There’s certainly no shortage of ways to publish your own weblog — both hosted solutions and self-hosted. WordPress.com and Blogger are established, with large communities of users. So on first blush, it was easy for me to question why Squarespace would want to compete with them.
Squarespace handles everything for users — hosting, template design, and everything else necessary for a weblog — for a monthly fee that range from $8 to $50 a month.
And then I used it, and I instantly saw why: they’re competing on ease of use and design. Squarespace is the Mac of hosted-weblogs.
I knew something was different when I signed up. Squarespace’s sign up form is refreshingly simple: it only asks for the bare minimum of information, and rather than being laid out vertically, is horizontal, so entire form is visible without scrolling.
Straight-forward and simple typifies Squarespace.
After logging in, the first thing you see is an introduction video that explains how to use Squarespace. I love that.
The video, though, is too long and unfocused. It should be just a few minutes long and focus on the basics, trusting the interface design (and the excellent help section) to reveal itself to users.
Rather than control everything from the backend like most weblogging platforms, Squarespace overlays its controls on top of the weblog, so you can see the changes take effect instantly. The main controls are in the top-right corner, and they are conceptually perfect.
Squarespace has 3 views for editing your weblog: Content Editing, Structure Editing, and Style Editing.
All three do exactly what you expect, and the icons used to represent them convey their meaning very well. Content is for editing content, Structure is for changing the page elements, and Style is for switching (or editing) themes.
Because these concepts for interacting with your weblog are so intuitive to grasp, users can immediately understand how to change their weblog. There are no complicated submenus to move through — just three icons that are always at the top right.
The same thought has gone into all sections of Squarespace. The “Website Management” drop down at the top left gives you quick access to all parts of the back-end, and is well organized.
One of my favorite touches, though, is how Squarespace notifies you that changes have taken effect. When you save a change, a Growl-like overlay pops up in the top right. It looks absolutely fantastic, does precisely what it’s supposed to do, and makes Squarespace feel like a desktop application.
I love the little things like that.
When you switch to the Style editor, an overlay slides over the bottom of the window.
The editor allows you to choose a theme, a specific style for it (each theme has several different “styles,” which are really varying colors schemes), page layout, and edit CSS selectors (they call the section “Fonts, Colors, and Sizes”). The editor is (surprise surprise) well designed, both conceptually and in how elements are laid out.
Users can choose from 15 different themes, some of which are quite nice. It’s easy to switch between different themes and styles; each is represented with a large icon.
If you don’t like something about a stock theme, though, you can easily edit it. The editor gives you very fine control of the layout and CSS for the page. In Banner & Navigation, you can change the layout (how many sidebars and where they’re located, where the navigation bar is, and widths for different elements), and in “Fonts, Colors, and Sizes” you can edit most selectors, such as titles and links.
The editor gives a lot of power to users without overwhelming them — in fact, it’s quite clear.
For example, the drop down for choosing which selector you want to edit is broken up into logical groupings, such as Basic Layout and Content, and each selector is given a semantic name (“H1″ becomes “Site Title”). It allows you to change a large number of attributes for each selector, so you can quite easily change the entire feel of your weblog.
The best part of this, though, is that clicking on an element on your weblog (like a title or link) will open it for editing in the overlay. This makes it dead-simple to alter your weblog.
This makes it simple for beginning to intermediate users to alter their weblog, but Squarespace really needs a way for users to upload their own designs via FTP. Making relatively simple alterations to themes through the web browser is fine, but is a terrible way to make larger changes.
This limitation, more than any other, holds Squarespace back from being a great choice for writers who want a powerful and customizable weblog system without the need to host it themselves.
The post editor may be the most important part of any weblog system, and Squarespace’s is excellent.
Whereas other post editors are so packed full of features that it’s difficult to discern how to do the basic things, Squarespace’s focuses on the basics. The WYSIWYG editor is the best I’ve ever used (and I generally abhor them) — the toolbar is well spaced, and the icons are well-designed (I actually know what each icon does, which can’t be said for most WYSIWYG editors).
This is the first WYSIWYG editor I would even consider using.
Even better, though, is the post editor will grow with you. It supports Markdown, John Gruber’s great syntax for writing posts in plain-text, and it also works with MarsEdit. These two features move Squarespace into the “great option for any writer” column. Using MarsEdit on the Mac is the best experience I’ve used for writing a weblog, and a must for anyone who publishes daily.
These two features mean Squarespace isn’t just for beginning or hobby writers.
Traffic and Subscribers
Squarespace doesn’t skimp on traffic and subscriber tracking. The traffic section shows everything a user needs to know, such as page views, unique visitors, referrers, searches, and browser and OS information. The detail shown is a happy surprise.
What really surprised me, though, is subscriber tracking. Users can see how many subscribers they had on a specific day, and over time. Knowing how many people are subscribing to your weblog is, in my mind, more important than knowing visits, because it tells you how many dedicated readers you have.
When someone subscribes, they’re taking an extra step — which says that they are really interested in what you’re writing. By including subscriber tracking, Squarespace is giving their users real insight into how they’re doing.
Squarespace uses tiered pricing, and starts at $8/month. This basic plan gives users 75GB of bandwith and 1GB of storage, which is very fair. 75GB is a lot of bandwith, and higher-tier plans are just as lenient.
The bandwith allowances are all excellent, but storage isn’t. The “Business” plan, for example, which is the second-most expensive at $30/month, only provides 4GB of storage. That isn’t a lot of storage for people publishing photos and videos. The top-tier “Community” plan is even worse — 5GB of storage for $50/month.
Squarespace allows users to purchase additional storage, but its rate isn’t very affordable. They charge a dollar a month for each additional gigabyte of storage added.
Combined with the lack of FTP access, these two limitations are what keep Squarespace from being an option for serious writers who want minute control of their weblog and intend to publish size-heavy content for large audiences.
This is disappointing because of Squarespace’s excellent design, attention to detail and surprising power. Squarespace just narrowly misses being a serious option for writers with greater intentions than writing for a hobby.
But this shouldn’t mar Squarespace as an option for everyone else. It’s a perfect weblog system for beginners and intermediate users, because its smart design makes it easy to learn and its depth allows it to grow with them.