Vistaprint is a popular brand best known for its custom printing products: business cards, calendars, invitations, posters, photo gifts, t-shirts and more. The company also provides some interesting digital services, including a website builder which enables anyone to quickly create their own professional website.
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The builder is aimed very much at novices looking to build simple sites, but still provides the core basics you need: a drag-and-drop editor, unlimited pages, support for all the regular content types (text, images, videos, maps, contact forms, menus, more), and responsive templates to ensure your site looks good on all device types.
There's an unusual plus for anyone who already uses Vistaprint to produce other business products. The website builder can access images or logos you've previously uploaded, making it simple to coordinate the website with any other marketing materials.
Prices begin at £3.59 ($5) a month for the Starter plan. This gets you all the standard editing features, but only allows a basic yourname.vistaprintdigital.com domain. That's the kind of restriction we associate more with free plans than commercial products.
The £8.99 ($12.59) a month Standard plan adds support for custom domain names, gives you up to 12 email addresses and throws in site analytics and search engine optimisation.
The £13.49 ($18.89) a month Premium plan extends the package with an online store and support for social media marketing.
All plans include 24/7 phone support, and a one-month free trial enables checking out the service before you part with any cash.
Vistaprint's product structure is clear and simple, and it's easy to compare plans and see what you're going to get.
Select the most appealing option and you're prompted to hand over your contact details: name, email and physical address, and your phone number.
Vistaprint accepts payment via card and PayPal, and a handy option to enter a VAT ID number enables businesses to avoid paying tax.
Once the process is complete, Vistaprint displays your invoice, but there's no need to worry about that just yet. Although the company requires your payment details when you purchase a product, you won't be charged for 30 days.
Sign up with most website builders and you'll immediately receive an email with key 'getting started' information on the product, guidance on what to do next, maybe pointers to any support resources. Vistaprint only sent a generic Welcome message, though, with no information or details on the website builder at all.
Fortunately the website was a little more helpful, with a simple wizard to point us in the right direction.
The Vistaprint design process starts by choosing a template. These are organised into 25 categories and multiple subcategories, which initially looks very impressive. You don't just get an Animals category, for instance: subcategories include Kennels, Grooming, Dog Breeders, Pet Sitting, Pet Supply Stores, Pet Training and Veterinary.
Unfortunately, this isn't quite as good as it seems. There are only 150 templates in total, so many categories only have one or two examples that you might want to use. We think the designs are quite ordinary, too. They're usable, but we suspect you're not going to be blown away (check them out for yourself here.)
The lack of a keyword search option makes it more difficult to find matching templates. If your website isn't on one of the more common topics, you might have to browse a few subcategories to find a design that works for you.
It's important to take your time, because although Vistaprint says you can change your template later, your content and customisations aren't preserved. Changing the template is effectively throwing away your current project and starting again.
Vistaprint does score in a few areas. The templates are displayed using large thumbnails, for instance, and you can preview a full sample site before you decide. Make your choice (whatever it might be) and the template appears in Vistaprint's editor, ready for customisation.
The Vistaprint editor is lightweight and simple with only the core essentials on offer, and anything even faintly advanced tucked safely out of the way.
A left-hand sidebar has options to add content (headers, text, photos, videos and more), add pages, edit global site settings (colours, fonts, more) and preview the site. A toolbar has a page navigation menu, undo and redo buttons, and that's just about it.
The editor enables building sites from preformatted content blocks, rather than the more common individual widgets. Click Add Content > Text, for instance, and you're offered no less than 16 layouts, including text with icons, captions, images, as quotes, in boxes, grids and more. Drag your preferred option onto the page, the editor shows where it can be placed, and when you drop it, the block takes up the full width of the page at that point.
Other content blocks include headers, images, videos, a calendar, social links, a contact form, a web store and more. These cover the basics, but little more, and there's very little integration with other services. You can display a bar with links to your social media accounts, for instance, but there's no option to embed content such as a tweet or a Facebook post.
This block-based approach makes it very simple to build a site. You don't have to drag in a layout widget, set a number of rows or columns, insert whatever text or images you need and set their properties manually, because the content block has everything you need built in.
The problem is that you're essentially stuck with Vistaprint's standard block layouts. You can't place a map where you like on the page, for instance, perhaps to the immediate left of a text block. All you can do in that situation is drop a map block above or below the text block, with each of these taking the full width of the page.
Hovering your mouse over a block reveals a few context-sensitive customisation options. You're able to change the menu style on a header, for instance, while other blocks can be resized or have a custom background (choose a colour, an image, set transparency, more.) This worked well for us, but Vistaprint is still far less configurable than most of the competition.
How much this matters will depend on the user. Experienced web designers will quickly become frustrated by the lack of control. But if you're a novice, or have only basic needs, and you're happy with Vistaprint's layouts, the lack of power and options won't matter. If anything, you'll appreciate the editor's simplicity and ease of use.
Vistaprint supports only a very limited series of media content blocks: images, image carousels, image grids and videos. Most of these have a few layout options, but as usual they're not exactly flexible. For example, you can display a video on the left side of the page with text on the right, but you can't have the video on the right, or display it next to an image, or a map, or do anything else that isn't supported by the content block.
Even the media options you get are extremely basic. Images can't be edited beyond simple cropping or 90-degree rotations, and the video control supports YouTube and Vimeo only. There are no customisable lightbox options, no special spacing, border or other layout controls.
We briefly had some hope for the image carousel. It appeared in a click, and tapping an Add Slide button enabled using as many images as we liked. But then we went looking for a Delay Time option that would allow us to create an automated slideshow, and realised-- there isn't one. You can add multiple images but these can only be browsed manually.
If you can live with these limits, though - you just need a simple image with a link, or an embedded YouTube clip - Vistaprint may still appeal. The editor's content blocks give a simple visual preview of your various options, there are no complicated settings to get in the way, and even a beginner will be able to produce a good-looking site with the minimum of effort.
Given Vistaprint's lack of functionality we weren't expecting any kind of blogging platform. But then, to our surprise, we found a content block described as a Basic Entry Blog. Would this be the feature that changed our mind about Vistaprint's abilities?
After trying it for around ten seconds, we realised the answer was 'no'. The block is so basic that we would question how it can be called a blog at all.
Essentially, what the blog gives you is multiple text boxes with a title, a date and an image to the left. Click the Add button, the editor adds a new textbox with today's date and you can add whatever text comments you need.
The problem here is that the posts are just text boxes, like any other. They can't contain images, or maps, or anything else. You can't schedule a post. There's no comments system, no RSS support. It's easy to use and provides the general look of a blog, but Vistaprint doesn't give you any of a real blog's features or functionality.
Vistaprint is aware of this problem, and we were told that major improvements are on the way. That's good to know, but we wouldn't rely on that: there's no information on what these improvements are or when they might arrive.
Vistaprint's top-of-the-range plan includes what it calls an online store, but as with the blog, it's very short on features.
You're not able to build a database of products, for instance. You can't set up custom variations like size, or colour. There's no real support for calculating shipping or taxes. You can't customise descriptions beyond changing the sample text and image. And not only is PayPal the only payment method supported, but you can't adapt the site to support anything else.
What you get instead is a series of content blocks which provide various ways to display products and prices. For example, you could add a block which displays an image of your product on the left, some text and a price on the left. A Quantity box allows customers to decide how many products they need, they're able to choose other products and add them to a shopping cart, and there's a 'Buy now with PayPal' button when they're ready to hand over the cash.
If you just want an easy way to sell one or two products, this could work. You may be able to set it up in minutes and as long as you already have a PayPal account, there's nothing else to do. But if there's a chance you'll ever need to go further, we would recommend looking elsewhere.
Vistaprint support begins in the editor. A simple tutorial aims to point newbies in the right direction, tooltips explain more about the various options and a progress box shows what you need to do next.
A web knowledgebase has a small number of articles explaining how to carry out common tasks. They're better than nothing, but only marginally, and in most cases tell you little you couldn't figure out on your own.
Email support is on offer, although we had to browse the menus before we found it. Vistaprint says you should get a response within 24 hours.
Telephone support is also available. The UK has a freephone number open 24/7; US support is available 8:00am to 12:am EST weekdays, 8:00am to 6pm weekends; a Canadian number is available 7:00am to 12:am EST weekdays, 8:00am to 6pm weekends.
We tried the UK number and our call was quickly answered by an agent. There was no requirement to provide a support pin, an account number or any other identifying information: we were able to ask our question immediately.
The agent was friendly and polite. We asked whether there was any plan to upgrade the feeble blog content block in the latest edition of the website builder, and although she didn't appear to have any technical knowledge, she understood our question immediately, didn't have to press us for any further details, and put us on hold while she checked with the official tech support team. Around 90 seconds later she was back with an answer (as we mentioned earlier, blog improvements are being worked on, but there's no information on timescale yet.)
While this experience probably wouldn't impress web hosting experts, it's like to be enough for Vistaprint's target audience of first-timers. The agents won't be able to give you the low-level details of Vistaprint's hosting platform, but simpler questions are likely to be answered quickly and with the minimum of hassle.
Vistaprint provides an easy way for design novices to build simple sites, but its very limited and basic features will quickly frustrate anyone who needs anything more.