Pros And Cons Of Static Site Generators For Web Professionals (And How nerDigital Is Different)

Static websites are one of the long-time staples of the world wide web. In the early days, this was often the best option for web professionals who needed to create engaging custom websites that were ultra-secure and loaded quickly. What makes these sites so secure and fast  is they have a very simple architecture — HTML files stored directly on the file system of a web server. In certain cases, static sites remain a great option. Over the years, static site generators (SSGs) have also made the process of creating static sites easier; however, these are still fundamentally developer-centric tools that require a fair amount of code-knowledge and retain limitations that make scalability an issue. 

nerDigital Sales Engineer Jason Hummel has a fair amount of experience working with static site generators and recently sat for an interview to walk through their pros and cons, common use cases, and what makes SSGs different from nerDigital.

This interview has been edited for clarity and broken into sections for the tl;dr crowd.

Let’s dive in…

WHAT ARE STATIC SITE GENERATORS?

Let’s start by defining a couple of key terms. First, what is a static site? And second, what is a static site generator?

“Sure thing. A static site is a simple website that’s made up of HTML files that all reside on a server somewhere in the world. These are files that a developer essentially needs to code by hand, but a static site generator can save you some time by giving you basic site structures along with a few other tools that help you create reusable templates and ease the creation of new content. They basically just make the process of building static sites a little more efficient.”

PROS & CONS OF STATIC SITE GENERATORS

Static sites have a reputation for being very fast and secure. Why is that?

“Static sites are super simple and that’s what makes them quick to load and very secure. There isn’t a database associated with the site for a hacker to go poking around in and since site visitors only need to access the HTML files directly from the file system, their load times are usually very fast. However, a static site isn’t guaranteed to be fast. As the developer you need to be cognizant of keeping things snappy by not adding too many assets to the pages. Also, as sites get bigger, it will take the generator longer and longer to generate the HTML files, which can lead to a poor developer experience.”

So if speed, security and the freedom to basically code whatever you want are the main advantages of working with static sites and static site generators, are there any trade-offs digital agencies and web professionals should know about when considering whether or not to use them?

“Scalability is really the biggest issue with static site generators. For example, let’s say you’re using Jekyll and you have 100 clients. That means you’re essentially going to have to set up 100 static site generators. So let’s assume you’re really good at this and you want to make it easy for your client to engage in the process and do some basic site management. You’ve set something up so the client can use a form to send you their business information and some content. You’ve made it possible for a user to preview changes before publishing the site. You’ve integrated with Let’s Encrypt to generate SSL certificates. Let’s say you get all of that set up to create this great experience for you and the client. You have to do that 100 times because you have 100 clients.

Now, you can consolidate all of that somewhat, but you’re managing everything. Additionally, you’re going to be pretty limited in the types of sites you can create. Things like login pages or landing pages with an integration with a CRM or scheduling tool like vcita are going to be very hard to set up.”

Are there any other issues beyond setting up those individual site instances and handling the minutiae of updating HTML files by hand?

“I would say web professionals and digital agencies that work with static site generators need to be extra sure they’re keeping a close eye on the latest industry regulations. For example, let’s take something like accessibility. Web accessibility standards are actually mandated by law in some countries and if you’re working with a static site generator, you can’t outsource bringing those sites into compliance with a solution like AudioEye in NerDigital’s App Store. You’re on the hook for making those changes yourself.”

Need a more scalable way to build super fast and secure websites? Start a nerDigital free trial today!

USE CASES FOR STATIC SITE GENERATORS

Given that they’re not particularly scalable, what are the use cases in which it makes sense for a digital agency or web professional to work with a static site generator? 

“When I was at an agency, we had a client that made network security software. They wanted a static site because they were concerned about the possibility of being hacked and what that would look like to customers if it happened. But they also had a whole content team that was regularly writing blog posts and making updates to the site and needed to find a way to make this work. We ended up implementing a system that would allow them to update the site using a simplified CMS instead of hand coding or writing in Markdown. But even after all of our optimizations and improvements, I’d say we only got them about 80% of the way to where they wanted to be. 

However, if you’re in a position where security is so incredibly important, static site generators might be the way to go.”

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN NERDIGITAL & STATIC SITE GENERATORS

What makes NerDigital websites different from static sites and the NerDigital platform different from static site generators?

“NerDigital actually works in a similar way to most static site builders. But we add in a few extra elements to create a more user-friendly WYSIWYG site-building and management experience. We also separate the content from design, which enables designers, marketing professionals and end users to take more ownership of the process.

What’s interesting about NerDigital is we’re really a cross between a traditional CMS that connects to a database and a static site generator. When you make changes in NerDigital’s site builder, we cache the HTML and know how that’s going to look, so we actually render out the site and save it in a similar way. Additionally, we create individual HTML files for desktop, tablet and mobile versions of each page. 

We don’t have these files sitting on the file system, but we do have them saved as actual HTML in our infrastructure. This allows us to provide much of the same speed benefit that static site generators offer since we’re serving up static HTML when a visitor lands on a site.”

So what allows NerDigital to create things like dynamic pages?

“This is where the more CMS-related part of the NerDigital platform comes in. NerDigital is able to take data and automatically bring up, tear down and update pages based on data that is coming from another source besides the server. That can be from the NerDigital platform itself or something like a product catalogue. We can interface with that data and generate pages on the fly which makes us way more scalable than SSGs.

You can achieve some of this functionality through work arounds and some static site generators, like Gatsby, will get you part of the way there. But you won’t be able to get the level of convenience you will with NerDigital.”

What You Need To Know About Website Maintenance Rates

Website Maintenance Rates

Many web design agencies offer site maintenance plans that keep clients’ websites up to date with the latest security measures. Some agencies also offer plans that include updates to design and/or site functionality that aid in ongoing optimization of customer conversion. Either way, website maintenance rates around the industry are something web professionals should be aware of… 

If you run a digital marketing agency that offers sites, it’s important to understand what your competitors’ monthly website maintenance rates are and price your sites accordingly. Ideally, you want to offer something that keeps up with industry averages, but is competitive enough to give you an edge. And this makes your choice of site-building and hosting platforms very important. Certain CMS platforms, like WordPress, require significant maintenance compared to website builders like nerDigital, and can become quite costly. 

If you run an agency, it’s critical you choose to work with tools that keep your own website maintenance and production costs as low as possible. This way you have the bandwidth to price yourself into the market while keeping revenue as high as possible.

TYPICAL WEBSITE MAINTENANCE RATES

Website maintenance rates can run anywhere from $30 per month for basic websites to $1,500 per month for custom eCommerce sites, according to the Designs Desk. Additionally, the internet marketing company WebFX estimates general website maintenance rates along the following lines:

  • $25-$75 per month for professional blogs
  • $35-$100 per month for small business websites
  • $125-$500 per month for small to medium business websites
  • $200-$3,500 per month for corporate websites

Plans on the low-end of these price ranges include things like basic WordPress updates and site backups. Plans on the high-end include things like upgrades to content/design and keeping complicated eCommerce sites secure and functional.

Hosting companies tend to offer less-inclusive plans or à la carte options with steep prices for each add-on. For instance, GoDaddy charges $63.99 a year for an SSL certificate — if the client manages it. The price jumps to $149.99 if GoDaddy manages it. GoDaddy also offers numerous additional upgrades:

  • Their security plans run from $5.59 per month to $25 per month
  • Regular backups of the website run $2.99 per month
  • Basic SEO analytics average $6.99/month

Need a website builder that requires you to charge minimal website maintenance rates? Start a 14-day nerDigital free trial today!

WEBSITE MAINTENANCE IS CRITICAL BUT NOT ALWAYS WELL PRICED

For agencies, calculating time spent on maintaining client websites is critical to profitability. For WordPress, these time commitments can quickly add up.

Canada-based Conscious Commerce CEO Brandon Klayman found this out the hard way. “There is just too much baggage that comes with WordPress. Performance is an issue, getting the hosting right is a pain, and there are way too many security problems,” Klayman explained.

Klayman’s predicament meant the agency was sinking significant time into making customers’ websites work, and not on the integrated marketing solutions that comprise the Conscious Commerce’s core work. Now, using nerDigital, the agency is able to keep site maintenance costs low so customers can invest in outbound and inbound marketing efforts, which is where Conscious Commerce provides the bulk of its value.

WHAT ROBUST WEBSITE MAINTENANCE PLANS LOOK LIKE

Web design agencies typically provide the most-inclusive plans with the types of services that GoDaddy with additional upgrade and update offers. Basic site maintenance plans can include images, text, and layout changes, according to Divi Cake, a premium WordPress theme developer. The website maintenance rates for these plans can run up to $150 an hour in packages starting at 2 to 5 hours a month.

Some web design agencies outsource maintenance tasks related to security, plug-in updates, backups and analytics because these types of site maintenance require so much developer time. In fact, there’s a whole industry dedicated solely to WordPress maintenance, with companies like WP Buffs making all revenue this way.

HOW AGENCIES CAN LOWER MAINTENANCE RATES FOR CUSTOMERS

If an agency goes with a solution like nerDigital that requires very little maintenance, the company can pass on those savings to clients and offer more competitive pricing. This is what web design agency Superdental does. nerDigital is secure and simple enough to use that clients can engage the platform’s drag-and-drop editor to make basic updates to the site on their own, allowing Superdental to charge less and put the time savings from would-be site maintenance hours into taking on new clients.

WHAT AGENCIES CAN DO WITH TIME SAVED FROM WEBSITE MAINTENANCE 

Other agencies take the time they save to expand service offerings and offer more robust retainer plans to clients. When agencies moved to nerDigital, company leaders used the time saved to offer a variety of new products and services to clients, such as website personalization, HTTPS encryption, eCommerce, and more. Those additional offerings and maintenance plans mean more money goes to Olive Street’s bottom line and customers are more satisfied with their websites.

When it comes to website maintenance rates, there is no hard and fast rule for pricing your services. The most important aspect of maintenance pricing to remember is to price your services competitively without undercutting your value. The most effective way to do this is to work with a website builder and/or hosting platform that provides you with built-in security benefits and uniform platform-wide updates that don’t require monitoring by your team. This frees up your team to build new sites, lowers overall websites maintenance costs, and ensures more revenue for you and your customers.

Page Experience Will Be A Google Ranking Factor In 2021— Prepare Websites Now

Google Page Experience was announced on May 28, 2020, as a ranking factor that will start affecting the search giant’s algorithm sometime in 2021. 

Here is how Google defines page experience: “Page experience is a set of signals that measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page beyond its pure information value.” 

Essentially, Google is taking existing signals and lumping them under the single label of ‘page experience.’

Google hasn’t announced when this ranking change will officially go live, but does promise to “provide a 6-month notice before implementing these changes.”

Additionally, Google says the update will “incorporate the page experience metrics into our ranking criteria for the Top Stories feature in Search on mobile, and remove the AMP requirement from Top Stories eligibility. Google continues to support AMP, and will continue to link to AMP pages when available.”

This latter change begs the question: Can publishers let go of investing time and money in Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)? Can publishers instead focus exclusively on really good content and page experiences that value site speed without investing so much in AMP? Whether it makes sense to continue it has no easy answers yet. (Learn more in a tutorial on AMP.)

What we do know is what the page experience signals include and how much weight Google is giving them. Here’s what you need to know.

New Google Page Experience signals include:

  • Core Web Vitals: Released in May 2020, these metrics measure real-world user experience for speed, responsiveness and visual stability. Check out this blog post to learn more about the three Core Web Vitals (Largest Contentful Paint, First Input Delay, Cumulative Layout Shift). 
  • Mobile-friendliness: Many websites are mobile-friendly nowadays, but in case you’re curious as to whether your sites are, you can easily get a report by entering a URL into Google’s mobile-friendliness test.
  • Safe-browsing: Google looks for malicious or deceptive (e.g. social engineering) content; you can easily get a security Issues report for a URL and identify and fix problems in this area.
  • HTTPS: Encryption via SSL is something Google has pushed for a while and is now automatically included by many sites builders for free. In addition to the benefits HTTPS brings to SEO, it also ensures you avoid generating warning messages for end users on browsers like Chrome.
  • Intrusive interstitial ad guidelines: Interstitial ads can make websites difficult to engage with for visitors. These guidelines are used to determine whether the content of a site is considered easily accessible. The easier it is for an end user to access and engage content, the better.

A NOTE ON INTRUSIVE INTERSTITIAL ADS & PAGE EXPERIENCE

Most of the components of the new page experience signal are fairly straightforward on their own (i.e. your site is either encrypted with HTTPS or it’s not) or rather easy to address with help from one of Google’s many site testing tools, but intrusive interstitials warrant a little more explanation since this is the only page experience signal that doesn’t have a specific report attached to it. 

Google admitted as much in an interview in Search Engine Journal when John Mueller, webmaster trends analyst, said of interstitial ads, “It’s one of those things that we use in the ranking algorithms where we will try to take that into account and essentially rank the website a little bit lower. But it’s not like there’s a flag in Search Console, or you see a warning, or anything like that.”

In the same interview, Mueller also said that intrusive interstitials are a “softer factor” in ranking: “And it’s something that wouldn’t be applied across the whole website. In particular, if people are still looking for your brand name then I wouldn’t expect to see any ranking change for that.”

Google gives three examples of intrusive interstitial ads that are dinged in mobile search results:

  • Showing a popup that covers the main content, either immediately after the user navigates to a page from the search results, or while they are looking through the page.
  • Displaying a standalone interstitial that the user has to dismiss before accessing the main content.
  • Using a layout where the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone interstitial, but the original content is inlined underneath the fold.

Here are some visuals to give you an idea of what these look like:

Credit: Google

Google also offers three examples in which content will not suffer a penalty for interstitials:

  • Interstitials that appear in response to a legal obligation, such as for cookie usage or for age verification.
  • Login popups on sites where content is not publicly indexable (like unindexable content behind a paywall).
  • Banners that use a reasonable amount of screen space and are easily dismissible (like the app install banners provided by Safari and Chrome).

Again, here are some visuals to help you understand what will fly and what won’t.

Credit: Google

Additionally, there are few other things that are not penalized for being interstitials:

  • Desktop popups: as Google points out, interstitials is about mobile search results.
  • Pages that aren’t accessed through search results. “Google is not looking to penalize all pages with interstitials, only the ones that searchers could land on from search results. It’s still OK to display an interstitial when a user navigates from one of your pages to another,” explains Smash magazine.

WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT FROM GOOGLE’S PAGE EXPERIENCE RANKING SIGNAL 

Experts in the field say that Google page experience doesn’t feel like a big change since these factors already are measured and matter in Search rankings. However, this update deserves your attention and Google has lent credence to this by providing developers with the tools to measure these signals, along with tips for fixing issues.

So how much will Google page experience affect rankings? This remains to be seen and there really is no way to tell until the update is fully live. However, Google has indicated that, though content is still king, page experience is growing in importance

According to the search engine, “By adding page experience to the hundreds of signals that Google considers when ranking search results, we aim to help people more easily access the information and web pages they’re looking for, and support site owners in providing an experience users enjoy.

While all of the components of page experience are important, we will prioritize pages with the best information overall, even if some aspects of page experience are subpar. A good page experience doesn’t override having great, relevant content. However, in cases where there are multiple pages that have similar content, page experience becomes much more important for visibility in Search.”

Need a website builder that will help you offer sites optimized for page experience faster than ever? Try nerDigital for free for 14 days!

HOW TO START OPTIMIZING WEBSITES FOR PAGE EXPERIENCE

The bottom line is, even though this new algorithm might not completely upend Search results, it’s critical to address Google page experience. Start now. Run the reports on Core Web Vitals and check out Google Search Console to figure out how your site speed looks. Some of the issues with sites will require your developer’s time to fix, and you’ll want to get an early start and spread out the workload. However, if you’ve worked with a dedicated website builder, like nerDigital, you’ll likely have a head start as many of these updates will (or at least, should) be handled by your platform. 

With Google now laying out so many specific measurements in free reports, now is a great time to light a fire under any naysayers on your team who have been reluctant to address site speed issues, mobile-friendliness, and user experience problems. In fact, the same experts that refer to page experience as more of a rebranding exercise also believe that it serves as great ammo for getting performance issues fixed. 

Don’t wait to prepare your sites for Google’s page experience updates. 2021 is just around the corner.