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.


squarespace_widgetlibrary.png

Squarespace provides more than twenty modules which provide functionality such as:

  • Internal site search
  • Photo gallery
  • Discussion forums
  • Amazon item lists
  • Etc.

The good news for developers, and especially for web designers who loathe installing plug-ins, is that Squarespace manages the availability and installation of the widgets for you.

The third and final view provided by the Squarespace platform is the "Style Editing" view. This view is where you take the content you have entered, the structure you have created, and the modules you have added and make them pretty.

The view opens up the "Appearance Editor" and defaults to the template chooser.
squarespace_styleeditor_1.png

If the user chooses a different template, the change is immediately reflected on-screen and the user is both alerted to the preview and given the option to enable the change. The "Appearance Editor" allows users to create custom designs using either the interface (column widths, fonts, colors, sizes, etc.) or by editing the CSS directly. There is also an "Advanced" option that makes every CSS directive available for editing.

Lastly, Squarespace provides an advanced blog importing tool that supports importing from Wordpress, Movable Type, Blogger, and TypePad using your existing login. In other words, the step of exporting from your existing platform is not needed.

From those four platforms, the importer brings over all the existing assets: posts, comments, images, video, etc. Furthermore, all your diligent SEO work is maintained through the creation of automatic URL redirects.

Account and Permissions Management

Squarespace has a user interface for managing your account. While in one of the editing views, users can click on the "Website Management" link to get quick access to:

  • Member and access management
  • Data and media management
  • Statistics
  • Billing
  • Support

Security/permissions is managed by the owner of each account using a metaphor of Members and Audiences.

An audience is a view into a given site that is configured for a group of members. In other words, the site administrator creates an audience and sets the appropriate permissions for the audience (think "role"). The site administrator then creates one or more members and associates them with the audience.

For example, a site could have an audience of content creators who can edit and create content along with an audience of content reviewers who can see content before it is published but cannot edit, etc.

Lastly, Squarespace supports SSL login and security via a configuration item in the "Security" section of the "Website settings". Note that SSL is available only to Business level accounts and higher.

Content Versioning

Squarespace does not version content natively. Content items can copied within the publishing interface, but it is up to the content creators to manage versions manually. Squarespace does track changes to content items, however there is no way to roll back to previous change, etc. The track change logging is to inform users when a content item is updated.

Workflow

Squarespace does not currently offer workflow functionality. However, like other simple content management offerings Squarespace content items have a state. Currently items are either in Draft of Published state and authors have the ability to schedule the publishing event to points in the future.

Multi-lingual Support

The official word from Squarespace is that only English is supported. However, content in other languages can be added directly to posts and pages. In other words, there is no translation service and your results will vary when adding non-English content. The recommended best practice is to create dedicated sections for content in different languages to minimize the impact of poor rendering.

Social Media Capabilities

Squarespace has extended its widget library to allow users to integrate information from multiple social accounts into their sites. Creatively named "social widgets", these building blocks currently support:

Flickr

  • Flickr photos can be displayed in either a grid view or a slideshow layout.
  • Users can control the number of images displayed along with filtering by keyword and the ability to aggregate multiple Flickr accounts

Twitter

  • The presentation of a user's Twitter stream can leverage 5 existing presets or can be completely customized.
  • The Twitter widget also supports multiple accounts, filtering by keyword and @replies, and the inclusion of a "follow me" button.

RSS

  • Single or multiple feeds can be integrated and filtered by author, date, and title.
  • The RSS widget has been re-written from the ground up to remove all 3rd-party code and be completely seamless with the Squarespace platform.

Mobile Support

Squarespace provides an iPhone app that enables site administrators to perform the following actions:

  • Post and edit blog entries
  • Upload and edit images
  • Save drafts
  • Preview updates
  • Access all site statistics
  • Add editor accounts
  • Switch between multiple accounts

squarespace-iphone2.jpg  

Product Roadmap

Squarespace has recently hired an "Engagement Leader" who is responsible for responding to requests from the community and managing the feature roadmap for Squarespace. Upcoming features include:

  • iPad App
  • Android App
  • Markdown Editing on the iPhone
  • Updgrades to the forum capabilities

Similar Products

Squarespace is a blogging engine with a content entry interface and a large library of embeddable widgets. Therefore, users who consider signing up with Squarespace should look at other hosted blogging platforms like Wordpress.com, Typepad and Drupal Gardens.

Squarespace does not offer a free or ad-supported version of the product, therefore the platform is fundamentally different from an offering such as Blogger.

The decision will come down to whether or not a user is willing to pay a little bit more for the ease of content entry and management that Squarespace provides when compared to other products. Ultimately, this is going to come down to whether or not the Squarespace way of doing things feels better for you.

Summary

Here's a summary table of the review (rating is 0.0-5.0 with 5.0 being the best):

Feature Description Rating
Product Core Technology
Tomcat Application Server, Custom Java Middleware 3.5
Content Delivery Architecture
Oracle Coherence, Isilon Storage Cluster, Peer1 Networks for hosting 4.0
Content Entities
Journal Entries, Page Creation, Widget Library 3.5
Editorial Features
Full inline-editing, WYSIWYG editor plus other formats, presentation control 4.5
Security
Audiences (roles), Members, granular permission control 3.0
Content Versioning
Drafts, Change Tracking, Future Date Publishing 1.5
Workflow
None 0.0
Multi-lingual Support
None 0.0
Social Media Capabilities
Flickr, Twitter, RSS widgets 3.0
Mobile Support
iPhone App, granular presentation control 3.5

Our Final Take

As stated earlier in this article, the Squarespace platform is geared toward two groups of people:

  1. Web-savvy users and bloggers, who want to quickly and easily create content and then tinker with the presentation of that content at the lowest of low levels. iPhone friendliness is one thing that might swing you towards Sqarespace.
  2. Consulting companies and independent web designers, who want to provide provide a decent content entry experience for their customers and and who want to have a revenue flow from the resale of Sqarespace accounts.

If you or your clients want to get a website up quickly and cheaply, Squarespace is not the first choice. The cost and large number of configuration options will turn off people in search of pure simplicity.

However, if your clients have some budget and can handle Squarespace's editorial interface (without destroying the layout), then they will be happy with the content creation experience provided by Squarespace.

Because Squarespace has differentiated its product just enough from the other hosted blogging engine providers, they can slowly add features to creep into the more sophisticated web content management space. If that's the market you're after, then keep an eye on this company. They are likely to become increasingly interesting to the Web CMS crowd.