As chair of our local allotment association, I’m wondering about setting up a website to provide information and news to new and existing allotmenteers. Can this be done with basic tech knowledge and zero experience of web design or coding? There’s a bewildering number of services offering to host websites, sell domain names, provide easy-to-use templates and so on at a range of prices. What are the catches with the free or cheap services on offer?
We have a Facebook group but nobody in the association is very keen to keep this active. Robin
It’s a pity you don’t like the idea of using Facebook because this is generally the quickest and easiest way for a small group to get online. In fact, if an organisation has a physical manifestation – a school, park or church, allotments, a restaurant or so on – then it may already have a Facebook page. If so, you can apply to take it over. If that fails, you can start your own page and compete with it.
Using Facebook has advantages: it’s free, you don’t need to do any programming and it’s likely most of your users will already have accounts. Facebook pages are also easily accessible to members’ spouses, children and relatives who wouldn’t visit a website.
Facebook groups are different from Facebook pages. Facebook groups are more like chatrooms, and you can keep them private if you like. You could use a Facebook page for news and a private Facebook group to publish minutes and debate issues, among other things.
When the web took off back in the 1990s, it was like the opening of America’s midwest, and millions of people went “digital homesteading” on sites such as GeoCities. Building websites with HTML turned out to require more effort, and more taste, than most people possessed. There were lots of good sites but most were dire.
In the early 2000s, homesteading was replaced by blogging, which didn’t require any programming skills. Templates removed the need for design skills, or even taste. Although the basic diary structure of a blog didn’t suit every purpose, the free WordPress software made most things possible, for those who were willing to make the effort … or pay someone to put their website together.
After the blogging boom, we saw the rise of the drag-and-drop website builder, which is where we are today. Drag-and-drop systems let you build websites quickly and easily by plonking pre-written components onto your developing webpage, with no programming required.
If you’re rejecting Facebook, it comes down to a choice between WordPress and a drag-and-drop system. If you think you might be willing to give WordPress a go, read one of the dozens of online guides, such as How to Start a WordPress Blog the Right Way in 7 Easy Steps (2019). There’s a companion half-hour YouTube video.
Pros and cons of drag-and-drop
There are more than a dozen drag-and-drop website builders, and they all work in pretty much the same way with modules you just drop into place. They make it reasonably easy to update your website or transform it just by switching to a different template.
Many drag-and-drop website builders come with some sort of hosting arrangement and a website address, so you don’t need to take out a domain name in advance. Of course, many domain name sellers and hosting providers use drag-and-drop website builders to attract people to buy domain names and sign up for web hosting packages. GoDaddy is a well-known example.
Sites built with drag-and-drop website builders should now be “mobile friendly”, adapting to work on smartphones not just in PC web browsers. This is something to check.
But there are some drawbacks. The main one is that drag-and-drop websites can be very hard to customise, and you mess with template code at your peril. Second, not every website builder will have all the options you need, so, without expensive customisation, it may be impossible to do what you want. Third, your website may look exactly like hundreds of other websites, and some people will instantly spot common templates. This might not bother you but it looks bad on a commercial website.
Fourth, your website may be locked to the fortunes of the drag-and-drop software supplier or web host. You’re at their mercy if they have technical problems, if response times drop, or your traffic explodes. You might not be able to move your website to a host with a different website builder and end up having to rebuild the whole thing from scratch.
Not all web hosting services come with unlimited bandwidth, and the free limit could be as low as 2GB. Find out what the limit is, and what happens if you exceed it.
A local site might not expect to get more than a few hundred visits per month, and if your page is small – 500,000 or less – then you probably won’t have to worry about bandwidth charges. However, there’s always the risk of something going viral. A post with a photo of a cute kid with a puppy, or whatever, shared on social media, could get thousands or even millions of hits.
It’s better to have your website go offline when it reaches a bandwidth limit than be faced with a huge bill.
Three independent drag-and-drop website builders currently stand out from the crowd – Wix, Weebly and Squarespace – and there are lots of comparison reviews online.
All three allow you to create a free test site so you can find out how well they work, and both Wix and Weebly will let you publish it. The main drawbacks are that you can’t use your own domain name, and that they will put their advert on your site. There may be storage and bandwidth limitations as well.
Wix and Weebly are happy to host free personal sites because the failures cost nothing and the successful users will eventually move up to a paid plan. Squarespace doesn’t want free users: it targets commercial users, from creative freelancers and small businesses to large organisations.
Wix’s paid plans start at £3 per month with 500MB of storage and 1GB of bandwidth, but the “best buy” offers 10GB of storage and unlimited bandwidth for £8.50 a month. The latter includes a free domain name for the first year.
Weebly is cheaper. Its £3 a month deal includes 500GB of storage and unlimited bandwidth and a domain name. It also has a Starter offering with unlimited storage for personal use for £5 a month, and a Pro service for “groups and organisations” for £8 a month. (These prices are for payments made annually.)
Squarespace is a more polished operation with offices in New York, Portland and Dublin. It also has the best designs. All its plans have unlimited storage and bandwidth plus a domain name. Personal websites cost £10 a month when billed annually (£13 a month if not) and business websites cost £15 a month when billed annually (£21 a month if not). It also has a cut-price deal for students.
You should try all three to see which you like best, but I suspect you won’t want to pay Squarespace’s prices. Otherwise, a free Weebly account – which has unlimited bandwidth – looks like the best bet, if all your content fits into 500MB.
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