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Comparing hosted services for small business websites

As Jackie Huba and I mentioned last week, it’s vital to create a web presence for your small business. It’s also damned easy these days.

As promised, I’ve provided some capsule reviews and a comparison chart for five tools that make building a website quick and (relatively) painless. Anne Zelenka at Web Worker Daily provided a brief but excellent overview of these web development tools last week. My goal is to dive a little deeper and see which provide the most utility and benefit to small businesses.

If your goal is to get a site up quickly and cheaply, you almost can’t go wrong with any of these web site platforms. I am most critical of SiteKreator and Webnode and for a simple reason: if one of them goes out of business, it’s not clear how you’re able to get your content back. SiteKreator has the more obvious business model, so that may be less of an issue, but speaking from experience, if you don’t have access to your content and your provider goes belly-up, you could find yourself good and well hosed. SynthaSite, Weebly and WordPress all allow for moving content out of their systems in some form or other, which wins major points in my book.

A second – though minor – critique is that each of the tools assumes some level of HTML/web knowledge at some point in the process. I highly recommend anyone doing this for themselves take the time to get familiar with a couple of the tools to see where they run into the ceiling of their knowledge before committing their entire web operation to one of these sites. Now, on to the show.

Weebly logoWeebly – Very, very cool. It’s got a simple, hip interface that I found easy and fun to work with. Its low price (i.e., free) is very tough to beat. Integrated blogging feature. Nice designs. My main concern/critique is their lack of an obvious business model. As GigaOM pointed out, they’ve got a tough road to hoe to profitability. You can download site in a zip file, which is nice. Overall, a very solid, well thought out product.

UPDATED November 1, 2009 – We’ve now got a detailed review of Weebly and how it’s changed since this was first posted. Check it out.

SiteKreator logoSiteKreator – I looked at the Personal edition as that allows you to have your own domain. Offers different designs based on paid level, so make sure the designs are available at your level. Simple, sophisticated content creation tools. Ability to insert custom HTML into the templates, which is nice for advertising and analytics code. No scheduling of content. Integrated blogging. Some templates not very SEO-friendly. Strong business model – the company creates custom site designs, provides consulting, or integration of existing designs into its content management tools. Very sophisticated options for folks willing to dive into the toolkit, such as access controlled pages, meta description and meta keywords sections, page title customization, custom 404 pages, etc. Limits ability to delete pages linked to, eliminating risk of broken hyperlinks, which is particularly nice. SiteKreator offers the least amount of storage. Shouldn’t be a problem for the types of sites we’re looking at here, but, could be an issue for long-term site growth.

Webnode logoWebnode – Very capable tool and completely free (nice!) but I can’t figure out their business model. Also has – to my taste – a much more complex interface compared to the others. For small businesses with limited experience, that’s a con in my book. Tagging for pages, a nice feature. Slowest interface. Not horrible, just a bit frustrating after the simple, quick elegance of Weebly and SiteKreator. Allowed me to delete a page linked to from other place and removed links to page, which is way cool. Easy custom 404 page builder. Advanced features include ability to incorporate custom designs and RSS feeds. Still, can you get your content out of it?

SynthaSite logoSynthaSite – More of a site creation toolkit than the others, which allows you to get your content out. The downside is that fewer tools (blogs, forms, etc.) available by default. Vinny Langham, the company’s CEO has mentioned that they’ll look to make money via paid widgets in the future. Works best on a big monitor (tough to see everything on the screen on my 15″ laptop screen – much better on my 17″ one). Otherwise, this is a very cool tool for building your site. Could almost serve as a poor man’s Dreamweaver.

For quick comparison, take a look at this chart (I’ve included WordPress for baseline comparison):

WeeblySiteKreatorSynthaSiteWordPressWebnode
Domain hosting+++++
Integrated CMS+++++
Price/year$0$95$0$25*$0
Ability to move content+++
Design options++++
Viable business model???+???+???

* – Price/year includes cost to direct a custom domain to the WordPress hosting platform. Domain registration cost isn’t included.

While I recommend you take the one that’s most interesting to you for a spin, a few things became obvious during this process. SynthaSite or Weebly look like the best choice for creating content to host elsewhere and Webnode, Weebly or SiteKreator seem to be the better choice if you’re going to use their hosting. I give gold stars to Weebly in particular, but to be completely fair, the fact that we’re debating which sub-$100 a year web hosting/content management system service provides the best small business starter website is remarkable. No business has an excuse for remaining invisible with these options available.

By the way, web developers building sites today need to get an account to one or more of these services and see how high they’ve set the bar for a basic site/content management system. Each of these tools will cover the basics and each offers a handful of advanced features. I wouldn’t suggest that these tools can replace the knowledge and skills strong development shops have built for themselves. But those developers are going to have to work hard to show their potential customers what they’re paying for.

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’m both a WordPress.com and hosted WordPress user, but have no financial stake in either.

Tim Peter

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

This Post Has 71 Comments
  1. Comparing Jimdo to SiteKreator, Webnode, Weebly and WordPress…

    Jimdo provides small business owners an excellent option for hosting their small business website. How does it compare to SiteKreator, Webnode, Weebly and WordPress?
    ……

  2. I must say that this article doesn’t go deep and to me it seems to be biased. The criteria for comparison are strange. What is “Ability to move content”? Was your goal really to compare these systems from the point of view of small business? What are their requiremens? Do you really know what small businesses need? Why should small businesses care of the business model of their webhosting (refer to the criteria “Viable business model”). How come you are the one to judge the quality of business model? So, do you think you really went “a little deeper” as your goal says? Due to my experience many of these systems are not so much suitable for small business……. I must say that I use one of these and I’m really satisfied with it, but I won’t tell you which one. Better to try it yourself….

  3. Hi Tom,
    I appreciate your point of view. Let’s see if I can address your concerns:

    What makes you say the post is biased? I’ll admit I’m a fan of WordPress (I use it myself), but I think all of these are pretty good tools. And when I don’t like something, I explain why. Some criteria (design templates, ease of use) are definitely subjective, but are based on my experience (see below).

    Great question about why businesses should care about the “ability to move content.” When you’re going with a low-cost provider, you want to be sure you can switch easily should the need ever come up. If you can’t get your content out of one of these tools, you could find your business in real trouble. Hopefully that day will never come, but, trust me, you don’t want to find yourself in that boat.

    My goal was to compare these to see if they’d meet the needs of a simple website for a small business, inexpensively, quickly and with stability.

    I’d never claim to know the exact needs of every small businesses. but having run e-commerce, online marketing and web operations for companies large and small for the last dozen years, I feel pretty comfortable I know the minimal requirements that most small businesses should look for in a web hosting provider. Those include ability to create relevant content for their customer, customer and search engine friendly layouts, stability/viability and the ability to do all these things for a decent price. Frankly, all the sites I looked at meet these needs pretty well. You could do a lot worse. And if I missed the needs of a specific business type, let me know. I’ll correct it.

    Why should small businesses care about the quality of the business model? I’d turn it around. Shouldn’t small businesses care about whether their key providers can remain in business? I was reminded of that one the hard way recently with this site. The last thing a small business wants is their provider going belly up in the middle of the night. Or worse, during peak business hours.

    Now I’ve got a question for you. You say many of these sites aren’t suitable for small business. Can you explain which one and why? That would be something we could all learn from.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. Keep on readin’.

  4. Briefly:
    – How do I implement product catalogue in Weebly (SiteKreator etc.). Is it simple?
    – How do I implement polls in Weebly? (I’m small business without experience and I don’t know anything about widgets…)
    – Forms? (I need my customers be able to suggest me something..)
    – Forum?
    – Image gallery?
    – Shopping cart and checkout? (This is most important for SB i think)

    These are IMHO the real criteria. Your experience looks great but maybe you missed something in the real world….

    “Ability to move content”: I’m sorry I didn’t get it before. You explained it now.

    “Business model”: well, I think any service, even if you pay a lot for it, can go down…. and it really happens to tycoons as well….

  5. All good questions, Tom. You’re right that I missed something; however, it was entirely intentional. We’re actually referring to different types of small business sites, a distinction I should have made clearer in this post (and the earlier review comparing Jimdo with Weebly, SynthaSite, SiteKreator, and the rest). These two posts built on an earlier question, which asked why so many small businesses have no web presence at all, particularly when many useful tools exist for managing those sites. As I’d stated in that post (and not clearly enough in these) “This isn’t about e-commerce or driving sales online (though you’ll want that in the long run). This is about Marketing 101. No matter what your business is, you need a website. Period.

    At a bare minimum, you should have your own domain and some simple content with your contact information. In the old days, folks called it brochure-ware and for some business types (doctors, lawyers, dentists) it may still be all you need.”

    As such, these reviews were focused on that level of site, with little thought towards e-commerce. Which is funny, as I’m an e-commerce guy by background. But, for many small business types, their customers may start online, but will necessarily buy offline. Not only is that true for the service providers I mentioned above, but also for restaurants, auto repair shops, grocery stores, farmer’s markets, what-have-you. Those are folks who stand to benefit from having a site today and often don’t and who were the primary audience for this series. Speaking from experience, the power of the web has been oversold to these types of folks the past bunch of years, with the focus primarily on e-commerce. But, for many of these businesses, that’s not where they’ll see the greatest return on their web investment. Sorry for creating confusion (and for the lengthy response).

    Regarding your specific questions, I am going to answer the contact form question here and address your e-commerce questions separately below.

    For the types of small businesses these posts were meant for, a contact form can be an extremely valuable tool. Fortunately, all the sites I looked at make it really simple. It’s generally a two-click process to create a new page and insert a mail contact form into it. No knowledge of widgets necessary.

    We may need to “agree to disagree” on the value of business model. You’re right that high-cost services can go down, too. It’s just less likely. Being forewarned about a supplier that has little chance of survival would make me less interested in that supplier.

    Finally, you raise great questions about “stepping up” to e-commerce. E-commerce is another beast altogether and one deserving of its own treatment. Look for more on that in the coming weeks.

    Thanks again for your insightful questions and for allowing me to clear up the misunderstanding.

  6. I’m a graphic designer whose small business and not-for-profit clients often ask me for help with their web presence. Given their extremely limited resources, I’d like to find a site which would allow me to really get in and tweak with templates —and then allow my clients to manage and update their own content with minimal technical expertise. Suggestions?

  7. Hi Occassia,
    All of these allow you some degree of changes to the templates, from changes to CSS to full-blown site design. If that’s your only requirement apart from inexpensive hosting, you might want to look at WordPress or Drupal, which let you customize the design however you choose. Paired with cheap hosting (I like and use Dreamhost), you’ll have a solid combination of power, flexibility, and cost, along with room to grow in the future.

    Drop me an email (on the About Tim Peter page) if you need further direction.

  8. Occassia: You can create a “normal-looking”, cms-type or “brochure-ware” type site using the PmWiki flavor of wiki.

    PmWiki is an open source wiki project, with a large and very active developer community. http://pmwiki.org. It’s php-based, and uses a flat-file structure instead of a database; setting one up would probably be over the heads of most users, but once installed on a host it would probably be easy for you to skin and for the owners to maintain.

  9. Hi there I ran across your site while searching for website design price and your post regarding g a website quick and easy: a review of Weebly, SynthaSite, SiteKreator and Webnode caught my attention .. Good info thanks Saturday

  10. The Webnode business model you can’t figure out is in the main control planel page. They sell Premium services.

  11. Thanks for the update, Zone. I believe that’s a recent addition. Either that, or I completely spaced when doing the first review. Given the popularity of this post – in terms of traffic, comments and longevity – I’m going to need to revisit these in the near future. Thanks for reading.

  12. Hey, http://www.edicy.com – another to add to review – we think we are best – or at least on the way there 🙂
    We try to achieve:
    – simplest UX for anyone starting a business to get their site up and running
    – good quality designs to choose from
    – multilanguage support both in our editor and for end-users languages
    – SEO friendlyness
    – openness – ability to customize design over time, move or add hostnames, migrat to other sites when your business grow out of our service

    Give us a try and leave feedback, we are eager to improve!

  13. Did you accidentally omit the review for WordPress? I don’t see it. You said that you were including comparisons of 5 development tools, but I only see 4 reviewed, so I’m wondering if WordPress is the missing one?

  14. Hi George,
    Thanks for the comment. I didn’t review WordPress separately, thought that’s probably not as clear as it should be in the text. WordPress is included only in the comparison chart. We’re actually due for an update to this post, including looking at tools like Edicy, PMWiki and SiteVIN. Stay tuned for more in the next couple weeks.

  15. Hi Occassia,
    You’re right. I have started to list a couple of other sites worth looking at. Now I just need to do the work, check them out and write the post. Y’know, the actual work part. 😉

  16. Hi,
    I really appreciate your interesting review.
    However, I don’t understand your point when you say some of these services don’t have a viable business model (which, as you do, I think is crucial): the services that you say are in this group all sell premium services – for a price. Isn’t this good enough for you? Or, at the time of the review, they did not offer this yet?

    Regards,
    Antonio

  17. Antonio,
    Thanks for your comment. At the time this review was written, only SiteKreator offered paid upgrades. Now it appears they all do. Plus, SynthaSite has renamed itself Yola. I think your point is right and that we’re overdue for the update.

    Thanks again. Hope to hear more from you in the future.

    Tim

  18. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the reviews. I’ve had my eye on Weebly for some time now and really liked what I saw. I want to put up a website that is inexpensive and Weebly fits my budget. I am not very technically savvy, so coming across your reviews, really helped to make my final decision to go with Weebly. As things get better, I can always upgrade. Your site has been added to my favorites.

    Christine

    1. I know, I know. You’re right. 😉

      Here’s the promise I’ll make. I guarantee I’ll have an update to this sometime in the next month. There. I’ve said it and you can hold me to it.

  19. Tim, I love what you have started. Now I look forward to the Version #2. Oops, above you say July 13th, and now…… just holding you to it.

    Why I look forward is this: I have taught Dreamweaver and HTML for years, at a beginner college level, and even those are so much more effort than people need today, as you well know. Sure a little of each is great to know, but I want to show tools like Yola and Weebly in the Introductory computer classes, and the students love these.

    Tim, have you considered Homestead? That one is real nice, and I just came across http://www.squarespace.com Homestead offers live phone support, and at only $5 per month seems pretty sharp.

    Thanks for the start!

    1. @Clifton,
      I knew that was going to come back to bite me. 😉

      Seriously, as you may have gathered from today’s post, we’ve started working on the reviews and should have the new post up within a couple of weeks. I’d love to hear what your students are doing with sites like Yola and Weebly, too. Feel free to email me at tim (at) timpeter (dot) com or drop a comment here with more details.

      Thanks for keeping me honest!

  20. Just a quick update to let you know that the review process is ongoing and is now going to be turned into a series. It turns out trying to cover 10 different site creation tools – including Weebly, Jimdo, the others listed here, plus the new entrants such as edicy, Doodlekit and Squarespace – doesn’t make sense. So get ready for these reviews as a series beginning in October. Stay tuned…

  21. I use Yola to publish my blog for my ecommerce website. My website is currently being hosted with ProStores, because Yola seems like it would be a lot of hard work to transfer the whole store over to it right now.

    Using Yola for my blog has been great! I have experimented with quite a few different hosting sites for my blog previously, and this one seems to be the easiest to work with. As well as one of the quickest to make it your own. The one thing that I dislike is that you must use their templates or purchase one. I am still pretty new with it, so I may be wrong. I may be able to customize the colors and things without their templates, but so far I have not found that out. To me, that is not a huge issue though, their templates are fairly cheap, and the free ones are pretty nice as well!

  22. Thanks for this review! 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. But the most basic SiteKreator plan is now $19.95/month or $240/year! Compare that to $36-48/year (2 and 1 year prepay, respectively) with Weebly… and it seems as though it comes down to budget. I like what you said about SiteKreator’s more advanced tools and customer support/customization options.

    Perhaps I’ll set up a temporary free site with Weebly for now, and when I can afford SiteKreator I’ll make the switch!

    Looking forward to your next comparison of these sites! Keep it coming and good work.

  23. Hi,
    I stumbled upon this blog article… Some of the respective service offerings that were reviewed have changed. Prices have changed, and capabilities have evolved.
    I have also reviewed all of these. Since the first article here, Synthasite has changed its name to Yola. Weebly’s business model — as well as I believe Jimdo’s — has been to continue to offer the free services, but with add-ons with business partners that you pay extra for. I think both now offer a “premium” account.

    Jimdo is a very good service — especially for something like a portfolio site. by the same token, Yola can be very good.

    I’m a bit biased, I will admit. I was looking for something that would enable hosting many sites with unique designs as “full” sites that could be built for a nonprofit organization, a business, or an individual’s portfolio site. Mapping the site to one’s own domain name was essential, and branding (or lack of branding) was also important. An active and involved customer support facility was also important.

    Like AJ, I thought that SiteKreator’s designs were more professional and modern. I also became adept at integrating SiteKreator with other services (like YouTube) and importing my own html and graphics.
    I found that Weebly and Jimdo had limitations I didn;t like. i thought Yola had a great deal of potential, but would have some issues with reliability — like what happens when one accidentally ‘messes up’ a Yola template? (It’s not pretty 🙁 )

    I selected SiteKreator for my clients, who are mostly nonprofits on a very limited budget. As far as the e-commerce capabilities, SiteKreator can accomodate that in several ways, but it really depends on how many products you want to sell, the type of products, and your business model. If I was going to sell ***MANY**** products, or a catalog of productsd that was updated often, I would probably go with something a bit different, or maintain the standard business site in one environment and the e-commerce site catalog in another.

    Since I’m a reseller, I do not pay the retail price, and I cater to folks who know they need a “real” website, but don’t want to or can’t very well pay an arm and a leg.
    One of the big problems with these types of services is that the amount of money spent on advertising the service is one of its main costs — sometimes diverting from forward development. And many of the “free” sites have ads on the sites, which for some folks is OK, but none of my clients want ads… Or, they went to market so fast that they don’t have all of their backend set up yet.

    Interesting posts. Thanks for the chance to comment.

  24. One requirement to add to your list for evaluations:
    *User’s ability to customize the menu
    *Support for classic left side menu
    *Ease of customizing the template
    *Integration with e-commerce capabilities

  25. Hi Mary,
    Thanks for your very thorough and insightful comments. The viewpoint of resellers is particularly interesting and, admittedly, not one I’d considered in the original post. Some of your other questions, I believe I’ve begun to address in the new web hosting review series and in the first review of that series: Jimdo. I’d love to hear your thoughts there, too.

    Thanks again for reading and for keeping me on my toes. I’ll be sure to add your comment into the reviews for Yola and test that with others going forward.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Just curious: what did you disagree with? I’d love to hear your thoughts on what else small businesses should look for in a web content platform.

      Thanks again and look forward to seeing you here soon.

  26. Hi Peter, I really have to thank you for this article. I had first discovered it about 1,5 years ago and then started playing around with Webnode as it offered me a free site with very little advertising. While doing that I kind of fell in love with Web 2.0 site builders (I had tried Dreamweaver and other HTML editors before but always hated to work with it). Eventually I created WebsiteToolTester.com where I do website builder reviews to keep track of all the innovations that are constantly being released. I love it 🙂 Thank you again!

  27. No problem, Robert. If I had a nickel for every time someone called me “Peter,” I’d have a pretty huge stack of nickels.

    Thanks for the kind words and keep up the good work on your site.

  28. Exactly the review I have been searching for. Thank you for taking the time to break it down. I found this so useful in fact it helped me get my website and business off the ground and running 🙂

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