Should you use a website builder?
Here's when not to use a website builder: don’t use a website builder if you want to build something unconventional (like an awesome idea for an app that’s never been done before).
If you need some unconventional, you’ll need to hire a web developer.
But here’s the thing: most websites are pretty conventional. For example: if you need a website for your restaurant you might require a map, food menu, photo gallery and contact information. Website builders are perfect for building websites like this (most have features that would support all 4 requirements).
You don’t need to be intimidated by website builders. If you can handle Microsoft Word you can handle a website builder. (If you’re a technical person— like a web developer— you’ll find it’s still worth using a website builder. I’m a web developer myself and I use Squarespace for my band’s website— there’s no reason to over-engineer a website!)
Website Builders vs. CMS’s
I recommend you try a website builder first. If you find it’s too inflexible for your needs you may want to jump up to a CMS. Just be aware that when you move to a CMS you will also be response for setting up a host and connecting to a database. Also CMS’s are free but they don’t have customer support like website builders (and require you to pay for hosting).
Some pros and cons between CMS’s and website builders:
|Website Builders||Content Management Systems|
|Drag & Drop||WYSIWYG|
|No configuring hosts and databases||Requires a host and MySQL database.|
|Coding not required||Coding occasionally required|
|Website cannot be exported (more info)||Website can be exported to a new host|
Wait— so Wordpress isn't a website builder? Nope. Just like it’s Wikipedia page says, Wordpress is a Content Management System (CMS).
Website Builders vs. Web Designers
Here’s a good rule of thumb: use a website builder if you have a small budget. What’s a small budget? Probably anything less than $6,000.
You’ll want to stay away from amateur web designers who are offering to design your website for really cheap. Like anything in life, you get what you pay for— and in the case of an amateur web designer what you don’t get is reliability. A website is something you’ll have for several years— during that time you’ll need small content updates, domain name renewals and other small technical tweaks. Will your amateur web designer be there in 3 years, maintaining your website and hosting? Or will you be left to figure it all out for yourself?
Here’s another rule of thumb: if you’re building something unconventional, you’ll need to hire a web developer. As I said above, website builders work really well for most websites. For example, every restaurant website needs at least three things on their website: an online menu, location & contact info. Do you need a custom coder to build those? No! These are conventional features- a website builder like Squarespace has already invented great tools for handling those features.
Choosing a Website Builder
Don’t get analysis paralysis. There are a lot of website builders out there, so sometimes the right decision is to simply try one. Seriously, spend 10 minutes trying the free trial of a website builder— you will quickly discover what you’re looking for.
Moving to a New Host
Wondering if you can move your website to a new host once it's built on the website builder? Unfortunately you can't. It’s just not technically realistic.
Modern website builders create websites that are deeply integrated with the website builder itself— integrating technologies such as asset pipelines, CDNs, databases and more. It’s simply unrealistic for a website builder to pull a part your website into exportable HTML & CSS. That might’ve worked in 2008 but not today.
Some downloadable website builders (such as Adobe Muse) allow you to move your website to any host— but they have pretty severe limitations. For example contact forms will not work unless you upload to the official Adobe Muse web host.
Free Website Builders
Six website builders in our guide offer free plans. Besides limiting features, each website builder also adds an advertising banner to free websites.
Here’s what those banner ads look like (Yola has the least intrusive ads by far):
Design your Own Theme
If you would like to design your own theme from scratch there a few website builders that let you do this: Wix, Adobe Muse and IM Creator.
Up for something a little more sophisticated? Check out front end design tools like Webflow and Froont. They provide a ton of control for designing your website from scratch. They do not require you to learn to code but they do have a steeper learning curve than most website builders— think of them as similar to Photoshop in terms of skill level required.
What about SEO?
Be skeptical when a website builder tells you they’re “great for SEO.” Here’s the rule of thumb when it comes to SEO: create great content and user experience and Google will reward you. There is no magic dust a website builder can sprinkle on your website to make it "great for SEO."
The truth is the comparative SEO advantages and disadvantages between website builders is pretty minimal. If you run most website builder websites through Google’s PageSpeed Highlights you’ll find the websites are fast loading and have readable code.
If you’d like to learn more about SEO I would highly recommend Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO.
Wix once had a poor reputation for SEO— and aside from their current ugly URL naming architecture— Wix is today probably just as good as other website builders when it comes to SEO.
Tips for specific websites
Certain websites have particular needs— here's some helpful tips on different types of websites.
There are two options here: store builders and website builders. Store builders are designed purely for e-commerce websites. Website builders are designed for websites that might also want to do e-commerce.
But at a certain point it becomes wise to use a store builder. E-commerce is complex (for example: consider the complexities of calculating tax) and because a store builder is purely focussed on covering that complexity. For example, check out the Shopify app store. Shopify is one of the best store builders— and it’s app store will give an impression of just how may different features a mature e-commerce website will find itself needing.
This is a grey area. Squarespace, Wix and Weebly have been investing heavily in their e-commerce features in the last few years and are quickly gaining ground on store builders. It’s not completely unfathomable that a mature store could exist on these website builders.
Podcast websites have two unique needs: high bandwidth and syndication.
- High Bandwidth — Podcasts are self-hosted (even the ones you see iTunes) and podcast files can be quite large. Because of that you’re podcast files need to be on a host that can handle the load.
- Syndication — Podcasts require an XML feed that can be submitted to podcast directories (such as iTunes).
The only website builder we found that supports syndication is Squarespace— so that’s the only website builder that supports podcasting out of the box.
Bands & Musicians
Squarespace has a (beautiful) audio player, ecommerce for selling merch or digital downloads and a calendar system for upcoming shows. Even well-known artists such as Lenny Kravitz and Miguel use Squarespace.
Wix has a wide selection of audio players available— and like Squarespace it offers ecommerce and calendars. Unlike Squarespace, Wix also includes digital distribution. (Digital distribution is a way to publish music to Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and more.)
Want a more specific style of audio player? There’s also 3rd party audio player widgets you can embed on your website.
Most website builders have half-hearted support for donation systems— mostly amounting to an embeddable Paypal button looking something like this:
This is not a full donation system. It’s just a button that directs your visitors over to Paypal (and off your website). A full donation system lets you edit email receipts, set suggested amounts and— importantly— keep the checkout system on your website.
The only website builder that offers on-site donation checkout is Squarespace. From our testing, Squarespace had the best donation system. You can’t go wrong with it.
If you’re looking for alternative donation systems, here’s two great runner up options:
Photography websites typically need two things: beautiful galleries and a light theme that showcases the visuals. In our research Squarespace, Strikingly and Wix seemed popular with photographers for this reason.
There is also a whole category of website builders built specifically for photographers. Here’s a few examples: Format, Carbonmade, 22 Slides, Photoshelter, Dunked and SmugMug.
Most website builders offer blogging. The thing to note when choosing a website builder for blogging is whether they support common blog features— post categories, drafts, setting publish dates in the future, comments (and moderation features), customizable urls and more. And of course, they should also have a beautiful post editor.
Besides website builders, there are also platforms that are built specifically for blogging. A few examples: wordpress.com, TypePad, Tumblr and Blogger.
If your writing is more occasional, you may want to consider writing on Medium. Medium is a fast-growing platform, has a beautiful interface and helps promote your posts.
Sometimes there are specific features you want that a website builder just doesn’t cover. In this case you may want to consider using a widget:
|Form Builders||Formstack, WuFoo, Typeform||Donation systems, contact forms, surveys, simple ecommerce|
|Schedulers||Resurva, MindBody||Yoga studios, salons, barbershops|
|Audio Players||Soundcloud, Cincopa, Powr||Bands, musicians, podcasts|
|Ecommerce||Gumroad, Ecwid, Snipcart||Bands, musicians, podcasts|
|Search||Swiftype||Add a search engine to your site|
|Photo Galleries||Cincopa, Juicebox, Powr||Photographers, creatives, portfolios|
|Maps||Mapbox, Google Maps||Add a map to your site|
|Price Table||Powr||Add a price table to your site|
|Comments||Disqus, Facebook Comments||Add comments to your website|
|Polls||Polldaddy, Voting Dog, Poll Snack||Add a poll to your website|
|Live Chat||Olark, Zopim, Intercom||Chat live with website visitors|
|Calendars||Tockify, Google Calendar, Up.to||Embeddable calendars|
|Sharing Buttons||Juicer, ShareThis, Tint||Social media share buttons|