DIY Websites

Spanglefish – a re-appraisal

We recently received an unusual request from a self catering holiday property owner in North Uist to help them with their Spanglefish website. Those of you who have read our previous rants about the local Enterprise Gateway promoting this proprietary system will know that we are not fans – or at least, we weren’t. We had seen too many design disasters, neglected sites and pages that were best left unpublished for the good of their owners’ businesses.

The Barn website was not the worst Spanglefish site we had seen by a long way. There was a wealth of good content and much of it was sensibly formatted. The overall colour scheme and top banner however were dire, some images were broken, one page had elements that were slightly wider than the overall container and the choice of images for the home page was less than ideal.

We created a new top banner, changed the overall colour scheme (including a custom background colour to blend in with the header graphic) and fixed the formatting errors. We also added two new galleries of wildlife and landscape pictures from images supplied by the client (after cropping and resizing them – a very important issue when the maximum size picture a Spanglefish site will display is relatively small).

ScreenshotThe end result is a vastly improved site – and a somewhat less harsh view of Spanglefish from behind this web developer’s keyboard. The admin interface is easy to use, the basic page editor has all the necessary functions (though the editing window is pathetically small) and the source code can be edited. It is also possible to include custom CSS if you know what you are doing.

We still have some criticisms – in particular the current default width of a site at 750 pixels or so  does not allow enough screen real estate for modern displays, and the default colour schemes are very limited (with some truly hideous backgrounds – DON’T click on that tartan!) . If you really know what you are doing with CSS both these limitations can be overcome, but messing with the default stylesheet is not for the novice.

And – all of the above only applies if you have upgraded to Spanglefish Gold -  if you have the free version you are stuck with the terrible 3-column layout with ads etc. Upgrading is only £24.95 per annum, and does at least give you a chance to turn your site into something that doesn’t look too amateur.

If you have a Spanglefish site that could do with having a professional eye cast over it, or if you need a little help getting to grips with the system, why not give us a call?

If you really MUST make your own website

Here’s the easiest, most effective solution:

Get some cheap web hosting that supports WordPress. 123-Reg are probably as good as any – at least, you will be able to move the site elsewhere in future if you want to. (From £2.50 per month).

Now choose a free theme from the hundreds out there and start playing around – or go with the standard but highly customisable TwentyTen or TwentyEleven themes and change them to suit. Check out a few WordPress tutorials on Youtube or download a free manual.

Make sure you back up all files and your database regularly and you will easily be able to move the site later if your current host seems restrictive in any way. I recommend this plugin to back up your database painlessly by e-mail.

I’ve created a short tutorial on the basic basics of WordPress starting from a clean installation with the 2010 theme:

 

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4EP0lXBeLI']

It’s not the slickest tutorial, but will give you some idea.  One day I will remake this and continue the series . . .

Anyway, WordPress is the easiest industry-standard platform, easy to keep up to date, easy to transfer between hosts and easy to customise to make do whatever you want to to do. The ability to upload new themes which keep design separate from content means you can at some future date get a theme professionally designed if you so desire, move the site to another server, allocate permissions to allow others to update specific sections of the site or install and  use plugins to extend the functionality of the site.

Good luck.

Business Gateway’s Web Building Courses

I see that the  local Business Gateway is once again advertising  short one-day workshops to show businesses how to build their own website. The advertisement says ‘Learn from scratch how to build and manage an attractive website for your business’.

What they don’t tell you is that Business Gateway is promoting a proprietory website design system known as Spanglefish which is run by a company based outside Argyll, and that they are bringing in and paying  tutors from outside Argyll to do the training.

There are several aspects of this that I have isues with. Firstly, there is plenty of web design and training expertise within Argyll, so why is Business Gateway not using this internal talent pool and supporting local businesses?  I thought that was their function.

Secondly, why Spanglefish? It is a proprietary  system that supports its costs by running  advertisements on your site.  If you point your own domain at the site it will probably kill your site’s visibility in the search engines, and if you don’t then you have a ‘fishy’ URL and everyone knows that you are a cheapskate using a free sitebuilder.

There is a superb free open-source content management system available in the form of WordPress which is ten times as capable as Spanglefish. In fact, WordPress now powers 15% of the world’s top one million websites. Why oh why are Business Gateway not promoting this superb business tool?  With WordPress you are not tied to any specific company or internet service provider, and you know the software is under a programme  of continuous development with a massive worldwide support community.

So – wrong trainers, wrong software, no support for local web designers and developers. Otherwise it’s all great is it?

Not really. A business website is for many small and start-up businesses their most important and cost-effective marketing tool by a long way.  I  have seen some nice Spanglefish sites, but I have also seen some horrors.  Amateur sites that are never finished, that are poorly designed or even an eyesore, that can’t be found in Google - these are an abomination and can actually harm a business. Sometimes no website is better than a bad one or an incomplete one. In addition, transferring a Spanglefish site to another server or ISP should you wish to is far from straightforward. 

As already mentioned,  there are various small web design businesses in Argyll with decades of experience between them. By suggesting that small business owners or new starts can save a few pounds by creating their own websites  Business Gateway is undermining these  existing small businesses and devaluing public perception of their expertise.

I am sure that Business Gateway would not  run vehicle mechanics courses to encourage businesses to maintain all their own vehicles as well.  Ostensibly doing your own vehicle maintainance could save more money and possibly be easier to learn than web design, but somehow the idea seems daft. It is obviously more sensible to use a local garage, so what is the difference when it comes to a company’s main marketing vehicle, their website?

Encouraging businesses with limited IT skills and limited time to waste a lot of their valuable energy learning a new skill that others have taken years or decades to acquire is not necessarily doing them any favours. Steering them  towards a limited and proprietory system that locks them into a specific provider strikes me as downright irresponsible.

So – is it worth anyone’s while attending these workshops?  Well, if you are thinking of starting a business and know nothing about web design then why not? There are worse ways to spend a few hours and you will pick up some useful information. Don’t commit yourself to Spanglefish though, or to anything or anyone else, until you have done a bit more research and some hard thinking. ‘Free’ websites can carry a hidden price tag.

If  in the end you are determined to do it all yourself then I suggest finding a cheap host that provides WordPress pre-installed or as a ‘one-click install’ and use the most successful, best-supported, free and flexible content management system available today.