You’ve probably heard of WordPress. It’s the most popular web design software on the web right now. And it may very well be the best web design software for your business.
However, there are lots of other options to choose from, and the one you finally select will be a long-term decision. You’ll need to rebuild your website from scratch if you want to switch to a different one so you want to choose wisely and consider your long-term goals before deciding.
In this article, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of the two main types of website design software: website builders and web design platforms. And since eCommerce doesn’t apply to every website, I’ll save that discussion for another day.
The first category of web design software includes website builders such as Squarespace and Wix. These tools allow even the most non-technical users to build your own website. But before we dive into the pros and cons of these types of tools, let’s first discuss whether you should be building your own website in the first place.
DIY or Pay Someone Else?
The most successful entrepreneurs and business owners understand and embrace one concept above all others: do what you do best and have someone else to do the rest.
I don’t attempt to do my own taxes, especially for my business. I don’t trim the dead limbs from the top of my 75 foot tall tree in the backyard. I haven’t sold my own homes. I certainly wouldn’t attempt to fix my car if it stopped running (have you looked under the hood of one of those things lately?!). So why would I try to build my own website?
Just because you can build your own website and people have created tools to make it relatively easy to do it, that doesn’t mean you should be doing it.
If you’re spending your time building a website instead of doing other, more important things in your business, like building your network or selling, you may think you’re saving money, but in reality, it’s probably a procrastination technique to avoid doing the things you don’t want to do.
Please take this into consideration before you try the DIY approach. Paying a professional to do it for you will most likely yield a better result, and free your time to build your business instead of your website.
Popular DIY Website Builders
Here’s a list of some of the most popular website builders available today. The web is filled with reviews of each one, so I’m not going to repeat what’s already been done. I’ll just link out to some of the better reviews for easy reference.
- Squarespace (recommended) – Review on WebsiteBuilderExpert.com
- Weebly – Review on ITPages.com
- Wix – Review on WebsiteToolTester.com
- GoDaddy – Review on SiteBuilderReport.com
- VistaPrint – Review on SiteBuilderReport.com
- 1&1 – Review on SiteBuilderReport.com
There are a lot more website builders available, but these are the ones most people ask me about, and they’re the most popular.
I’d be very cautious about choosing one of the smaller, lesser known builders because they may not be around in a year (or less). If they close their doors, your website will close, as well.
Website Builder Pros & Cons
Let’s discuss the pros first…
These types of website builders work very well for small businesses or people on a tight budget. They offer a very simple user interface that walks you through the process of building your own website.
They have a variety of templates to choose from to give your website it’s basic look-and-feel, and then allow you to customize those designs to make it unique to your business.
They’re packed with the most common functionality that allows you to add all the standard features to your website, like a blog, video, graphics, forms, eCommerce (on some) and more.
They’re also very affordable, starting at just a few dollars per month…most are less than $50/month.
That price tag is hard to beat, and for small business owners who just need a presence on the web to provide information about their business and maybe sell a few things, a DIY website builder is a very good option.
Now for the cons…
While these tools are relatively user-friendly, you may become frustrated when they won’t do exactly what you want them to do. You may have trouble placing content blocks and images where you want them. And everything looks different on mobile devices, so you’ll spend even more time making sure it looks good on every screen size.
It’s hard to be objective about your own business, which makes it very difficult to write your own content and choose your own graphics. You could easily spend weeks or months working on your website, only to be unhappy with the final product…and not even know why you’re unhappy.
Since you’re probably not a web designer by trade, you won’t have the background and experience to know what constitutes a good design. Some colors don’t work well together, especially for color-blind people. Some fonts are harder to read online than they are in print. Some layouts and content improve conversion rates, while others increase bounce rate. By doing it yourself without expert guidance, you could build a website that doesn’t achieve its main objective: to get you more customers.
You’re also limited to the number of themes provided by the tool. Some builders only have 20 or 30 themes to choose from, so you may not be able to find something that you like.
And perhaps the biggest downside of using proprietary website builders is their inherent lack of customization. These tools are built and maintained by one company. They’re the opposite of open-source, which means their developers are the only ones who can add new features to the tool. No one else can write software to add missing functionality or new theme designs.
If you want to do something custom, like create your own eLearning module or build a custom directory that’s specifically designed for your industry or provide a custom membership experience for your user community, you can’t. You’re only able to use the functionality they provide in the way they designed it to be used.
If your business doesn’t rely on your website for much more than advertising, this might not be a big deal. However, if your business is heavily dependent on your website and you have plans to add custom functionality, a website builder is not a good choice for you.
Who’s it for?
Website builders are ideal for small businesses with small budgets who primarily operate in the real world. Think massage therapists, landscapers, electricians, roofers, auto-mechanics, public speakers, tutors, etc.
If your website is primarily used as a modern-day yellow pages listing and you have no long-term plans for it to be more than that, a website builder is a great choice for you.
Website Development Platforms
The second category of web design software is for website development platforms like WordPress and Drupal. While these tools “claim” to be user-friendly enough that non-technical people can build websites using them, don’t believe it.
I’ve yet to build a WordPress website that didn’t require at least some custom CSS or page templates. If you don’t know what I’m talking about and you don’t want to learn how to become a web designer or developer, don’t use these tools to build your own website.
If you’re committed to doing it yourself, choose one of the website builders from the previous section and save yourself countless hours of frustration.
Popular Website Development Platforms
Here’s a list of the most popular platforms used to build websites that need more customization or unique designs:
- WordPress (recommended)
- Ruby on Rails
Where are the Reviews?
Unlike the website builders that offer a variety of different features, prices and user interfaces geared toward consumers, a website development platform is largely a developer preference since they can all do anything you want them to do.
You’ll often see Squarespace or Wix compared to WordPress or Joomla!, but that’s not a valid comparison. That would be like comparing a lawn mower to a lawn service.
Website builders are DIY tools…they allow you to mow your own yard. A web development platform is for professional use and provides a lot of additional options like edging, trimming, sprinkler repair and landscaping, while allowing you to avoid the dust and sweat from mowing your own yard.
All of these tools provide a full-functioning Content Management System, or CMS, which allows you to update the content on your website without calling your developer. That’s the main benefit of using one of these platforms instead of creating a fully custom website using a programming language like PHP or ASP.Net.
If your website isn’t built on top of a CMS, you won’t be able to update the content yourself, and that’s bad. I see no reason why you would need to build a fully custom website with the power and flexibility these platforms provide.
Website Development Platform Pros & Cons
First, and most important, these platforms are open-source, which means any designer or developer can extend the functionality of the core platform with new designs and features. With website builders, you’re limited to the design and functionality provided by the relatively small team that works for the company who built the tool.
Second, they’re extremely flexible. If you can conceive it, you can probably achieve it with one of these web design software platforms. You’re not bound by the confines of the editor provided by the website builders.
I paid a developer to create a completely custom eLearning plugin for WordPress a few years ago because I couldn’t find anything that worked liked I wanted it to. I could even sell the plugin to other people if I chose.
Third, you own the website. You can take your website to a different web host or a different designer if you want or need to. You can hire developers with special skill sets to do special things for your website. You can do anything you want to it.
Forth, since these platforms have such a huge base of developers and users, especially WordPress, it’s not likely that they will go away anytime soon. And if they do, your website will continue to work (albeit without updates) until you have a chance to rebuild it.
Now I don’t see Squarespace, Wix or Weebly going away anytime soon, either, but some of the smaller, lesser known website builders could easily disappear overnight. And if they shut down their service for whatever reason (usually because they aren’t making enough money or they get bought by a competitor), your website goes away with very little or no warning.
Finally, you own your website if it’s built on a platform like WordPress. That means you can take it to another web host or hire a different designer to work on it. With website builders such as Squarespace, your website can’t exist outside their system so you can’t take it to a different web host or designer. You’re leasing your website until you stop paying the monthly fee, and then your website goes away.
In addition, the website builder’s creator often owns the design of the theme you choose for your website so you can’t simply pay a developer to copy the design to a different system. Even though you may own the content and images on your website, you’ll have to start over on the design if you want to move to WordPress or a different platform.
And the cons…
It’s more expensive. Sometimes a lot more expensive. You can build your own website with a website builder like Squarespace for the cost of your time and roughly $25/month for the service. That’s pretty darn cheap.
WordPress is arguably the most affordable of the web design platforms, but even it will run you more than a thousand dollars for a designer to create it. If you want a custom design and content, that will cost several thousand. Some larger agencies charge ten’s of thousands for a WordPress website!
While they’re designed to make it easy for non-technical users to update content such as text, images, video, etc., it’s not easy to build a website from scratch for non-technical people. Even though they say you can, trust me, you don’t want to. That means you have to pay a professional to do it and deal with the cost and all the challenges that brings.
Another con is that they’re more vulnerable to hacking. Since the platforms are open-source, bad people can write software to exploit the systems just like good people can write software to enhance them. This requires constant updates to prevent your website from being hacked and used as a spam email generator or from having your data stolen.
Since website builders are closed systems (like Apple), you rarely have to worry about being hacked. If it does happen, the website builder’s creator will fix it in their system, which will fix it on your website. You won’t need to do anything, and you may not even know it happened.
Who’s it for?
A web design platform like WordPress is ideal for growing businesses, medium to large businesses, businesses with long-term plans to add custom functionality to their websites, or businesses that are primarily online.
It’s also ideal if you want a custom graphic design that’s unique to your business, or if you’re very picky about the way your website looks.
And finally, a web design platform is the best choice if you value your time and would rather spend it working on your business while experts build a professional website that’s optimized for your target market.
Why We Recommend WordPress
According to research done by W3Techs, WordPress has a commanding 58.7% CMS market share. That means of all websites built using a CMS, nearly 6 in 10 are built using WordPress. And they include website builders in their research like Squarespace (.8%), Wix (.4%) and Weebly (.4%).
The second largest platform in terms of market share is Joomla! with 6.6%. That means WordPress is used by 9 times more websites than its next closest competitor and 73 times more websites than Squarespace.
I know a lot of you love underdogs, but going with the clear winner has several advantages for your business. First, you’ll have easy access to developers, and they’re much more affordable. Since WordPress is so popular, there are far more developers available to work on your website if your developer disappears.
Second, countless designers and developers have created new themes and plugins to offer pretty much any design and functionality you could ever need.
While most of the website builders offer only a couple dozen themes to choose from, you can choose from well over 100,000 themes for your WordPress website. And you can also choose from thousands of plugins to add additional functionality to your website, or even hire a developer to build your own custom plugin.
Third, in addition to using pre-designed themes for your website, you can also create 100% custom designs using flexible framework themes like Genesis or WooThemes. These themes provide all the standard CMS functionality with very little design. They leave that to your design team.
We use a flexible theme called Enfold for the majority of our websites because it has a ton of content editing functionality, but still allows us to implement fully custom graphic designs. It’s also fully supported with a long history of regular updates and an active discussion forum.
When you’re choosing a theme, be sure to select one that has good reviews and regular updates to features and security vulnerabilities. Not all themes are created equal and some are a lot more trouble than they’re worth.
I also don’t recommend using a custom theme created by your developer. These are almost always built on top of the free WordPress them and enhanced to make it easy for them to build websites quickly. Unfortunately, that makes it very difficult for another designer to come in and take over if they disappear or you fire them.
I’ve managed a lot of developers over my 20+ year career and the vast majority are terrible at commenting their code, and a large percentage write what we call spaghetti-code, which is nearly impossible for someone else to maintain.
If you fire a developer who used a custom built theme, the developer you hire to replace them will most likely tell you it will be cheaper to start over using a different theme. Either way, it’ll be expensive. It’s in your best interest to insist they use a professionally created theme by a reputable company with a good history of updates.
In the end, the web design software you choose is your decision. If I had to choose a website builder, it would be Squarespace, and I’m obviously biased toward WordPress for the web design platform.
This is more of a business decision than a technical one. You really can’t go wrong with any of the name brands from either category. It mostly depends on your budget, the time you have available, the type of business you own, and your long-term plans for it.
The tool you select will be with you for a long time so do your diligence and make sure you choose the right one for your specific circumstances.