Business owners and managers looking to update, redesign or develop a new website are faced with some basic, yet essential, questions before starting the project. In my agency, we help many current and prospective clients understand what the best course of action is for their business goals and budget. In this article and the next three of this series, I will attempt to clarify some basic questions with the help of my Web Designer, Ian Marquis. So let's start with the very basic option first: HTML/CSS.
The web has changed remarkably since HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) - the building blocks from which websites are created - were first introduced. Websites have gotten bigger, flashier and smarter. Nowadays, the internet is an extension of our day-to-day lives: We socialize, pay bills, shop, play games, watch movies and explore the world - and all without ever leaving our chairs. The web has grown up, if you will, and the way websites are built has changed along the way - newer technologies offer more power, flexibility and control than we had in the past. But what does that mean for traditional HTML and CSS? Really, it just means they are no longer the only game in town. There are both strengths and weaknesses to developing websites the tried and true way.
First, let's discuss the strengths of traditional HTML and CSS websites
Creative freedom and flexibility
Hand-built websites offer virtually unlimited creative control over the design and layout of your content. The tools commonly used for building them are robust and well-tested, and the formatting languages themselves have been fine-tuned for many years (HTML was first introduced in 1991, CSS in 1996). In the hands of a capable designer, your website can become anything from a conservative corporate landing page to an avant-garde work of art.
Quick to deploy (and inexpensive to produce)
A small hand-coded website often has under 10 pages (many of our smaller clients have requested four- to six-page websites, for example). The content is clear and to-the-point, the design is focused and accessible and the sitemap (the document describing the hierarchy of pages on your website) is straightforward. Once all the resources (photos, color selection and copy) are in order, such a site can be created in short order. The advantages there are clear: a faster launch if you are in a hurry, and a smaller price tag.
Stable (and will work on just about any server or browser)
More complex website installations often rely on technologies such as PHP, Ajax, Ruby and MYSQL. These coding platforms allow for greater power and versatility, but that comes at a price: Their complexity brings with it a greater number of potential hang-ups that can occur during development. Further, your hosting server (the place where your website is stored) might not support them. And some are browser-dependent (have you ever visited a website that required an older version of Internet Explorer to work?). But regardless of what higher-level technologies a website makes use of, the framework is always built around HTML and CSS. As stable, time-tested formatting languages, they work just about anywhere. And, as a bonus, moving them is a snap: You can download your entire site and drop the files onto a new server without worrying about database connections and coding platform incompatibilities.
Conclusion: Great for smaller projects, smaller budgets and specialty sitesMany of the websites you encounter as you browse the web were crafted from traditional HTML and CSS. These websites are easy to deploy, dependable, and inexpensive to create. And don't be fooled into thinking you need a Content Management System in order to get a modern looking website. What matters to the visitor is that your site is attractive, easy to navigate and well-organized - not the specific technology under the hood.
Now, let's discuss the weaknesses of traditional HTML and CSS websites
Difficult for non-coders to update
HTML and CSS are formatting languages. That is, they were developed to properly display and organize text and images on-screen. HTML was initially intended to control the display of data and copy, but designers quickly realized its potential for creating more innovative structures (including arranging images in a way that created a more seamless look, despite the rigid box structure imposed by the language). CSS was created to address weaknesses in the HTML standard regarding fine control over text styles, positioning of items on the page, and the display of images. Fifteen years later, the result is a well-integrated formatting system that can make spectacular results. But all that code can be awfully daunting to someone just looking to update an existing website with new text and photos. For this reason, we recommend that our clients choose an HTML/CSS website if they do not plan on updating their content often and would rather leave updates to their designer or developer.
No media management
Content-managed websites typically come with some sort of media manager. This provides the user with an interface to upload, store, and access graphics and photos on their website. It also provides the ability to resize images on demand (while preserving the full-size copy), add captions and titles and crop photos prior to placement. Traditional websites do not have this sort of ability. The images are created at the exact size that is needed, stored in folders on your hosting server and are accessed via FTP (File Transfer Protocol). Image galleries on an HTML website are created by hand, rather than on the fly. The result looks identical, but if you are managing dozens or hundreds of images a content management system provides greater control and fewer headaches.
Limited user interaction
A traditional HTML and CSS website is intended primarily for the display of content and images. Certain interactive elements (such as image rotators, contact forms, and pop-up galleries) can be added without difficulty, but other features you might have seen on the web (such as reader commenting, accounts and profiles for website visitors, and members-only content) are not possible. These features come standard with most of the popular content management platforms (such as WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal), which is why we recommend them to our clients if they require a more interactive experience.
Conclusion: Not well suited to large, database-driven websites with frequent updatesHTML and CSS are display languages. They produce great looking websites, but do not allow for user-friendly management of assets (numerous articles, images, uploaded files) or user-driven content (such as discussion threads and comments). If your web requirements include these items, we highly recommend a Content Management System.
Verdict: HTML is still the backbone of the web, and is a great way to create an attractive, functional, affordable website for your organization. If your business needs a new website - or, if your existing web presence could use a facelift - but you don't have the budget (or need) for a Content Management System, an HTML/CSS website is the way to go.
Editors note: Ian Marquis of Pulse Marketing also contributed to this column
Cntia Miranda is the president of Pulse Marketing Agency. Learn more about her work at www.pulsemarketingagency.com.