Squarespace is a drag-and-drop website-builder for small organizations and creative professionals wanting a polished and functional web presence. Squarespace sites are quick to create and then “just work” without any worries over ongoing maintenance or version updates.
The Use Case
The web is replete with stale websites that are all but abandoned after the initial build. The common scenario I see is of a site developed in a rush of enthusiasm by someone having just enough technical knowledge to stand up a web presence on a platform like WordPress or GetSimple. Perhaps a volunteer burns the midnight oil for a few weeks. Such effort cannot be sustained. Updates bottleneck on the one person who can make them. In short order, the site goes stale.
Squarespace excels in the scenario I've just described, because it provides a unified site-building platform designed specifically with the average person in mind. All you as the customer need do is choose the look and feel of your site. Then drop in your content, and job done! Anyone with a modicum of comfort running common office PC applications is capable of standing up and maintaining a website on the Squarespace platform.
There's still a role for the enthusiastic volunteer. The work of getting a site up and running for the first time goes along a lot faster when it's done by someone who can go heads-down for a short interval and get the job done. Hiring an expert to do that initial heavy lifting is worth considering too. But a site on Squarespace is easily maintained after it's up and running by anyone who is comfortable with typical office computing tasks.
A Success Story
One of my favorite success stories is the CR Ministries site I created for a friend who is a retired Baptist minister. His WordPress hosting service was shutting down, and my friend came to me with just three weeks remaining before the plug was pulled. Would I help him save his website? He was sorry to have waited so long, and could anything be done quickly?
I jumped at the chance to sharpen my Squarespace skills and help a friend in the same effort. His new site was up and running in a week's time, and that was just an evening-only effort on my part. The heavy-lifting took about a week, and some fine tuning extended a few days beyond that.
The Squarespace version of the site maintains the same overall design approach while being more attractive and consistent in its presentation. Even better, my friend is now able to maintain and add content on his own, which he frequently does. This is HUGELY important. His ability to maintain his own content is a bigger win than my one-week migration effort. His win is the win that matters.
One look at Squarespace’s own website makes it obvious that design is a priority. Squarespace provides a limited array of templates as compared to competing platforms, but what templates they have are gorgeous to behold. They are gorgeous, well-designed, and impactful. They are designed with plenty of whitespace for an uncrowded look that’s easy on the eye and allows viewers to see at a glance the content being provided.
However! What's missing are some text-centric templates for business. Especially with tight spacing. Templates favor artists, photographers, restaurants, creative professionals with portfolios. A recent effort to find a template on which to build a site for a medical practice left me frustrated and unsatisfied. Most templates are designed around the idea of large, sweeping imagery. It’s difficult in many cases to envision what templates – if any – might be best for a text-centric site having limited imagery. Many templates present an "artsy" look that is ill-suited to serious business.
The Dark Side
Some days Squarespace feels like the Pitcher Plant of website builders. There’s plenty of glitz and polish to draw a person in to using the platform, but annoyances and rough edges crop up once any real work begins. Sometimes I feel the developers aren't sweating the details as they ought.
One example is how the editing interface sometimes blocks you from selecting text in order to apply formatting or make a link. You can see that happening in the following screenshot. I even had trouble typing the next paragraph in this review following the screenshot, because the same label got in the way of my fixing a typo in that paragraph's first line.
Getting blocks to go side-by-side in the layout engine can be infuriatingly difficult. Sometimes it's necessary to place temporary horizontal lines to isolate blocks going side-by-side, to limit their interference with other blocks on the page. Sometimes you just can't find that right cursor position to make the layout engine do what you want done, and you have to give up and try again some other day. (For the same reason typing figure captions can be a problem).
Seemingly obvious features that anyone would want to include on a website-building platform are sometimes missing altogether. Squarespace possibly has the only calendaring system on Planet Earth not to implement recurring events. Some templates – Ishimoto is one example – are attractive for their stunning gallery pages, yet those pages in practice have their usability reduced due to their inability to support text and other content blocks.
Every platform has foibles and annoyances. Squarespace is no exception. Don't be discouraged by some of what I've mentioned. Go in with your eyes open. Be willing to modify your expectations for your site to correspond with what the Squarespace platform has to offer. Success with Squarespace – at least with the drag-and-drop side of it – lies in accepting what the platform can offer.
When to Avoid?
There's a lock-in aspect with Squarespace. Lock-in is inherent with any platform or technology. But it's worse with Squarespace than with, say, WordPress or GetSimple, because Squarespace locks you into the combination of the software used and the underlying hosting platform. You simply cannot take your site with you when you go, and thus I caution against creating any site having more pages or more content than you are willing to recreate from scratch on some other platform.
A 20-page site having 10 products? That can likely be rebuilt on Weebly or some other competitor in short order. So no worries. But a 100-page site and 1000 products? And maybe with 500 events in the calendar? Think twice. Because 1000 sets of product details and 500 event listings is a lot of retyping should you move platforms, not to mention the 100 pages.
Be mindful that Squarespace doesn't support bulk operations. Squarespace is designed around doing everything by hand as a one-off. There are no recurring calendar events. There's no ability to load products in bulk. You can't manage large numbers of old blog posts without scrolling back through the years of old posts page by page. If your needs are such that you need bulk operations, then go elsewhere.
Finally, avoid Squarespace if you cannot commit into the unknown. You need to be able to commit ahead of time to whatever is provided in the available templates and content blocks. Inevitably you'll discover some limitation or surprise after you've begun. Squarespace might be the wrong choice if you cannot agree with yourself ahead of time to live with whatever surprises and limitations you encounter as you build out your site.
Is It Too Easy?
You might be tempted to feel like Squarespace is somehow a lesser choice than a real platform such as WordPress. Or maybe you have friends who talk that way. Ignore those feelings, and those friends!
Sometimes I get the same feelings. I'm a former programmer and database administrator, and what do I need with a drag-and-drop platform? But you know what? I don't care. I get work done.
And far more importantly, my clients get work done!
I am beyond happy not to have be called up for every single change my clients need on their sites. I get the exhilaration from the initial standing up of a new website. Then I'm free to move on and let others have the day-to-day maintenance.
When to Choose?
Squarespace is a wonderful platform on which to run a website and compete head-on with the big players so long as your data and content volumes are modest. You can stand up a fantastic-looking website with integrated commerce and news and galleries and podcasts and plenty of other features otherwise unattainable at anything near the same cost in money and time.
Yes, there are warts. I’ve put up several sites now for friends and family. Squarespace is productive and I recommend it often, but there sure are some frustrations. I've made sure to mention some of them in this review. Many reviews I’ve seen feel like they are written through rose-colored glasses, and I want to cover the bad stuff too, to give my honest impression.
But don't let my mention of some negatives cast too large a pall over the good stuff. Are you a creative professional? A small-business owner? A volunteer for a club or a congregation? Do you need a site up and running quickly that you and others (hopefully others!) can maintain with not much more effort than goes into writing a Word document? Then look to Squarespace.
Learn CSS for Squarespace 7 is a seven-chapter introduction to working with CSS on the Squarespace platform. The book is delivered as a PDF file that is readable from any Windows or Mac – or even Linux! -- computer. A complimentary sample chapter is available. Try before you buy.
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