Free websites- a good idea or bad?

I am often asked about why a website cannot be found. Some of the problem is marketing. If folks don’t know your website exists they just can’t visit it. “But”, they ask, “isn’t that what Google is supposed to do?” Well, sort of…

Your website being found is partly getting the word out, partly having it found by search engines. I will attempt to clarify a bit about the search engines finding it.

Search engines have programs that go and visit websites, these are called spiders or bots. They check out the website to see what it contains and is all about. They also check to see where any links may go. By following the links, they often find a new website. They will take certain information about the websites and bring it back to the search engine’s servers where it is cataloged and stored. When a search is conducted, the search engine will check the information and use it to give results. This process is called indexing.

I personally don’t think search engines index the free sites as well as you would think.

I was recently asked to help a woman with her SEO efforts. She sells custom made jewelry and she wanted to get more traffic to her website. I took a peek and this is what I found:

  • Her website was a free one offered by Yola. It was live for 2 years.
  • She had done some SEO optimization and didn’t see a smidgen of increase in search results.
  • Even using specific keywords she uses on her website (remember, custom jewelry made from wood, glass, etc., and in specific shapes; waves, driveshafts, etc.) her website was not showing up in search results for Google.
  • Searching for her company name (Dirt Road Designs) had her listed in the results but NOT even on the first page!

I did some more research and discovered two key things:

  1. Others who have used the free websites (Yola specifically in this case) were complaining of the same problem. Some even complaining they had done extensive optimization of keywords, keyphrases, images, etc., with NO NOTICEABLE RESULTS!
  2. Yola (and others) offer a paid option for websites that includes SEO

So others were having the same problem and the company offered a paid version of their service which included SEO… Very suspicious to me. I wrote up my findings and presented it to her. We both agreed she would be better served with her own WordPress website and I would build and host it for her. Full disclosure here: she also hated the admin interface at Yola and that was a big factor in her decision as well. A WordPress website was built for her and sound SEO was used right from the start.

Less than 6 months later and she reports more traffic to her website than she ever had. Of course, traffic doesn’t necessarily mean sales but without traffic there would be NO sales at all. She is extremely pleased we took the time and built a new website and she can now see the results. Her ranking in the searches is getting better as well.

So should YOU build your website using a free service like Yola, Wix, Weebly, Webs, Jimdo, etc? Personally, I suggest you don’t. Here is why:

  1. It takes time to build the website, even though the services give you easy to modify templates. Wix specifically locks your content when you choose a template.If you want to change the look of your website, tough luck!
  2. Everyone who uses the service uses the same templates. Making the website truly yours is impossible.
  3. You can spend many hours working on your SEO with no noticeable results.
  4. All the time spent on the free website will have to be completely redone when you decide you want to get away from the free service. Asstated above, changing the template alone in Wix forces you to start from scratch!
  5. Many of the free services offer carousels for your images. These are typically javascript driven; javascript being a web language. Unfortunately, search engines at this time don’t decipher it very well and your images are not indexed by them. Think about someone doing an image search; if a search engine cannot read your images, how will they ever be shown in search results? They can’t!
  6. The url to your website typically has the free services name in it. (more detail below)
  7. If you have a problem, customer service is not exactly gold standard

I believe the free websites offered by these services don’t rank as well with search engines either. I also believe it is done this way on purpose so they can sell you their “service”. I believe that even after choosing to pay monthly for their services your website still won’t rank as well as it could. You may find you are extremely happy doing this and that is absolutely fine. However, I don’t typically find ANY of these free services in what I search for. I find that troubling.

Now, I haven’t mentioned the free websites you can build using the WordPress platform but hosted by WordPress themselves.

It is a bit confusing but there are two completely different WordPress type of websites. I’ll lay out some of the differences here:

  • WordPress.com is where you can get a completely free website. It uses the WordPress blogging platform and is hosted on WordPress servers. You do not purchase a domain name or hosting, it is provided for you. However, your address to your website will be similar to this: http://muddledmindsanddustbunnies.wordpress.com/. Notice the “.wordpress” in the url? Many free services do that; have their url within yours. The free WordPress website is also¬† limited in size. When (yes, when!) you exceed your size limit (images can take up considerable space if not optimized correctly) you must upgrade to a paid account.
  • WordPress.org is where you download the free WordPress files that you will install on a hosting account you pay for. You will also need your own domain name. You have complete control over your website. Two restrictions to worry about would be bandwidth, and size, but you can simply purchase a better hosting plan from your host when needed. You may never need to upgrade but let’s just assume yours will be the next big thing and get millions of visitors!

Moving the WordPress hosted website to your own servers is fairly easy. WordPress will create a file you download, then you upload it to the the new website. This file transfers the majority of your website, images may need to be done separately. However, a lot of the work is taken care of with the simple file download/upload. Changing the look of the website is extremely easy and none of your content is lost.

So to wrap things up, I personally would steer clear of free website services but if you MUST have a free one, use the WordPress one. It is very popular and fairly easy to move if needed.