Website Options for Nonprofits — Part 3: Use Your Browser to Build a Website

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This is the last in a three-part series dis­cussing web­site options for non­prof­its.

Part 1 gave back­ground infor­ma­tion about what a web­site real­ly is and dis­cussed options for where yours can live.

Part 2 dis­cussed the tra­di­tion­al approach: installing a web page edi­tor on your com­put­er and using it to build a web­site.

But the last 5 years have intro­duced a bevvy of tools that promise to let you build a web­site using noth­ing but the most basic and ubiq­ui­tous tool of the Web Age: the hum­ble web brows­er. In this third post we’ll take a look at those tools.

Series overview

  • Part One cov­ers fun­da­men­tal con­cepts and con­sid­ers tra­di­tion­al web­site host­ing options.
  • Part Two cov­ers options for cre­at­ing web pages using a tra­di­tion­al web edit­ing pro­gram.
  • Part Three cov­ers tools that let you build a web­site using just your web brows­er.
Who this arti­cle is for.
  • Peo­ple who don’t have a web pres­ence but want one.
  • Peo­ple who have a web pres­ence and want to eval­u­ate tools for updat­ing it.
What to expect.
  • An overview of three dif­fer­ent ways to build a web­site using noth­ing but your brows­er.
Top­ics.

Easy page builders from your web host

For years many web hosts have offered tools that let you build a site from with­in your brows­er. In fact, if you already have an account with a web host there’s an excel­lent chance your host offers some kind of easy web­site builder. Web hosts makes these tools avail­able only to their clients.

Here’s the pitch: “Want a web­site? Well come on down! Pay us a low month­ly fee and you’ll get email and the space for a web­site. Don’t know how to make a web­site? No wor­ries! Just use these sweet, easy tools!”

The qual­i­ty of host-based page builders ranges from trag­ic to tol­er­a­ble, with “tol­er­a­ble” mean­ing you can put togeth­er a not-bad look­ing web­site with a stan­dard­ized struc­ture and per­haps a few add-ins, like pho­to gal­leries or event cal­en­dars.

Usu­al­ly, though not always, site cre­at­ed with “easy web­site builders” look like… well, like they were cre­at­ed with easy web­site builders. But some web­site is bet­ter than no web­site at all (usu­al­ly).

Soholaunch's Web Form Builder

Soholaunch’s Web Form Builder

Some of these tools are pret­ty sim­ple, where oth­ers are real­ly fair­ly com­pre­hen­sive and act as tol­er­a­ble Con­tent Man­age­ment Sys­tems (CMSs, dis­cussed below).

If you’d like to see what these tools look like, check out:

Some web hosts sim­ply bun­dle in tools devel­oped by oth­er com­pa­nies, tools like Soho­launch, Site­Builder, and Tem­plate Express. Oth­er hosts use inde­pen­dent tools like these but pri­vate-label them. A very few hosts are large enough to devel­op their own web­site builders.

Network Solutions' Website Builder

Net­work Solu­tions’ Web­site Builder

Trade-offs

As a pro­fes­sion­al web devel­op­er these sys­tems always make me cringe a lit­tle, so while I’ve exper­i­ment­ed with them I’ve nev­er launched a site with one. The sites they pro­duce can eas­i­ly look canned, like the dif­fer­ence between stock pho­tog­ra­phy and tak­ing your own pic­ture. And though many give you a lot of flex­i­bil­i­ty, it’s flex­i­bil­i­ty with some hard-cod­ed con­straints.

Still, if you’re okay with the way the site looks, there are worse things than build­ing a web­site by choos­ing some options from a menu.

Independent website builders

Some brows­er-based web­site builder aren’t meant to be bun­dled up with a web host, but are their own inde­pen­dent com­pa­nies. They not only give you a tool to cre­ate a site, but also do the host­ing for you.

Some of these sites are entire­ly free if you don’t mind ads appear­ing on your site. Many oper­ate on a freemi­um busi­ness mod­el, giv­ing you free host­ing with cer­tain lim­i­ta­tions, and let­ting you pay more for addi­tion­al features—like ad-free host­ing, more file stor­age space, or your own domain name.

To use one of these ser­vices you don’t need a web host at all. Or to look at it anoth­er way, these ser­vices will be a web host for you. Just sign up for an account and off you go.

Here are a few exam­ples:

Vineyard Missions, hosted by SquareSpace

Vine­yard Mis­sions, a nice-look­ing Square­space site

Trade-offs

As with host-based site builders, these ser­vices vary great­ly in the qual­i­ty of their offer­ings. And as with host-based site builders, there’s a risk that your site will look dat­ed, or like it was built from a canned template—which it was. How­ev­er, some of them give nice tem­plate options, and some even let you go in and mod­i­fy the site’s visu­al tem­plate if you, a vol­un­teer, or a con­trac­tor is hep to the whole HTML thing.

Content Management Systems (CMSs)

A con­tent man­age­ment sys­tem is a web­site that lets peo­ple add and edit the site’s con­tent with­out sig­nif­i­cant tech­ni­cal knowl­edge.

WordPress and Drupal Logos

Two wild­ly pop­u­lar CMSs

The con­tent might be a blog post, a doc­u­ment you’re col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly cre­at­ing with oth­er peo­ple, pho­tos, video clips, a birth­day wish list, a tuto­r­i­al on installing Quick­Books, or a sim­ple data­base of your favorite vinyl LPs. Regard­less of the type of con­tent, the prin­ci­ple is the same: ordi­nary human beings pull togeth­er the infor­ma­tion they want to share, and the CMS lets them enter it in a way that oth­ers can find it on the web.

Screenshot of a CMS editor

Edit­ing a website’s con­tent needn’t be more com­pli­cat­ed than this

Some CMSs are exot­i­cal­ly pow­er­ful and require some­one geeky to spend a good deal of time set­ting them up before you can use them. Some are so sim­ple that your Great Aunt Hazel could set them up. Whether they’re pow­er­ful con­tent engines or straight­for­ward blog­ging sites, they’re all CMSs. (At least accord­ing to me and all like-mind­ed peo­ple; see the side­bar.)

Con­tent Man­age­ment Sys­tems (CMSs) are a great way for non­prof­its and small busi­ness­es to cre­ate a web pres­ence with­out much or any tech­ni­cal help. I’ve believed and taught that for a while, but it real­ly came home to me with…

The tale of the not-so-geeky ED

Last year I was talk­ing with the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of a mid-sized non­prof­it about his pub­lic web­site.

It was a famil­iar sto­ry: years ago some­one made the web­site for them using a rea­son­ably sophis­ti­cat­ed-web devel­op­ment tool (in this case Microsoft Front­Page). They rarely need­ed to update the site, so when it final­ly came time to change the site, nobody at the non­prof­it real­ly remem­bered how the soft­ware worked or how to upload changes. Their four options:

  1. Spend staff time try­ing to remem­ber or re-learn the rea­son­ably-sophis­ti­cat­ed web devel­op­ment tool, under­stand­ing that they’d like­ly have to remem­ber or re-learn again when the updat­ed the site six months lat­er.
  2. Find a vol­un­teer with the right skills, under­stand­ing that if the vol­un­teer moved or was unavail­able they’d be stuck.
  3. Pay some­one mon­ey every time they want­ed to make a small update.
  4. Let the site stag­nate.

One day they want­ed to add an area on the web­site where they could share infor­ma­tion with their employ­ees and affil­i­ates.

Super ED to the Rescue

Super ED to the Res­cue

Post image cred­it: Dune­chas­er

This ED is a smart and tech­ni­cal­ly curi­ous per­son. He is not, how­ev­er, a web geek. Even so, rather than accept­ing the four sub­op­ti­mal options he took the ini­tia­tive to do what many non­prof­its have done, cre­at­ing an Option Five.

He went to WordPress.com and cre­at­ed a sim­ple web­site where they could post infre­quent­ly-chang­ing infor­ma­tion (web pages) along with peri­od­ic infor­ma­tion updates (blog posts). Now they have a site that they can update with­out need­ing to find, pay for, or devel­op sig­nif­i­cant tech­ni­cal exper­tise.

What are your CMS Options?

You have plen­ty. Prob­a­bly too plen­ty. There are at least hun­dreds of CMS plat­forms to choose from, and very like­ly thou­sands.

Many require you to have a web host, and to install the CMS soft­ware on your account with that web host.

The rest are pub­lic web­sites that both pro­vide a CMS and host your data online for you.

I’m about to give you a bunch of resources to look at, sites that will give you a lot of infor­ma­tion about a lot of CMSs. But first, let me give you the sim­ple ver­sion in my opin­ion:

  • Sim­ple site, sim­ple styles. If you want a rel­a­tive­ly straight­for­ward site and are will­ing to pick from a lim­it­ed set of visu­al themes, con­sid­er WordPress.com. You get free host­ing and around 100 themes to choose from. You can pay for cer­tain perks if you want, like a guar­an­tee of no ads on your site, or the abil­i­ty to use your own domain name. You can change a few things about the themes for free, and a few more things if you pay an extra fee, but you can’t down­load arbi­trary themes or cre­ate a new one. WordPress.com also won’t host email for your domain name.
  • Sim­ple site, flex­i­ble styles. If you want more flex­i­bil­i­ty in themes, or if you want to use one web host for both your email and your web­site, con­sid­er con­tract­ing with a tra­di­tion­al web host that will let you install your own copy of Word­Press or anoth­er CMS. While they don’t usu­al­ly come pre-installed, most hosts give you a con­trol pan­el that will let you install Word­Press, Dru­pal, Joom­la, or some­thing like them with just a few clicks. When you have your own copy of a CMS, you or a vol­un­teer or con­trac­tor can down­load and install a vari­ety of third-par­ty themes.
  • Sophis­ti­cat­ed site. If you want a more sophis­ti­cat­ed site—one that includes dis­cus­sion boards, man­ages a data­base of donors and vol­un­teers, or lets peo­ple col­lab­o­rate on documents—well, you’ve just left the Land of Do-It-Your­self Web­sites. While you can pull off some of these things in brows­er-based site builders, a com­plex site real­ly requires the ser­vices of one or more tech­ni­cal pro­fes­sion­als.
Hand picking a bad apple

Wait! Haven’t you been read­ing this?! NOT THAT ONE!!

Post image cred­it: erve­ga

Resources to help you pick a CMS

But that’s just the EZ ver­sion of the deci­sion. It doesn’t take into account your actu­al needs or how a giv­en CMS addressed them.

So here are some resources to help you pick the right CMS.

Bear in mind that some CMSs (*cough* Dru­pal *cough*) are not for the faint-of-heart or for the non-of-geek. Even some sim­pler CMSs (*cough* Word­Press *cough*) often need a geek to move beyond the basics. That doesn’t rule them out, it just means you have to be ready for the usu­al techie-seek­ing ten­sion: you’ll need to find or cre­ate a geek on your staff, or find one who will vol­un­teer with you, or pay one mon­ey.

And a cou­ple of tools to help you com­pare them:

Building a site with your browser: what’s the catch?

So here we have a bunch of tools that will let you build a web­site with lit­tle or no deep tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, using noth­ing but a web brows­er, and often for free: host-based web­site builders, inde­pen­dent web­site builders, and Con­tent Man­age­ment Sys­tems.

What’s not to like about that?

Balance Scales

It’s the lit­tle trade-offs that make web­site plat­form deci­sions inter­est­ing.

Post image cred­it: hans s

I dis­cussed some of the trade-offs above, but there’s a con­sol­i­dat­ed list:

  • Ease of use. The tools vary in how easy they are to use. It’s much eas­i­er for a novice to sit down and bang out a Word­Press site than a Dru­pal site.
  • Flex­i­bil­i­ty. While tools vary great­ly in how much flex­i­bil­i­ty they give you, most give you less flex­i­bil­i­ty than a tra­di­tion­al, cus­tom-writ­ten web­site (in exchange for the abil­i­ty to update it non-tech­ni­cal­ly).
  • Cos­met­ics. The sim­plest tools some­times leave you with a site that looks like it was cre­at­ed by a teen-aged vol­un­teer in 1998.
  • Tech essen­tial. Most do require tech­ni­cal knowl­edge for cer­tain kinds of changes.
  • Tech lim­i­ta­tions. Some won’t let you make cer­tain changes even if you have tech knowl­edge.

But maybe most impor­tant, and most eas­i­ly over­looked in those heady ini­tial days when you’re hap­py with the new site and every­thing looks rosy:

  • Lock-in. To one degree or anoth­er you’re locked in to the web builder plat­form you choose, and some­times to a sin­gle web host.

If you get fed up with your web host, but you used your host’s easy builder to make your site, there’s prob­a­bly no easy way to move to anoth­er web host or CMS.

If you get fed up with an inde­pen­dent web­site builder like Wee­bly or Square­Space, and if you’re itch­ing to move, you’re also prob­a­bly out of luck.

Things are a lit­tle more portable in the CMS world: as long as you’re using a pop­u­lar, wide­ly-avail­able tool, it’s very like­ly you can move from one web host to anoth­er. And while it’s not easy, it’s gen­er­al­ly pos­si­ble with tech­ni­cal knowl­edge to move the con­tent from one CMS to anoth­er.

Series Wrap-Up

I hope you’ve found this series of arti­cles help­ful.

If all has gone as planned, you now have a bet­ter under­stand­ing of web­sites and web host­ing, and of your options for cre­at­ing a site with lit­tle or no help from a pro­fes­sion­al techie.

A geeky-looking young man.

This is your brain on Blaz­ing Moon.

Post image cred­it: PaD­um­BumPsh

And even if you don’t sud­den­ly feel like some big com­put­er genius, that’s okay. Depend­ing on your com­fort with tech­ni­cal dar­ing-do, you might very well decide after read­ing all this you still want to get help from a staff mem­ber, vol­un­teer, or con­sul­tant. You’re not alone in that.

But regard­less of whether you ask for help, now that you have a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the essen­tials you should be in a much bet­ter posi­tion to know what kind of help you need, and how much of it you need.

Best of luck, and have fun with the web.

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