When we talk about first impressions, we often focus on physical aspects of our attractions or offices such as the parking lot, the front door, restrooms, signage, etc. And that’s appropriate. But the impression your website makes is important too. In many cases it will be the first contact potential visitors, volunteers, donors and others have with your organization.
If you make a poor impression, they’ll simply move on.
Many of us know our systems should be updated. We’re sick of old, ugly websites we can’t change. Maybe we’ve given up on having a website altogether and confined our online presence to social media platforms like Facebook. (That’s a very bad idea, by the way. Read why here.)
We’d love to change things, but who has the time and patience to figure out what needs to be done or the money to hire a web designer to fix everything?
Take a deep breath and relax. You can do this. I promise. You don’t have to learn to write code and you don’t need thousands of dollars. You do, however, have to have an open mind and a desire to get the technical side of your house in order.
The Bad Old Days
Back in the 1990s, the days of yore in Internet terms, websites were basically static digital brochures. Once your site was up, you ignored it until you had to change something. If you needed a new page, for example, you contacted a programmer. The page magically appeared and you received an invoice, usually for a hefty amount of money.
I had a site like that. I thought it was wonderful. Sure it was expensive but that was the cost of doing business.
I know many of you are still relying on old sites. I know because I’ve looked at them. And I’m not the only one who knows. The fact that your site is hopelessly outdated is immediately obvious to everyone who visits, especially if they are coming in via a mobile device.
The Mobile Tipping Point
If you’re running an old site, the odds are it’s not mobile friendly.
Why does that matter? The number of people using mobile devices increases each day. Out-of-town visitors may not be aware of your event or attraction until they arrive in the area and start checking for things to do on their phones. If your website doesn’t load properly or they are unable to find basic information like directions, opening hours and admission prices, you’ve lost them.
To add insult to injury, last year Google began penalizing sites that are not mobile responsive. This causes those sites to rank poorly in search results. This could be a huge problem depending on how much competition you have.
In order to have a mobile friendly, responsive site you need to install software that detects the types of devices people are using to access your information and adjusts how your material is displayed so that it fits the smaller screens. Sounds like a big, complicated and expensive programming problem, doesn’t it?
Sometimes it is easier and cheaper to just start over. But how, exactly, does one do that?
What About WordPress?
Six or seven years ago many people, including me, dumped our old HTML sites and moved to WordPress, a free publishing platform that allows you to build your own site. It was a definite improvement over having to pay a third party to create and maintain our content. It’s still an incredibly popular platform. More than a quarter of all websites run on WordPress.
The challenge with WordPress is its steep learning curve, not to mention the endless tinkering and tweaking it requires.
Your WordPress site is a DIY project. You are responsible for putting all the pieces together. You have to buy a domain (such as www.thehistorybiz.com). You have to set up hosting. There are lots of hosting companies and many of them are notoriously awful. Once you get the hosting account set up – hosting is not free – you must download and install WordPress onto the host site. Some hosting companies, such as Bluehost, make this very easy. With others it’s a frustrating and tedious chore.
The next step is to choose and add a theme that will define how your new site looks and operates. There are more than 30,000 WordPress themes. Many are free, but most people recommend that you invest in a premium theme for better quality and reliability.
Although your theme will contain many functions, it probably won’t have everything you want or need. You address that by installing plugins. Think of them as apps. There are thousands upon thousands of WordPress plugins. Some but not all plugins are free. Many are wonderful. Others are so full of bugs and susceptible to hacking they will break your site in ways you can’t even imagine.
And speaking of your site breaking, when things go wrong, you have to determine what caused the problem. Then you have to figure out how to fix it.
Did I mention there is no such thing as WordPress customer support? Many web designers specialize in WordPress and can help you if you run into trouble, but they don’t work for free.
Does this sound overwhelming? I haven’t even gotten to security, viruses, backups, endless software updates. Sigh.
Website Builders to the Rescue
There is another option, a way to get a reliable, beautiful site that you’ll be proud of up quickly and inexpensively. It’s what’s known as a website builder.
My favorite website builder is Squarespace. I switched from WordPress to Squarespace more than two years ago and I’ve never looked back.
I don’t work for Squarespace. I am not an affiliate. I am not being compensated by them in any way, shape or form. I recommend their product because I like it. Here’s why.
The Learning Curve – Squarespace is easy to learn. You don’t need to know anything about coding. There are hundreds of tutorials and guides on their site covering everything from the most basic questions to advanced topics. The step-by-step instructions are published in text and video formats so you can learn in the way that is best for you.
Squarespace is also easy to use. Almost everything is drag and drop and once you get used to it, it’s fairly intuitive. Editing your site, adding pages, creating photo galleries, blogging is all a piece of cake.
If you get stuck and need help, there’s free customer service. You can send your questions via email. Their response time is excellent. You can even *gasp* call customer support during regular business hours. You’ll be connected to a real person who is patient, knowledgeable and friendly.
Updates and Maintenance – You don’t have to worry about updating the software that’s running your Squarespace site. It’s automatically updated constantly. You won’t even know it’s happening. You don’t have to worry about backups or ongoing maintenance issues either.
Squarespace frequently rolls out new features. For example, a few weeks ago they sent all site owners the following message, which I’ve included in its entirety to give you a feel for what working with Squarespace is like.
We're now proud to offer free SSL support for all Squarespace websites.
Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL, is a technology that secures the connection between your browser and the website you’re visiting. (You can tell your connection to a website is secure by the green lock icon in your browser bar.) As the web moves towards secure by default, Google has stated their intention to prefer secure sites in their search engine results and browsers. With SSL support for all of our customers, we're setting everyone up to be ready for the future of the web before it arrives.
Previously, obtaining and installing a SSL certificate was both costly and technically difficult. With our implementation, Squarespace is handling all of the setup details to ensure you always have an up-to-date SSL certificate for your domain and that it is properly configured on your site. To generate our certificates, we've partnered with Let's Encrypt, a free and open certificate authority (CA) run for the public's benefit.
Current Squarespace users can see instructions on how to enable SSL on their site by checking out our Help guide. If you’re interested in learning more about our SSL implementation, you can check out our Engineering Blog. And if you have any questions about how SSL will affect your website, please contact our award-winning Customer Care Team.
Thank you for being a part of Squarespace.
So how hard was it to enable SSL for my site? Two clicks. It took less than a minute.
Security – Your Squarespace site is always protected from hackers and is free of bugs and viruses. You don’t have to do a thing.
Reliability – Squarespace is your hosting provider and your site runs on their servers. They’re monitoring things 24/7. There is almost no down time. They can handle huge traffic surges.
Flexibilty – There are more than 50 beautiful, high quality templates to choose from. More are being added all the time. When you sign up with Squarespace regardless of which pricing plan you choose, you have access to all of the templates. You can switch templates as often as you like.
The templates are customizable. You can change colors, fonts, add and delete pages and move elements around to your heart’s content. The templates are coded properly. Every one of them is mobile responsive. Your site is not just beautiful; it loads quickly and everything works.
Functionality – All Squarespace templates contain the functionality you need. You can set up a blog, add video, audio files, create photo galleries, sell digital or physical products, link and share to social platforms, create customized forms and send and receive email. Squarespace provides analytics, enhanced SEO and integrates with Google and Mailchimp.
Cost – Squarespace is a subscription service. You pay a monthly fee that includes everything: Access to all the templates, full functionality, customer service and support, tutorials, new features, hosting, updates and maintenance. You can even get your domain through Squarespace if you need one or connect a domain you already own. No problem.
There are four pricing plans and you can change your plan at any time. The least expensive is a personal site and the most expensive is an advanced e-commerce online store. As of November, 2016, the monthly rate for a personal site is $16, $12 if you sign up for an annual subscription. The advanced ecommerce rate is $46 a month or $40 if you pay annually. Visit this page for up to date pricing information and a detailed description of the differences between the various levels.
Squarespace offers a two-week free trial so you can work with the platform and make an informed decision whether it’s right for you.
One more important point: You own your content. If you decide later that you want to leave Squarespace, your content goes with you.
For many of us, website builders are the solution we’ve been waiting for. They allow us to have sophisticated, robust professional sites that we can update ourselves for a shockingly low price. They free us to focus on creating our photos, videos, audio files, articles and blog posts rather than screwing around with glitchy plugins or trying to figure out why we can’t get our phone number to show up on our contact page.
I encourage you to take a closer look.