Review: Drupalgardens

Website Builder: Drupalgardens
Pros: extensive customizability using Themebuilder; based on stable open-source Drupal Content Management System; offers export of content and design to complete Drupal install for self-hosting
Cons: Themebuilder not easy to use for non-designers; custom domains at an extra price; elaborate setup that can be confusing for beginners; free package is ad-supported
Price: The Super Drupal package is free, Superer Drupal, at $19.95, adds custom domains, ability to create more pages and increased page views, Superest Drupal, at $39.95 a month, offers higher limits on number of pages to create and further increased page views
Ideal for: community and group projects, forums

Like WordPress.com (see our review), which is a hosted solution based on the open source WordPress Content Management Sytems (CMS), Durpalgardens is based on the open source Drupal CMS. And, just like WordPress, Drupal is one of the most offered answers to the question of “what is the best CMS for my website.”

But that is more or less where the similarities end. Drupal, and consequently Drupalgardens, is a completely different beast. Where WordPress is a blogger powerhouse, Drupal offers a lot more than just blogging.

When we sign up for Drupalgardens, we are asked to choose a template. With most systems, that means “pick a design you like.” Not so with Drupalgardens. Instead, we are expected to choose a type of website that we would like to build: campaign, product, blog or custom.

Based on the purpose of our site, certain options — like mailing lists, news, forums, blogs, among others — are enabled, while others can be added as needed.

Once we get to our new website, we see a double menu bar along the top of our browser window. The top-bar (on a black background) is our main administration menu. It contains buttons for Content, Structure, Appearance, People, Modules, Configuration and Reports, among others.

The second bar, on a grey background, looks deceivingly much like a sub-menu. It is, however, a collection of edit shortcuts: often used links that are there for convenience sake. By default, the menu contains Site manager, Add content and Find content links. But these can be customised, using the Edit shortcuts link over on the right in the same bar.

Drupalgardens offers a range of types of content, which it calls Nodes; static pages, news items, blog entries, forum topics and polls. Each of these types of content have their own, separate editor page, though differences are minimal. For Forum entries, we have to select a category under which the entry is to be filed, and all types content, the only exception being static pages, have tags.

A Drupalgardens website can have many contributors. For each contributor, access levels can be set, individually or by creating groups of contributors.

Design
Design customisation with Drupalgardens is done in what is called the ThemeBuilder, accessible via the Appearance menu at the top of the screen.

At first glance, Drupalgardens seems very restricted in design customisation options. With a mere 8 themes to choose from and a limited set of fixed colour schemes, customisation seems difficult to achieve. But like with so many parts of Drupal, its true power is in the more advanced sections.

If we got to Styles in the ThemeBuilder, we can select and customise every element on the page and preview design changes we make in real time. Switching Power theming and Show CSS to On, gives us the full CSS path to the selected object. Using this information, we can do further CSS editing in the Advanced tab. Here, the interface is reduced to a text box where we have to type raw CSS code.

Structure
Drupalgardens uses modules to add functionality to the system. Even much of the core functionality is added via such modules. These modules can add behind-the-scenes functionality only (like verifying site ownership with search engines) or may also output displayable content.  Where this content is to appear on your pages, is determined by Blocks in the Structure section.

Sounds complicated? It’s not that complicated really, but Drupal — and therefor Drupalgardens as well — does not do a great job at making this as easy as it could possibly be.

The Module screen lets us enable and disable modules, change module configurations and set permissions in cases where users or groups of users need to work with a specific module. Permissions are set as a kind of “access levels.” Users who have been assigned the specific access level, automatically gain access to all modules with that particular access level requirement.

Assigning access levels to specific users is done in the People screen.

And to assign the content of a module to a specific page or page location on our site, we have to go to the Structure menu.
In short: to allow user John to publish his blog posts on our website, we have to go through three menus to make sure the appropriate settings are aligned.

As complex as this is, it does allow extremely fine-grained control in environments where a site has multiple contributors.

Final words
Drupal is notorious for its management complexity, though with recent versions the system has become more and more user-friendly.

Drupalgardens has made the process of setting up and managing a Drupal-based website even easier, though it has been unable to completely shield the user from some of the complexities of managing a Drupal-based website.

However, for those willing to climb and conquer this curve, the reward comes in tremendous flexibility.

Although many other types of websites can be made with it, if you are looking for a group project or community website, Drupalgardens would be a perfect fit for you.

To sign up for your free Drupalgardens trial, click here.

If you use or have used Drupalgardens, we would like to hear your experience in the comments below.

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