “build your-own” software.  Squarespace does make it easy to export your data, however, and this would be quite helpful.
  • Like other hosted “build-your-own” sites, the software has some limitations.
  • Certain useful features will require a higher priced service package.  The form builder, for example, is only available with the business package ($30 / month).  User-created logins / accounts are only available with the community package ($50/month).
  • It’s not free.  There are open source alternatives such as WordPress and Joomla that are free, and they are supported by many web hosts.  To be fair,  Squarespace has a much higher level of customer support than these free alternatives, and the fact that they host and upgrade their own software also puts them in a different category.