Nearly every other photography related video I watch on YouTube these days seems to have been sponsored by, or is used as an advertising platform by Weebly, Wix, or Squarespace.
These companies basically provide “off-the-rack” templates that the average person who doesn’t know anything about creating a website themselves can use to build one on their own. Usually they are pretty cool looking and there’s a fair amount of easy customisability available, involving drag and drop handles and so on. You upload your own photos into the templates to make the site look like yours. If you can make a Powerpoint presentation, you can make a website using these services. They also provide domain name registrations too, so your address is your own.
There are also various ancillary tools that let you create things like online stores as well as the ability to track your analytics, etc. In short, if you don’t know anything about websites and you don’t want to pay somebody to create one for you, you can use these services and make a website yourself that looks pretty slick and professional. You pay a monthly or yearly fee to use these services. Again, standard stuff.
In the case of Squarespace the fee entry point is $16 a month for a basic website, including your domain name paid monthly. You can get it for $12 a month if you pay upfront for a year, so $144 if you buy one today. If you want to run an online store on your website that price goes up to $26 a month or $216 for a year paid in advance. And you pay them 3% commission for every transaction they process. On the whole it sounds like a good deal, right? Think again.
Here’s the really bad news about Weebly, Wix & Squarespace (form now on collectively referred to as WWS in this article);
Once you have spent a lot of time creating your website and configuring all the things that make it look pretty, it can only be hosted by the provider of the template service. If you built it with WWS you can only host it with them. You can’t back it up, download it and transfer it away to a different host. You’re stuck with WWS as your host. Forever. If they decide to up their rates and you don’t like it, sorry. That’s tough. Your time and everything you put into creating your website on their platform and adding content to it is essentially theirs to delete the moment you stop paying your monthly dues. And that really sucks.
So here’s the thing, if you are a professional photographer you absolutely have to have an equally professional looking website on your own domain name to be taken seriously. If you’re just starting out you may be thinking that it will cost way too much to get something bespoke made, but the reality is it doesn’t have to cost you a lot at all. In fact it will cost you way less to follow my advice and you will end up with a much better, more adaptable website that you can host just about anywhere.
I’ve been using WordPress to power my website since I turned pro in 2008. For those of you who are in the dark about what WordPress is, basically it’s free software that acts as a content management system for any person to create a website with. It runs on almost any kind of web server, including those running Windows, so the hosting options are endless. It also only takes a couple of seconds to install if your web host has set up your hosting nicely. What makes WordPress particularly useful to people like me, who admittedly know a fair amount more than the average lay-person does about web design, is the ecosystem that has grown up around it. There are literally an unfathomable number of templates (or themes as they are called in WordPress) both premium and free, that you can chose from to present your website on. In addition to themes the developers who support WP have built an equally unfathomable number of plugins that you can use on the platform to power everything from special types of galleries to online booking systems, to e-commerce shops, media players, etc. You name it, somebody’s built a WordPress plugin for it.
Over the years I have used a variety of themes for my website. Some of them have been free, but the one I am using now is a premium theme that is the top seller on a marketplace called Themeforest. Has been for years. The theme is called Avada and it’s seriously very versatile, as well as being pretty easy to understand, even if you haven’t got any experience coding websites. I really love it and it only costs $60 once off to buy a license for use on one domain name. The license also includes 12 months of support from the developers, but even when the support runs out you can pick up assistance from their online community of users without any problems. If there is an update you don’t have to buy the theme again, you can download the update free of charge. They also provide a large number of demos that you can install and re-configure if your imagination doesn’t extend to making web pages.
If you consider that decent web hosting from a variety of worldwide suppliers will run you about $5-10 a month depending on how much space and bandwidth you need, plus everything you put into your website is yours to keep forever, even if you have to shut down for a few months, the case for using the WWS services becomes somewhat gloomy in comparison to WordPress running something like Avada theme.
But it’s not all about cost.
I’ve just completed a re-design of my photography website (for about the millionth time) and before I delve into the mechanics of how I did it or what the aims of it are, I should point out that my marketing plan for photography consists of having only this website. I don’t have any other advertising going. No Yellow Pages, leaflets or cold-canvassing at all. I also recently deleted my entirely useless Facebook page (those things are the biggest scam to hit the internet since it began, in my opinion). All my leads and photography business comes from having a website that is easily found by people using Google to search for the kind of photography services I offer.
I don’t know how good the back-end systems for WWS are but part of the reason why I get good search engine results is because of free SEO plugins for my site, such as Yoast. This particular WordPress plugin has taught me more about SEO than I ever thought possible and I haven’t given them a cent. I run through the options on their setup wizard, do the same for the pages I want to make prominent and Google does the rest. I usually appear on the first page for key search terms related to my service and geo-location.
For my latest design I decided to focus on having a much smaller ambit of service, so there are literally only 2 services pages on the site, one for property photography and the other for documentary photography (which includes a few sub-categories). I have made the home page as simple as possible, showing some slides of my favourite property related images. These are loaded randomly so every time you go back to the home page you should see a different image. If you stay there for longer than 15 seconds other slides will show. I decided to not try to run through too many slides when a visitor lands, but rather present the portfolio on a separate page. When the visitor gets to the portfolio page they see the images presented in a nice Avada styled grid, which can be scrolled to show some text about the service, as well as the three most recent assignments, which is a feed of categorised posts from my blog. The blog essentially forms the bulk of my content and is the biggest factor in my search engine results pages.
The bottom line in my situation is that I am in complete control of my website. Not only am I able to create something visually unique on demand by making some tweaks to the theme using the WordPress and Avada GUI, I am also free to take all the content I create on my site (which is what makes me appear high in search) and move it to any hosting provider of my choice at any time. The content belongs to me. Nobody running their website on a WWS template can do that. That is worth much more than the convenience offered by those companies in being able to build a site cheaply, because honestly, WordPress blog posts I made almost 10 years ago are still showing up on Google when specific, very relevant search terms are entered related to my services. Here’s an example:
This is a screen grab of the first page organic results for the search phrase "Durban event photographers". Check out the date of my blog entry.
Can’t see that happening with a Wix, Weebly or Squarespace site.