Having bumped heads with Homestead.com twice now in the past year, I think it's time to speak up. Homestead is one of the best known template-website-builder companies out there. They offer website design and hosting, have a pleasant user interface and convincing testimonials. Companies like Homestead.com appeal to small business owners because of their promise that you can build a professional website in just minutes (a debatable claim) and their modest pricing. Yet, there is something about signing up with Homestead that must be located somewhere in fine print but appears to be escaping the notice of small business owners...until it's too late.

In both of my encounters with Homestead, a potential client came to us because they had signed up with this company, attempted to build a professional website in minutes, and found th ey could not get the WYSIWYG to do what they wanted. In one of the cases, the owner then paid Homestead's pool of professional designers to try to accomplish her wishes. I've noticed that most template-website-builder companies do offer this type of service, despite the fact that it casts a shadow of doubt over claims that anyone can use their templates to build a professional website, unaided, without a moment's training in web design, usability or SEO. This client could not get Homestead's professional designer to understand what she wanted, ended up feeling frustrated and that she had wasted her money and months of time.

In the second instance, the client had struggled valiantly with the WYSIWYG but was disappointed with the unpolished end result and then came to the conclusion that they really didn't know what to do with the website once it was built. Did they need to submit it to Google? How would anyone find their website? What were keywords? The client found themselves alone and puzzled about how search engines work and came to me with a request that I redesign the site so that it would reflect professionally on their company, and then teach them about SEO and marketing.

Then came the surprise.

As it turned out, neither of these clients owned the domain names that they had purchased through Homestead.com. Unless the client was willing to use Homestead's templates or Homestead's 'professional' designers, they were not allowed to use the domain and hosting they had purchased. Frankly, I was shocked when the first client came to me with this tidbit of information and I immediately phone Homestead for verification. The rep confirmed that Homestead will not allow you to custom build a site on a domain purchased and hosted with Homestead. If you won't use their products, no domain name for you!

I'd never encountered such a bizarre practice before. Shared hosting is a pretty generic commodity. You can get it from any number of decent providers and your small business website will do just fine. But your domain is another matter. Finding out that you don't own it and can't take it wherever you want it to go is a little bit like being told you don't own your own first name and that you have to behave a certain way if you want the right to introduce yourself as you. I was certainly unfavorably impressed by Homestead when I discovered this weird policy and my two clients were furious.

Our only option, at that point, was to get Homestead to unlock the domain so we could transfer to a different registrar. Transferring hosting is a piece of cake...but transferring domain name registrars is a big pain in the neck. And, of course, this process only further delayed the launch date for these clients who had given their money to Homestead, dreaming that they'd be doing business in just minutes on the web.

One of my main gripes with the template-website-monster-companies is that they profit off creating unrealistic public expectations. Suggesting that you can have a truly professional website without someone on the project having some education about designing for the web, for humans and for search engines is a little bit like saying your dentist can fix your car. Maybe he can tinker with your car. Maybe he's creative and can even paint your car a pretty color. But in the end, he's a professional dentist...not a professional auto mechanic and this would likely become obvious to you the moment you started up your engine. I would estimate that at least 70% of the website redesign work my firm has done over the years has come from clients who bought into the instant-website-for-cheap idea and then spent several years wondering why they couldn't rank in Google. A template is just some code and pictures. It's not a web designer or an SEO consultant. It's no t an education.

It is, however, cheap. In general, small business owners have small business budgets, and while I'd rather see a small business owner who can't hire a pro invest in Dreamweaver and the SEOBook and spend part of every day learning about how search engines work, I know the big marketing efforts of companies like Homestead will continue to draw many, many people into their net. My hope is that people researching Homestead will read this article and realize that having a domain name held hostage is a deal-breaker. Look elsewhere if you're determined to try doing-it-yourself with a template.

Arm yourself with the following 12 questions and get clear, written answers from any template-website-builder company before forking over a dime.

  1. Do I own my domain name?
  2. Can I host it elsewhere, or do I have to host it with you?
  3. Can I bring in my own designer, or do I have to use your templates or your designers?
  4. Is there a limit on the number of pages I can have on my website?
  5. Is there a limit on the number of images I can have on a page?
  6. Can I optimize my individual Title Tags, one at a time?
  7. Can I write my own Meta Description Tags, one at a time?
  8. Can I write as many words on my pages as I want, or is there a limit?
  9. Is there a limit on the number of content pages (as opposed to product pages) I can have on my site?
  10. Can I access the Robots txt. portion of my website?
  11. Can I write my own search-engine-friendly URLs?
  12. Can I access the CSS?

I have yet to come across a template company that meets all of the above criteria, and as these are 12 of the things I would consider vital parts of any truly professional website, the lack of any of them is eventually going to be felt by the business owner. While budget often means we have to make due with what we can afford, at the very least, I urge you not to purchase a domain through a company like Homestead, with their strings-attached policy. Your plan is to put in the work to make your small business succeed, and even if you can't afford a professional website design now, y ou will be hoping to be able to at some point. Your domain name is one of the most important purchases you will ever make for your small business, and you need to be able to take it with you as you rise to greater heights in the business world.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.


December 3, 2007





Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.






Comments(38)

You say:

"I'd rather see a small business owner who can't hire a pro invest in Dreamweaver and the SEOBook and spend part of every day learning about how search engines work".

This isn't realistic. Small business owners are too busy running their small businesses to have the time to learn design and SEO.

However, the offshore web design industry and companies like Homestead create an unrealistic expection among SMBs about the cost of quality website design.

After all, if large firms like Homestead are suggesting that you can have a professional website for the cost of a couple of beers, then serious web design agencies are going to look like rip-off artists for quoting prices in the $1000s range.

We speak to small UK companies every day who think they can get a tailor made ecommerce site for 500 notes and it just isn't possible.

I used Homestead for one Ecommerce site & left them because of their limited, unworkable "template" orientation. They don't even allow/provide a way to put seperate meta tags (titles, descriptions) on seperate pages - all pages contain the home page tags! How's that for search engine optimization... plus other functionality problems. So we took our site elsewhere & had to start over with the site. Fortunately we owned our own domain name. So if you're serious about Internet business, stay away from Homestead!

I don't like the domain thing about Homestead, but otherwise I've had good experience with them and don't see why a small business can't build a good site with their templates. Just build the site on their domain, buy your domain name somewhere else, and 'point' it to your Homestead site. For example, you can build a site there like http://mysite.homestead.com, buy a domain mysite.com at Godaddy, and 'point' it to the Homestead site. And yes, search engines will be able to pick it up fine.

For those who are wondering - you can purchase Dreamweaver from Adobe here: http://www.adobe.com/products/dreamweaver/ and seobook here: http://seobook.com/

One of my mantras to all my customers is, "Always host your URL with a different outfit than your site host."

This advice has paid off a couple of times, including an incident involving our own website when the fellow who owned a popular host lost his mind, closed down his servers, and left thousands of site owners trying unsuccessfully to get their URL's back.

We just migrated to another host and were up and running within 48 hours (including the time it took for the new IP address to filter through the system).

URL hosting is cheap. For less than $10 a year you can get your URL hosted by stable outfits like myDiscountDomain or GoDaddy.

The sad part is that someone just starting out building a website in house for a small business may never read this article. That's how people end up in situations like that. I am self taught and I've learned a lot of things from articles and forums, but if you don't know where to look how would you ever find out about companies like this? Luckily that never happened to me!

I had the same experience with Stores Online. Are you familiar with them? They do offer robust self-design if you choose, but what got me is you cannot create your own URLs but have to redirect your own domain name to a subdomain on their storesonline.com server. I tried to get a refund, but some idiot called me back offering to tell me how to cancel, which was to pay the company another fee. At that point, I'd already basically lost $6,000 in buying six site licenses and spent another $25 a month for each of three sites I set up, which--no matter what I tried--never produced more than 20 visitors a day and one buyer a year. And I knew how to optimze for title tags, etc. I'm convinced the subdomain URLs were a big part of the problem.

Your comments and cautions about Homestead restrictions and limitations were appreciated and probably necessary.
Couldn't you have gone the extra mile and provided a top Ten list of Hosts who DO meet your minimum qualifications for template-based designs?

I do think that my e-commerce provider, 3D Cart, does meet all of the criteria you mention.

One thing I loooove about them - besides the fact that I have control over title tags, etc. is that I have access to the actual html/css of each page. You wouldn't believe how much tweaking I can do! I think they're the best of both worlds - I didn't have to create the site from scratch, but I can access/tweak anything I want.

I think one of the first things I ever heard when I started to look into having my own e-store was to register the domain separately from the e-commerce provider. I sorta thought that was common knowledge.

WOW! I have been using Homestead for 3 years now, and am so upset about the domain thing. I just finished using a similar application to complete our new store, because the only ecommerce options Homestead offers is Prostores integrated and I HATE prostores and pretty much anything that has to do with eBay. I was just getting ready to get things started on transferring my domain from homestead to the new shop when I found this article.

Up until finding this out I was fairly happy with homestead, although it did take me a few months to get comfortable with their design set up, and using the wysiwig...however you spell that...lol.

I wish I had known all of this from the beginning!
Sheri Jones
old site www.wienertales.com - homestead
new site www.websitesin5.com/shopwienertales

Hello,

I have a rather meager little personal website that I use through homestead. They've been fine so far, but I really don't like the idea of not owning a domain that I bought, albeit through Homestead. Sure, I should have read the fine print, but is there any way for me to get ownership of my domain name? I don't care if it takes all year. I probably wouldnt switch from Homestead for what I need, but I would like to own my domain name.

any info would be appreciated.

thanks

s

I have been a member of Homestead for years now. After this article I was concerned if I owned my domains. I called them and they insured me that I did in fact own my domains. I was free to transfer, point or do what I want with the ones I registered. If you don't have the time to learn HTML they are still one of the better solutions. It appears that this "Designer" is losing business from companies like Homestead.

This article is unfounded. Domains are intellectual property. Do some homework.

I used Homestead for one Ecommerce site,and it work nice.

Try to add the following to your website:




_uacct = "xxxxxxxxxxxx";
urchinTracker();

If you can't, no google analytics for you. I think you can with the java portion of the website, but it is not clear. Homestead is a site for hobbyists, not businesses

The first thing about Homestead I discovered after signing up was the strange fact that the 'index' page must be designed using their editor and templates. I built all the pages other than 'index' out-of-homestead. That's ok, but I'm a geek and I happened to have the time to fool with it and make the site look the way I want. Not everyone wants to do that! I would advise Homesteaders to make the 'index' page as simple as possible, so that all the other pages can be built out-of-homestead and therefore be transferable.

I'm a freelance web designer and was just recently approached by a small business owner who got burned by Homestead and their false promises. I'd never heard of them before and decided to do a little research when I came across your blog post. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

Love your article! You're right Homestead is a waste of money and time! For new e-commerce owners who haven't got a clue when it comes to SEO, SEM, link exchange etc... it's pretty easy to be fooled! Once I had my site build/designed by Homestead, then added my products to the store catalog it was time to work on getting some traffic so, SEO was essential! I visited several major local SEO companies every single one of them told me and I quote "your site is #$@#" and it doesn't even belong to you! I felt horrible... They were kind enough to not even charge me for an initial consultation since they felt so sorry for me! (Thanks Michael from www.searchengineoptimizationcompany.ca) after much money spent (a gift from my mom) I was devastated! She couldn't even get a full refund we managed to get a partial refund only because we filed a claim with Better Business Bureau. Please stay away from Homestead and ProStores!

As usual these days, a lot of complaining but offering no alternatives. So in that regard, all of your comments are pretty much half useful. Offer some suggestions, alternative sites to use as comparison. The only one I saw was the poster who mentoined 3D Carts. I would like a few others because I'm always looking to improve what I have.

I've been with Homestead for a few years and I have to say it's ok. I don't know about this domain owning issue. I always owned my own domain names and had them all pointed to our Homestead Storefront. BTW, I also have Homestead Site Builder and it's much better as far as WYSIWYG, using meta tags, robots and google analytics. I use the site I built using SiteBuilder as the main site and the Homestead StoreFront as the shopping site. I use the linkbuilder feature from StoreFront and integrate it in my main site. This way, customers can shop directly from the SiteBuilder site.

I have searched Homestead site over & over and can not find where I can obtain "Sitebuilder". I have Storefront, but would like to also use Sitebuilder (had it years ago and liked it).
Does anyone know how I can get it? THANKS

Sitebuilder is the main part of Homestead. So when you visit homestead.com, you're already looking at sitbuilder plan. Here's their pricing.

http://www.homestead.com/~site/hslo/website/packages.ffhtml

For info on storefront, you click on the Storefront tab at the top.

Thank you for this article. I was preparing to use Homestead for a new client and thought I best look for information about the company before committing her to anything. When I saw no information readily available about domain registration on the Homestead site, and then read this, it has changed my mind about using them. I have seen some of the sites and they are ok, but more can be done with some professional graphics, etc.

For my money, GoDaddy has been excellent. They ave my domain registration and are hosting my site, and I have not had issues for several years now. The fact that they continue to add functions and let folks do their own thing is enough for me. I used their system and added Joomla CMS to my site. The seamlessness of developing my pages is exceptional and I can recommend to clients a decent page with good function and cost.

So, for Michael above who sees few alternatives, go to GoDaddy for a good experience.

I've used Homestead since they were a small start-up and gave free Web sites in exchange for a small banner. I've built a couple dozen Web sites over the years on Homestead and have always simply registered my domains elsewhere and redirected them to my homestead site. Their support has been excellent lately, especially since they were purchased by Intuit.

I hear you 100% on the domain issue, that is insane. I buy all my domains on yahoo for 1.99. (Just create a new email ... works 3x's per day)

My only issues with Homestead are: 1) that they do not allow PHP scripts and 2)all the sites are hosted on one IP 209.157.71.50.

Besides that they are actually a great place to create cool sites. I have a $30/mo package and host unlimited domains iwth them. I can literally create sites in minutes.

My main site is created on their platform.

I used Homestead for one Ecommerce site and I can tell it's great.

I was first introduced to Homestead by a client who had purchased the base hosting plan, figured out how to put a couple of images and some text on template, then realized that there is a bit more to website design than his limitations allowed. He ended up buying his domain name that I helped him create from another company and I reworked his website using a Homestead template. I think the confusion some folks are having here may be the difference between Sitebuilder and Sitebuilder-Lite. I can only use the "lite" version on my MAC, but I downloaded the full version on my PC. I can change the height of the template, add META tags on each page, change the navigation - basically do just about everything I need. I seem to have found a niche helping other small businesses out there - I'm on my 4th site redesign now!

I currently use Homestead to build sites and have found them to be a very useful company so far. I am able to change the META tags on each page and have had success with doing nearly everything I have wanted to with all the sites I have built. I would not recommend Homestead as your company of choice if you are looking to build a eCommerce site for they do only offer some very limiting functionality, but if you just want a website so that you can direct potential clients there to have more credibility and a simple site is what you are looking for I would consider Homestead and at least see if any of there templates catch your eye. Best of luck on your decision and future web endeavors.

I have small business and it's time for a real website. Myspace is fine as a first step (if you're on a $0 budget) but I want a more professional website to send my potential customers. Everything I've read regarding Homestead POST the Intuit acquisition has sounded like paid testimonials, and most of what I've read PRE Intuit has be very negative. What changed? Has intuit drastically improved Homestead or is it all hype?

I have two sites with Homestead and have been with them for quite a few years now. Admittingly, I do not consider myself "tech savy" but nevertheless, I am learning more each and every day. Over the years, all I can say is that Homestead has been terrific! I rarely call them for tech support, but when I do (once or twice a year) I have been treated with respect, and all of my issues were resolved immediately with very helpful and knowledgable support staff.
Some of the posts that are listed here are in error. Yes, you can put your own separate meta tags on each of your pages.
Home page tags are not on every page. You don't have to choose from their hundreds of templates. You can start from scratch with a blank page. Adding photos, videos, is no problem. One site that I have is over 100 pages and was built by starting with a blank page. Check it out and see for yourself: www.wickedshepherds.com
I suppose that they might be considered a little pricey, but other than that, I have experienced no issues with them.

KC, I hate to be rude, but that website you posted looks terribly amateurish and I would not want my business website to look like that. If this is an example of what you are so happy about, and what you can achieve with Homestead's sitebuilder, then I want no part of it. I'm glad I read this article before jumping in bed with Homestead.

There is a small professional web design company in my area that has been trying to get my business for a while now. Everything they offer (unlimited pages, content, etc) just seems better, and their websites look just as professional as some of the big guys, and definitely a lot better than some of the homestead examples I've seen.

I'll be paying a lot more up front, though, which is why I looked into homestead ... 3 or 4 grand, but they claim to handle SEO and they host for free the first year ($35/yr after that and $10 for domain registration which they tell me I can do those things myself if I choose).

Just how does one insert code (where?) for Google Analytics into a Homestead site?

Jay,

I went to that site that "KC" posted and it doesn't look "amateurish" at all! What in the world are you looking at?
After looking at that site, I suspect that it might have been the content that you didn't like.

Tell you what, Jay. When you sign up with that "professional web design company in your area" that you were talking about, send us a link here on this forum so that we can all check out your "new professional website design."

For some reason though, something tells me that we'll be all holding our breath for a long time before we ever see anything!

CM,

I believe you just copy the google code; go to your page on SiteBuilder; click the Page Info Element; click the "advanced" tab, and copy it there. Do this for every page you want it on.

Well Brandon, it appears that you and I have a different definition of what constitutes a professional look. The reason the site looks amateurish to me is because it is filled with animated .gifs, it scrolls down forever and it's otherwise very plain. I'm talking about a business website. I'm sure that's fine for a hobby site, but if a client of mine saw my webpage looking like that, they would not take me seriously.

I don't know why you're taking this so personally, even going so far as to insult me. I won't do the same. I still haven't decided what I'm going to do, but I'll link some of the work in their portfolio:

http://www.amialaska.com/index.html

I don't know about you, but the one from the design firm, just looks a lot more professional. Theirs looks like a business website. KC's (again please don't be offended, I'm talking about a business, not a hobby or group page), looks more like those old GeoCities pages from back when I thought I knew something about building websites.

I'm a real estate broker, and most of my business has been word of mouth. I have been agonizing over whether or not to get my site professionally designed. I am worried about the cost, so if any of you think that I can get a professional result like the website above through homestead or a similar service, I would be all ears. Perhaps provide a link to a site built through homestead that looks as good, and I'll be convinced ... as long as a normal user like me can end up with a result like that.

Bottom line: STAY AWAY FROM HOMESTEAD! I tried to use them last year. Their support was SO rude and unhelpful it was sickening. I can't believe they are still operating; it seemed the whole time they were just waiting to shut their doors.

If Homestead looks appealing, go with Prostores directly. Homestead is a clone of Prostores, except they are several versions behind and cut out several important features (you'll find this out the hard way if you use them).

And those fantasies about the CEO responding to client emails are bogus. I sent two, while his staff was killing his reputation, to let him know I wanted to stay, yet I never got a response.

Well ...I would like to add my comment by saying I have been using Homstead for about 4 months now and Im completely happy with there service,and costomer support.I knew nothing about website building but I will say this...IT IS FUN !!!I pay $20.00 bucks a month and not thousands of dollars for design fees.Im in graphics for a living so I do have a little experiance in designing myself. I just started redoing some things on my website to give it more eye candy see page ( T-Shirt Page ) the other pages were designed at the beginning in getting use to the site builder but you will learn it quickly.For all you ...HTML code users building websites...my hat is off to you with great respect...but with that in mind I took a web site that was built by HTML code that took the guy about 30 mins and duplicated his website in 20 mins....He watched me in shock and said ..........................It Looks to easy !!! But with no gimmicks ! not selling him he saw with his own 2 eyes !! Jay I saw the page you liked and if you got the money to have someone to design your website and money is not an issue by all means .....and to everyone out there IF YOU GOT THE MONEY.....just remember ....your gonna want to make changes to your website........you can pay the web-designer more money on top of the thousands of dollars you already paid.....or you can just do it yourself and take the money you saved and invest it !! No offense please to any of you web-designers but gosh....I had a guy that was going to charge me $1800.00 to build my website and that was me laying everything out for him. Folks look at it this way you can always give it a try if it don't work...You can cancel and start over with a web-designer.Or you can pay thousands of dollars to a web-designer and hope he don't go out of business and start over...Now do the math !!!!

Been using Homestead for over 10 years. Have always been happy with them, never any down time, very good customer service. Have recommended them to many clients. Add my own html, create all my own backgrounds, buttons, etc. Every page has its own meta tags and page titles and descriptions. It doesn't matter whether you use a wysiwyg program or if you write your own code. If you don't have some webdesign training/knowledge/talent, you won't be able to create a professional looking site. A couple of my designs:
www.louisedunn.com, www.auntiebpetsitting.com.
I think many of the negative comments written here are unjustified. Yes, I do wish they would handle PHP, but they still are a solid hosting company...as is GoDaddy. I'm a freelance designer and have no connections to Homestead so this is not a paid testimonial for them!

Based on my own experience i can say Homestead is not that bad as said, it might be matter of chance

You are not aware that you can only cancel by phone, only until it is too late...

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