Blogging with SquareSpace

ThreadHunter is now running on SquareSpace after about six months of being built as a static site using Hugo. My decision was based primarily on two factors. The first factor was my positive experience building FuzzPage on SquareSpace. The second factor was that the overhead involved in generating and uploading the static site was discouraging me from posting. SquareSpace provides everything I need in one place, easily accessible via a browser. This includes things like comments, metrics, and site search that require external services when building a static site. With SquareSpace I can spend more time blogging and less time building and maintaining a static site. For me, the benefits of a static site, primarily speed, security, and cost, are outweighed by the ease of use and functionality provided by SquareSpace. 

ThreadHunter is a small blog site so the process of migrating it to SquareSpace was relatively painless. After selecting a template, I started by cutting and pasting each post into a SquareSpace blog post. Links and code snippets were handled fine but images had to be copied over individually. Next, I set the slugs and publish dates of each post to match the originals and added categories and tags. Then I set the blog page to the home page in SquareSpace so that the posts were available from '/blog/...' and '/...' to match the existing URLs. Finally, I went into the SquareSpace settings to connect the site to my existing domain. After a few minutes the site was up and running smoothly with a nice new mobile friendly layout and, for the first time, site search.

SquareSpace vs Weebly vs Wix - Website builder comparison

ThreadHunter is built using Hugo, a static site generator that generates the site from Markdown files. At the opposite end of the spectrum are site builders that allow you to build full featured websites without ever glancing at a command line. In order to compare three popular website builders, SquareSpaceWeebly, and Wix, I decided to build a simple website, FuzzPage, using all three services. Here are my initial impressions:

SquareSpace

SquareSpace was the first site builder I tried. SquareSpace offers a free 14 day trial. Paid plans are 8, 16, or 24 dollars a month billed annually and include a free domain. After signing up for the free trial, you start by choosing a template. The available templates are impressive with a modern professional look. Many of the templates are image heavy and geared towards ecommerce or gallery type sites so it took some time to find one suitable for a blog or news site. The live preview makes it easy to test the templates and the process of experimenting with different templates can be fun. After choosing a template you are asked for the site purpose: Personal, Business, Ecommerce, or Non-Profit. Finally you choose a title for your site and you are taken into the designer.

My initial impressions of the designer are that it is relatively easy to use. There are many options to customize your template and your site is pre-populated with sample pages so it is easy to get started just by editing the samples. One useful option is the ability to select high quality images from Getty Images for use on your site. These images look great in some of the image heavy templates and can be licensed for a $10 fee.

Outside of the designer there are settings for commerce, metrics, and comments. It is also possible to use Google Analytics for metrics and I think you can replace the built in commenting system with Disqus.

Overall I was impressed by SquareSpace. It looks good, is fairly easy to use, and is inexpensive compared to the amount of time you would spend to build a site of comparable quality on your own.

Weebly

Next I tried Weebly. Weebly offers a free plan with branding on their domain. Paid plans are 4, 8, or 25 dollars a month. After signing up you are asked to choose whether you want to build a site, blog, or store. Next, you are presented with a number of templates to choose from. The templates were OK but not as impressive as SquareSpace.

Weebly uses a Drag & drop site builder that was frustrating to use. The template did include pages for About, Blog, and Contact but the pages were empty. There was no pre-populated content to give you an idea of what the site looks like. You can drag and drop components into the pages but I’ve never been a fan of drag and drop anything and if I wanted to build pages from scratch I would do it in HTML/CSS and not a drag and drop editor.

Weebly was not for me, so I quickly moved onto Wix.

Wix

Similar to Weebly, Wix offers a free plan with branding or variety of paid plans. After browsing the available templates and experimenting with the editor, Wix seemed to me to be a middle ground between Weebly and SquareSpace. The templates and site editing capabilities were both better then Weebly but not up to par with SquareSpace. The editor is pre-populated with content making it much easier to get started then Weebly but the Wix dashboard, editor, and templates seemed a bit old school after using SquareSpace.

Conclusion

Despite their new features and web 2.0 names, Wix and Weebly reminded me of the bloated ugly site builders of the past. If you want to build a site for free Wix is certainly usable but for me SquareSpace looks better, is easier to use, and has all the features I need.

Disclaimer

This post is based on my initial impressions of Weebly, Wix, and SquareSpace. If you are building an ecommerce site or a site with more complex requirements then you may come to a totally different conclusion. I plan to continue working on FuzzPage and I will write a follow up post after I spend more time with SquareSpace.

Add comments to a static website: Disqus vs Discourse vs Muut

One drawback to using a static website generator is that there is no built-in platform for comments. You must use a third-party service that provides commenting capabilities or roll your own solution. ThreadHunter has almost no traffic at this point so it did not make much sense to spend a lot of time on comments. The easiest solution was to take a quick look at three popular third-party services that provide commenting and discussion capabilities and choose one. In this post I will describe my initial impressions of MuutDiscourse, andDisqus.

Muut is a commenting and forum platform with plans ranging from free to $96 dollars a month. The Muut forums were easy to integrate into ThreadHunter, all that was required was adding a couple lines of HTML to a template but I initally had some trouble getting the comments to work. The code I found under ‘Settings’ to ‘Place on you site’ for commenting did not work and I could not find a link to help on the settings page. After locating the Muut Help, I quickly found the correct code to add comments to my posts. I didn’t like the default presentation for post comments, which was just a simple comment box, so I decided to move on.

Discourse is an open source discussion platform. Monthly hosted plans start at $200 but you can pay a one time install fee of $99 to get installed in the ‘cloud’ or install it on yourself. For a site with little to no traffic, it is not worth the effort or cost to use Discourse. I did click the ‘Try It’ link to try the Discourse sandbox but I found it to be a bit busy and confusing for a platform that claims to be ‘simple, clean, and straightforward’.

Disqus is a free commenting and community building service that is easy to setup and embed. Disqus makes money through advertising and shares a portion of that revenue with publishers. It is the most popular of these three platforms, has the best documentation, and the commenting system gives a good first impression to the user when embedded in your posts.

Disqus is the obvious choice for ThreadHunter. It is the easiest, cheapest, and most popular platform. I’m not sure I like the idea of a third-party hosting the comments for this site or the idea of advertising in the comments so I may revisit this decision if ThreadHunter ever starts to generate any meaningful amount of discussion.

Building a static website with Hugo

I had two basic requirements when choosing a tool to build this site:

  1. I wanted to build a static website so that I had the freedom to host the site anywhere without having to install, configure, or maintain any server software.
  2. I wanted to be able to write my posts in Markdown. With Markdown, I can write posts with simple formatting both offline and online, on any computer, and with any editor. I didn’t want my posts to be tied to any particular blogging software or CMS.

After some research on Hacker News, StaticGen, and GitHub along with some experimentation, I decided to go with Hugo. I choose Hugo because it was easy to install and run, the Hugo website and documentation was well done, and because it seems to be fast and flexible.

Installing Hugo is as simple as downloading the binary from GitHub and copying it to /usr/local/bin. The following steps illustrate how easy it is to create a new site, add some content, and start a local server:

$ hugo new site /path/to/site
$ cd path/to/site
$ hugo new post/first.md
$ hugo server --theme=lanyon-custom --watch --buildDrafts

Hugo is fast and if you use --watch it rebuilds and reloads content automatically. For a small site like ThreadHunter, Markdown changes are reflected almost instantly in the browser.

My first impressions of Hugo are that it is fast and easy to use locally but I’ve run into issues with broken urls when publishing the site. I’m not sure if this is a problem with Hugo, the Lanyon theme I’m using, or my server configuration.

Look for future posts on Hugo as I add content and work on customizing the site.