This is the second of a series of reviews of free or low-budget website builders.
I speak to many small business owners at local networking events, and very many of them have a website set up for their business using the service offered by Vistaprint.
Vistaprint are one of the biggest players in the business printing industry, and many small businesses (including myself) take advantage of their huge range of templates to get their first business cards printed. Their business model is evident right from the beginning, though, enticing you in with offers of free business cards, after which you’ll pick lots of extra options to eventually end up with something that looks good enough to represent your business, and costs significantly more than you started out with.
I can live with that model to a certain degree when it comes to print products. I have eyes, and can judge for myself if the final product is good enough. But websites are about a lot more than what you see on the surface, and the average small business owner has very little idea what makes a good website, and unfortunately, these websites offer very little of what is required to succeed online, and what is available, is all at an extra cost, making them overall, very poor value for money.
- Mobile site is the one surprise in this package, as it does look and function quite well.
That’s it. Sorry, but I really couldn’t find much else positive to say about these websites.
- Domain name is registered in their name, not yours, making it difficult to move your website elsewhere
- Lack of transparency in pricing and difficulty in downgrading subscription
- Very poor search engine optimisation – you have to pay extra to get any SEO tools at all, and if not used correctly they are likely to do more harm than good to your search engine rankings.
- Ongoing adding of content is cumbersome and very limited in scope. Most businesses will very quickly outgrow this site.
Read on for detailed analysis.
Domain Name – Bad
I’ve seen many a small business owner caught out by the domain name registration practices of Vistaprint, and this on its own is enough for me to warn people off using this service.
There are a number of options for your domain name. The only one of these I would recommend is number 3.
- Generic Domain – The cheapest and most basic option is a to use a subdomain on the Vistaprint address, eg. “www.mycompany.vpwebs.com“. This is a big flag to the world that your business is too cheap to even buy its own domain name. It’s also not going to do you any favours in search engine terms.
- Premium Domain – You can get Vistaprint to register a domain name for you, reflecting your company name, such as “mycompany.com.au” Names ending in “.com”, “.org”, “,biz”, etc are no extra charge. A “.com.au” domain name will cost you an extra $3.29 a month after the free trial.
WARNING: If you take this path, Vistaprint will register the domain name in their name, not yours. It is possible to get it back from them when you want a new site elsewhere (for a fee, of course), but many unsuspecting business owners don’t know this, and end up losing their domain name and starting again with a new domain name (losing any incoming links and search engine rankings their site may have already built up).
- Existing Domain – You can use a domain name that you already own, and point it to the website. If you really want to have your website with Vistaprint, register your domain name elsewhere first.
How to claim your domain name registered by Vistaprint
I have encountered plenty of businesses who’ve given up on their Vistaprint site, and started a whole new website elsewhere, with a different domain name. This is not surprising, as it took some serious hunting down to find information on their website about how to transfer your domain name. Buried deep in the Help section I found these two links:
(Summary, it costs $20 and you have to ring them up to do it, there is no way to do it online.)
For more information on domain names, check out my previous blog posts on the topic.
Ease of Setup – Poor
If you’ve ever ordered print products from Vistaprint, you have a fair idea of the ordering process, which involves clicking through endless screens of optional extras, but if you just keep on clicking you’ll eventually get there, albeit with some missteps and strange error messages along the way. The setup process went something like this:
- Choose your domain name. See above, and don’t get caught out!
- Choose from the many ‘options’ they want you to take up, such as a mobile site, advanced editor, search engine optimisation, or blog.
- Indicate what kind of business, the name of your business, and a tagline.
- Choose a design. Just as with choosing a Vistaprint business card design, there are literally hundreds to choose from, and you can select categories and styles to narrow the choice down. This was time consuming and clunky. The thumbnail images are nowhere near big enough to see what’s what, and when you click on one the larger image takes a long time to load, and is still not good enough quality to really see what you’re getting.
- Choose pages – there is a choice of different types of pages, and you have a limited number. At one point I got a strange inexplicable error message when I tried to add a page, which was followed by another message saying I already had the maximum number of pages and I needed to upgrade my package to add more (surprise!) There was, however, no obvious link to how to go about upgrading.
- Edit Your Pages – Once you actually get to the page editing screen, it’s a simple enough interface, but slow and clunky to use. It takes you step by step through adding text, uploading images, adding a map to your website and editing your contact form. Not too difficult, but frustratingly slow to use.
Ease of Updating – Frustrating
Once set up, I found updating the site annoying. While the interface is fairly simple to use, it is slow and clunky, and I spent a lot of time watching little flash ‘processing’ icons go around and around.
Possibly the most annoying aspect is the tendency to constantly pop new windows all over the place whenever I try to do something. After working away at it for a while, and trying things out in different areas, I had a dizzying array of windows open all over my desktop.
Please, all that is needed is one tab of my browser with the website dashboard, another tab for the site itself. Clean, simple, no pop-up windows needed.
Pricing & Subscriptions – Appalling
As with most Vistaprint products, the primary purpose of this package seems to be to draw you in and get you to sign up for as many extras as possible, and then make it difficult to downgrade or remove features.
I ended up signing up for several extras just to get what’s really the basics of a decent website. By the end of this, I found my bill had risen from $17.58 per month to a whopping $52.73 per month.
Some of the ‘extras’ that you will need to pay extra for include:
- Search engine optimiser
- Ability to customise the site so it doesn’t look like everybody else’s
- Mobile version of the site
- Removal of Vistaprint branding
After about 15 minutes of searching I concluded that there is no easy way to downgrade again. You can cancel your whole account online, but not cancel parts of your subscription. A search in their online help turned up this thread filled with unhappy customers trying to work out how to cancel parts of their subscription:
Basically, if you want to change anything in your subscription, be prepared to get on the phone.
Code Quality – Poor
Code may not seem important to the casual observer, but it does affect a whole range of things, including page load times, search engine optimisation and accessibility to users with disabilities.
The most basic elements of an HTML page are paragraphs and headings, and tags are used to indicated these elements. Just as scanning a regular document by eye for headings and paragraphs can give you a rough idea of the gist of the article, so the same elements on a web page allow search engines and screen reader devices to easily see what your web page is about.
These tags are the very first thing that any novice learns when learning how to build a web page, so I couldn’t believe my eyes when I found that:
- There was not a single paragraph tag to be found.
- There were almost no heading tags. Specifically, the most important heading tags, indicating the name of the page, were completely missing.
These coding issues affect search engine optimisation and accessibility, which are discussed further below.
Search Engine Optimisation – Poor
You have to pay extra to get any search engine optimisation tools at all, and if not used correctly, they may do more harm than good. This includes:
- Keyword Tags – You’re asked to enter the search key terms that you want to target, and there’s a tool to suggest related keywords. These keywords are then added to the meta tags on your page, and there lies the problem. Search engines pay little or no attention to keyword tags these days, and having lots of keywords in your meta tags, that aren’t reflected naturally in the accompanying text, is regarded as keyword stuffing, and is likely to get your site downgraded or banned altogether in search engine results.
- Writing Wizard – This gives you some nice marketing speak for your industry, and you just fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, if you use this, you’re in grave danger of duplicate content penalties. Google penalises duplicate content in its page ranking algorithms, so having the same, or very similar, text as hundreds of other sites, is a good way to ensure you don’t get onto page one in Google.
- Standard home page text – As above with the writing wizard, the site comes with generic welcome text on the home page, which could be relevant to almost any business. A quick Google search turned up hundreds of websites with this, or an only slightly edited version of it, on their home page. Leaving this standard text not only doesn’t reflect your business well to those who find your website – it can actually harm your search engine rankings significantly.
- A voucher for $75 for Google Adwords pay-per-click advertising. Many hosts and domain registrars offer these as standard when you sign up. $75 of pay-per-click advertising is used up very quickly (especially if you don’t know what you’re doing), after which you will be spending your own money.
Other SEO issues with the site include:
- Incorrect markup – As described above, the poor coding of the website makes it very difficult for search engines to understand the structure of the information on your page, and know what the important information is.
- Non-text links – The links in the main menu are created from images, not text, so search engines cannot read them, and therefore have no idea what is on your site beyond the home page.
Accessibility & Usability – Poor
People use a range of different devices to access the web, and it’s important (and not difficult!) to build sites so that they can be accessed via any device.
I ran several pages through the WAVE accessibility checker, and found an average of 25-30 accessibility errors per page, mostly to do with:
- Missing explanatory text on images – Any content that is held in an image must have descriptive (‘alt’) text added to explain what it is. This helps not only vision-impaired users, but also search engines. This especially effects the main navigation menu, which for some strange reason, has been created as an image, making it completely invisible to both vision impaired users and search engines.
- Missing field labels on forms – A web form needs to have labels in the code to make it easy for vision impaired users to know what information goes in which field. The forms on the website are missing these, making it difficult, and maybe impossible, for some users to contact you.
- MapQuest Map too small – Rather than using the more common Google Maps, Vistaprint have decided to supply a MapPress map to embed on your site. Unfortunately the map is way too small to be able to get a good view, and there is no “view larger map” as there usually is with a Google Maps widget.
Email Marketing – Poor
For an extra $8.79 per month, you can add Email Marketing to your package. This gives you a dashboard where you can add or import your email contacts, and design, compose and send your email campaigns.
- Relatively easy to set up and send emails
- Emails are sent through proper email list protocols, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally revealing everyone’s email address to each other, or being accidentally blacklisted as a spammner
- Recipients can easily unsubcribe through a link at the foot of each email.
- There is no facility to add a newsletter signup form to your website, so the only way to build your email list is to manually take email addresses and enter them yourself. (For a moment I thought I had found this facility, when I found a message saying “New! Email Sign-up Form” – but this, unbelievably was simply a form you could print out and leave at your cash register for people to sign up on.)
At $8.79 per month, this is extremely poor value. If building a list of email subscribers is an important part of your marketing plan, you are much better off using a free service such as MailChimp, which offers you all the tools listed above, as well as a signup form that you can embed in your website to automate the signup process
Social Media Integration – Poor
The Facebook integration link doesn’t appear to do much. It prompts you to log in to Facebook and then to give the Vistaprint app access to your account. Beyond that, all it appears to do is to take you through to some instructions for setting up and using a Facebook business page.
As far as I can see, there is no integration of any kind between the website and Facebook. So I can see no real purpose in giving the Vistaprint app access to your Facebook account (other than, of course to allow Vistaprint to gather more information about you).
E-Commerce – Fair
The e-commerce is done through PayPal, and it’s not too difficult to set up that part and connect to your paypal account.
There are limited shipping options – you can only charge a flat rate per product if calculations are to be done on your site. Otherwise you have to use shipping options set up in PayPal.
You have a choice of selling a single product, or having a full shopping cart. I found setting up the shopping cart a little confusing. I clicked Add Shopping Cart, thinking this would be creating a new shopping cart page, but it added it to the page I was on, and there didn’t seem to be any way to move it to another page – I had to delete it, and upload everything all over again.
Also annoying is that although the standard site without a shopping cart has a specific “Products” page, there does not seem to be any way to link that to the shopping cart. So if you start out with just a product listing, and then decide you want to sell online, you have to start again, rather than having a way to simply add a Buy button to existing products.
As an absolute starter, with very few products to sell, this would probably suffice for a while, but it would soon become cumbersome and unworkable for an ecommerce store of any substantial size.
Front End – Look- Fair
As with Vistaprint’s print products, there is a dizzying array of templates available, of varying quality. None of them are dazzling web design, but if you choose carefully and fork out the extra $6.59 per month for the ‘Advanced Editing Tools’ you can probably get something that looks passable.
Front End – Mobile Friendliness – Good
For an extra $4 per month, you can opt to have a mobile version of your website, and I have to say, that in this aspect, the site brushes up quite well.
- The site displays well and is easy to navigate
- Quick access to opening hours, click-to-call buttons for phone, email and SMS.
- The navigation is a little confusing, as the phone’s back button doesn’t work, you have to use the special Back button on the website.
- When I was in the product gallery, I couldn’t go back. The site’s back button disappeared, and the phone’s back button took me back to the previous site I had visited.
Print and web are very different media, and Vistaprint websites fail in so many areas that it is clear they have been coded by someone without the least interest in, or regard for, website best practices.
Overall, these websites are very poor value for money. To get a website that has some hope of gaining any kind of search engine ranking, or of looking at all professional, requires purchasing many of the added extras, by which time your website is starting to get into the realm of $50 per month, rather then the $17 you initially thought you were signing up for. Don’t do it.
This series so far has been rather negative. As even some free services provide better quality websites than what Vistaprint offers, I’ll try and bring some good news in my next article!