A current client of ours recently asked for advice about redoing their website, which runs on WordPress. In addition to wanting a new look and feel, the client also wanted to update the site to be mobile friendly. This client was asked by a member of the committee in charge of the site to consider switching to using Weebly, and wondered whether that was a good idea.
I’ll start by saying that we don’t build or support sites built with Weebly, so if they move to Weebly, we lose a customer. But honestly, we don’t want customers who aren’t appropriate for our business, for both principled and practical reasons. For our business to thrive, we need happy customers making enthusiastic referrals, not disgruntled former clients who feel they’ve been fleeced; plus, we want clients whose need for what we offer — custom web development — is backed by a budget to pay for it. A useful and honest answer would be a benefit to both of us.
So, my off-the-bat response was, sure, if Weebly can do what you want at a reasonable price then absolutely, go for it. I advised my client to open a Weebly account and play around, looking to discover whether the service would allow them to do the things they wanted their site to do. I did not say “do the things your existing site does,” because an important part of any website do-over is assessing what a site does and doesn’t do and deciding whether those are the right things to do (or continue to skip). I knew already that this client had functionality on their site they weren’t using — their users could sign in and join forums where they could discuss topics with others in a group, for example, but those groups hadn’t ever been used much. Of course, I couldn’t answer the question about what this client’s site should do: only their web committee could do that by discussing this particular organization’s needs and priorities. But I was curious: what exactly could Weebly allow them to build?
Weebly and its many competitors are services geared toward people without much technical expertise who want to create a website without hiring an expert. In other words, I’m definitely not their target market. I’d created an account and played around years ago, not long after the service was rolled out, and I’d certainly read about these services to stay abreast of industry trends. But I wanted to update my first-hand experience, so I dusted off my old free account and spent a little time playing around.
Ease of Use
Sure enough, I was able to create a site very easily. Obviously, I bumbled around and got frustrated and couldn’t figure out how to do things right away, but it didn’t generally take me long to sort any of my issues out. That confirmed what I’d been reading: it’s an easy-to-use approach for building a site. Ease of use: check.
Next up: Visual Design. Design is one of Weebly’s strengths. Most people aren’t graphic designers, and on top of that, websites are bafflingly unlike, say, word-processing documents. Trying to make a website look the way you want it to is a daunting challenge for most beginners, and designing and building a modern site that adapts to serve users on every different screen size is definitely not for the inexperienced. Weebly offers “over 100 professionally designed website themes,” all customizable with “full HTML and CSS control for custom development.” I didn’t explore the customization options much, but it’s clear most people wouldn’t have trouble finding a good starting place and then customizing it to suit their tastes and needs using comprehensible tools.
There are lots of limits to a free account, of course: you can’t do things like customize the footer until you pay up. But I could explore all the basics: I could create 5 pages, including a blog and a storefront (I would need to sign up with a payment service to accept credit cards, of course). As far as I can tell, my blog could have unlimited posts, so the five-page limit isn’t really a limit on how much information you can publish. I encountered frequent pleas to upgrade to a paid plan as I explored, but I couldn’t complain; Weebly is a business, after all. You can create 3 types of pages: standard, blog or store, and you can arrange your pages into a menu, which can have drop down submenus (nested as far as you like apparently – with my 5 pages, I could go 4 levels deep — something I strongly advise against!)
On any given page, in addition to adding titles and text, you can, of course, add images, either embedded within your text or within galleries or slideshows. You can can also add things like buttons and dividers. And you can add YouTube videos, links to documents, Flash items, and, if you upgrade, audio files and your own video (rather than posting it first somewhere like YouTube).
Finally, there are a number of “Embeddable Widgets” that add additional functions. The most important of these is a “code” button, which allows you to get a bit flexible – for example, using the code button you can embed video from services other than YouTube (eg Vimeo), or you could use it to paste in the code from an email service like MailChimp to add a newsletter signup. You can also use the code option to pull in a Google calendar. In addition, there are specific widgets to add a contact form, maps, and social media buttons. There is a comprehensive form-building function so you can collect information from visitors (RSVPs, surveys, etc) plus a widget for polls (via GoDaddy’s PollDaddy Junior service), bookings (through BookFresh) and a forum feature through Tal.ki (or any other service that provides cut-and-paste code to create a forum). Finally, you can also add a search box to your site (paid plan only).
SEO and analytics are the final important area to explore. Weebly allows you to enter individual page titles and descriptions, two of the most important SEO-related items. The URL structure of your site is set by Weebly, and not changeable. In terms of analytics, Weebly offers some basic statistics, and you can add Google Analytics to your site. SEO is an area where there’s a great deal of noisy, but not terribly compelling, advice available; in the end, there’s no escaping the fact that you need quality content to get good traffic. Weebly lets you do some key things, but doesn’t offer a lot of extensive SEO tweaking. If you want to dive deeply into SEO, you don’t belong on Weebly.
Weebly offers good online documentation, plus email and phone support 7 days a week (not 24 hours a day, but for 12 hours on weekdays and 9 on weekends). If you’re on a paid plan, you get “priority support,” meaning you should get a quicker response time. I didn’t try Weebly’s support, but I found no reason to doubt that it’s helpful — their business is built on the concept.
Aside from the inherent inflexibility of building within a closed, proprietary system that doesn’t permit you to get under the hood — something that may be a reasonable tradeoff if it allows an inexperienced user to build a functional and attractive site quickly — the inability to import or export your content is, to me, the true Achilles heel of Weebly. There are ways to use RSS feeds to get blog post content, though not pages, in or out, but there’s no way to export your site (even to back it up), and no easy way to pick up stakes and depart for another platform if you’re unhappy. That’s an important fact to know.
What Can’t Weebly Do?
Using Weebly you can create regular pages as well as “blog” pages, which list the posts that belong to that blog (a site can have multiple blogs), and product pages, listing products. And of course you can create individual blog posts or individual products. You can present the information contained in any of those items using a number of different layouts, and you can include certain blocks of useful information, such a list of blog post categories, on a page of blog posts, to allow visitors to browse more easily.
What you can’t do is mix information across pages — you can’t add a list of blog posts to a regular page, or highlight certain types of related products within a post. (You can manually create links to specific products, but you can’t use a formula to list products of type X next to posts of category Y.) The place where this is may be particularly noticeable is when creating a home page, where you may want to feature the most recent information from multiple sections of your site.
And of course, with Weebly, you’re limited to the two types of information (blog posts and products) and categories for those items. WordPress doesn’t limit you: you can use it for recipes, products, lectures, sermons, movie reviews, portfolio items — any kind of information you like. And each of those types of information can be set up to include whatever bits and pieces you want – ingredients and prep time for recipes; ratings and actors for movies, and so on. If your needs are simple and all you want is blog posts and/or products, Weebly may serve your purposes just fine. There is no reason a movie review can’t be a blog post with a category of movie review. It’s when you want to systematically include some aspect more than title and category — say, ratings for movies — that you start to be constrained by Weebly. Or if you want to have control over what order those reviews are presented in (by title, say, instead of date of publication).
I was genuinely impressed by how much you could do with Weebly. It’s certainly come a long way from the last time I used it, when it was suited only to extremely simple, brochure-type websites. Though I would never use it myself, I have a much better idea of which potential clients I should steer in their direction — and it’s certainly a possibility for a larger number than I’d thought.