Buses in Cambridge are like web design in Cambridge: reliable, convenient and reasonably priced. However, I am given to understand that the story is not the same elsewhere. Indeed, books have been written on the subject of why such vehicles often come in threes. Suffice it to say that the hidden mathematics of everyday life also extend to the life of a freelance web developer. If I am asked about a particular web design topic or technique, no matter how obscure, I can pretty much guarantee that the question will crop up again very soon afterwards with a different client.
At the moment, in the land of web design in Cambridge, the burning web design issue is free website generators. Many web hosting companies offer these programs as a “quick start” to getting your business online. But do they work? If you haven’t got a lot of time, the short answer to the question: “Are website generators any good?” is: yes, for a limited time, then no.
Many business owners make the mistake of thinking that a website can be established and then left to mature like a fine wine. It isn’t the case. You can get immediate positive impact from a website, but after that point, it’s a bit of a labour of love. To keep yourself in the search engine rankings and encourage return visits from customers, you have to work hard at it: tweak page titles, descriptions and keywords; add new material and respond to user feedback. In short, you need to be creating noise around your site (albeit an excited buzz, not an annoying drone…) to keep things moving.
Free website generators address the immediate need, but some can fail to lay the groundwork for a sustainable website.
Use of images
The most common crime of the free website generator is to use images where text should be. This is hugely damaging for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) because search engine crawlers can’t read images, so your content is wasted: it’s not working for you. Text readers won’t be able to read your pages either, so disabled visitors don’t stand a chance of using your site.
Many free website generators are intended to provide a starting-point, so once you’ve created your website, you may not have the opportunity to go back and edit your pages. One Cambridge web design client had the experience that meaningless URLs (e.g. A.html, B.html etc.) were being generated and could not be renamed, with the result that his pages could not rival those of his competitors. Changing page titles, descriptions and keywords are all important parts of managing your website which may not be available to you with this kind of program.
HTML validation: An experiment
As an experiment, I decided to run a website generated by one of these free website generators through the W3C Validator, a useful tool for web designers and developers, which can pick up on any errors in the code on the page. Such errors can represent accessibility issues which can prevent visitors from using your site properly. It wasn’t good news. The validator came up with 69 errors, beginning with failing to identify the document type, with no XML declarations at the beginning of the webpage.
You don’t have to be technical to understand that these are quite fundamental problems. The webpage hasn’t even declared what code it’s trying to use, so the validator doesn’t know where to start. Many other errors referred to HTML attributes which are now deprecated (i.e. no longer used) which also suggests that the website generators are not updated to reflect changes in XHTML standards.
Another Cambridge web design client’s website, also generated by one of these free programs, had far fewer validation problems. Why? Because the whole website was made up of images. The only reason the validator didn’t pick up on more problems was because it can’t read images in the same way as it can read text. This goes for Google, Bing and any other search engine you care to mention. If you fill your website with images and Flash instead of text, it can seriously damage your site’s performance in search engine rankings.
Why not try it out yourself?
Think of a search term and Google it. Most likely, on page 1 you will find text-rich websites which run through the W3C validator with few or no problems. Click on the last pages of Google and you will find sites dominated by images or created using Flash.
Sometimes designers make the decision to use images in place of text, mainly for cosmetic purposes. The number of fonts available in most web browsers can be limiting and can lead to a repetitive look and feel. However, with web design as with so many areas of life, you need to know what you’re ignoring. If it is a conscious design, fair enough, and knowledgeable web designers will probably take other steps to boost SEO in lieu of the images. However, if you’re a newcomer to web design, you may not even be aware of this distinction.
I think it is unfair that businesses – especially small and medium-sized businesses trying to economize – can be led to thinking that a free website generator is going to be enough to give their website a fighting chance. It is a false economy. It doesn’t pay to take these errors lightly in web design, because they prevent visitors (especially disabled visitors) from being able to use your site properly and can do serious damage to your Google ranking.
So if you are planning to use a free website generator, what can you do to ensure the quality of the result?
Start by searching the site for “web design”, “css” and “html validation”. These issues should be addressed upfront or in support documentation.
If possible, view a tutorial or trial the content management system (CMS) to ensure that you can manipulate the design in the way you want and that it’s easy to use.
When inspecting other sites, if you can’t highlight text, right-click. If you see the option “Save Picture As…”, you are looking at an image, not text, which could potentially cause accessibility and SEO issues.
What are the other options?