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.
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.
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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.
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