If you are looking for a quick and easy, and inexpensive website, templates can be a nice option. Some people can’t afford a custom site or a branded image just yet. When a business is just starting out or a non-profit needs a nice site, this can be a decent choice to start with. It falls into the realm of “better than nothing”. Some will start with a template site, and then have a custom site built later when they have funds.
As a web designer & web developer, I don’t have a problem with people using template websites. I’ve helped a few people with template sites. Actually, we’re available if someone wants to buy a template and have us customize it. But when possible, we have clients run a template past us before they buy it.
The decision to purchase a template involves more than “which one do I think is pretty?”. There are a few important things to consider.
1. Target Demographic
Sure, you think the template is pretty. But will the customers you are trying to draw in like it? Does it appeal to them? For example, if you are selling a service that is primarily targeting corporate clients, websites covered puppy dogs are probably a bad idea (unless you are in the business of selling dogs to CEOs who need a hug). Step back from yourself and put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Will what you are looking at give the kind of image you want to convey?
In web design, when we say something is cross-platform, we are saying that it is viewable on most platforms (ways of looking at a website). For example, a website is cross-platform when people can see it whether they are using a Mac OS or Windows, whether they use Internet Explorer or Firefox, or whether they are sitting at their computer or using their phone.
In other words, before you buy a template, if they give you the option of viewing the template in action in your web browser, test it in other browsers. You can download all the popular ones for free. I test in Internet Explorer, FireFox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, and SeaMonkey. I test on my Droid phone too. If a site selling templates only shows screenshots, check their site to see if they say what browsers they test in. Worst case, send them an email and just ask. If they don’t or can’t answer the question, don’t buy the template.
The fun part here is that how a site looks in your version of those browsers, is not necessarily how it will look in different versions of that browser. For example, a website might look different between Firefox for Mac and Firefox for Windows. Also, older versions of browsers display sites differently. For example, Internet Explorer 6 (frighteningly, still used by many corporations) can’t show PNG image files while newer versions of Internet Explorer can. If your target audience is using these types of browsers, a template using PNG images may not be the best bet for you.
That said, don’t be crippled by indecision over a template that doesn’t show exactly the same in every single browser every time. Few websites can look and perform the same in every browser. You probably won’t hit that mark every time. You’ll probably find one that mostly does the job. When in doubt, you can also ask someone who is familiar with web surfer behaviors and browsers who may be able to give you an idea of what your target demographic tends to use. Or, if you use analytics programs like Google Analytics, there is information in those reports that will tell you what browsers your visitors use and what is the most popular among your visitors.
Before you download a template of any kind, check the license. Many of them state that they are for nonprofit or personal use only. If you are looking for a template for a business site, you’ll need one licensed just for that. When inspecting a site offering a free template, look for words such as “license” or “GNU” or “terms” and you may see a link to a page that discusses this in detail. Read that fine print. I know, it’s no fun, but get some coffee and do it anyway.
Getting a Flash template? Make sure you provide a non-Flash version of the site. Or at least, make sure you’re using a Flash component for part of the site that does not impact critical website features such as navigation. Most mobile users can’t see Flash. iPhones definitely can’t and you don’t want to forget your mobile site visitors.
5. Web Host Templates
There are web hosts out there that provide template builders you can use to make a site. But before you create a site with them, consider this: what do their terms say about when you leave them? Can you take that website template with you if you leave? Or do their terms of service state it can only be used on their site?
Keep these items in mind when surfing for templates and you may be able to better find a template to suit your needs. And as always, if you ever aren’t sure about a template, you can always ask someone a bit more in the know.