How to choose a platform for building a website to showcase your startup’s offerings and attract organic traffic through regular blogging.
So, you’ve decided to set up a new startup and need to have some kind of online presence. Perhaps you’ll start with a simple one-page site and later add a blog for posting updates or articles that will improve your search engine ranking over time. Maybe other functionality will be needed further down the line.
It’s easy to start browsing the various platforms, be taken in by one that gives you a great first impression, only to later discover you made the wrong choice and painted yourself into a corner. You would then be faced with the herculean task of figuring out how to migrate to a different platform and may need to hire a freelance consultant via the likes of Conyac to help you do it.
To avoid this scenario, before reviewing options, it first makes sense to take a step back and gain an understanding of what your plans, needs, and principles are. Having been working on a variety of website and blog projects since the mid-90s, and having to advise clients regularly, I’d recommend carefully considering the following choices.
Disclaimer: Please note that the various options I mentioned are only used as examples. They are not meant to be recommendations. You should review all the relevant options available. Once you have completed the steps in this guide, you will know how to research them based on your needs.
Choice #1: Custom Domain Name vs. Username
If you don’t plan on registering a custom domain name, then you will have more options. For example:
You could set up a “publication” on Medium. As a platform, it aesthetically pleasing, easy to use, and has a large user community who might discover your content. However, it has some drawbacks:
No Custom Domains: They don’t allow you to use a custom domain name (they used to, but not anymore). This means if you later decide you want to use a custom domain, you’ll have the hassle of moving.
Limited Reach: Medium is monetized via subscriptions. Your content won’t be recommended to Medium users unless you put it behind their paywall. People who are not logged in to Medium can only see up to two paywalled articles per month. Registered users who have not yet upgraded to premium can see up to three.
Design Constraints: You can set up static pages that you can use as landing pages. However, you can’t set them to be the top/front page of your publication. Thus, your URL is going to get longer (medium.com/username/pagename) if you want to send people to a landing page rather than showing them your articles first.
Having a Facebook Page (not to be confused with your personal profile on FB!) can also be an option. They have lots of useful features, including long-form blogging called “Notes”. However, you will have the same issues of (i) no custom domain possible, and (ii) limited reach (unpaid/organic reach for Facebook pages is negligible). The same applies to most free social media platforms that are monetized by way of ads.
It goes without saying that having the right custom domain can give a better first impression. Thus, for the rest of this article, I’m going to assume that you’re serious about building a brand, and so will, therefore, be registering a custom domain name for it.
If this is the case, there are some considerations:
Timing: Instead of registering a domain via GoDaddy or NameCheap, you may wish to hold off until you’ve chosen your desired platform because some of them include domain registration in their packages.
Extension: You may be aware that there are different options for domain name extensions nowadays beyond the common dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org. Explore these to see if you can find something that fits.
Trademarks: Use a tool like Trademarkia to check that you’re not putting yourself at risk of being sued.
Choice #2: Hosted Vs. Self-Hosted
Fully Hosted Services
A hosted service is one where you can just sign up and get started. They likely offer a free trial period, after which you’ll be prompted to choose from one of their pricing plans. For the most part, with a hosted service, you don’t need to worry about the technical aspects and can focus on the content of your site.
Hosted website builders have reached the point where you can create an attractive and professional-looking site without the need to hire a designer or developer. Unless you have unique requirements, there is likely a hosted solution that will be a good fit.
The downside of hosted services is that they tend to have limited customizability and extendability. Whereas, if you have the developer resources, you can take a website builder or CMS (content management system) software and adapt it to your purposes. Often the costs involved can be drastically reduced by using third-party add-ons or scripts rather than coding the necessary parts from scratch.
If your startup is going to be dealing in products, services, or content that is controversial or edgy, you may find that you are unable to use any of the hosted options due to their Terms of Service or Community Guidelines. In this case, you will need to find a hosting provider that will have you and set up there.
If your customization needs are outside of what the fully-hosted service offers, but not so exotic as to mandate completely self-hosting your site, you might consider a managed service. This is where a web hosting company takes care of maintaining the server, the CMS core, network security, and other factors. They also give you varying levels of technical support and may offer ad-hoc development services. Examples would be Pagely and WP Engine, which offer managed WordPress services.
Migrating from Hosted to Managed or Self-Hosted
You may find that, in the early days, it will make sense to start with a hosted service and later migrate to a self-hosted one. The process will be much smoother if you start with a hosted version of the software you plan to run your self-hosted site on. For example, you could start out on WordPress.com (hosted) and later migrate to WordPress.org (self-hosted).
Choice #3: Simple Vs. Feature Rich
Some platforms offer a lot of options, features, and control over the various aspects of your site and blog. An example of this approach would be Drupal, which can be used to build almost any kind of site you can imagine. However, it would be overkill if you just need a simple site and blog.
Other platforms strive to be as minimalistic and straightforward as possible. For example, Write.as can let you create a bare-bones site and blog. However, most businesses would soon find it lacking.
Beware that even the most sophisticated platforms will market themselves as being super easy to use. Conversely, minimalist platforms will work to dazzle you with their convenience and possibilities. Therefore, visualize what your ideal site might be like three years from now and make a list of must-have features. This will help you stay level-headed during the selection process.
Choice #4: Closed Vs. Open Source
Open-source CMS (content management systems) and website builders publish their source code openly. Anyone can download it for free and install it on their own server. The obvious advantage is cost. Some startups also value open-source software’s transparency, customizability, and the opportunity to get involved in the project’s developer community.
Closed source or commercial CMSs may be attractive because they usually offer a high level of support. Furthermore, since their development is all in-house, it can be more streamlined and unified. The downside is that if you need a feature that doesn't become a priority item on their development roadmap, then you are out of luck.
Choice #5: Monetization & CRM Options
Depending on your business model, your website may need to charge subscriptions, sell downloads, or have a shop for physical items that require shipping. You may also want ways of managing and tracking customer relationships.
Likely, there is already a solution available that will be a good fit. The key is to choose a platform that has the flexibility to cover your potential future needs. General CMSs are often able to be customized to offer various ecommerce capabilities, but it may not be their strong point. Ecommerce platforms may also let you set up a simple website and blog but might not cover everything else you need.
Choice #6: Email Newsletters
Your customers will expect you to be active and available via the social media platforms popular in their demographic. However, anyone old enough to remember Friendster and MySpace knows that platforms can rise and fall in popularity. Furthermore, once they get big, its operators will reduce organic reach in order to encourage brands to pay for advertising targeting segments of their user base.
For this reason, it is crucial to also have an email list. This way, you bypass the newsfeed algorithm changes and reach your audience directly. Some CMS and website builders have an email newsletter function built-in, while others allow you to add a subscription form that links to an external provider such as MailChimp.
Another alternative, if your newsletter is the core of your operation, is to use a service centered on that such as Revue or Substack. They also allow you to charge membership fees and send exclusive content to paying subscribers.
Once you have figured out your list of must-have features, it’s time to start hunting. Comparison sites that will help include AlternativeTo, SiteBuilderReport, WebsiteBuilderExpert, and WebSiteToolTester. If you know of one or more websites that are similar to what you want to create, then use BuiltWith to find what technologies they used to make it.
Feeling overwhelmed? Consider hiring a freelance expert via a crowdsourcing site such as Conyac to help you through the process. It may save you a lot of time and hassle.
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Written by DLKR
Cover photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash + edits