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Simple website generation using website builders
(Part 2: the review)

Before reading this article please read Part 1 of this series. This article follows on from that.


This article provides you with the discoveries I made when investigating the website builders mentioned in Part 1 of this article. This was in late 2009, so it is possible there might have been changes since then or that any drawbacks mentioned have been fixed or where just down to me. The purpose of this article is simply to give you my findings. If you discover I'm wrong in any of these observations I would be most grateful if you could contact me about it and I will then investigate and revise the article accordingly for everyone's benefit. Thank you!

Factors to bear in mind

Page title and meta-tags. Buried within the HTML code at the top of a web page are 'meta-tags'; they will be invisible to you when you are working with a website builder but they are there, 'beneath the bonnet/hood'. (You can take a look at this stuff on any web page by selecting 'View > Source' from within Internet Explorer or 'View > Page Source' from within Firefox. Look for'<TITLE>' and '<META NAME="KEYWORDS" CONTENT="blah, blah,, blah...' near the top of the page.) The keywords describe significant page content. Both of these elements help search engines to decide what the page is all about—although the actual content of the page, especially including text headings, is also a major factor in this respect. What a search engines makes of a page influences how high it will appear on any list given in response to a search. Keywords that match search phrases obviously help to give a page more prominence in search engine results—although misleading and inappropriate keywords might just have the opposite effect with sophisticated and clever search engines like the all-important Google. Never try to mislead or you might get penalised!
How does all this relate to website builders? Basically, you want to be sure they allow you to control what title and keywords they associate with each of your pages. That way you can help optimize your chances of that page being found through searches. Each website builder will have its own way of allowing you to access elements such as this and you need to study their Help to find out how to do it.

Page address. An 'URL' —the 'Uniform Resource Locator' or web page address (beginning with 'http://')—identifies a page on the world wide web. If this concisely states the subject of the page then it gives it a valuable boost in search engine list positioning because that heightens its relevance. So a page called 'xyz105.htm' tells a search engine nothing, whereas 'website-builders.htm' tells it a lot. It is therefore great if your chosen website builder allows you to name the URL for each page. Use dash(-) or underscore (_) separators to space your keywords. Use their help to discover how to do this—if they give you this option. It doesn't matter if there is gobbledegook contained in the address as well, so long as your useful string of keywords also appear; so '123234982439fdd30-website-builders.htm' is also fine. (Why would you include '123234982439fdd30'? This simply represents a part of the URL that your website builder might insist on generating to ensure you have a unique page address.

A survey of some of the biggest website builders

GoDaddy.com

Website builders don't come much bigger than this, so it should represent one of the lowest risks in terms of stability. Nothing, however, comes free, and the biggest put-off for me was that they take it for granted, right from the start, that you will buy a domain name through them (or re-assign an existing one). Everything about this builder assumes this. The logic behind it, no doubt, is that once they've hooked you to commit to a domain name linked to them, it is unlikely you will move elsewhere (in a hurry). It is a lot of hassle to move a domain name—not to mention this being quite 'technical'. I think that all the other website builders I cover allow you to run and see your website online without assigning a domain name until you wish to do so; in fact, you don't even have to do that, you can run with the combination name they give you (such as 'yourname.theirname.com'). I didn't even find their discussion of domain names particularly helpful.
On the plus side, you can have a 999-page site at a very reasonable rate, and domain name registration is also cheap; well, it would be, given their obvious philosophy that hooking you with a domain name keeps you on the line!
I found that the site http://www.houstonacademics.com powered by GoDaddy, uses different meta-tags per page, but many amateurs do not know they should be tailored to the page and often use the same keywords on each page (which does not enhance the chances of people finding individual pages covering just what they are looking for). The Help information seems particularly good. You can choose your own page URLs to give you a search engine advantage. Features for experienced users include the ability to edit HTML code (and achieve most things), and to embed JavaScript ( for user interaction).
Now maybe I was unlucky, or it didn't like my particular browser, but I did find selection of objects a bit 'wonky'; clicking did not always select an object first time, which was annoying. Also, pasting in a graphic too wide for a column introduced scrolling bars and I did not seem to be able to widen the box to accommodate this. So the bottom line was that I found using GoDaddy somewhat frustrating. I hope you have better luck, for it does seem to be one of the best builders. Certainly many people and businesses have voted with their clicks.

Webstarts

There are free or pay options; you can try things out for free, but you will probably have to upgrade and pay for a decent site. This smaller company has gone to great lengths in order to allow you to create really impressive graphics. To do this you create 'layers' and control how they overlap. While this allows you to create some fantastic effects, it also greatly adds to the complexity of the beast: and also offers additional scope for creating effects you didn't want and find hard to correct—so be warned. I also found that some of the stuff that looked okay on the screen did not look quite right when printed out. It is supported by numerous Help videos to convince you how easy it all is; if you are inexperienced at this kind of thing, trust me, the tricky layer stuff is far from easy—although basic operation is not too bad.
The 'Pro' version allows different meta-tags per page (eg keywords). At first I was really impressed by how clever this builder was but, on reflection, I feel there is too much scope for things to go wrong—or print wrongly. So, reluctantly, this was not one for me—although more experienced users might be attracted to its clever features, especially if a printed output is of no concern to them. Although I have no grounds to question whether different browsers might have problems with this one, it would certainly be something I would want to investigate before committing.

Homestead

You can try this out for free—but only for a month—and even that involved my credit card. This means you need to plan some intensive experimentation during that month to ensure it can do everything you need. I am not sure whether you get access to meta-tags with this one and you need to check whether they can be different on each page (important, as explained above). I'm not sure if you can get to the HTML code but I have spotted JavaScript on some pages. I did not have sufficient time to investigate this builder fully.

Webs

Free or pay versions. Quite frankly I found this a difficult builder to use. The template options were not particularly helpful when I investigated it because it only showed thumbnail images of the choices.Even the Help was not very helpful, and use was far from intuitive. I would not choose to tangle with this builder myself.

Weebly

Free or pay versions. The thing I like best about this builder is its name! On the plus side, there are no limits on storage or bandwidth, but it can be very slow and is inflexible. I just could not change certain things (like page width, which is too wide). It is also too basic and far from intuitive! More 'wobbly' than 'weebly' for me!

Wix

I have to admit to giving up very quickly on this one: it 'fell-over' at my first selection for information. Why would I pursue it after that?

Moonfruit

Free or pay. I liked the name and I liked the look and feel of Moonfruit. One of the smaller contenders, this could be a good option for anyone who only wants a small site: a few short pages. Because everything seemed so smooth at first I invested quite a lot of time on this one. I initially chose it for my author website—until I discovered its biggest drawback: it cannot cope with too much data. There is no way it would ever allow me to include these article pages, for example. Why? Because, unlike most websites with are constructed using HTML code, this one converts the code into 'Flash' and presents it in rather the same way as a movie. the resulting site looks slick and is fast, but do you want a Flash site with storage constraints? (It deformed and clipped my long pages.)
If you go for a Flash-based builder, do ensure it also creates an HTML version. Moonfruit does; this will look pretty dreadful but, since most users will have Flash installed, most users never get to see it. Search engines do get to see the HTML content, though, and that is very important. Browsers cannot read the stuff in Flash, so there is no way a Flash-based site gets anywhere with search engines unless it also creates a full HTML version alongside the Flash version as this does.
Now some of the good points. You can have page-dependent meta-data allowing keywords to be composed for individual pages. This system uses a 'base page' where you put common data that you want carried through to appear on all the pages; this is a great feature not found on the other builders mentioned, for it allows you to easily achieve a tailored look to your website and any change to the base page is instantly reflected on all the other pages. Just be sure you only put stuff on the base page that you want to see everywhere!
I sometimes use 'animated-gif' images—like the picture of me which blinks. (Hadn't you even noticed that?) This probably won't bother many people, but I will just mention the fact that when they are converted to Flash, all the animation disappears. When I queried this with them they said: 'Animated gifs need to be saved as 'swfs' before you upload. Google search "gif2swf" and you will find a free converter’. I tried—and failed, I'm afraid. If you want to include media information including pictures, the Flash versions are not the real thing, so that is another problem for authors; you would need to provide links to them stored elsewhere. To this query they said: 'You can set up a download link to any file in your library and it will be enabled when you subscribe.'

Other website builders

There are many other contenders, and I will just mention a few more you may come across. OneWebHosting.com seemed unreliable because it even fell-over with its demonstrations when I tried it—but maybe it got better since. WildApricot.com describes itself as 'Member Management Magic', so you might like to investigate this if what you want is a club website; that is what it is aimed at. 123-reg.co.uk is a UK-based builder that is free (1 page) or paid (up to 500 pages); the last time I looked there were no sample sites, which surprises me; I would have thought this was the best way to advertise. I have not investigated this one further. Have you? 1&1 is a UK site that offers a lot; design an easy site yourself, or get deeply involved in you - or your webmaster - knows what to do!

Conclusion

So there you have it. On the surface it seems to matter little which website builder you choose, but if you take a negative view of all this, you might say it is very difficult to find the perfect website builder. Given that I also required special things such as guaranteed JavaScript flexibility for user-interaction, random content on pages (which you can best achieve with something such as 'php' coding), and easily-operated password-protected pages, you will understand that given the other difficulties with many of the builders, and my previous experience at website generation from scratch—I use Macromedia Dreamweaver to do this—I decided to do my own thing in the end.
The advantage of using a reliable website builder is that it will almost certainly use the very latest technology and will be to the latest programming standards: which is good when it comes to impressing fussy search engines which like that kind of thing. As a website designer I am a self-taught, rank amateur, and so far as the php and JavaScript goes, I am a 'hacker', only knowing as much as I need to know—and then forgetting it until the next time I need it. I use tables instead of cascading style sheets to lay out my pages, and this would not impress modern website designers very much. Buy, hey, I understand that way, and that was the way we all started out doing it, and it still works for me... at least for a while.
I guess, after reading all this, you would like me to suggest which builder you might go with. If your needs are simple, and you definitely don't need big pages, then I think Moonfruit is the most intuitive and easy-to-use builder I have come across. Life is smooth and easy with Moonfruit. If you do need more scope, maybe GoDaddy's WebsiteTonight might be best: so long as you bear in mind everything I said above, including the fact they want you to commit to a domain name right away. It does guarantee you an 'up-time' of 99%. GoDaddy originator, Bob Parsons, is an 'earthy kinda chap' as you will see from his videos. I guess he will keep things going for you. If you don't want a domain name to begin with, and keep things simple by avoiding getting too involved with layers, then I found Webstarts very intuitive and flexible and suggest you give this a test.
When you test, I advise looking at your website in more than one browser, since appearances can differ; it should look good using both Internet Explorer and Firefox; even some professionals make some blunders here. Fine-tune to correct any problems you see (such as bad spacing, etc). Also check out how it looks on Opera, Google Chrome and Safari (often used on smaller tablets). Hint: You can't please all the browsers all the time!
I would like to finally reiterate a couple of important points. Try everything you need on your test site before you begin to invest either time or money in a website builder; also remember that before you make your website public, it is wise to assign a domain name which people can use to find it: you are then protected against losing people and links should you change your website builder (or web host) at a later date. Just insert some text (as much as you imagine you will need on any given page, some graphics, a table, maybe a form, etc, and see how it copes. A good tip is to use two windows or tabs: one for making your changes and the other for viewing the website when changes are published. Keep checking the website appearance after you do something new by constantly publishing it with the changes. Remember to print the pages out to check if this is also up to scratch; the appearance might affect the fonts you choose.
Good luck whichever website builder you choose. And if you find the perfect builder, please tell me. If I haven't covered it and you rave, I may add it to this selection!


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If you have technical troubles with any particular website builder, please don't contact me for guidance. My investigation of these builders was quite a while ago and was very limited in any case. Consult their own Help facilities first, or contact them direct if you have real problems. Many also have member forums where other users can help you. I am afraid I cannot respond to request for website construction assistance. (Which is probably good news for you!)