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The best things in life are free. The best things in software, probably not

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This week we have a guest columnist — KJR’s own web developer, Kimberly Lewis:

This is a follow up to last week’s column, to explain my biggest issue in web dev — one businesses that want successful web projects should be aware of:

Spend more, not less, on software.

Yep, I’m talking about everyone’s least favorite add-on cost. And I’m going to say something other open-source devs (I am one) will probably dislike.

Free isn’t always better

In fact, IS Survivor was a great test case of exactly why you want to pay extra for certain things. I paid for an inexpensive WordPress theme. (For those unacquainted with WordPress, themes are what control the look and functionality of your site, and they come at various price points.) I started with free themes. Six different ones, to be exact. The problem with free is that you get amateurish design, and worse functionality and configurability.

While I can deal with not-so-great design, I can’t put up with bad functionality and overly limited configurability. While I could consider going in and writing custom code within the theme by making what’s called a “Child Theme,” that would add weeks of concentrated work onto the job, and therefore a serious added cost.

Long term, a premium theme would be a better option. Now it’s just a matter of determining price point.

I like some of the more expensive themes. Why? Out of the box they have a great layout, lots of added functionality and customization, and plenty of extra support for when things don’t go according to plan. In my opinion, it’s worth it to prevent some extra costs.

Here is where I drag my father on his own website like the cheeky little brat of a daughter I don’t mind being. My dad is nothing if not cheap. He really, really didn’t want a premium theme. We compromised on an inexpensive but not free theme that fit the previous site’s look and feel, had the customization I wanted, but, due to the low cost, lacked a lot of the extra functionality I would have had with a higher end theme.

We’ve been paying for the decision ever since.

The limited functionality, combined with my father’s preference for displaying the entire post in full on the home page, resulted in immediate problems displaying archive and search results. My choices: either plugins, or adding a half-dozen additional pages of code into the theme. (Once again, for non-WordPress developers, a plugin is a software add-on I can install for added functionality without coding.)

This led to me trying 25 (yes, this is accurate. I kept track) different plugins for the archive list. I got refunds for 10, and all but one was incapable of handling the sheer number of columns in the archive. I’ll give Dad credit: He’s a persistent and voluminous writer.

In this case, free was the only choice — literally the only one that wasn’t breaking. Unfortunately, it’s ugly. Sorry. Not much I can do about that.

Search was the bigger problem. We started with a free trial for the best search engine on the market: Algolia Search. It’s good. It’s really good. It’s also horrifically expensive, but I’d hoped we could get away with the free version.

For the same reasons as the archive plugin, we can’t. And paying for it on a smaller site like IS Survivor is like taking out a mosquito with a thermonuclear bomb (although I’m originally from Minnesota, so I understand the temptation): too much power, too much cost for a site this small.

So now we have a dilemma. Do I go ahead and find a free search plugin, or do I use a paid plugin?

The pros of a paid plugin are, once again, customization, support, clean integration, and no ads. Yes, often you get ads on something if you don’t pay for it.

The cons of the free ones are lack of clean integration (Google Search WP, I’m looking at you), less customization, no support except from other users, many of whom have hacked the living daylights out of the plugin, and often compromised functionality.

This is a matter of cost vs. worth, and it goes all the way back to the decision to purchase an inexpensive theme.

If we’d gone with a premium theme that out of the box had everything we needed, but was also much more expensive, we’d have ended up spending exactly the same as we’re paying now. This is what businesses have to think about. Sometimes free or inexpensive will do the job. That’s great. But in case it doesn’t, be prepared to pay more than you were planning on to fix the problems “excessive frugality” can cause.

If you’re curious: I bought a single use license for a search engine plugin. Hope you like the result.

Comments (13)

  • Thank you Kimberly, nice to here about the story from your Point of View.

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  • It’s very interesting to see practical IT war stories like this. The only thing that would make it better would be to know the names of the themes and plugins, but that’s probably giving away trade secrets.

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  • Nice to get a different voice, every now and then. While a little bit techy for me in its language, (my pet dinosaur hid under my table!), I found your comments refreshing, clearly indicating that you knew what you were doing and are thoughtful in your expression.

    My own take away from reading both columns, and suffering a truly stunning rejection I received after I delivered a working prototype that far exceed expectations, is to beware of the intelligent, talented, technical client who tells you what technology you should use for your development of the project you are doing for them.

    Their reasons for wanting to use a particular technology are likely technical and well-considered. Your reasons for wanting to use a particular technology are also likely technical and well-considered. I see it as an interesting variation of Godel’s Proof, in that you can both prove your views logically correct, but your views should be trusted because your view is far better seasoned with the most recent real world experience. Unfortunately, that “seasoning” was outside the scope of the reasoning used by both parties.

    I suspect it’s harder for a technical client to know how to factor in seasoning in a technology choice where that client has real expertise and talent, but not in that exact field, than for a non-technical client…who wouldn’t know enough to seriously make that kind of technical decision in the first place. Anyway, that’s my 2 cents.

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  • My take away from this is “listen to your developers”. Obviously they have to be able to make a good argument in support of their decision. But they are the ones with the expertise.

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  • K

    I am as cheap [maybe cheaper] than your Dad . And I endorse your position 100% . I have been taught by the Master – Murphy .

    Be frugal; not cheap .

    L

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  • Great post and it’s been interesting to see how the development was done and all the steps and pitfalls involved. I’m willing to bet this will be very helpful for a lot of people.

    But if my kid ever drags me through the mud like this………………….

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    • We’re pretty sarcastic as a family. I’m sure you’ve read the accounts of my sister and me telling everyone about how he has a bald spot the size of Jupiter when we were younger?

      We’ve gotten much, much better at roasting people since then.

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  • As someone who has spent a LOT (like, years) of time working with WordPress, I commiserate with you and your dad. Lots of freebies, lots of freemiums, and lots of premiums — and sometimes the premium is worth it, and sometimes it’s not.

    One small comment about theme choice: I paid for a premium theme, and now I’m wondering if it is bloated enough to slow things down. That’s another consideration, of course (which I know you already know).

    The old saying “pay me now, or pay me later” certainly still applies to many tech decisions. Thanks for giving us another good example of that.

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    • Bruce,

      I haven’t seen many premium themes slow the site down. Usually when that’s happening it’s a plugin that’s taking up bandwidth, but I always leave some room to be wrong (sometimes catastrophically so).

      The other consideration could be your hosting provider. If you’re getting too many hits to your site, you might want to upgrade your hosting package. Some basic analytics can help with that.

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  • I love your writing, Kimberly, and your dad was smart to have you write this column. If he hasn’t gone senile since then, he’ll be negotiating a way to have you write a regular column for him.

    One question: When you talk about premium themes, what kind of price range are we talking about?

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    • Premium themes can start as low as $40 each (Theme Junkie), and go up to subscription services that offer unlimited theme downloads of hundreds of themes for $250 annually (Elegant Themes). Basically it really depends upon what you’re looking for and what you need.

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  • Good job Kimberly. This article is a great read.

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  • The very first thing I noticed when I visited the web page is that it will not work if Javascript is disabled. Why do I browse with Javascript disabled? Because frequently visiting a website with Javascript turned on the page takes much longer to load. A lot of extra stuff is displayed that I have no interest in, web pages will “move” as additional content is loaded (I suspect advertisements being added) and this pulls one away from the text you were reading, and so on. Infoworld and Computerworld are the two news pages I use and the difference between viewing the pages with Javascript on and off is like night and day. I’ve tried viewing some other news pages, and without Javascript turned on the pages simply do not work, and with Javascript turned on are a pure pain to read.

    However, that being said, this particular web page does look good, and the normal problems I encounter with Javascript do not exist here. Nice job.

    Long time reader, back to the dead trees days.

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