Spanglefish – a re-appraisal

We recently received an unusual request from a self catering holiday property owner in North Uist to help them with their Spanglefish website. Those of you who have read our previous rants about the local Enterprise Gateway promoting this proprietary system will know that we are not fans – or at least, we weren’t. We had seen too many design disasters, neglected sites and pages that were best left unpublished for the good of their owners’ businesses.

The Barn website was not the worst Spanglefish site we had seen by a long way. There was a wealth of good content and much of it was sensibly formatted. The overall colour scheme and top banner however were dire, some images were broken, one page had elements that were slightly wider than the overall container and the choice of images for the home page was less than ideal.

We created a new top banner, changed the overall colour scheme (including a custom background colour to blend in with the header graphic) and fixed the formatting errors. We also added two new galleries of wildlife and landscape pictures from images supplied by the client (after cropping and resizing them – a very important issue when the maximum size picture a Spanglefish site will display is relatively small).

ScreenshotThe end result is a vastly improved site – and a somewhat less harsh view of Spanglefish from behind this web developer’s keyboard. The admin interface is easy to use, the basic page editor has all the necessary functions (though the editing window is pathetically small) and the source code can be edited. It is also possible to include custom CSS if you know what you are doing.

We still have some criticisms – in particular the current default width of a site at 750 pixels or so  does not allow enough screen real estate for modern displays, and the default colour schemes are very limited (with some truly hideous backgrounds – DON’T click on that tartan!) . If you really know what you are doing with CSS both these limitations can be overcome, but messing with the default stylesheet is not for the novice.

And – all of the above only applies if you have upgraded to Spanglefish Gold –  if you have the free version you are stuck with the terrible 3-column layout with ads etc. Upgrading is only £24.95 per annum, and does at least give you a chance to turn your site into something that doesn’t look too amateur.

If you have a Spanglefish site that could do with having a professional eye cast over it, or if you need a little help getting to grips with the system, why not give us a call?

5 comments

  • Delighted to see someone taking the time to post an article about our Spanglefish system. I’d like to make a few comments if that’s OK.

    Firstly, Spanglefish was created, is owned and is maintained by a 5 person company based in Cromarty, just north of Inverness. That partly explains why we are often suggested as a website system by local enterprise advisors.

    I’d like to stress what Spanglefish is and isn’t. It was not created as a tool for web designers – it was set up to make it easy for someone to have their own website without any HTML or graphic knowledge at all. Sites are hosted only on our own server – a downside for a web developer, but a bonus for someone who has no idea what a website host is.

    It was originally developed for community and parish councils – we built in specific pages to suit this purpose:

    – a news page, showing the latest stories and archiving older ones
    – an events calendar, visible in month or list view
    – a document library to allow the upload of agendas and minutes etc
    – a members page, containing contact details, mugshots and biographies of each council member
    – a feedback form

    Once we opened the system up to anyone we created other useful pages:

    – an availability calendar for self-catering properties
    – a car sales page for garages
    – a classified ads page for community sites
    – a blog
    – a location map page
    – the ability to have galleries of items, each of which can have paypal buttons, effectively creating a simple shop

    Each of these is edited/managed easily without any HTML knowledge, sticking to the principle we began with. Some of these facilities would be nigh impossible with WordPress. Mind you, you can do lots with WordPress which you can’t with Spanglefish. They are different things, aimed at different users.

    We currently have over 10,000 live sites on the system in over 60 countries throughout the world, from sites by primary school children about their favourite games to others by elderly military veterans keeping in touch with past comrades. We’re proud of this – we believe that if creating a site had required arranging hosting and installing WordPress or similar, many of these sites would never have existed.

    And although the system is not intended for web designers, nevertheless we do have a small number who do use it – either because they became web designers through first being exposed to Spanglefish, or because they recognise that when they hand control over to their clients, the simpler the CMS is, the better.

    Your earlier post about our system says that domains pointed at it have problems in terms of search engine optimisation – this is incorrect. A comment on that post implies that we receive funds from Business Gateway. Spanglefish was set up by us with no assistance from HIE, Scottish Enterprise or any other agency. We create free sites for Business Gateway trainers to allow those they are training to practice on – some of these go on to pay the £24.95 to remove the adverts, others don’t. We make no money from this process other than that. It’s understandable that you want to promote local business in Argyll, but you make out that the competition is unfair and skewed against you. It’s not, not in our case anyway.

    Having got that out of my system, here’s a bit of better news for you.

    The Barn, Grimsay website was set up on version 1 of our system. We introduced version 2 in February this year. It has a 966 pixel wide layout rather than the previous 760 pixel one. This allows for wider content areas, and paid sites can have a horizontal menu rather than a vertical one, giving more space yet. The entire admin system was revamped and rationalised. We’ve introduced the facility to use jQuery, and have done away with the hideous tartan backgrounds.

    Version 1 sites can be switched to version 2 easily, and usually with very little disruption – just email us or leave a post in our support forum.

    If I may, I’d like to finish with links to a few sites created by users on version 2 of our system to give you an idea of what can be done, and a genuine testimonial from one of our users.

    Climb GB, Ashborne Beauty and Maggie Law.

    On Thursday morning I was quoted well over a thousand pounds for the development of a fairly straightforward website for our conference. A friend suggested I look at Spanglefish. I had never created a website in my life, was sceptical and expected to have hours of struggling at the keyboard and to end up pleading with my friend to help. Instead, by lunchtime on Friday, within three hours of opening the site you set up for me, I had a professional looking site which meets all our present needs. More than that, I feel confident I can grow it over the next year as the plans develop and the conference approaches. And all for under £50 including upgrade to Gold and purchasing the domain. Thank you for a simply magical service!!

    • Hi Garve,

      Thanks for the extensive comments. I’ll ask the owners of The Barn website if they want to switch to version 2 and if so help them do it.

      Re. SEO – one gripe is that when a client with a Spanglefish site came to us to design a professional site we were unable to put a 301 redirect on the server. OK, that is only a problem is the client decides to move the site to a new server / domain, but it does mean potential hassles down the line for those who start with Spanglefish and want to move on. Otherwise I agree, SEO is OK on the paid system where titles and meta-tags can be added on a page by page basis. However, I wonder how many people realise this and actually do optimise their pages.

      I agree Spanglefish is ideal for community sites, club sites etc – but I still have some reservations about using a system like this for business websites, particularly the ‘free’ version, where obvious 3rd party adverts and Spanglefish branding send out all the wrong messages. Even with the paid for version, easy as it is to use, some people with poor computer skills still struggle – and those with no design awareness can produce some pretty hideous and dysfunctional results. I think these people are made to believe it is too easy, and probably wouldn’t dream of reading the rather good manual or going on the Spanglefish forum.

      So, to summarise, a great system, much better than I initially thought after only seeing the disasters. But by promoting it as a first choice business solution I feel that Business Gateway are downplaying the importance of a professional looking website to a business – I have seen Spanglefish sites that frankly are doing the business they represent more harm than good. While it may be a good solution for some start-up businesses, promoting it as a ‘one size fits all’ product is not really appropriate IMO for a publicly funded organisation like BG.

      I think we could run a far more beneficial one day course where we looked at Spanglefish, WordPress and the third option of how to choose a professional web design company if that was the preferred route. Emphasis would be more on an overview of DIY web creation systems rather than spending a few hours mucking about with one particular WYSIWYG editing sytem. I used to run HTML courses way back when – and while people would do great things on the day, if they didn’t use their new knowledge immediately then within a week they had forgotten most of it. I also think that if a DIY route (whether it be Spanglefish, Weebly, WordPress or whatever) is chosen then some form of ongoing support/mentoring from local companies with knowledge of those particular systems is highly desireable.

      Spanglefish 9/10, Business Gateway 5/10

  • Thanks for the response.

    If anyone who’s been with us would like a 301 put in place, we’re happy to do so – just ask.

    Page titles and meta tags can be edited by free site users as well as paid ones – we’ve been surprised by how seriously some users do take SEO, but of course lots don’t.

    There’s no doubt that there are some horrible looking sites on our system. The adverts are hideous, but then we do want users to pay to remove them, so that’s no bad thing from our point of view. A business really ought not to have a free site on our system, but some are micro-businesses for whom even £25 is an expense they can do without. Then again, whilst a corporate, professional looking site is important for most businesses, there are a few sectors where the homespun look can actually benefit them. Off the top of my head, we have a number of sites from people breeding their own pedigree dogs – too professional a site may lead users to think it’s a ‘puppy farm’ rather than a single breeder in their own home.

    I’d be very surprised if BG didn’t outline all the options available, but agree that simply introducing startup businesses to Spanglefish does benefit us to an extent. I’ll be happy to chat that over with them next time I’m in touch.

    cheers

    Garve

  • Garve,

    The fact that you are prepared to put a 301 up is good, but that’s not what your hosts Calico told me when I spoke to them about this in February.

  • Understood – I’ll speak to Calico to ensure they pass any such requests onto us, as we’d need to set this up on the server rather than Calico at the domain registration level.

    cheers

    Garve

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