Puppies are the Beatles of social media—everyone goes crazy for them. So, naturally, when my own brown, fluffy bundle of joy arrived a few weeks ago, the first thing I did was flood my Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds with photos.
But moments after my pup’s face appeared in those feeds, he vanished as fast as Thin Mints in the office kitchen. Social media’s ephemeral nature means everyone is just waiting for what’s next—his first haircut (like!); his trip to the vet (like!). But the story of Browser—yes, I named my puppy Browser, as in Web browser—lacks real continuity.
So I went old school: I grabbed a domain name—BrowserInYourBrowser.com, obviously—and built a website.
Maybe you’re rolling your eyes, especially at my puppy site. But social media fails all of us in this way, and its shortcomings are equally relevant for your small business, sports team, upcoming wedding or family reunion and even your résumé. Not Facebook, not Twitter, not even LinkedIn provide the personal and permanent digital homes you seek.
“So your high-tech solution is jumping back to the ’90s, dialing in to CompuServe and brushing up on coding or something?” you ask. No. The best part is that, unlike a decade ago, you don’t need “HTML for Dummies” to build a nice site.
I tested four online build-your-own-website tools and was stunned—seriously, stunned—at how easy it is to make something impressive. Within just an hour of using each of them, I was able to create pages that look straight out of Silicon Valley, and their huge, beautiful photos and bold text render well on computers, phones and tablets alike.
Weebly and Squarespace were my favorite services. Though different, each made me feel like I was hiring the best graphic designer, software engineer and webmaster to manage my site.
Pick a Platform
It’s a testament to the times that the hardest part of building your website today isn’t figuring out what the heck an HTML applet or CSS template is, but deciding which service you want to do all that hard work for you.
By my count, at least a dozen companies are offering all-in-one website-hosting and building services. I narrowed down my testing to four of the most highly recommended ones—Wix, Weebly, Jimdo and Squarespace. (I ruled out popular options such as WordPress, which isn’t as user friendly, or Tumblr, which is more of a social-blogging platform.)
All of the options I tested give you WYSIWYG (pronounced whizzy-wig, that’s nerdspeak for “what you see is what you get”) website-building tools. You customize and edit your site right through an interface that looks like the site itself. Once you’ve arranged things the way you like, you hit publish, and boom, it’s there for everyone to see.
After building very basic sites with each service, I determined that Weebly and Squarespace were the best options. Both were easy to use, and believe me, these were no 1995 GeoCities throwbacks, but modern, highly customizable pages. Wix and Jimdo were also easy, but they simply didn’t provide the same high-quality tools and templates.
In each of my two winning services, I found something the other didn’t offer—at least not yet. Weebly is more intuitive, with drag-and-drop features. It is my top choice for those who need time getting used to new software and features. Neither service is difficult to use by any means. But Weebly is the bunny hill to Squarespace’s green-circle ski slope.
Squarespace has more attractive, cutting-edge templates at the moment. Weebly will roll out new templates in the next few weeks that look similar to Squarespace’s. The good news is you can try both for free to see which you like best.
If You Build It…
I decided to use Squarespace to build BrowserInYourBrowser.com. I picked a template called “Shift,” which attracted me with full-width photos and a depth effect that causes images to move subtly as you scroll down the page.
Once you’ve chosen a template (on either Weebly or Squarespace), you start customizing. Though the tools are easy, the hard part is channeling your inner Don Draper and deciding on the site’s design and creative direction.
After figuring out exactly what pages and elements I wanted my puppy’s site to have, I collected all the photos and videos of Browser in one place, began uploading them and moving things around. Both services have helpful photo-editing tools, complete with fun filters.
Squarespace let me add interactive functionality to the existing template. I added Browser’s Instagram feed, a form where people can submit questions, even a page full of his favorite things, complete with Amazon buy buttons. You know, in case you too want to buy his favorite toy chicken. Other Web widgets include calendars, maps, a newsletter sign-up, and a PDF viewer (for menus, brochures, etc.), plus a selection of chart or graph templates.
(Small-business owners can use either service to create a secure storefront and manage payments. Since Browser produces nothing you’d want to buy, I didn’t test these features.)
Both services let you view the mobile website right through their Web apps. They also have iOS and Android apps for updating a site’s blog on the go, and checking in on the site’s traffic and other metrics.
Squarespace even offers a tablet view, but it’s a shame its mobile views are so terribly hard to find. And the company’s focus on a clean interface rather than tool accessibility is the most frustrating thing about the service.
Whether you decide you want the services to surface your site on search engines is up to you. If you do allow the site to be searchable, you can add optimization tags. I included terms like “puppy website” and “Joanna Stern’s dog” for mine.
The entire build process was a lot of fun, and not only because I wrote the entire site from the point of view of a dog. Rarely did I run into any “Why is this not working!?” moments, and when I did, I was impressed with both companies’ customer service.
Unlike Weebly, Squarespace doesn’t offer phone support, but a representative answered my question via email within two hours. The wait time was a bit longer than I would have liked but he did prudently address the response to me and Browser!
When your site is ready for the world, it’s time to make it live. At this point, you transfer a domain name you own, or you can buy a new one. What used to be a hoop-jumping process is now much easier. Within 10 minutes, I bought BrowserInYourBrowser.com and it was live for all to visit.
Both Weebly and Squarespace sell domains directly. They don’t offer the best prices, but the convenience of instantly being able to set your newly made site live from the service seemed worth the extra cash. My basic package with Squarespace, including the domain purchase and unlimited hosting and storage, costs just under $100 for the first year (and about $120 for subsequent years).
Weebly is cheaper. The same basic package costs $50 a year. There’s even a free option for people who don’t want a custom domain name—instead you get an address like “joannastern.weebly.com.”
Both services have pricier business plans, which include SSL security for storefronts and taking online payments.
Sure, my site costs more than the sum total of all my social-media accounts, but it’s a lot more permanent and I’m in the driver’s seat. If I want to change a photo or text, or even change out the entire design—I’m just a click or two away. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go share the link to my beautiful, new website on Facebook and Twitter.