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THIS ARTICLE HAS BECOME TOO OLD AND OUTDATED. I now use Zenfolio exclusively for my personal portfolio and http://ronmartinsen.com now only points to my Zenfolio site. Click here to read my Zenfolio review and learn why I feel it’s the best service available now.
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I spent a lot of time talking with Matt Bailey (VP of Sales & Design) early on after building my demo site on liveBooks to understand how liveBooks works. Matt’s a great guy and was very helpful in explaining what their philosophy is behind liveBooks and their target customers. Their primary focus is on building a unique custom site based on your specific needs and design goals. This is why they don’t offer templates, but rather will have a design consultation in person* or over the phone to build a portfolio that fits your portfolio and personality. Once the site is established, you can modify some aspects of the site through their very well designed editSuite tool (discussed later).
I’m a car guy and I equate liveBooks with Porsche. Porsche offers a tremendous amount of customization that allows you to have a car that is exactly what you want and it reflects your design preferences – for a price (it’s easy to customize a $60k Porsche to cost $100k+). You can buy a Corvette (which is faster and cheaper) for less, but it simply won’t carry the prestige of a Porsche nor the customization that some people desire for a luxury sports car. liveBooks does the same thing with their web site customers – near unlimited customization to suit your needs – for a fee.
Here’s the site I built with liveBooks (also available here as a slideshow). I encourage you to check out the slideshow, download PDF, shopping cart and client access features (password: test). In addition, the behind the scenes images will give you some insight as to what is required to build a site similar to this.
I should be clear in that I never did a design consultation which is central to the experience of all of their clients. I’m not a paying customer, so I got the most basic design with limited assistance from liveBooks for the press demo package. To get a better idea of their design talents visit their Site of the Week page as well as checking out some of the sites mentioned in the Search Engine Performance section later in this article.
For this article, I wanted to test the backend features with a front end that looked similar to the other sites that I built during this review. I believe this allows for a more apples to apples comparison with the other sites. It should be noted that I could have added many of the features the other sites offered or made some drastic changes – all for a fee – if I had been a paying customer. From a feature (not design) standpoint, I think this is somewhat representative to what you’d get for a basic site ($800 at the time of this writing), but they also offer a Select ($1700) and Unlimited ($3200) packages which offer more features. In addition, you can get add-ons like an intro slideshow for a fee.
NOTE: ALL pricing and offerings are subject to change – please contact liveBooks and review their package information for their most recent offerings.
Behind the Scenes: Administering your site
The real beauty of liveBooks isn’t the front end, but rather it’s very powerful and user-friendly backend which they named editSuite. Here’s a behind the scenes look at editSuite starting with the login page. I strongly encourage you to navigate these screen shots to get a good idea of how it feels to administer my site on liveBooks. I think editSuite is fantastic and they have done a very good job with something that your customers will never see, but you’ll appreciate as a liveBooks users. It was a very satisfying tool to use that offered a fair amount of flexibility for some very complex tasks (i.e., custom pricing and shipping). If you do your own printing, you’ll love the custom pricing system. In addition, the ability to set a custom site for your clients is very powerful.
liveBooks is a flashed based site with some mirrored HTML to help with search engine results, so CSS customization isn’t possible. In addition, you can’t get to the HTML so if editSuite doesn’t give you a tool to modify it then you are at the mercy of liveBooks to do the work for you – for a fee. Beyond your included design consultations, there are no free lunches(from what I can tell) so expect changes to cost you (sometimes dearly as in the case of a interactive home page).
When viewing my liveBooks site on my iPhone I get a flash download warning where I must click to view a HTML version of the site which is very plain as picture above. Given the popularity of the iPhone with busy advertising agencies who are always on the go, I would expect better results here. Perhaps better results would be possible, but my guess is that it would involve an additional fee.
I’ve listed some big names below in the Search Engine Wins section, and you can see many more in their Site of the Week feature and archives. Their site is pretty much the Who’s Who of big names in pro photography like my idol from Sports Illustrated Peter Read Miller as well as Clint Clemens (#2 on my favorite photographers list). If you want to know where the big dog’s do their business, this is it!
Search Engine Performance
liveBooks prides itself on industry-leading search engine optimizations (SEO), and they feel that justifies part of the cost of doing business with them. So just how good are their search engine optimizations? In the table below, click the left link to do a google search and you’ll notice that the person linked on the right is either first or near first in the results list:
Competitors say that liveBooks has little to do with these great results because these are famous people who will get traffic no matter who hosts their sites. liveBooks however disagrees. In fact, Michael Costuros (Founder and Chief Creative Officer) has issued a challenge to the other sites - a follow up post in a month where I compare the success of the various SEO rankings. I actually would like to do that to see if liveBooks really is the king of SEO, and if so then I think it would add a lot of legitimacy to their pricing structure beyond the design features they offer.
Pros / Cons
What I love about liveBooks is:
- Search Engine Optimizations – If the great results they boast are indeed from their efforts, then this is quite impressive. Time will tell if this is true with my site (relative to the others), but if it is then I can see this helping to recoup the investment in using liveBooks very quickly.
- Best Thumbnail Experience – I really love the thumbnails on liveBooks better than any other place I’ve reviewed. I hate that they auto-scroll, but they auto hide nicely. A pinning feature would be nice to disable the auto hide, but at least the current design makes the picture the center of attention.
- Download PDF Feature – This is unique to the sites I visited and a nice touch for a commercial agency looking to print out physical media to compare one photographer against another or to put info into their file.
- Excellent Design Staff – While my site doesn’t demonstrate it, it is clear from their Site of the Week and even editSuite that there is some significant design talent on staff at liveBooks. To be professional, you should look professional, so I think this is a premium offering that sets them apart from all of the other sites in this round up. First impressions count, and I think liveBooks is probably the strongest site for ensuring that you make a great first impression. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to experience this first hand in my review, but I don’t doubt from what I see that this is certainly one of their strengths.
- editSuite – This is an excellent back end tool that was the most enjoyable to use of all the products featured in this series.
- Brand Recognition – There’s some big names using liveBooks and I believe that will carry some weight being associated with the big names of the people who are already there.
Areas for liveBooks improvement:
- Pricing – I hate to be nickel and dimed, and I feel like this is the norm for liveBooks (and anonymous feedback from existing liveBooks customers confirms this). I don’t mind paying to get the best, and to some extent that is what I believe liveBooks offers, but like my Porsche analogy it really sucks to pay for floor mats in a $100,000 car! I’ve been a web programmer since 1994 and I honestly feel that all of the services offered for $195 or less are things that would take me less than 10 minutes to do. I suspect it does for them as well, so this doesn’t represent a fair offering to customers paying a large initial fee for this service.
- Customer Service – Granted, I’m not a paying customer so hopefully your experience would differ. However, of all the sites I worked with, the people I interacted with at liveBooks were the least cordial. They weren’t mean or rude, but there was a strong sense of defensiveness. I also didn’t get the feeling that they types that would go the extra mile for their customer at no charge like I did with the other sites (all of whom bent over backwards for me). In fact, in advance of this article I was told that I might not be able to deliver an accurate assessment of their site because I didn’t take advantage of their design process, but the reality is that option was never made available to me. In fact, the original site was all grey and black and I had to convince them to upgrade the site so that it wouldn’t be an embarrassment against the others in this review. I was reminded I was a non-paying customer, so only the minimum changes were allowed (notice there’s no intro slide show?). I would have loved to experienced the real customer experience, and I believe I did from the other sites in this series.
- Limited Basic Offerings – While this kind of is a repeat of #1, I’d expect things like a Request Info form, Slideshow, Video Page, and Splash intro to be included with the basic package at no charge.
Despite the areas for improvement, I think liveBooks is an excellent product. If you have the financial resources for their Select or Unlimited packages, I think you will build a very impressive site that is sure to impress your current and prospective clients. To that end, I think that photographers catering to large magazines or advertising agencies are best suited to invest in a liveBooks site and easily recover their investment. In summary, if your photography is good enough to purchase a Porsche in cash, then you’re probably wise to invest in a liveBooks sites to land the big clients. If you are a part-time photographer who isn’t landing four figure jobs then you might want to look for a more cost effective alternative.
I sincerely appreciate liveBooks giving me the opportunity to review their product in depth as I’ve done here. I would especially like to thank Matt and Michael for their time in answering my questions and making sure I had a site that would compare with the others in this series. I also appreciate their willingness to leave the site online for you to review as part of this series.