21st Century Renaissance Man

Mar 19, 2013

Free Websites and You, a Guide for Non-Designers

Having a successful website is no easy task, but even getting one to look good can be a major obstacle for non-techies. Companies hire programmers and designers for this reason, but Web work requires specialized knowledge, which does not come cheap. As a result, “free websites” can look tempting to entrepreneurs who just want to get online. It’s an understandable goal. Below, let’s look at three areas in which “freemium” services fail.
1) Customization and Accessibility
Arguably, the most important feature of any website is its capacity for change. The Web is not a static entity and no successful website goes without revision. Having direct access to the files on your allotted web space through FTP is a great boon, but this is not a feature that most freemium services provide. Certainly, their backend is sophisticated enough for you to manipulate and upload files, but you can’t transfer them to your computer for editing, something that would be vital for a developer. Everything must be done through the service’s software. The features of your website are thus limited, and more importantly, it means that any website you build cannot be moved to a different service in the future or thusly upgraded by a third party.
2) Search Engine Optimization
Search engine optimization is not a process that can be standardized across a large system, though some Freemium services talk as though it can be. They will often have a built-in SEO system, but these tools are quite basic, sometimes even spurious (WebStarts, for example, with their One Hop “technology”). Weebly, Yola, and Wix all have “suggestions” for boosting SEO, which come down to conspicuous keyword placement, directory submission, and getting a Google Webmaster account. These are labor intensive answers with the potential for harm (if pursued improperly). Moreover, without paying for premium features, your free website is basically invisible.
3) Professionalism
Unless you want your website to appear as a subdomain of the service (.wordpress, .weebly, etc), there’s usually only a small fee for having a dedicated domain name. Beyond that, however, there are still many signs that your site was built for free. Despite the large number of themes that such services will offer, there is still an underlying template that is easily recognizable. Within its scope, customization is very limited and the structural similarities are easy to spot. Creating a dynamic template also requires a great deal of scripts and files, which means that whatever site you build is carrying an enormous amount of dead weight. Depending on what service, you may also find your site being built in Flash, which by this point in the Web game, is a disastrous language for any site that isn’t relying on a multimedia aspect. Flash files cannot be indexed by search engines, require a Flash plugin to play, and appear dated to most users.
In the end, there’s no such thing as a “free” website. There is a level of convenience and reliability (freemium services provide hosting, DNS, and design all in one company), but you are coming up against some strong disadvantages right out the gate. All freemium services rely on the built-in liabilities and limits of their product in order to upsell, and if you’re going to spend money on Web development (which you should if you’re serious about your website), then there’s no point in limiting your most important options.