The Easiest Way to Choose Your Website Template and Platform
If you’re looking to DIY your first website, you don’t have to be a designer, but you do need to work smart. And the best way to avoid feeling overwhelmed is to come to the work prepared.
Across the major website building platforms (at the time of this writing: Squarespace, Wordpress, Wix and Strikingly), there are seemingly endless options available - and that’s not even including the premium templates created and sold by third parties. The situation reminds us of “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz.
There are too many options and whatever we end up choosing, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll experience buyer’s remorse, especially when we come across another site we love. That little annoying voice in your head whining, why didn’t I think of that, can easily lead you down a pretty dark road of regret and self-doubt, which we don’t want to follow.
That’s why we love constraints.
It’s also why we’re not going to venture into the nitty-gritty of content widths, backend jargon, and dealing with code, because if you’re not an aspiring web developer, you really don’t need to get that technical.
So, what will be discussed here? We’re going to walk you through how to prepare yourself for choosing a template, what you’ll need before making that decision, how to pick your platform via template/needs, and how to drag & drop with minimum customization.
Keep in mind, we haven’t worked with Wordpress in years, we hated Strikingly (for reasons we’ll get into later), and we’ve never ventured into the universe of Wix (although we’ve heard good things), so our template examples will be from Squarespace, our personal platform of choice. That does not mean we are pushing for you to choose Squarespace (it ain’t perfect either), but it’s the platform we’re the most familiar with.
If you’re cool with that, keep reading.
Work smart, not hard
We may be biased, but we believe that before you even begin to build your website, you should determine what the hell you’re gonna say. Sure, some designers will tell you design comes first, and honestly, when working with clients, we’d prefer they have a basic design ready to go before we start writing copy. However, when you’re in DIY mode, you’ve got to work smart - and playing with countless templates and then writing copy to suit each one is a huge waste of time. (Trust us, we’ve done it...many, many, many...many times.)
That’s why we recommend starting with the basics: who you are, what are you selling, who will buy it, and how. If you have a firm grasp on the answers to those questions, you’ll have a better idea of the structure your site will need. For example, if you’re only selling one product - say it’s an eBook for download - you may only need a landing page + ecommerce, rather than four to five pages of hard selling. You see a lot of these one-page sites in the startup world. Just to give you an idea of structure/layout, check out Squarespace’s Naomi (obviously you can adjust the copy):
On the flip side, let’s say you’re selling a wide range of products and services, ranging from eBooks to physical products on one end and consulting on the other. This will require a far more robust site. You’ll need a landing or home page, an about page, a breakdown of services, extensive e-commerce for all of your products, etc. Plus, all of these offerings will need to work together in creating a cohesive ecosystem of content. Everything has to fit together. So, depending on your photography and copy, you’ll need more than just a one-page site. You’ll need something that’s more like Squarespace’s Jaunt.
So, first thing’s first - decide what kind of business you want to be running online. How many offerings will you have? How much information will you need to provide? Based on the type of product or service you’re offering, what will customers need to know in order to make a purchasing decision? How many web pages will you actually need? Knowing the answers to these questions going in will cut your build time in half, if not more.
Note: If you’re thinking of selling services, maybe check out our article on naming your services to get in the right mindset.
2. Consider your copy
Now that you know how many pages you’ll need to create for your website, start thinking about your content. You’ll probably need about 30% less copy than you think, and honestly, smaller bursts of texts, from headlines and subheaders to brief paragraphs, do best. Website visitors tend to scan more than stop what they’re doing to read. Perhaps it’s a culture thing; but while your instinct might be to write in the long, beautiful paragraphs ingrained in you from academia, those don’t work so well online.
Our advice would be to create a Google Drive folder, or if you’re Google wary, some sort of folder on your desktop. From there, create a word doc for each web page you intend to have (this includes product descriptions). Next, start jotting down all of the information you think will be needed on each web page. Think of it as a brain dump - it doesn’t need to be pretty, clear, concise, or even logical. Just write anything and everything that comes to mind for each specific page.
Note: If you get stuck or experience writer’s block, download your free copy of The Brand Swatch. Those questions should get the juices flowing again.
Once you’ve dumped your information into each doc, look each page over. What do you have? Do a full inventory. Where are you repetitive? Did you say something on one page that really should go with another? Are there any emerging patterns? Set out to organize this information so you have a clear of idea of what needs to be said when. Then, start creating actual content that can go onto your site - just rough drafts, nothing permanent.
Personally, we tend to work from back to front. For example, you could start with a contact page or call-to-action, such as Donate or Join Us. Really consider why someone would want to click, sign-up or join. What’s in it for them? What do they get in return? How can you set proper expectations? Then, work your way forward to the landing page, always reinforcing the solution your offer provides. Constantly reinforce the why. And with each page, you’ll distill your message down, which will come in handy when you get to the landing page and have to express your brand in a few sentences.
3. Start browsing platforms
If you have gorgeous photography ready to go, Squarespace may be your best option. If you’re going for a more “corporate” style without a bunch of photography, or want to focus mainly on building a robust blog, head to Wordpress. If animation is your thing, head to Wix. If you want the epitome of simple, try Strikingly.
Personally, we found Strikingly rather difficult to use, but only because we’ve played in Squarespace and Wordpress for so long. When we wanted to customize or change layouts in Strikingly, it was incredibly difficult to navigate, even once we’d gone Pro. We just didn’t connect with the UX of this particular platform; HOWEVER, we know some crazy successful people who swear by Strikingly, so see what suits your needs and go from there. Don’t just take it from us.
In fact, once you have an idea of what content you’ll include, and what photography you actually have at your disposal, browse every template you can. And by knowing what structure/layout will suit your needs best, you won’t be as overwhelmed with the decision. Instead, you should be able to cancel out options pretty quickly.
Just remember, with most of these platforms, everything can be customized, from the colors you use to the typography and spacing. BUT - the more you play with those custom items, the more overwhelmed you can become, merely because your favorite color or favorite font might look like shit on your website. And after you’ve dabbled with your design for a few weeks, it’s really hard to fix it without reverting back to original settings. So play with it, but play smart. Jot down what you’re changing or not changing, what you’ve tried that worked and what didn’t. Pretend you’re back in high school chemistry and every little drop affects the final product.
That said, if speed and ease is the goal, you’re gonna want to choose a template that you can easily drag and drop your content into. Look for something that already has the look you’re going for, or at least something close to it. And if that platform happens to also offer all of the bells and whistles you need to run your business, from e-commerce and blogging to charts and animation, create a trial account and start building.
A Brief Note on Style:
When you’re looking for a template, you want to consider the overall style of your business.
For example, if you’re going for a more straight-laced look, then a “corporate-esque” template might work best. Harris provides a decent layout for that vibe.
Or, if you’re a more creative business and need to showcase a design portfolio, you’ll need to go in a completely different direction, such as Jasper.
If you want to provide services only, then you may need a completely different look as well. Moksha is a pretty robust option on Squarespace.
It really depends on your personality and needs. Unfortunately the best advice is simply to browse, experiment, and test, because really any template can be made to suit any business. And these suggestions are merely guidelines to help you start that process.
After you’ve chosen your template, it’s time to actually build your site. Hopefully, all you’ll need to do is drag and drop images into their respective places, then insert your copy where needed. Depending on the website template and platform you choose, you may even need to rewrite and restructure your copy to fit. That’s totally OK. It’s part of the process. Honestly, we can’t even tell you how many times we’ve redesigned and rewritten our own site, and this is what we do for clients all the time, so don’t be hard on yourself. Try to just go with the flow.
Of course, if you’re a creative you’ll have an easier time than others with this process; but it can get frustrating when you have an idea in mind that simply won’t materialize. Our answer to this is to keep going. If you discover that a template doesn’t work for you, try another one. If you realize that a platform sucks for your business, make the switch. (Always go for the free trial version first, where applicable. You need to get a feel for these things before making a commitment, and you’re probably not gonna be launching in 24hrs anyway.)
In terms of the backend stuff, each platform offers extensive advice on how to handle your URL, SEO, layouts, and more. Naturally, the better educated you are on these areas, the less headaches you’ll have down the road. But it all starts with this first decision: where will your website live and how will it look?
If you need additional photography, Unsplash is our go-to for free stock photography that doesn’t look like it was made at IRS headquarters. If you need help with choosing color palettes, head to Pinterest for ideas. If you find an image, imagecolorpicker.com is a great resource for turning those images into hex codes you can use in your site. If you’d like to explore font families, head to Canva’s Design school (they also have color palettes ready to go). And if you happen to be working with Squarespace but would like to customize some stuff, check out SquareStudio.
Of course, there are more tools than these available to you through the internet, but these are the ones we use with the greatest frequency.
You don’t need a professional web developer if this is your first online business, or even your first website. Development dollars are extremely expensive, and learning how a website functions will serve you later down the road if you do choose to go that route. We just find that developing a minimal viable product, or MVP, on your own is an invaluable experience. And there are many myths out there about template sites that simply aren’t true. For example, “you need a coded site for SEO” - FALSE. “You need a coded site to look professional” - not necessarily. Or, “you need a professional developer to manage all this for you because it’s wildly complicated” - not true in all cases.
Seriously, you’ve got this.
Trust your instincts and learn a new skill. Because the more hands-on you are this early in the game, the better able you’ll be to make solid decisions about your digital presence in the future. That’s our two cents, anyway.
Amber + John