Some of you may remember the noise I made a few months ago about changing to a new website. Well, let’s say the process was much different that I thought it should’ve gone.
Let me first explain some of my background that I think will help you put my article in context. I have been an Information Technology professional for a very long time. My skills in the business are deep and varied. I’ve done everything from running network cabling in the office to managing a computer network for a Fortune 500 company. I have skills!
When I started my photography business, I wanted a website that had enough customization opportunities, a wealth of features and being relatively easy to update. After lots of consideration, I decided that a WordPress based website would be the best solution. WordPress is incredibly powerful and there are a number of add-on features from itself and 3rd party vendors which give the website much more functionality. The features I wanted were all there: good image presentation, clean navigation, social media integration and blog capabilities. I signed on.
The learning curve for WordPress is a bit on the steep site. Even for a techie like me. Because of the available features, it can be a little overwhelming. But once you start to understand it, it becomes much easier and faster to do things. I may have eMailed WordPress once about a question I had in the 2+ years. I bought a template for the WordPress site that provides a great visual baseline my photography needs. The template software is regularly updated with new features. The web hosting I chose, Inmotionhosting, supports WordPress and they have a process to walk you the process of installing WordPress on their service. Easy. Inmotionhosing provides pretty good support. I would rate their support a 4 out of 5. Most of the time its very good.
As I became more sophisticated with my website’s needs and look, I started to re-examine my website. There was some customization I wanted to do that wasn’t available or not easily done. I also wanted to implement a link on my website that allowed clients and colleagues to access images. Again, not easily done.
But the major headache came in terms of security. There have been hackers specifically aiming WordPress sites and dealing with that had been a headache with Inmotionhosting.com. I felt their process for tightening security was very inconvenient. From a technical standpoint, I understand what they are doing. But it is still very inconvenient and needed a better solution.
So my new website solution search started. Really, I don’t consider there to be many great, professional and affordable solutions out there. My ideal solution that I had seen has won several awards but also cost several thousand dollars to implement! Maybe in a couple of years!
I chose Zenfolio. I have several professional photography colleagues who use the service and swear by it. The service has lots going for it: Easy to use, good service, customization and a built-in image library functions.
The honeymoon didn’t last very long. The customization was fairly easy. But very limited. I spent as much if not more time trying to customize the available templates than I did with my original website. Three big problems:
- Customization. You have a great Home page, but when you use go to different pages on your website, you can’t have the same look as your Home page.
- Image Sizes. With their galleries, I could only have a certain size for my images. Which weren’t big enough for my taste. I don’t think I’m being picky. I really think the images are too small.
- Social Media Connectivity. Social media interaction is CRITICAL. While they have Facebook and Twitter tools, they don’t have Instagram or Tumblr tools. I could not believe Instagram was not available.
While I blame myself for the 3rd issue. Because that information is on their website and I missed it. But the first two issues are not. I spent hundreds of hours trying to make the website look and work the way I wanted. It was just not to be.
One thing I should’ve looked at was how my colleagues websites were styled. Honestly, simple and basic. But no real style. Nothing that says “This is me”. Like many of the websites I saw on Zenfolio. Because they all use the same templates. The one website I liked I found out actually paid someone to add some different elements. I was actually happy with the Home page I designed. But again, I couldn’t have that design on all my website’s pages.
So I looked at other solutions. Photoshelter looked good. They were doing lots of marketing recently. The service had a built in library for clients and colleagues. But a serious issue: No blogging capabilities! They showcased several professional photographers that had blogs. But the blogs were hosted by another service? What? Really? That would not do. And I wish they stated that on their website instead of letting potential customers assume that a blogging service was included.
I never cancelled my service with my original web hosting service and decided to go back. The great thing when I went back is that WordPress has been updated with even better functionality. Some of the customization I wanted is now available with the template I bought is now available. I also figured out how to get the customization I wanted by applying some old-school HTML programming I know. It’s pretty simple actually. Thank God I dabbled in HTML programming for fun a few years ago! I’ve also figured out how to implement a library hosted by Zenfolio into my website. It will look built-in and professional.
From all of this, there are a couple of negative points I’m going to talk about first. And one big positive point at the end:
Creating a Professional Looking Website is Still Difficult. The perfect example of this is when SmugMug completely changed their website and how you can customize your own site. I blogged about that disaster. Sure it looked simple when they demoed it. I jumped on it. But there were so many problems. If you wanted your website to look a little different. Good luck. Again, this is a pro talking. The ‘average’ person? Forget it. I seriously don’t know who these website companies are hiring to develop these systems. Do they have design experience? Do they have any User Experience development skills?
Website Companies Need Honest and Candid. Photoshelter, why do you allow people to think you provide blogging capabilities with your service? Zenfolio, you should make it a point to tell people that the home page of some templates, or all, will not look consistent throughout the website.
I was original going to say “I get it, business between website companies is brutal blah blah blah”. Marketing is about making your product sound as good as possible. And there are things you can say about your business like “We make the best burgers on the West Coast!”. It’s legal to say that. But you know that’s an iffy statement. Maybe I’m being a little sensitive about the topic. But you know what? I was seriously upset that I spent hundreds of hours working on a system that didn’t work the way it looked like it was supposed to work. If I knew exactly how your systems worked, I probably would never have changed systems to begin with. “That’s our point. To get you to change systems”. Well, yes. But now I’m writing a blog entry about the experience. And not all of it is positive.
So, what’s the good news? Having a professional looking website is so much easier to create than it was even five years ago. A ‘professional’ website you designed yourself with one of these services five years ago looked ‘simple’ or ‘plain’. Now, they look a little more custom made. A little more elegant. It might have limited functionality. It might not be very original looking. But depending on your audience, it might be totally fine. At least it’s pretty. But the more professional and creative your market, the more your audience is going to expect in terms of design and originality.
While my website experience was largely negative, I was happy to go back to my original site. It felt like coming home. There are so many things I love about my website. I’d say on an appearance level, it’s 90% there. Functionality, about 85%. I’m betting that in a couple of months, I may be about 95%. Again, the user experience is more than good enough from the comments I’ve gotten. It’s all about me wanting to do better.
Many of these things I’ve said about these services have been negative. But the only problem I have with each of them is their marketing. They are good services if you know what exactly you’re getting. And here is where I think they fail miserably.