Static Sites for the Not Techinically Inclined
October 23, 2021 10:23 AM   Subscribe

My mom maintains the website for the Friends of the Library in her area. It's currently on and she finds the interface rather frustrating. I suspect she would be happier maintaining something via a static site generator rather than a CMS. Is it even plausible I could get her up and running in such a set up? Do I need to teach her to use git?

For purposes of this question, let's define technical as 'comfortable with the idea of the command line'. My mom was out of the workforce when DOS was a thing, so she has truly never used a terminal. When I was growing up, she was good at computers, but home computers stopped requiring quite so much maintenance knowledge and she re-entered the workforce, so didn't have time for "projects".

About seven years ago, I got my mom to learn a bit of HTML on CodeAcademy or something because both of us were completely stuck trying to get Wordpress to actually do what she wanted via its richtext editor. She's forgotten it because she not used that knowledge since, but the experience has given her enough self-confidence to believe she could learn how to manage the site if we took it off Wordpress. However, I'm a bit intimidated by the thought of explaining git to my mom. I think my questions boil down to the following:
  • if you are not at all technical and have managed a website but found Wordpress more trouble than it's worth, what did you do?
  • have you ever explained git to someone for this sort of narrow purpose?
  • do you have opinions on the best hosting option if I actually convince her to go this route?
posted by hoyland to Technology (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This is a terrible idea. Please invest instead in Wordpress training for your mother.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:41 AM on October 23, 2021 [18 favorites]

Why not switch to something even less complicated than Wordpress, like Squarespace or Wix?
posted by ejs at 10:47 AM on October 23, 2021 [14 favorites]

What if you transferred the site to something easier like Wix or Weebly? Even if she needs to collect donations or do events it’s totally possible. I managed our block party on, with schedules, ticketing and email updates and it was very low-effort. I probably have more knowledge than your mom in this area, but probably less patience, if that’s helpful for context.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:49 AM on October 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm a tech writer, and a fairly technical one at that - I spent years as a Linux/UNIX system admin before moving into technical writing, and my first few years as a tech writer were spent writing documentation using Vim as my text editor, Markdown for syntax, Pandoc to convert to HTML, and keeping all my doc sources in Git.

Even with my background, I struggled to get a static site generator up and running without having to call on people who were fluent in the underlying language of the SSG. I frequent a Slack workspace with a lot of very technical tech writers and a lot of them have problems getting SSGs to work.

Don't do this to your mom or yourself. As other have mentioned, look at Squarespace or Wix or anything other than a static site generator. Down that path only lies pain.
posted by ralan at 10:55 AM on October 23, 2021 [10 favorites]

I don't think there's anything that's really in between learn how to use a CMS effectively (of which wordpress is a pretty easy version) or choose from preset options on Wix or similar (or frankly of which there are lots and lots and lots and be happy with it not quite being perfect.
posted by plonkee at 10:57 AM on October 23, 2021

Stay with WordPress, but move off

Their interface is crap, their support on the free tier is non-existent.

A self-hosted WP site will let you use the Classic Editor or the Block Editor.
The interface is much easier to understand.

Of course moving to self-hosted comes with it's own learning curve.
Get a GOOD host. Tip: That is NOT Godaddy.
Keep WP updated
Get a host that offers backups as standard
Do not go plugin-crazy and whatever you do use, keep them updated.

If you do look at Wix / Squarespace, ask their Support VERY directly about export options should the site need to be moved later in time.

There are many many videos on Youtube / Invidious which can explain things should she get stuck.

As mentioned above, do not go the SSG way.
posted by I shot a fox in Skyrim and it made me sad at 11:22 AM on October 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Let me start by agreeing with the folks who've already said this probably isn't the best approach. I won't call it a bad idea, but the implementation of the idea is likely to be more painful than using WordPress to begin with.

However, in the interest of actually answering your question: You could use something like Publii (desktop GUI for static sites) with Netlify (a hosting service for static sites).

However, that is likely to be more painful in the long run than simply learning to do things in WordPress or accepting that what you want to do is more complicated and just letting it go.

I say this as someone who's used WordPress since pre-1.0 days, and have switched back-and-forth between WordPress and static site generators and back, and have stood up several Middleman and other static site websites and have used a number of different CMSes for major projects.

There's also a lot of questions I'd have about whether mom is the only contributor to this site + how others would feel about this if they contribute or someday need to take over maintenance of the site if mom stops to do other things with her volunteer time.

When considering a setup for a non-profit / volunteer organization you need to strongly consider not just the preferences of the current user(s) but also the succession planning for the tools because people do move on and somebody else will need to be able to step in at some future time. The easier + more standardized the system, the better. It may be sub-optimal for this or that reason right now but is that going to be true when someone else has to carry the load?
posted by jzb at 11:22 AM on October 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

If the pages don't need to be frequently maintained a static site may be okay. But if there is a long of content over time, such as a blog, then a CMS such as Wordpress, is still the better way to go.

Maybe she just needs a good site generator such as Wix.
posted by kschang at 12:07 PM on October 23, 2021

Response by poster:
  • Self-hosting Wordpress is a definite non-starter.
  • She has looked into Squarespace, but thinks $12/month is a huge jump from what they're paying now. Wix's pricing is similar. It looks like Weebly may be less expensive
  • Publii may well be the thing I'm looking for

posted by hoyland at 12:10 PM on October 23, 2021

When considering a setup for a non-profit / volunteer organization you need to strongly consider not just the preferences of the current user(s) but also the succession planning for the tools because people do move on and somebody else will need to be able to step in at some future time.

I'm a person who helps people in rural areas manage websites and I concur with a lot of the above. I would not explain git to your mom--your gut feeling is right about this--because this isn't just her site it's one that other people may need to run. Accordingly, as ungreat as that can be for some reasons, you should probably see if there's a way to make Wordpress work better for her (classes, working with the admin interface, seeing if other themes might be better) or move the site to a site builder that is even simpler.

For me personally, a fairly technical person who nonetheless has never been able to use site builders and git successfully but is usually okay with many other command line things, most of them are worse. Meaning that they use their own interfaces that are fairly non-standard and it's fine if you already know that interface, but can be bad if you have been using another one. If this is a site that is mostly-static but occasionally not, it would probably take less of your time to either do the updates or find someone else who was comfortable with the existing setup or moving to another host that had a wordpress instance package (some of them are better than others in terms of the default settings and etc) and then you could move all the content over.

I agree, Squarespace is expensive but there are some in=between options.
posted by jessamyn at 12:49 PM on October 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I’m on the executive board for our town’s Friend’s of the Library and we’ve been kicking around implementing a web site. We finally decided to just use Facebook because we can get so many more visits there. We generally just make announcements for book sales and library programs, or have small articles so it’s really suitable for us and it’s free. So much easier to get people to read it rather than a website.
posted by waving at 12:57 PM on October 23, 2021

We use and for awhile we're using the WordPress Add-on for Google Docs to make posts. Admittedly we already had Google accounts set up and all that but it's easy to make a post on Docs and push to WordPress.
If she's actually managing the site, WordPress may not be the best for low-tech users but it's not so bad once you've gotten an understanding of how it works. I set up a calendar page and the default settings for posts and it ran that way for years before we got someone with actual WordPress experience to fix it up a bit. We pay for the business version so have more customization and themes available but had the cheap version for about a year and a half until we needed some sort of integration that isn't on the free version (I think it was having business email).
posted by fiercekitten at 2:35 PM on October 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Most website in a box companies have significant non-profit discounts.

I'd look into this for Squarespace, Weebly, Wix etc before deciding that they're too expensive. This may require contacting them directly for the pricing - to do so you may need the documentation (federal and sometimes state) to show that her organization is an actual non-profit entity.

As a general note: many, many companies have non-profit discounts and if anyone works for one they should definitely make sure that all subscription-based services have been checked to make sure that you're getting the discount rate. Techsoup is a clearing house for things like this but you'll have to directly contact many companies.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:07 PM on October 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

Wordpress is only difficult if you try to do something out of the ordinary. It's probably easier for your mom to learn to do ordinary static site things she'll be doing with Wordpress.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:21 PM on October 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend it's the thing I use when I need to whip up something online. It's free, it's super simple (much less complicated than wordpress). The downside is design wise it's pretty limited and you can't edit it from a phone or tablet, well you can but not from the mobile version of it and it's not officially supported.
Everything is drag & drop, all of the google stuff (docs, slides, forms, sheets, maps, youtube...) is very easily integrated, it's collaborative and if your mom already has a google account she doesn't have to signup for anything.
posted by SageLeVoid at 5:26 PM on October 23, 2021

The web designer from Magix may be good for her They have a free trial, and several different versions. You can configure it to automatically ftp changes to your web host. If you don't buy it immediately, expect to receive a discount offer.
posted by Sophont at 8:22 PM on October 23, 2021

I maintained a non profit website for years and now have several other sites I play with. For your mom, $12 is a bargain, and highly likely to come with a non profit discount of 50%. Remind her that her labour has value and she could spend time adding content, not maintaining code and working out why a stupid plugin is conflicting or someone has hacked a page or all the other irks. Plus it will automatically look and stay looking relatively professional with squarespace templates. WordPress themes tend to go stale and need revamping.

I also think she could probably combine an active Facebook group with a single landing page site (cheaper - lots of landing page hosts) that has the evergreen content and links to their social media. Even easier.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:37 PM on October 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

If your mom would like to refresh her HTML skills for personal projects, Neocities is a free, open source platform designed to help users create static sites and includes an in-browser HTML editor to make the process friendly for a variety of skill levels. Probably not ideal for collaborative nonprofit projects. Here's an example of a site created by a reading nonprofit.
posted by mundo at 11:25 AM on October 24, 2021

Several years ago I set up a new site for my volunteer organization, to replace the embarrassing mess of nested-table Dreamweaver HTML someone had created 20 years ago. Wanting to avoid any dependency on a locked-in service like Wix or Squarespace, I decided to roll our own site with a static generator (Jekyll), Bootstrap, and a nice template I found online. Put it all together on (which offers a free paid-tier account for nonprofits!), even managed to automate the deployment to the host over SFTP so whenever you commit new content, it automatically pushes to the server. Pretty slick, I thought.

I am the only one who updates the site now.

Basically, everyone who previously updated the site took the change as their opportunity/excuse to offload updating the site onto me.

So I would be pretty careful changing anything in the "workflow".
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:49 AM on October 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

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