Over the past couple of years, I’ve fielded many questions from prospective clients about the difference between WordPress and all the DIY website builders. SquareSpace, Wix, and Weebly seem to be the leaders in this crowded field. Way behind them is the wreckage of similar companies that have come and gone, plus a number of often shoddily implemented free “page builders” built by hosting providers (e.g. GoDaddy).
On the eCommerce side there are pay-as-you-go platforms like Shopify and specialized markets like Etsy, eBay, and even Amazon where you can set up an account and sell without the trouble of creating a site from scratch. I build a lot of websites for artists and other creative people, and a related question from them is: do I really need a website when it’s so much easier to just post new work on Instagram?
These are good questions, and it’s not necessarily wrong to use one of these DIY platforms. They can be a quick and cheap proof of concept to test an idea without the expense of a custom website. Or for some organizations and individuals with limited budget, they can be a way to have a website. . . instead of no website.
This article is long, so here’s an overview:
- why it’s smart to own your website
- common design and customization problems with DIY website platforms
- devil’s advocate: why simple is sometimes acceptable
Owning the Platform
WordPress is open-source software, which means you can install it wherever you want and modify it however you need. As far as I know, all of the leading DIY page builders require you to use their servers, their installations, and you can’t modify the way the sites look or work. You pay a monthly fee to upload your content, and they handle the design and IT.
This model may work well enough at first (or not, see below), but there are three obvious ways it can go terribly wrong. In even the short history of the Internet, these three pitfalls have happened for many more companies than not. Before you commit to any platform, you should know:
- When you build a custom website, you own it. You make all the decisions that affect how it works, what it looks like, and how it’ll serve your cause. When you pay a subscription to use a service, you don’t actually own anything. These companies serve their own business interests, not yours, and they’ll do whatever makes the most money. The same is true for all social networks: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest. Their sites work one way, and one day they change, and they’re not interested in how those changes affect you. Many people and organizations have sunk enormous amounts of time into building a following or a website on a platform they don’t own, only to find the rules change around them. This often necessitates a major time commitment to retool, or in a worst case, starting over.
- If you own the website, its success is driven by you and your project. If you use a subscription, it’s tied to things you don’t control. Even if a web service or social network has the best of intentions and a skilled, flexible team, they may fail anyway. They might go out of business or have key team members leave the company so it goes slowly but steadily downhill. If they’re very successful, they might be thrilled to be snapped up by Facebook—which either kills the business to eliminate competition, rolls the good tech into their own platform, or changes it into something worthless and awful. The founders all buy Lamborghinis, and you’re left with uncertainty. Friendster, MySpace, Flickr, Google+, Vine. . . the list of businesses that got traction for a while and then faded into utter insignificance gets longer every day. If you’ve built your site around any company where you don’t own the asset, you risk losing everything.
- If you change your focus, you can pivot seamlessly with a custom site. Basic site builders usually don’t have the flexibility to do things differently. This usually means rebuilding from scratch on a more robust and flexible platform like WordPress. There’s no way to completely future-proof any Internet technology, because disruption happens so quickly. That said, you can save yourself an inevitable rebuild by starting with a platform that’s built to be flexible and powerful, not just “good enough for now.”
Design Limitations with DIY Website Templates
The good thing about WordPress is the same thing that can be bad about it: it’s open-source software, so whether it works well or poorly depends on the designer who set it up. People with minimal tech skills who try to build their own WP site are likely to become frustrated and fail. Inept designers will make something that kinda sorta works but has obvious flaws and is frustrating to use. Good designers make wonderful sites that are as easy to use as Squarespace or Wix—or if they’ve done a superlative job, it’s often easier.
Conversely, the simplicity that makes SS, Shopify, etc. useful for DIY projects for the nontechnical is exactly what limits their flexibility and utility for mature, polished eCommerce. All of these web services depend on simple templates that radically limit the design possibilities and interactive features. By using a “put your logo here, now put your email address here” fill-in-the-blank model, these page builders make it hard to fail completely, but they also make it impossible to get exactly what you want.
Some old-fashioned implementations of WordPress are built with a similar fill-in-the-blanks design, and these can be limiting in the same way. Fortunately, there are a number of advanced themes and page builders that give skilled designers the ability to create anything a small/medium sized business could want. With that power and flexibility comes complexity that usually requires someone with experience, and even the ability to edit code, to build. However, once these sites are finished, and the designer turns them over to the client to maintain, they look exactly how they should, they’re easy to work with, and there are none of those aggravating little “I wanted it to do ______ but I just couldn’t figure out how to make Squarespace do it” things that add up to drive you crazy.
I’ve done many website redesigns from people who started on one of the well known DIY platforms and got 80% of their way to the site they envisioned, but the remaining 20% proved impossible. Like one-size-fits-all clothing, these sites tend not to look disastrously bad, but they also tend to look generic compared to clothing with actual sizes, and shabby compared to clothes that have been tailored to fit.
Some people and organizations are either satisfied with the generic templates or they’re willing to live with whatever flaws keep their site from feeling perfect. This “good enough” decision is often driven by time or financial pressures, which is understandable enough. For those lucky folks who find everything they need on a reliable platform, this may be a valid approach. For others, it’s usually just a matter of time before too many customers complain, admin becomes too irritating, or any number of other factors accumulate to necessitate a rebuild. Naturally this ends up costing far more and taking much longer than just doing it right the first time.
When Simple DIY Templates May Be The Right Answer
In spite of all the above, there are times when I’ve worked with clients and though that one of these sites isn’t a terrible idea. Four situations when I’ve thought it was a valid approach:
- If you don’t have the money, a limited site is better than no site. I don’t think I need to explain this one ;)
- If you’re not sure your idea will work, these sites can serve as a cheap and easy demo, or proof of concept. Selling art online, for example, is tricky. If you’re not sure if your price point, medium, or some other factor is likely to work well, you could build a portfolio site in WordPress, then link it to an Etsy store in an hour and find out. If your work sells, it’ll be better over the long term to add eCommerce to your WordPress site. If it doesn’t, it might just not be the right work to sell online, and you saved yourself some effort and cash.
- If you’re not sure what you’re doing, you can think through the issues with one of these cheap and easy sites, then do a more thorough job when you know what works and what doesn’t. I love working with clients who’ve built a Wix site, or whatever, and they say “I want it to be just like this site, except fix these five things that can’t be done on Wix.” this gives me a good head start and often results in a fast and tidy project that makes everyone happy. This approach also works well for people who thought they knew what they were doing, but then learned how hard it is to build a really good website. There’s no shame in identifying all your pain points through trial and error, then turning it over to a pro to make everything frictionless and beautiful.
- If your project has a short lifespan, you won’t have to worry as much about the long-term viability of the platform. If your site is built for a specific purpose with a known endpoint, and after six months you’ll take it down, and you don’t need to archive it or save the content for any reason—then who cares if the platform goes away in eighteen months?
Website consultants with experience and good ethics will advise you to do things the right way. This usually involves spending a little more time, money, and thought to make a site that’s beautiful, easy to use, easy to update and maintain, does everything you want, and will last as long as it’s possible to foresee with the constantly churning web. Being aware of and following proven conventions will help most businesses and projects over the long term.
I’ve seen so many subscription based website builders over the years come and go. They promise a lot, get buzz, rack up lots of users. After a year or two they fail, are superseded by something better, blow their funding through mismanagement or tech failure. One way or another, they find ways to torpedo the website, often resulting in a total loss of the asset. WordPress is not only the dominant website platform—no other is even close—but one of a very small group of web authoring companies that has grown bigger and better year after year and shows no obvious vulnerability. Of that elite group, it’s the cheapest and easiest to use by an order of magnitude.
There are no long term safe bets on the web, but WordPress will probably be the most reliable, most flexible, and most value-driven platform as far as anyone can realistically foresee. Although some may look nice today, no subscription-based DIY platform can honestly make this claim.