Donnerstag, 2. März 2017

A simple site builder for non-techie publishers and marketers

Publish and share effortlessly, write and tweet in one operation, build your own site, curate and author social media without being a HTML geek

Example: a site on the isle of Juist, North Sea, Germany, created with Redsign CMS

Web content (and email) make up the foundation of digital experiences of the vast majority of Internet users. Hence content creation and content management are ubiquitous in our personal and business lifes. The variety of purposes and objectives for content publishing is immense and so is the supply of site builders and publishing tools. Site builders for single private or commercial online publishers (in contrast to large publishing systems of the media industry) range
  • from jack-of-all-trades software to quick-and-easy tools
  • from graphics focused portfolio website builders to technical CMSs where strucured data matter most
  • from automatic bells-and-whistles DIY kits to industry software requiring programming skills
Redesign CMS is a special site builder that does not fit into conventional site creator categories and boast multiple design features that other site builders lack.

Site builder reports and comparisons

  • Site Builder Report: feature-richness, variety of templates and themes, ease of use, one-page site capable, detailed control of content and design
  • Website Builder Expert: all-around (best: Wix), ease of use (best: Weebly), design-oriented (best: Squarespace)
  • Website Builder Comparison Tool: ease of use, design flexibility, languages, depth of navigation
  • PCMag: mobile responsive, mobile editing, free version, shop, blogging, image editing, custom HTML

There are many more online reviews comparing site builders. Seems like a wealth of information but at a closer look most of it is not helpful  and it is all about to assess the resource's information depth, reliabilty and up-to-dateness, for instance
  • Easy of use 4.5/5 or 5/5 is attributed to the "big three", namely Wix, Weebly and Squarespace, although operation differs very much. Of course, the big three are all userfriendly in a sense - which means that the criterion of user friendlyness without objectives etc. is meaningless.
  • Some look precise but obsolete site builders are still referenced - can't be a reliable resource
  • User numbers: for instance one source says 80m for Wix but there are multiple source saying this is highliy exaggerated. Plus comparing user numbers is like apple and pears, there are very different criteria
  • One resource left out Squarespace within the top 10 - can't be a reliable source
  • SEO friendliness is almost never mentioned, but there would be huge differences SEO-wise between the big three
  • Share friendlnessisn't mentioned either - but would be most important for content to be shared (and which content woudn't?)
  • Import of content is mentioned in few cases, export of content almost never
  • Integration of third-party-widgets is hardly mentioned among the leading site builder - they are striving to offer their proprietary solutions. And that hints to their problem we will discuss in a minute.

Monolithic website builders and their problem

All convential site builders since the beginning of the Internet are server-based or installed on PCs and "monolithic" in the sense that a huge software package is on hand to meet all kind of requirements with many features. Most of them are never needed which is completely analogous to Office Software, for instance. However, all features have to be available in perfect shape, just in case.

Understandably this has always been a problem: competition forced manufacturers to offer virtually everything but none of them was able to be excellent in all features. Nowadays, this general problem tightens for three reasons
  • Development time scale - time runs ever faster: media technology, new social media, web apps
  • More and more website requirements come up: integration of apps, payment, new SEO requirements
  • Ever more Internet devices and browers, web apps. Development of user interaction can hardly keep pace
These heavy reasons make life tough for these monolithic - or dinosaur - site builders. It is not that they are doomed to disappear, but they are going to cover a smaller segment of the overall site creation world in the future. Weebly was created in 2007 and they were soon boasting tens of millions of users just because the majority of web publications could be built with such systems. Today there are so many formats of web content (let alone social media and apps!) that Weebly, as well as Wix and Squarespace, can by no means be able meet the majority of web publishers' needs. They may even grow, but the Internet and thus the variety of content publishing needs grow much faster.

The problem of not being able to embrace new trends was always obvious for the big three: Weebly took a long time to become user friendly (politely said). Wix was absolutely non-SEO with Flash in the beginning. It took them until 2012 to migrate to HTML5 and true "mobile responsive" was still a dream then.

There are, beyond site builders, more cases were "monolithicness" means subpar performance, for instance
  • Evernote: in summary Evernote is excellent, one of the best web developments of all time. However, their editor was terrible in earlier years and is still not excellent. Why? Because it is part of a monolithic system.
  • LinkedIn: the editor for long-form articles has been improved but still is not competitiv among modern editors. Same problem!
In contrast: Medium, an app designed for readers on the go, has an excellent WYSIWYG editor, or Ghost has an easy-to-use Markdown editor. Both focus on one discipline: writing, editing, publishing. With today's fast changing technical requirements, no proprietary editor of a monolithic software system can ever compete with these modern solutions that are soley devoted to one purpose.

The editor example can teach us a much deeper reason for the above mentioned monolithic lethargy and unability to adapt to change: both Medium and Ghost are Open Source. The world's developers can help making them better. And the wonder of this worldwide communication can only come true through common standards such as APIs, standard data formats (like JSON) and communities like Stackoverflow. This treasure of human progress is not accessible to conventinoal site builder companies. They can't disclose anything - it's their assets. They can pay millions to actors in their advertisements (as did Squarespace), but they are not helped by millions of the developments community to improve things.

Monolithic site builders suck at integration and connectivity
In analogy to their lacking ability to be excellent at a single feature, there is another build-in problem of monolithic types: by definition (mono...) they suck at integrating with other services. Examples:
  • Google maps! Their integration formats and APIs got better and better. But site builder keep offering their own integration, years behind. They  just should  do nothing proprietary and instead help authors use Google's excellent interfaces.
  • Strikingly - way more modern than said big three, but still monolithic - offers Twitter timeline integration but it jus does not look good. How come - with Twitter offering excellent integration tools?
  • RSS feed integration: none of the big site builders can compete with state-of-the-art hosted RSS services
  • Most site builders do not allow integration of external content except via RSS or Iframe. Modifying the Site's HTML is hardly possible (Strikingly is an exception: adding HTML with Styles and Scripts is possible)
In summary, monolithic site builders don't - by philosophy - play well with third party services and thus forego many possibilities to make quality content creation easier.

Modern site builders should communicate and connect with other web applications
(about web services) Examples
  • Using an HTML Framework like Foundation or Bootstrap. It would facilitate adding HTML using their documentation
  • Supporting a clientside development framework like AngularJS. Users could animate their pages without being developers
  • Make it easy to modify design with CSS - these color pickers or dropdown color selections are so boring (meanwhile) and some of the easiest CSS rules are so easy to understand (meanwhile)
  • Integration of social media should be supported, for instance Twitter timelines, Collections oder Moments, Pinterest Boards, Rich media embeds of all kind.
  • Sharing should be supported - in modern ways. For instance Twitter Cards.
  • Site search: for many years these proprietary searches have been so annoying (with users today use to Autocomplete and Instant Search, why not letting experts do the job, for instance Algolia, a super modern and intelligent search engine, easy to integrate? Or, using Google's Custom Search Engine - you find on many designed web sites but not on sites built with a monolithic site build.

In summary, escellent websites can only be created if all features are covered by the best players in their respective field. Modern site builders should enbrace and integrate services where they are better then the company's proprietary ones. In the extreme case, a modern site builder could retract itself and just moderate between data management, content creation/editing, display and user interaction - with all services provided by the best in their field.

Having got rid of that nasy duty of reinventing the wheel multiple times, a modern site builder could focus on what matters most: the user and their need to create effective content with as little as possible learing.

Site builder requirements from the user's point of view
Discussing features, benefits and technical specifications of website builders and DIY content creation tools makes no sense unless seen from the respective user's point of view. For instance, Microsoft Word: some use it just as a writing pad. They would never format paragraph margins, but just two line feeds instead. They don't even use templates because they don't want to learn the concept. Instead, they keep renaming documents. They would never create bulk letters, never creater PDFs, never use co-editing features. Word 2.0 from the 1990s would be fully suffient to them (same with Excel, by the way: what percentage of users really needs more then what Excel offered in 1993?).
With the big, classical site builders of today and the past decade, the situation is analogous (except that the manufacturers' software development was way less sophisticated then that of Microsoft, of course) in two respects
  • There is a vast variety of features but only few publishers use them
  • Those users who want sophisticated features are often frustrated
It's kind of Pareto: 80% of the users deploy only 20% of the features use and vice versa only an minority of users max out the available features.

To get even more insight into user specific site builder requirements, users may be grouped according to their ambitions and Internet-savviness :
  • "Word 2.0" users: low-level objectives, just want to be present on the Web, show some pictures, have their brand online (personal or small business), don't want learn new skills
  • Ambitious DYI users willing to work a lot and improve there skills hands-on to achieve relatively impressing results, keen to add bells and whistles to the site and let it shine
  • Internet-savvy users who are able to assess what a site builder can do compared with real, technical web design - or at least experienced enough to distinguish various site builder capabilites and options
  • Low-level web designers who use site builders instead of technical web design. Those are often specialised for in a specific model. Typical systems for this group would be Squarespace, Wix (well, nowadays) and (in the majority of cases) Wordpress. In the near future, Strikingly could play a role, too.
  • Expert web designer who know to work with HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript frameworks like jQuery or AngularJS. These can, depending on the customer's requirements and budget, decide what way to go for a specific project. These would only use WordPress and Squarespace, plus Strikingly in a few cases

Alternatively, users could be grouped according to their type of requirements like so
  • Graphic design matters
  • Content is king
  • Content marketing and SEO
  • User interaction, functions
  • Online Shop
  • Continous publishing and blogging
  • Social media oriented

Strong specialisation, the move already done.
  • Hotel reservations: 
  • Shops and payment: shopify and GoSpaces
  • Landing pages: Instapage

Site builder requirements from the web designer's point of view
Gone are the times when there was one task: building a website. The publisher or their web designer chose a site builder, created a site, and for the next five years there were no further major activities concerning content, just updating text or images, adding a page from time to time.

Alternatively, when site would be technically designed (HTML, CSS etc.) say 5-10 years ago, the web designer would act very much in accordance with the monolithic site builder: as a jack-of-all-trades. She would code visual effects like sliders or smooth scrolling, or develop her own an inquiry form.

Today, there are thousands of web applications ready use in for each and every online functionality and user interaction. The main task of a responsible and modern expert web designer consists in choosing the right option. Criteria for choosing a specific web service could be: reliability, coolness, visual appearance, complying to standards, requirement of other services ("dependencies"), variety and ease of customization, upgradability, price and (where appropriate) sharability.

The mere number of criteria shows that expert web designers using traditional website builders will be blocked sooner or later. Nonetheless, they will occasionally use site builders:
Specialized site builders give the ready-made possibilities the would otherwise cost many hours and eat up much budget. The trade-off of having less freedom may be totally acceptable for both the designer and his client. Examples: Squarespace for shining visual effects; in some cases, one of Wix's templates may da; WordPress has the largest number of templates (7,000+) and there are marketplaces like Envato or Themeforest to take the right descision.

In contrast, low-level web designers ("those who ran a hot-dog stall before the Internet came" - just citing a client) who have not learned to code HTML the new way 

Additional to high vs. low level, higher-level web designers can be distinguished like so
  • Allrounders: familiar with most design and programming options to some degree, plus with site builders
  • Programming oriented web designers and developers. Those might use traditional site builders in rare cases as they are use frameworks like Bootstrap or Foundation with ease. 
  • Graphic web designers: often graphic design professionals or artists. They are inclined to use the big site builders for their many template options plus portfolio templates
  • "Editorial" (text-focused) web designers, authors,  bloggers, SEO writers. There is some inclination to use WordPress as a site builder since blogging - actually WordPress' core competency - is built in. Pages and blog posts are integrated and add up for good online visibility and search engine ranking. In many cases, these pure writers do not publish on their website but used dedicated media - for instance, medium - instead where they - in many cases - can grow their audience faster than with their web site
  • SEO oriented web designers, content designers, "strategic" web designers. This group is definitely less interested in bells'n'whistles and places much emphasis on perfect SEO-prone markup (for instance,, microdata, using HTML5 skillfully (for instance, managin headers, Article tags). Plus, the want web content and social media playing together as much as possible. In summary, this group has little inclination to use conventional site builders much.

These web designer groups are partly rather disjoint: Graphics expert suck at writing; at least they are often aware of it. In contrast, typical allrounders, used to create "everything", produce terrible texts, often recognizable as SEO focused. Editorial designers have no feel for technical things, SEO experts are lost with images and site look & feel. Ofteny the create awful SEO copy but thankfully the reader realizes this immediately and can skip the respective page.

For low-skills web designer there is not that much to distinguish, just two scenarious, where in both cases a feature-rich website builder is the way to go:
  • Striving for good-looking results. Candidates are Weebly, Wix as well as WordPress. SquareSpace is said to demand a steeper learning curve.
  • Not more than run-of-the-mill websites needed. Probably Weebly and Wix offer the fastest result.

Users and web designers: the line gets blurred, roles and tasks are changing

Year ago, in pre-Internet times managers would delegate correspondence to secretaries who type paper letters and faxes. With email, communication became more direct, all the more as email formatting requirements were less stringent (in particular, in the beginning, there was no HTML email with images). Social media, a decade ago, further encouraged direct authorship, let alone mobile. The variety of ways to establish a personal or corporate brand online became immense. Today, even US presidents (well, and candidates) send their own tweets.

The many ways of authorship suggest that the content of a company website can't be a Holy Grail anymore, with access being exclusively reserved to a web designer. Changes to be made, are conveyed on the phone or via email. This model still exists in many cases!: Social media like Twitter and Facebook are perceived as less formal and kind of playground. Posting and sharing is seen as less formal and non-committal. This perception is supported by the more volatile character of Tweets etc. since the are prone to disappear in the depth of the past timeline, whereas website content is "here to stay" as a more formal and brand-loyal representation of the firm.

However, trends are towards direct authorship across all media, including websites, blogs and social channels.

In this scenario, how will the role of web designers change? Their task will still be setting up websites and keep them up and running. But when it comes to content, tasks will split: there is content with routine changes (like pricing), news content, long-form articles for website pages or a blog, SEO content, landing pages, social media profiles, social media posts.

In this more diverse and colorful scheme of content acitivites, the website still plays an central role as kind of team leader. Accordingly, a site builder is required that seamlessly supports all publishing action. It is very obvious that conventional, monolithic site builders can't keep pace with these now screnarios.

In summary, the roles of web designers and their clients have changed much and become more fluid. Publishers are going to become more autonomous and web designers are going to loose their monopoly status content control. In some cases, business owners will become more publishing-savvy than web design experts whereas these acquire new media skills to help business get the word out and be present on many media channels.

"Old-school web design" – where a publisher needed a web designer just to get things online – is going to die. However, the specialized disciplines within web design will persist, whether they relate to the artistic aspects, technical development or web app development. There will always be a market segment of high-end websites, build with native web design (using powerful frameworks like Bootstrap or Foundation) or with high-end modern site builders.

Modern site builders and CMSs on the market
Every year there a new site builders and there is a tendency - as may be asumed from the above - to specialization
"The grid" creates stunning websites (examples) with artificial intelligence ("AI websites that design themselves"). Such website builder definitely a tool for experts. So far, results are not too convincing and have been critiziced. In particular load times, at least in some case, rather long (4+ seconds). This editor is much more graphics than textual content oriented. Plus, very little SEO orientation.

  • fabrik boasts "an new way to manage your content" - "From now on updating your site is something you’ll want to do." - and is primarily an online portfolio builder for creatives
  • Format specializes in creative professionals portfolios, too
  • Wix claims the use of arificial intelligence, too. "Wix ADI matches images, text and layout by learning and building based on its knowledge of the users’ business and location." Example sites so far are not really overwhelming, in particular, they are slow and thus browsing pages of a site takes time since it's still the 20 years old server-side content management system. The impact of artificial intelligence is hard to discover.
  • Simbla, a "a clean, no-frills drag and-drop DIY website builder" is modern in that it uses a powerful framework for responsive web design "Simbla touts its use of Bootstrap 3 to automatically optimize any created website to any platform, whether mobile, laptop or tablet." "Don’t let their youth fool you though, Simbla offers one of the best website building experiences available."
  • Contentful, a Berlin start-up "out of dissatisfaction with the existing web-focused CMSs. Those didn't fit for the new web – the web of mobile, interactive, multichannel content" is rather a CMS than a website builder "Like a CMS ... without the bad bits". Sites can be built programmatically via an API. This new approach provides total freedom to use well strucured data for whatever purpose: for display on web sites, for web apps, for sharing and feeding social media, for content marketing. Key of this modern philosophy is separation of content from presentation.

From "web site design" towards strategic content design
"Content" is a terrible word. It reduces what really matters to a low-value commodity. Even worse, the vast majority of content on the Internet solely exists for SEO purposes, it's nothing more than digital environmental pollution. Nevertheless, content is the material of our communication and our online presences. Luckily, today's Google search algorithms do no longer encourage content spam, keyword stuffing and the like. Even though Google is still not intelligent enough to really separate the wheat from the chaff (at least not languages other then English), the search engine's efficiency to recognize the meaning and purpose of documents will inevitably increase. Furthermore, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft join forces to push artificial intelligence for better understanding of all kind of content.

For website creators, authors, publishers and SEO experts this means the there is a strong trend towards quality content, meaning both editorial and technical quality. The latter means, for instance, semantic mark-up. This is increasingly important: despite Google's increasing ability to recognize a page's meaning, value and authority, semantic content optimization can increase page rank and thus drive SEO. Semantic mark-up can easily be created just by using HTML5 the right way. Additionally, helps categorizing page content.

Other additions to the code are tags for social media, mostly Open Graph tags and tags for Twitter Cards which - if done right - create a beautiful Twitter Card display if the URL of the respective page is included in a tweet (provided that the respective domain is whitelisted by Twitter).

Results for the big three
  • Wix: non-semantic, Open Graph, no Twitter Card tags, AJAX, slow loading
  • Weebly: non-semantic, Open Graph, no Twitter Card tags, loading time okay
  • Squarespace: simple semantic, Open Graph, Twitter Card tags, AJAX, fast loading
In summary, Squarespace takes care about semantic markup. However, none of the three use a more sophisticated mark-up, let alone "Non-semantic" may mean: only divs (page sectioning with no semantic meaning), no headers (which would bear semantic significance) and similar cases. Or, the HTML code is not fully "mobile responsive".

In contrast to these three traditional sitebuilders which evidentially are unable (or unwilling) to meet modern content requirements, there is a more recent site builder, released in 2013, in which case care was taken of state-of-the-art HTML code. It's Strikingly:
  • HTML code uses Bootstrap 4, the most advanced mobile and responsive framework, made by Twitter (the code is not bug-free, though, the W3C validator reports many basic HTML errors)
  • Semantic mark-up
  • Social: Open Graph tags
  • Page loading: rather slow

Today's site builders should enable the author to created stratetic and SEO-friendly content. Summarizing the joint "good" features of the above four sitebuilders (1 modern, 3 wannabe modern) concerning content design, mark-up, SEO-friendlyness and share-friendlyness:
  • Semantic mark-up
  • Open Graph plus Twitter Card tags
  • AJAX and fast page loading
  • an HTML framework for best possible display on all

In contrast joint deficits of all four do not have

  • a perfectly clean code