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CMS Review: Squarespace - SaaS Web Publishing, Blogging Platform

squarespace-logo.jpgIn the hyper-competitive market of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) web content management, vendors are desperate to stand out. Squarespace (news, site) differentiates its offering through in-line editing capabilities, an extensive embeddable widgets library, strong iPhone support and dynamic scalability behind the scenes. Sound like your cup of tea? Read on.

Scenarios for Squarespace Use

Some of the top Squarespace usage scenarios include:

  1. You want to build a personal or business website that includes a blog and perhaps a photo gallery, contact forms, etc. and perhaps you really want to use your iPhone to manage the site.
  2. You represent a small to medium consulting company or you're an independent web designer and you're looking for a reliable and customizable platform to enable your customers to envision your designs in a portfolio form. You also want to resell the platform and have at least a small but long term revenue flow coming the monthly subscriptions.

These scenarios are based on the following assumptions:

  • You are either uncomfortable installing modules or configuring plugins; or, you just don't want to deal with the hassle.
  • You are willing to spend some money every month, e.g. you are not looking for the lowest-cost option.
  • You are not looking to build an e-commerce site.
  • You either have an existing website design and the skills to implement it within the Squarespace platform, or you have given Squarespace's content management interface a test-drive and you are smitten.

If your needs fall into scenario 1, then it is a question of money. Are you willing to pay a monthly fee that, while competitive, is higher than most other hosted blogging offerings? Why would you do this? Keep reading to find out.

If scenario 2 rings true for you, then you are getting closer to Squarespace's sweet spot. Squarespace is a platform that an enterprising and creative web designer can build a business on top of without having to invest in hardware, co-location or an IT staff.

In fact, Squarespace not only enables the management of multiple accounts (think "clients") but also provides discounts to developers or development shops as the number of accounts grows. Pricing information is covered in detail below, but it's worth mentioning that Squarespace offers a tiered discount model where the percentage of the discount increases as the number of accounts goes up.

The Basics

Vendor Squarespace, Inc.
Product
Squarespace v5
Product Category
SaaS Web Publishing Platform
Typical Scenario
Simple Online Publishing, Small to Medium Website Management, Podcasting
Bad Fit Scenario
Larger database driven websites, Ecommerce

Company and Product History

Squarespace, Inc. is located in New York, NY. While the "where" is easy to find out, the "when" (as in, when was Squarespace founded) is more difficult. In classic hacker fashion, current Squarespace CEO Anthony Casalena began building the Squarespace platform in his apartment "after being unable to find a way to elegantly publish his personal website." This was early 2003.

According to the official Squarespace Facebook fan page, Squarespace, Inc. was founded in 2004 with the initial commercial release of the platform. Version 5 of the platform was released in August of 2008. There has not been a full version release since version 5, but the platform is constantly being updated and improved.

Platform updates happen both on the back end: the addition of capacity to the grid-driven and cloud-backed web application; and on the front end: the continued expansion of the template and design library.

Pricing

Squarespace provides 5 levels of pricing:

Level Target Cost
Basic  Individuals getting started with a personal blog or project site  US$ 8 / month
Pro
 Established blogs and business websites with a custom domain  US$ 14 / month
Advanced
 Sophisticated websites requiring multiple editors and enhanced site structures  US$ 20 / month
Business
 Mature websites that need FAQs and the ability to collect data  US$ 30 / month
Community
 Large projects seeking to build a community and connect with an audience  US$ 50 / month

Note that there is free trial that lasts for two weeks and does not require any kind of financial information during sign-up. How arduous is the sign up process?  How does a single step sound?

Consulting companies should also note that Squarespace offers an account management tool (currently in beta) and pricing discounts ranging from 12-25% for the purchase of multiple accounts. 

Key Features & Ratings

Core Technology and Content Delivery Architecture

At the application level, Squarespace leverages POJ (Plain Old Java) and Tomcat as the application server. However, if we peel back the application layer we find some impressive machinery.

When Squarespace says it leverages a "grid architecture", this is marketing speak for the usage of Oracle Coherence. From the Oracle website, "Coherence provides replicated and distributed (partitioned) data management and caching services on top of a reliable, highly scalable peer-to-peer clustering protocol." Beneath the Coherence layer, the grid computing metaphor continues with the implementation of an Isilon Cluster creating an easily scalable storage pool.

Furthermore, the usage of Tomcat on the application level supported by commercial products underneath is representative of the company's general philosophy on technology.  In other words, the technology powers-that-be at Squarespace are constantly looking for the best components to build into the architecture. Those components can be home-grown shell scripts, open source applications or commercial products.

Although Oracle Coherence touts "no single point of failure", there is a single point of failure: the hosting provider. Squarespace is hosted 100% by Peer1 networks in New York City. While Peer1 is an enterprise class hosting provider, there was a recent power-related outage that effected all of Squarespace's customers. 100% fault tolerance is hard to find.

Content Entities and Editorial Features

Squarespace provides three different views for maintaining a site.

The "Content Editing" view allows users to create, update, and delete journal entries (a.k.a blog posts). A "post" is the fundamental content type within a Squarespace site. A Squarespace site could consist simply of a single page with multiple "posts" (a.k.a a blog).

Clicking on the "post new entry" button brings up the editor:
squarespace_createpost.png

Within the editor you will see the standard features of most web-based WYSIWYG editors, including a spell-checker. An uncommon addition to the Squarespace editor, aside from the built-in word counter which warms this writer's heart, is the ability to use Markdown and Textile along with the WYSIWYG editor and Raw HTML view for composition.

Furthermore, the Squarespace editor allows authors to insert the following content types:

  • Links
  • Images (with the ability to do resizing)
  • Video
  • "Scripts" - blocks of HTML code that include Javascript

The second of the three views provided by the Squarespace platform is the "Structure Editing" view. This view allows users to create, update, delete and re-arrange pages within a site (via drag-and-drop). From this view, users can also customize settings for an individual page. There are many more elements that can be configured. This view places boxes around elements that can be moved via drag-and-drop.

Furthermore, the number of settings available for customization on an individual page will sate even the most avid tinkerer. For example, the "Journal Page Configuration" screen provides options from page title and URL identifier through to XML-RPC Ping options.

One important function is the "add widget" button. This button pulls up the built-in Squarespace widget library and takes the "building block" metaphor to another level.

 

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