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« How Virtuous Was Our Virtuous Cycle? | Main | Elsewhere »

September 20, 2007

Website-Making Tools for Non-Geeks

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It becomes easier every year to put yourself up on the web, doesn't it? Where not so long ago the non-gearhead who hoped to join the online party had to hire a pro or rely on bad tools that resulted in trashy-looking websites, today's webcreature-wannabe has a number of appealing options to choose among. It seems fair to me to say that today's website-making-tools-for-the-masses are so good that someone who really wants to have a website no longer has a valid reason not to.

A few years ago I recommended the outfit Squarespace, a service that enables you to create a complete and attractive website for yourself entirely online. But, since I'm the type who likes doing research, trying out software, and playing with organizational tools, I've continued poking around the field, and I've run into some other cool and valuable tools. Why not pass them along too?

A preliminary note: It seems useful to divide website-making tools into those that operate entirely online and those that are individual-computer-based. In the first group, both the website you make and the website-builder you use to make it are online. All that's needed to accomplish what you'll want to accomplish is a browser and a fast internet connection.

Advantages: no programs to buy and manage; you can tinker with your website from any web-connected computer; there's no need to endure the headaches involved in acquiring a domain name and lining up a webhost. Disadvantage: Online tools tend to be less quick and responsive than do ones that live on your hard drive.

Tools that belong to the second group are ones that you buy and then install on your own computer. Once you've done that, you use the program to assemble and / or tweak your pages (photo galleries, blogs, freeform pages, whatever). Then you upload your creation to a webhost, where it's made public.

Advantage: Some of these programs are terrific, as well as easy and and even fun to use. Disadvantages: You have to attend to all that offputting webspace-making crap (domain names, webhosts, etc). Why can't anyone make those procedures less annoying than they are? Plus you can only mess with your website from the one computer that has the program (and your files) installed on it.

Life is indeed all about weighing trade-offs ...

To the first group might belong such familiar products as WordPress, Typepad, and Blogger. All three services have their advantages and their partisans. But they also limit you to creating a blog, or at most a blog-with-trimmings. (Some people have recently been using WordPress to create websites that aren't strictly blogs, but no matter what direction you bend it in, WordPress is a tool that wants to make you a blog.)

Some tools that I can recommend (or in one case semi-recommend):

  • The online tool that I mainly want to focus on is once again Squarespace, which is even better today than it was when I recommended it two and a half years ago. Created by a youngster named Anthony Casalena when he was a mere slip of a college student, Squarespace is both very brilliant and very beautifully implemented. It's such a slick and effective service that I'm amazed that Google or Yahoo haven't handed Casalena a billion and taken his company over.

    All you have to do to get started is sign up -- and, since Squarespace lets you try the service free for a month, even singing-up is painless. Then start building yourself a website. The basic idea in Squarespace is that you work in two phases. In organizing-the-website mode, you arrange pages and sections in grab-and-drop "modules." In editing mode, you fill your modules with content. Editing of pages is largely WYSIWYG.

    Once you get familiar with the routine (and it took me -- a complete dunderhead where tech things are concerned -- only an hour to become proficient with Squarespace), anxiety levels are low. You can always undo, rework, or revise what you've done. In other words, if you fear that that page you just made really belongs in another section, no problemo. Just click back over into organizing mode, and grab and drop it where you think it will work better. This openness means that Squarespace makes it simple to try different ideas out, by the way. Changing your mind becomes an adventure rather than matter of attending to onerous chores.

    Pros: No need to purchase a domain name or line up a webhost. Who needs the headache? The system itself is relatively easy to learn; you can have yourself a very complete website up and on the web in an afternoon even if your computer skills don't go much beyond word processing and commenting at blogs. Squarespace offers a wide variety of modules, aka page types, including forums, an excellent blogging tool, and photo galleries, as well as freeform pages. The pricing (which starts at $7.99 a month) is more than attractive, and storage limits are generous.

    Squarespace can help you do nearly everything you might want to do online and then some. It's also neat that you can do your webwork from any web-connected computer. Say you want to put up a blogposting while you're on vacation. With Squarespace there's no need to tote a laptop along. Just find an internet cafe (or bum your host's computer for a half hour) and surf to your Squarespace site. Squarespace the company offers phenomenal service too. The few times when I had to ask for help I received prompt hand-holding -- courteous and helpful hand-holding -- from Anthony Casalena himself.

    Cons: Moving Squarespace's modules around can be a bit foot-draggy in that Web 2.0 way. (Nothing too bad, though.) The templates (ie., the look-and-feel packages) that Squarespace offers are attractive but a bit off-the-rack. If you're good with webthings or if you can find a designer who is familiar with Squarespace, though, you can have yourself a seriously beautiful website. Katie Hutchison's site is one example of how ravishing a Squarespace site can be. Look here for other examples. And there's always the danger that a small operation like Squarespace won't last forever, and then what will you do?

    But Squarespace is a really phenomenal tool, available at really great price. I have no idea why it isn't better-known and more widely-used than it is. Here's a review by a guy who has been as impressed and pleased by Squarespace as I've been, and for similar reasons. Gadgetopia raved about Squarespace too. PC World, on the other hand, was unenthusiastic, and found Squarespace unintuitive to use.

Because I'm that kind of guy, all of the on-your-own-computer tools that I've tried have been for Macs.

  • RapidWeaver is a program made by Realmac Software, a small team of sassy and enterprising young Englishdudes. Once you've bought, downloaded, and installed RapidWeaver, you're off and running. Click to make a page. Drag and drop it where you want it to go. Customize your site and your pages as you see fit. You make the site on your Mac and then you upload it to a webhost.

    Pros: RapidWeaver is cheap, and it's very easy to figure out -- a bit easier than Squarespace, in fact. It's also lots of snappy fun. Part of the thrill is due to the number of themes (ie., the visual-layout schemes) that are available, from both Realmac and from many independent developers. It's a one-click thing to try a theme out on your site, and it couldn't be simpler to change a theme once you've tired of your old one. Optional plugins enable you to do some groovy layout tricks, such as columns and boxes. (This page is full of links to RapidWeaver add-ons.) The RapidWeaver community (much in evidence in Realmac's forums) is a buzzing, friendly, and helpful one.

    RapidWeaver includes an extensive selection of page types, including a good if not great blogging tool, a very good photo gallery, an attractive contact form, and much else. (Forums aren't a possibility, though.) And although the package isn't up to creating or maintaining anything as extensive as Amazon or eBay, it's more than robust enough for personal use; in fact, many small businesses use RapidWeaver for their online arm. If I remember right, Realmac endorses making websites of up to around 30 pages. But The Wife has had no trouble with her RapidWeaver site, which includes more than 50 pages, and I've heard of people who use RapidWeaver to manage sites comprising over a hundred pages without problems.

    Cons: The usual ones involved in making a website on your own computer -- acquiring a domain name, lining up a webhost, and being stuck doing your web-monkeying only on your own Mac. (This means that you can't blog from work or tweak your site while you're on vacation unless you've installed RapidWeaver on your laptop.) Uploading is a bother, though RapidWeaver makes uploading chores relatively un-onerous by including a trustworthy built-in FTP program (the program that enables you to do the uploading); once it's set up properly, the uploading process goes very smoothly. (But note that "once it's set up properly" ... ) And, though it seldom crashes, RapidWeaver isn't entirely glitch-free: Typographical outcomes can sometimes include a few surprises.

  • Shutterbug is another lean, fun, and effective website-making tool for the Mac-equipped. Initially developed as a no-fuss way for photographers to put their pix online, it has since evolved into a something that can produce good-looking standard websites.

    Pros: Shutterbug is cheap, it's easy to learn and to use, and it's very, very solid. In my experience Shutterbug has been fast and responsive, and it has never once crashed. Sites built with Shutterbug come up online lickety-split, too, something I interpret as a majorly good sign. One nice (and rare) feature that's included in Shutterbug: You can password-protect individual pages on your site. In other words, while 8 of your ten pages (for example) can be visible to the public, you can put the other two behind a password. That can come in handy if you maintain a contact list that you want only a few people to have access to, for instance.

    Cons: Shutterbug's themes (the visual schemes you can choose from) seem more canned to me than RapidWeaver's do. Shutterbug also offers no blogging tool, though it's easy to link from your Shutterbug site to an external blog in such a way that it almost seems like an integrated part of your website. The main drag with the program is that you can always sense its roots in photosite creation. Once you start pushing Shutterbug into page-layout mode -- ie., once you start scattering both pix and text around a page -- you become very aware of its bias towards photo-display. Still: good, solid, cheap, easy, and fast count for a lot.

    By the way, Xtralean, the company that makes Shutterbug, also offers a terrific freebie photo-manipulation program called ImageWell that's excellent for minor photo-tweaking. It's particularly good for resizing photos. Start using ImageWell and you'll soon find yourself opening Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements) a lot less often than you used to.

  • Apple's own website-making tool is called iWeb, a new version of which just became available as part of the iLife '08 suite of easy-media-making tools.

    It's an infuriating program, half dazzling and half a beast. Apple fans were heartbroken when iWeb first appeared in early 2006. It had such promise ... It looked lovely, and its basic concept was enormously appealing: Choose an overall look, choose a page variation within the look, drag and drop content into pre-existing boxes and holes, then tweak and alter 'till you're happy. Could the problem of website-making-for-the-masses finally have been solved? Had Steve Jobs and his team done it again?

    But the first iWeb was just a pretty set of clothes. Beneath the chic duds, all was a disaster. It crashed; it produced pages with absurd URLs; it was over-tied into Apple's not-great .Mac service. Worse, sites made with iWeb quickly became notorious for how slow they were to download even via the fastest web connections.

    I haven't tried iWeb '08, the new version of the program, but I have followed its reception. iWeb '08 is apparently much better than the first iWeb -- but "much better" still doesn't mean good. Disappointment is still the prevailing tone among Apple fans. iWeb now comes with additional themes, it seems somewhat less crash-prone than the first iWeb, and it enables you to use your own domain name, provided that you're up to taking that dreary challenge on.

    But it remains elegant on the surface and bloated and kludgey underneath. Apple fans seem to be resigning themselves to the fact that iWeb will never be the insanely great program they'd like it to be. It's meant for -- and apparently always will be meant for -- weekend hobbyists who don't mind the underlying inelegance. Nothing wrong with that, of course. What's irksome is that, for all their undeniable glitziness, iWeb sites feel amateurish. Perhaps that has to do with their slowness. While Squarespace and RapidWeaver create lickety-split websites that can easily serve business or professional purposes, iWeb is strictly for the amateurs.

    Pro: iWeb's themes are very beautiful -- beautiful as in "no one today knows design like Apple does." iWeb is very, very easy to understand and to use, at least when it's behaving properly. It offers many nifty features, including EZ podcasting, and it's well-integrated with Apple's other programs, such as iPhoto and GarageBand. Themes can be tweaked and customized to a fare-thee-well. And iWeb comes as part of the iLife 08 package, which means that you get it, iMovie, GarageBand, and iPhoto all for 79 bucks. As imperfect as iWeb is, iLife is still an amazing bargain.

    Cons: Cumbersome. Crash-prone. Slow. Mac only. Those who know about these things tell me that iWeb generates very bad -- unnecessarily bad -- code. Although you can use iWeb to create a website that you then upload to a webhost of your choice, it's still happiest when it's playing footsie with Apple's .Mac service. Also -- and this really does gall me a little -- iWeb isn't great if what you want to showcase is your writing. The iWeb experience is far more about layout and visual attractiveness than it is about presenting written content -- writing I guess having become so very yesterday.

By the way, if you decide to use a webhost I enthusiastically recommend the two companies that I use, MacHighway and Globalnet. Both have delivered excellent service at a good price. Both also offer first-class help, online and by phone. (Real people -- real English-speakers -- pick up the phones when you call.) MacHighway is homier and is probably better-suited to individuals, while Globalnet is more oriented towards businesses. But both outfits make interacting with a webhost about as painless as I can imagine it being. As for Apple's .Mac service, the less said the better.

There's another kind of website-builder that's less well-known than it deserves to be. Are you familiar with wikis? Wikipedia is one superlarge example of a wiki, but it's typical of the form: a lot of entries, often written by many different contributors, with links and connections between the entries as well as to the outside world.

Wiki software is software that enables you to build something like a miniature Wikipedia. Those of you who can remember Apple's legendary HyperCard will be famliar with the basic idea: A wiki, no matter how large or small, is like a miniature version of the entire World Wide Web. Those who are reminded of the Buddhist idea of the "net of Indra," a jeweled net each jewel of which embodies and reflects the entire net ... Well, you're kinda like me.

Do you want to put all your mom's recipes online? Do you have a lot of mini-essays in you that strike you as interconnected? Do all your interests feel mysteriously related to each other? If so, then a wiki-based website might make more sense for you than a conventional website.

Although you can use a wiki tool to build a fairly-conventional website, wikis generally seem to function best when they're used to create databases of interlinked entries. Personality may play a role here. It seems to me that blogs lend themselves to people who thrive on taking note of the passing scene -- snapshooters -- while wikis are better-suited to people who want what they say to retain its meaning and significance for somewhat longer than a firefly-flash. I often think of Friedrich von Blowhard as a born wiki-head, for example; John Emerson is another brainiac who owes it to himself to have a wrestle with wiki-making. Two guys with interesting, encyclopedic minds who have actually gone ahead and created sites that are essentially personal wikis -- Wikipedias of their own heads -- are Zompist and Jahsonic.

Wikis have an interesting history, as well as many interesting qualities. They've been around since 1995. (Here's --- eek, it's too much -- Wikipedia's history of wikis. Here's the world's very first wiki.) For one thing, they exert a powerful fascination on a certain kind of mind. "This is it!" such a person finds himself thinking on first beginning to make a wiki. "This is what I've always been looking for!" Openness, connectedness, ever-evolvingness, participatory-ness ... If those notions bring out the visionary, altruistic, perhaps even rabid grad student in you -- and they do in me -- then beware: the Wiki idea might sink its teeth into you and never let go.

(Wikis, by the way, don't need to exist online, although that's where they belong if you want to work with collaborators, or if you want the public to see the results of your work. They can also exist on private computers. On my home Mac, for instance, I'm building a family-memories wiki using this very good and free tool. Hey, it's fun to create a hyperlinked encyclopedia of family facts and memories.)

I've killed some time tinkering with a number of online wiki-making packages (AKA "hosted wikis"). One well-known wiki host is JotSpot, an easy and high-tech tool that Google acquired. JotSpot worked well enough -- at the time it was the simplest to use of the hosted wiki hosts. And it created attractive-enough and usable websites. But it has also been invisible since Google bought it more than a year ago. There are rumors that JotSpot will emerge again soon as part of Google's "Apps" package (alongside its Calendar and Documents tools), and that it will be free when it does so.

Of the online Wiki tools available for use now, the one I've liked best is PBwiki, founded and run by three Stanford grads in 2005. PBwiki is nimble and quick and recently, thank god, became WYSIWYG. It's very easy to use. I had a 15-entry wiki on its feet in just a couple of hours -- and at the end of those couple of hours I was feeling the wiki high, let me tell you. Monsoons, plagues, and poverty -- all could be remedied if only the world would make more use of wikis, I was certain of it.

Upsides: It's free, it's easy, it produces attractive-enough websites (wikis often look pretty bad), and it's better than cocaine. Downsides: Ads (not too intrusive, though). And PBwiki offers a miniscule storage limit of 10 mb for free accounts. If you upload more than a few hundred smallish photos, you'll find yourself paying $9.95 a month -- which, come to think of it, isn't a bad price to pay for a pleasant-to-use website. Also, god only knows what will become of independent outfits like PBwiki once the Google behemoth makes Jotspot available to the public once again.

In a category largely of its own is a nifty little program called Tumblr. Does blogging appeal to you but seem to demand too much commitment? (And, you know, blogging does require a bit of work.) Still, you'd like to have some fun online with your own mini-site? Then Tumblr may be for you. With a free account, you get to create and maintain a bloggish thing that has been optimized for links, pix, and quotes. You can do serious writing on your "Tumblelog" if you want to, but you can also just sling a link or a joke up there, and they'll look fine.

Upside: free, easy, and fun. Downside: Tumblelogs don't have "search" functions on them yet, so once an entry goes into the archives it won't be easy to retrieve. Surfers aren't quite sure yet what to make of Tumblelogs. No comments. And, once again, god only knows how long the Tumblr project will exist, let alone what will become of your own Tumblelog if and when Tumblr ceases to be a going thing.

A few -- if you're still with me -- tips and reflections.

  • When you start to maintain your own website the temptation to get really particular is hard to resist. I wonder why that should be the case. Perhaps it's because you feel that, finally, you now have webspace to play with exactly as you see fit. Is this partly because everything on the web is elastic? Is it partly because the web is all about transcending limitations? I don't know. I do know, though, that even though I'm someone who generally likes working within given forms, on the web I seem to be as capable of dopey overambition as anyone else.

    But if you're an arty, tech-averse person like I am, hyper-precision isn't a realistic possibility anyway. The tools I list above will enable you to achieve maybe 80% of what you want. (By the way, I think it's a healthy thing to learn how to settle -- over and over again -- for "good enough.") If you truly can't let go of your dream -- if you just can't live without that other 20% -- then you're better off forgetting the tools above and learning HTML, CSS, and / or Dreamweaver. Of course you could always hire a good web designer to execute your ideas. Good designers can make websites that are more beautiful than you'll ever be able to.

  • Be modest, because you may find that your appetite for a webpresence is sated faster than you think it will be. My own personal website is something that I set to making with great gusto -- finally a chance to get it all out there! But energy and gusto soon flagged, and my personal website has remained about half-done ever since. I was happy enough with it, I guess. I diddle with it still, changing the content or tweaking the theme in small ways. But I do feel a little oppressed by the lingering evidence of my early over-ambitiousness. Hey, maybe I should just trim the site down and get rid of all that stuff I'll never fill out ... Cool: a web project that I can now go execute.

  • Another conflict that seems unavoidable when you mess around online is between the desire to centralize and the fun of flinging it all around. This seems to be one of the big differences between the young-uns who have grown up with the new media and us old analogue graybeards. We oldies often find it unnerving to have bits and pieces of ourselves strewn all over the web -- a YouTube account, a Facebook account, a blog or two that we've abandoned ... Meanwhile, kids seem to have no trouble with this at all. They take it for granted that they're going to have many different incarnations online. Where we oldies are -- or at least strive to be -- solid, coherent creatures, young people seem to take it for granted that they are and always will be ever-morphing bundles of avatars.

Although I don't think it's realistic to expect that an oldie will ever get as comfy with life online as kids born into the new world already are, it's still possible to adapt a little better than many oldies have managed to do. (I have writer friends who simply won't go online because they find the digital life -- and what it implies about where the world is going -- too depressing.) And, given the way that the media life is moving decisively away from old understandings, why not pick up a few tips from the kids?

For instance: Why get hung up about bringing everything into one place, and / or making definitive statements of any kind? Why not go electro-Zen instead? Life is a temporary, scattered thing anyway, isn't it? Digital kids may be our new gurus.

Here's one clever way of dealing with the scatter-it / centralize-it tension that can be such a feature of life online. It's a teen's webpage that looks like a conventional homepage for a conventional website. In fact it isn't that at all. Instead, it's one page (a Tumblr blog, as it happens) with links on it -- links that don't go to other pages in the same website but to other websites entirely. The teen whose page this is, in other words, is using his webpage not as a conventional website-homepage but as a table of contents to his various web adventures.

And if you do make a complete website, why be conventional about it? Here's a guy whose website consists of a classic blog, a Tumblelog, a forum, and an About page. Although it's his site, friends of his contribute to its contents too. Unusual and fun. Our webhost seems to be saying: Why get hung up on such 20th century notions as the individual author, the fixed voice, the core identity, and the stable self?

Questions for the day: Do conflicts really need to be resolved? Why shouldn't they just be bypassed instead?

Yours, while falling into a million happy pieces,


posted by Michael at September 20, 2007


Michael, please quit telling people that they can easily create their own website using pre-fab tools.

How in the hell am I supposed to make a living?

I've got to do this crap for another five or six years.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 20, 2007 11:09 PM

What a great write-up for those of us at the point between temptation/exploration and fear/loathing of hours (days?) forever lost.

Shouting Thomas- I believe you should have not fear. Friends of mine who are CPA's had the same thoughts when Quicken/TurboTax came out. They're still putting in 60-70 hour weeks from Jan 1 through April 15, usually dealing with folks exasperated by the "easy" tax software out there.

As with Michael's recommendations, even the "easy" software needs a boatload of patience at times and patience is a scarce commodity in these days of instant gratification. I believe you'll be doing "that crap" long after the 5-6 years you mentioned.

Posted by: DarkoV on September 21, 2007 8:33 AM

Yeah, no worries Thomas. My company interviewed a dozen "web designers" last year for a junior position. Wow, was that ever depressing.

And encouraging too - I'm the senior designer ;-)

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on September 21, 2007 11:56 AM

I'll join the chorus and say that while this kind of software makes it relatively easy for the layperson to slap a site up on the web, the quality of the site will always depend on the experience and imagination of the design team.

But yeah, for personal sites, this kind of software is fantastic. My favorite new web design tool is Coda. It's Mac-only and the interface is amazing, combining an HTML editor, CSS editor, a very accurate browser rendering window and bunch of other features.

Posted by: the patriarch on September 21, 2007 1:21 PM

The pros speak. Great to hear from people who actually know what they're talking about.

By the way, has no one else tried wikis and felt the same kind of buzz they give me?

Posted by: Micheal Blowhard on September 21, 2007 1:23 PM

Dear Michael,

Thanks for your mention of my work. Can I just mention that I am currently working on a wikified version of at

Thanks again

Posted by: Jahsonic on September 28, 2007 2:10 PM

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