Simple, Searchable New Web Site Designs

by John Rettie

John Rettie

Squarespace drew crowds at WPPI with its unusual booth.

June 01, 2012

It’s ironic, but in many ways, it was easier to create a Web site back at the beginning of the decade than it is now. ‘Huh?’ you say? Well, back then a developer essentially only had to worry about producing a Web site that would work correctly with Internet Explorer on a desktop computer, because that was what about 90 percent of PC-users were using as a browser on their computers. Of course, that was back when Web sites were a lot simpler and not nearly as attractive or interactive as they are now.

Then Flash came along to help designers create more visually attractive sites, which was more or less acceptable, until recently when smart phones and tablets appeared. Flash did not work well on these smaller computers, and Adobe has now abandoned developing Flash for mobile platforms. Search was also a problem for Flash sites because the content proved too hard for search engines to crawl; hence they often did poorly in search, which is a key factor in the success of most sites.
So here we are in 2012, and many Web developers are going back to basics—i.e. creating sites using modern tools that are viewable on a variety of platforms, and easily found by search engines.

Instead of redesigning a Web site to work properly on a tablet or smart phone, developers are using tools that create a site that can automatically be formatted to work correctly on each platform.

Since industry pundits predict that tablets will be the platform of choice for a majority of consumers and professionals in the future, Web developers are designing sites primarily for tablets, then making sure they will downsize to a smart phone or upsize—so to speak—to look good on a PC.

Here’s a quick introduction to three new tools on the market, designed to help you create a modern Web site.

Squarespace
Anyone who attended the recent Wedding and Portrait Photographers International (WPPI) Convention in Las Vegas could not help but notice a large black canvas cube on the trade show floor. It belonged to Squarespace, which was making a big splash with its first appearance at WPPI. In many ways it’s difficult to describe Squarespace. It’s a company that’s been around since 2004, started by a then-21-year-old programmer who wanted a simpler way to build his own Web site. It’s easiest to describe it as an alternative to Wordpress.

Wordpress has become much more than just a blog platform, as so many Wordpress developers have been able to use the basic underlying technology as a Content Management System (CMS) to produce Web sites that don’t look anything like a blog. However, it takes some skill to create a regular-looking Web site using the interface.

Since 2004, Squarespace has gone through five different iterations and it was unveiling its sixth version, in beta, at WPPI. It is now positioning Squarespace as an ideal CMS for photographers or artists looking to create an attractive portfolio site without having to learn how to code a site from scratch, or modify Wordpress or another blog platform.

It’s probably fair to say that Squarespace is going up against established Web site creation services such as LiveBooks and
Zenfolio, to name two. Like those companies, Squarespace charges to host a site and provides the online editing tools.
Soon after WPPI, I signed up on the beta site (beta.sqsp.com) to see what all the fuss is about.

The site has a very clean look and judging by all the choices, it is pretty easy to adjust text and choose fonts so that your site looks different from other sites.

The company says photographers and artists make up about 15 percent of its current users, so it has concentrated on making the creation of portfolios as easy as possible. When I first accessed the CMS, there was a choice of several templates to choose from as a starting point.

The key feature of Squarespace 6 is that you only have to build one site and it will automatically reflow text and images to correctly fit on any size screen. It will even rearrange text to wrap around photos as needed. You also only need to upload an original hi-res photograph, and Squarespace automatically resizes the photo to fit. What’s more, it allows you to highlight the focus point on a photograph so that if the picture is partially hidden, that point will remain in the center of the reframed photo.
Those currently using the beta site are not being charged, but eventually users will be charged a monthly fee, ranging from $12 to $40 per month. If you want to try out Squarespace 6, go to beta.sqsp.com and sign up as a beta tester.

Adobe Muse Beta
If you feel comfortable hosting and creating a site, Adobe is developing a new program that will make it easy to design one from scratch using HTML5 and CSS3. Currently the program is code-named Muse, and a beta version can be downloaded from Adobe.

Adobe describes Muse as being halfway between something simple like iWeb (which is based on templates) and Dreamweaver (which is used by professional developers who know how to code). If you look at the Muse screen, you’ll see it is somewhat similar to a page layout program like InDesign. If you’re comfortable using Photoshop and InDesign, Muse might be a useful program to learn.

When Muse comes out of beta, it will only be available by subscription for $19.99 a month with no contract or $14.99 a month for a yearly contract. Adobe can host a site for an additional cost or you can host a site created with Muse on any Web hosting service.

Hype
Flash was originally introduced as a way to animate graphics on Web sites. It quickly became popular with game programmers and it also become a favorite way to show video online. Then Web developers began using it to develop whole Web sites, which was not the intended original usage of Flash.

For the past several years, many end-users have complained about Flash-based Web sites slowing things down and not delivering a great experience for visitors. The issue came to a head when Apple did not provide Flash on the iPhone or the iPad. Flash fans blamed Apple for the spat, but in the end, even Adobe was unable to get Flash working decently on mobile phones, so it abandoned Flash development for mobile devices. Since tablets will probably prove to be the device of choice for a majority of people in the not-too-distant-future, Web sites will have to abandon Flash if they want to be seen.
However, there is still need for animation, such as sliding banners and moving text.

Enter Hype—a new program introduced by Tumult that can create animations in HTML5 and CSS. The end result is visually no different from a Flash animation.

Hype only runs on a Mac, and anyone who has produced Flash animations or animated slide shows should be able to pick up the program quickly. It uses a familiar timeline to lay out graphics and text with transition effects such as dissolves to produce impressive animated graphics.

Hype is available from Apple’s online App store or directly from Tumult (http://tumultco.com/hype/) for $49.99. If you want to produce fluid animations on your site, it’s worth testing out the trial, downloadable from the same site.    


John Rettie is a photojournalist who resides in Santa Barbara, CA. He has been using a computer for over 30 years, and has been on the Internet for almost 20 years. He is hoping his experiences will help readers learn how it all works. You can find links to resources on his Web site, www.webinsight.info, or contact him directly at john@johnrettie.com

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