...if you're part of the super-secret club. But more on that later.
Squarespace is simply the best mix of compromises in a web platform for most small-medium businesses in 2023 and likely beyond.
How did we get here?
What do we need in a web design platform?
The early days of web design were filled with all sorts to hacks and fiddly techniques to create commercial websites. Some were pretty wild, but that all changed for good in 2010 when the concept of Responsive Web Design (RWD) arrived. While there are dozens of frameworks and platforms today, virtually all modern websites use the same techniques that were conceived back then. It really is that good of an idea.
At its core, RWD breaks a webpage into horizontal sections (aka rows) which then are divided into columns. Typically you can have 1-12 columns (although some programmers go up to 16). These columns resize and rearrange depending on the available screen width. Meaning things can be laid out side-by-side on a large desktop monitor and stacked on top of each other on a mobile device. This way you keep content in the correct order and avoid squinting at a 2-point font on a mobile device.
This combination of rows and columns is typically called the CSS Grid. A responsive CSS Grid is still the best solution for displaying content for 99% of websites. But to make a website look unique and not cookie-cutter, you need to be able to edit the cascading style sheet (CSS). CSS3 was finalized in 1999. It is incredibly complex and gives a programmer/designer almost total control of how things look and where they are positioned.
From a technical standpoint, modern the most critical tools that web designers need are a responsive CSS grid and the ability to edit the CSS.
Performance, SEO, and Accessibility
SSL Encryption is another biggie for SEO. You don’t need to have the most powerful encryption on Earth, but showing your customers that you care is a must. Also, websites that don't have SSL encryption are penalized by Google. Thanks to Let’s Encrypt, adding SSL is free… albeit quite technical. It’s best to host your site on a platform that automates this process, because it is essential.
Easy to live with
This is the biggest nail in WordPress's coffin. WP is a breeze to start but a nightmare in the long term. To get anything done you have to use a bunch of plugins. This leads to an inherently unstable system. Most website owners have to run updates every day to avoid security problems. And every time an update is run, you run the risk of having the whole website fail catastrophically. Instead of having a website that works for you 24/7, you have to take time out of your day to play Russian roulette with it.
WordPress really tried to reinvent itself with the Gutenberg editor. Unfortunately it’s awful. There are third party editors that you can install… but they’re almost as bad. Most business owners won’t touch WordPress themselves. It’s a confusing mess always on the verge of failure. The fact that anyone uses WordPress stuns me.
Usability is where Squrespace shines. Their editor has a few quirks, but it is by far the clearest, most intuitive editor I’ve encountered.
What’s on our must-have list?
- Responsive (aka mobile friendly)
- CSS Grid construction
- CSS access
- Well-ordered code
- SSL Encryption
- No Updates
- Good User Interface
And that’s all there is to it. Squarespace does all of those things for a reasonable price. While the code it generates isn’t as clean as something written by hand, it’s lightyears ahead of anything created by WordPress or Wix.
Other Squarespace perks
Colors and fonts are set through a panel so your site looks consistent and professional.
They have an enormous font library, more than just Google Fonts, so you can find a style that matches your brand standard without compromise.
The Unsplash stock photo library is searchable directly from the editor so you can find and use images in one step with no file management. You can also perform resizing, cropping, and basic editing on the fly.
Weird Squarespace Limitations:
The menu structure is strange. You can only nest sub-pages by one level. If you have a lot of documents, Squarespace falls flat very fast.
It doesn’t index pages. It only indexes products and blog posts. Apparently they know about this bug and have chosen not to fix it. You can add Google Site Search or some other competing third party services. but this is a weird omission.
They don't support modern formats like webp or svg as of 12/2022. Hopefully they will soon.
Now the big IF:
If you are working with a Circle Member that can turn off Fluid Engine.
Squrespace 7.1 is awesome. It's so different from 7.0 it should absolutely been called "8.0." While there are predefined layouts, there are no templates... because you can literally change everything through settings. This makes it incredibly flexible, extendable, SEO friendly, and accessible. It's so different that you can't even import a 7.0 website into 7.1. You have to move all the stuff manually.
Unfortunately, they launched 7.1 "Fluid Engine" in June of 2022. Fluid Engine (FE) is an attempt to compete with drag-and-drop editors like Wix (uugggh). FE caters to those who think, "Why can't I just drag and drop things onto the page where I want them like I do in PowerPoint?" The answer is because machines, humans, and especially humans with accessibility needs, need to be able to read the code behind it. When you start using tricks to move things around on the page, you loose accessibility, you lose contextual placement, and most importantly you lose the ability to use Responsive Design (the best practice for web design for over a decade).
The ability to move things around into a proper is an illusion. In the code, elements are placed randomly making it unintelligible. It's like if you wrote a letter, but placed each word at a different place on the page at random. It's completely indecipherable.
Even worse is that each element is placed into a specific location by the programming that makes the designer's layout work. This means that instead of being placed in a uniform CSS grid, things are scattered all over in the code. When viewed on a tablet or phone, you need to have new positioning rules for every element in every screen size. You have to essentially design every page three times. Except that you can't. That's right. There's no breakpoint for tablets. You have desktop, mobile, and the tablet/phablet/portable monitor crowd gets whatever is leftover.
And even worse still is how buggy it is. So many features don't work as claimed, things don't position reliably, or have giant chunks of whitespace that can't be changes, or it breaks their custom code, or things jump around. Not only is FE a bad idea, it's badly implemented. So you're giving up on responsive CSS for precise placement... but the placement doesn't work correctly. Awful.
Squrespace thought everyone would love Fluid Engine. Some designers don't mind building every page twice if they get to place things "just so." But most are apprehensive because of all the bugs. The good news is that Squrespace has decided not to force everyone onto FE (as was originally planned) because of a small group (including me) that realize what a bad move it is to try to emulate Wix. It's uncertain if the average Joan can go to Squarespace and set up a classic 7.1 website, but "Circle Members" can. Squrespace Circle is the super-secret club of designers that have made at least a handful of sites. I'll be building classic 7.1 sites for my clients for as long as possible. I'm not too worried about the long-term consequences of this. Squarespace is reliable and they are still hosting sites built on version5 of their system. If they ever pull the plug on 7.1 CE, I'll hunt down a better platform for my clients. I hope that's a long way off. But everything in life is fleeting.
In conclusion, if you wat a classic 7.1 site, we can set one up for you.