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Tim Peter

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October 29, 2009

Taking a Look at Weebly (The Thinks Website Hosting Tools Review)

October 29, 2009 | By | 43 Comments

If your small business doesn’t have a website yet, well… what are you waiting for? Especially with a tool as quick, easy and inexpensive as Weebly around. That’s not to say Weebly is perfect. It isn’t. But, it offers a strong combination of the most common features to help you get your business online with very little effort or cost.

Overview

I last looked at Weebly in our round-up of small business hosting tools almost two years ago and came away impressed. After running Weebly through its paces on our suite of sample sites, I’m even more impressed. What started out as a simple CMS with a great interface has evolved into a very useful tool for many types of small businesses to get online now.

Weebly offers a basic toolkit for helping you get your business online, flexibility to support your growth and the ability to move on when that growth demands more sophisticated tools.

For starters, Weebly offers a very simple signup procedure. Just enter your desired username, email and password and you’re done. Think I’m kidding? Take a look at this:

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That’s it.

Similarly, I love the options for selecting what domain you want your site hosted on:

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Fast. Easy. Nice.

It would be helpful if they offered some explanation here of the benefits/differences between the three domain options. Some users may not know why they’d want a subdomain or if it’s worth it to register a new domain (or, frankly, what a domain is). But that’s something of a nitpick. I found the process to be simple and quick.

Features

Once you’ve created your account, you’re immediately dropped into Weebly’s main editor. You can add content, headlines and images easily, as well as YouTube videos, Google AdSense and Maps, PollDaddy polls, Nabble Forums, and BookFresh/HourTown online scheduling, all through a drag-and-drop interface.

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One quirk, as I see it, is that there’s no drag-and-drop to add tracking code such as Google Analytics. You add your analytics code in the SEO section (i.e., it goes in the footer). That works fine and limits your need to add code on each page. But it’s notable that something as important as analytics is somewhat buried within the tool – particularly in light of how limited Weebly’s default analytics are.

Weebly’s blogging tool is solid for most purposes, particularly if you’re using a blog as an adjunct to your main business site. Serious bloggers have better options available, but the integration between Weebly’s blogging tool and the overall interface is handy. For instance, all the items available within the “regular” Weebly CMS are also available within the blog post tool, as are its more advanced items such as trackbacks. The blogging tool seemed to hang up when I tried to publish a blog post for the first time, but I couldn’t reproduce it on later tests.

Once you’ve created your content, simply click the publish button to make it available to the web. Publish pushes the entire site to the web, which might be an issue in some cases. For example, I wasn’t able to figure out how to work on multiple pages at the same time but only publish the changes made to one page. A more robust CMS would allow that sort of workflow, though almost always costs more, too.

After you’ve published your first site, you’ll see the following To-Do list, which is very handy.

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The To-Do list walks you through the individual help sections and guides you through the process of setting up your site. While I agree that taking users into the editor, then presenting this admin interface later makes sense, I couldn’t help wondering whether there’s value in making you aware this admin interface exists earlier in the process. For example, an introductory video on all the tools and help available to you might be useful.

Weebly allows for password-protected pages, if needed, with an upgrade to a “Pro” account. We’ll look at pricing for “Pro” accounts in just a bit.

Support level on the free side only via its FAQ’s, but they’re relatively thorough with an appropriate set of questions and answers. It’s worth noting that Weebly updates its tutorials regularly. For instance, when I started building the review sites, the FAQ called out that they were working on a new answer for verifying a site in Google Webmaster Tools. As of earlier this week, the FAQ reflected the new answer.

SEO

Weebly’s SEO features left me with mixed feelings. Each page has an individual title tag and you can add custom blocks of HTML within each page, which is nice. But any serious SEO efforts require you to make use of those custom HTML blocks, which I suspect is beyond the capabilities of most of Weebly’s target customers. I’ll concede that SEO is a complex bit of business with many esoteric demands, but I would think Weebly’s target customers would need more support in this area, not less.

E-commerce

Offering individual products for sale on Weebly, as with most of its features, was fast and easy. When you drag Weebly’s product selector to your page, you get the following message, asking you to choose between Google Checkout or PayPal for processing transactions:

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If you don’t have an account with either Google Checkout or PayPal, you’re directed to sign-up right there. Then you simply add a product image, price and description to sell your products:

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In theory, there are no limits to the number of items you can offer on each page, which worked well in our artist and restaurant gift shop templates.

On the downside, I couldn’t find a way to link off to a custom store – i.e., ProStores, Shopify or Amazon – from the main navigation. In my view, that’s a real limitation for businesses who want to offer their customers an integrated e-commerce experience with a larger product catalog:

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Analytics

Weebly’s default stats are very basic. And I mean very basic, showing only pageviews by day. I also couldn’t find any way to access log files, so few options exist for log analysis tools. I’d strongly recommend anyone building a site on Weebly to add tags for a more robust solution, whether Google Analytics or the like.

Look and Feel

The design templates within Weebly left me cold. As AJ commented on our initial post:

“I have been trying out Weebly, and while it’s very easy to use, it seems the designs on SiteKreator are much more professional and modern.”

I agree. While the designs looked professional enough, they were very generic. I found they worked just fine for my sample legal site, but I didn’t like the default templates for my trial guitar store, artist or restaurant/bar. Obviously, that’s a subjective viewpoint. Your mileage may vary.

Where Weebly did impress was with its sophisticated customization abilities. The tool allows you to make the site look any way you’d like, complete with custom CSS, HTML and images, so long as you’re comfortable mucking about in the code – or paying someone to do it for you.

Regardless of design, Weebly adds a “Create a free website with Weebly” link to all templates unless you upgrade to their “Pro” account.

Costs

So, all this talk about “Pro” accounts. How much is a “Pro” account, anyway? Surprisingly affordable. Weebly charges $36 a year for a 2-year subscription, $48/year if you sign up for only 1 year and $54.98 if you buy 6 months at a time. For what you get, that’s very reasonable. Another nice feature – if you need it – is the ability to create two sites under the same account and a “Pro” account can have up to 10.

One quibble: many sites these days like to use a favicon, the small image that appears in the address bar of your browser. Weebly also supports that feature, but only within its “Pro” accounts. At these prices, it feels petty to complain. But, it also feels petty to require a “Pro” account for so minor a feature.

Of course, if your business needs outgrow Weebly, you can download your entire site as a series of HTML files and move it where you need to. That’s a big plus and something I’m very glad to see in a tool of this sort.

Conclusion

Weebly is a pretty cool product. Still, it’s a very strong tool that will grow as your business needs grow and allow you to connect with your customers quickly, easily and inexpensively. It templates leave something to be desired and its integration with more robust e-commerce platforms is limited. Still, if your business isn’t online today and has only limited e-commerce needs, you could do a lot worse than Weebly. Give it a try. And let me know what you think in the comments below.

Interested in learning more? Register to receive a free copy of my new special report, “Digital Hotel Marketing in a Multiscreen World,” produced in conjunction with Vizergy, here. While it’s targeted to the hospitality industry specifically, most of the lessons apply across verticals. And, if that’s not enough, you might also enjoy some of our past coverage of the social, local, mobile web, including:

Full disclosure: I am an affiliate for ProStores, Amazon and Dreamhost but received no compensation for writing this post from anyone.

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