The idea of the personal website has evolved over a remarkably short period of time. Back in 1999, Apple used actor Jeff Goldblum in ads promising to give a free website to anyone who bought an iMac.
What were these websites like, anyway? Well, they all looked pretty much the same, offering a very simple place to post your photos, videos, and even newsletters. (The term “blog” was coined the same year, but it took a while to work its way into the popular lexicon.)
Today, websites are being marketed as launch pads for your unique identity and brand, one that can include professional interests as well as personal. And often these two are intermingled: a musician who wants a place to talk about music as well as sell it, or a front-end developer who likes having a place to show off professional assignments as well as all the little side projects.
There are a multitude of companies that will help you put together your website, all of them claiming they’ll make it easier for you than the other. It’s become a highly profitable industry, with the bigger and splashier players competing against each other with Super Bowl ads.
I spent a good part of my career as a freelance writer, writing and selling articles to various publications. I’ve kept a nice collection of them, forming what writers call a portfolio. Up until this point, it’s just been a series of links with a few descriptions on a Tumblr page. Looking over all the website builders out there, I had to stop and think: could I be doing better? Was my portfolio living its best life?
The best builder I found in my week of playing around with several of them was Weebly. It’s not flashy, but it’s flexible. Weebly offers three types of websites you can create: Site, Blog, or Store. Unlike other builders out there, it allows you to use all of the features no matter which type you’re building.
There’s an ease of use in Weebly, which uses a drop-and-click format. You order up, say, a box filled with text, and a literal box appears that you can move around the page until you find its final resting spot. Weebly makes these options incredibly easy to use, and you can build a website much more efficiently than with other builders like Moonfruit, which has an overwhelming number of options.
Wix has the opposite problem: it takes a cutesy approach to its options, which makes things feel too simple and flimsy. If your site requires only the basics, any of these sites could do. But Weebly does what the others do, and better.
One of Facebook’s most gutsy innovations was its bet that people didn’t really want limitless customization. If you give them a solid template, they’ll be able to do much than if you had given them limitless choices. (Turns out Apple had it right back in 1999.) Just because you build a house doesn’t mean you should be the interior designer, and vice versa. This is also Squarespace’s philosophy, and it is something in which it excels.
Squarespace’s design approach is intuitive. It has a beautiful, minimal design and makes you feel like a beautiful minimalist using it. You click through for a variety of options, and instead of placing them around the page like hanging pictures on the wall, you feel like you’re making professional progress. This might sound complicated, but Squarespace makes every level of website creation seem easy and accessible. You can go as deep or as shallow as you’d like.
This bold approach pays off in unexpected ways: when going through its business options, building a hypothetical landing page to showcase my abilities as a writer, it offered up sales options. Normally I’d bypass this step by choosing a different website route, thinking that I wasn’t creating a business-oriented site. But through Squarespace, it struck me that I could put a price tag on each individual article, setting my own rates through the site. I was suddenly an entrepreneur.
If only I had been able to save my changes, Squarespace would have been my top pick. Mysterious errors kept me from making any progress. An online search didn’t help much, and I abandoned the cool gray/silver design of my Squarespace page for Weebly’s bright blue. Weebly sites might not blow you away, but you know that they’ll stay put.
There is a certain hubris to thinking that your website builder will be able to accommodate everyone. Perhaps that’s why a site like Contently is such a relief. It offers just one type of website: a neat and clean place for writers to put their clips after being published on various websites. It’s hard to imagine anyone besides a writer using Contently, but by limiting its scope, it sticks the landing.
A public service announcement: if you’ve got the time and ability to code your own site, that’d be best. Coding classes like those at Treehouse or CodeAcademy can get you started on that front, but on top of all the technical abilities, you also need a vision. If building your own site from scratch seems even a little intimidating, a builder is the place to look.
If you want to build a website, chances are you have a very specific reason for doing that. None of these builders will win you a design award. But they will get your sales going or provide a nice place to let clients know when you’re open for business. And, as Jeff Goldblum said all those years ago, it’s good to completely own the place where you’re putting your identity. To become the creator, the purveyor, and the author can be very empowering.
Photo credit: Lauren Kallen