Should I DIY or Should I Self Host? You and Your Data

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DIY vs. Self Hosted Websites
Should I build my own website? Or should I hire someone? Robert Kopacz explains

An organization wishing to have a dynamic website has many more options today than just ten years ago. Some of them seem too good to be true. Services such as Wix, Weebly and Squarespace are now offering cloud-based "DIY site builder" platforms. For a relatively small monthly fee, any organization can go in, set up a series of website pages of their choice, and using a drag an drop browser based interface, build their own website.

Given the complexities and cost of hiring someone to build you a self-hosted, custom built website on an open source platform such as Drupal or Wordpress, these DIY site builders seem like a Godsend. You might find yourself asking, "is there a catch?"

Yes, there is. In fact, there are more than a few catches. In this blog post, which is the first in a series, we'll explore some of the risks involved in relying on DIY site builders as your website technology.

I have a client who used an online service called myfamily.com. Myfamily.com had been around since the late 90s, and she had been using it since that time. She approached me to see if I could build a website for her that mimicked myfamily.com's features. She was noticing that some of myfamily.com's features stopped working, and its customer service often didn't respond, so she thought she might build her own website, transfer the data, and cancel her myfamily.com account.

So, I built a website for her that mimicked most of the myfamily.com features that she liked and wanted, for the three branches of her family that she managed on myfamily.com. There were features for posting family photos, recipes, bits of family history and family news for each family, just like myfamily.com. It was a rather advanced website, but Drupal had many modules, like the Organic Groups module, that were perfect for an application like this.

It took several months to build. As luck would have it, while we were building it, myfamily.com (which in the intervening years had been purchased by ancestry.com), suddenly announced that it would cease operations.

You would think that in that case, myfamily.com would make arrangements for their customers to get some sort file with all the data that they had added over the years, so that it could easily be transferred to another system. My client had posted hundreds of photos, family stories and news items to her family sites on myfamily. The images all had captions and other relevant data associated with them. Other family members were allowed to post comments on photo posts, news posts, history posts etc. and some of those posts had a thread of several comments per post.

What did myfamily.com offer its customers?

A download of the family photos she had posted to the site. That's it. All the news items, all the history items, all the various posts and all their comments, were gone.

Myfamily.com did give its longtime customers a few months of lead time to allow people to manually copy their content out. But as you can imagine, copying out hundreds of posts and comments took some time. Some content, like the string of content that included a discussion thread of comments from various members, could not be reproduced or reproduced only with great difficulty.

And here's the rub: Many of the same things could happen to you with a DIY sites builder. As the old saying goes, "Any idiot can start a relationship, but it takes a genius to end one." It's easy to start a website on a DIY site builder, but as the number of pages and posts grow, it might be difficult to get the content out.

So an important question to ask, when considering one of these DIY site builders: Can I get my data back out? Don't settle for a simple "Yes." Get details. All the content? In what format can the data be exported? You may wish to consult with a web developer who is familiar with database-based web technologies to have a look at the answer, and advise you.

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If You Are a Small Organization Looking for a New Website, Please Check Out My Book

How to Become an Educated Consumer of Website Design and Development Services

UPDATE: The book is now available as a paper back edition. Click here to buy it on CreateSpace.

My new book, "How to Become an Educated Consumer of Website Design and Development Services," is now out and available on Kindle.

It represents the collective experience of over seven years of building websites for primarily small not-for-profits.