One of the most important decisions you can make is which platform is the best to use to build your website. Unfortunately, because most people don’t understand the pros and cons of each, they let their web developer make the decisions for them. Sometimes this works out, but can often be a terrible mistake.
The problem is, most developers use what they know, and that is not always the right tool for the job. Many designers love platforms such as SquareSpace, Wix, or Weebly because they require no coding knowledge and are quick and easy to setup. However, all too often, this is a short-sighted approach.
We regularly find that new clients have wasted money having a site built that could not grow with their business. We have to throw away the majority of their previous investment and start again. This waste can be incredibly frustrating.
As a business owner, it is your responsibility to do your research before having a site built or upgraded. To help you, here is an overview of the pros and cons of each option…
(I should possibly point out that I am in a rare position to comment on the difference between the two. I am the founder of one of the first-ever hosted platforms, FusionHQ. Also, I have been building sites for over 16 years on a variety of open-source solutions, for both personal and client projects.)
Proprietary Hosted Platforms
The first group of options we will look at are proprietary hosted solutions. These include the likes of Wix, Weebly, AirSquare, SquareSpace and Shopify. Each of these has its advantages and disadvantages; however, there are some generalities.
General Pros: The most significant benefits to these options are that they are quick to set up and easy to maintain. You just need to create an account, and most have templates that will have you up and running in no time.
As the platforms are all managed by the companies that created them, updates are automatic, servers are provided and managed, and security is taken care of. This simplicity makes them very popular with business owners that want to build their own site, or web designers who are neither technically competent, nor have a tech person on their team.
This speed of setup and technical simplicity means that sites built on these platforms generally cost less. The (sometimes) lower upfront makes them very appealing to businesses on a tight budget.
Most of these platforms also have easy to use page editors, making it straightforward for business owners to manage and update their sites, helping keep ongoing costs low too. Some, such as Wix, even offer a free plan, meaning you can build and run your website for zero cost.
General Cons: The main issues with these platforms are that they lack flexibility. While some allow coders to create extensions for them, the potential functionality is limited. Paying for existing plugins can add a lot of extra development cost or ongoing expenses. Getting custom code written is even more pricey.
Another downside is that you have limited ownership or control of your data. All the files and information are stored on your provider’s servers, to which you have no direct access. This lack of accessibility can be an issue if you want to extract certain data or want to edit specific files at the code level (which is almost always impossible).
Because the servers are fixed, you are unable to choose where your site is hosted, or improve your server speed. This issue alone usually makes proprietary platforms a non-starter for us. Server location and speed can make a significant difference to the performance of your site, and ultimately your potential to rank well in the search engines (which can provide a substantial percentage of your business).
This lack of control can also leave your business vulnerable to the stability and success of the platform you choose. If the company goes under, or ceases trading for any reason, then say goodbye to your website. While the risk is relatively low for the larger companies, it is very high for the smaller ones, and in reality, could happen to any of them at any time.
Perhaps the biggest issue though, is their lack of flexibility to grow with your business. While they are all capable of coping with any increase in the number of visitors, as mentioned before, functionality can be limited. While this may not be an issue when you first build your site, it often becomes an issue as you begin to expand your digital marketing efforts, or want to automate more of your business.
You don’t know what you don’t know. And this is probably the number one reason business owners opt for a proprietary solution. If you have yet to understand the full potential of digital marketing, analytics tracking, or future functionality, then it is easy to make decisions on short term false economy.
A saving of even a few thousand dollars now could cost you substantially more later in rebuilding your site, suboptimal efficiency, or missed sales (this is undoubtedly the highest cost of all).
Let’s take a quick look at some of the most popular choices …
Wix: Wix is one of the more popular platforms due to its simplicity, and its free plan. As a business though, do not be tempted by the free option – it is not suited for professional purposes.
Wix is exceptionally simple, and can be a suitable choice for a basic onsite brochure site. Unfortunately, their paid plans are not especially good value in terms of the features they offer, and it can become constrained very quickly.
We rarely see Wix sites ranking well in Google, and there is very little control over what you can do to change this. In our opinion, Wix is certainly not an option for serious businesses.
Weebly: Another platform that offers a free plan (which, again, should never be considered by a business), Weebly does at least have better potential functionality in its premium plans.
It is one of the cheaper options for having an online store, though be warned, it is very limited compared to many other options. For us, the limitations do not justify the low cost. If you are going to create an online store, then be serious about it. Competition online is stiff, and you will really benefit from having a more robust platform to give yourself a fighting chance.
It is not to say you can’t make online sales with something like Weebly, just that the profit you will miss out on will be much greater than the money you are saving by choosing a more limited store such as this.
SquareSpace: Certainly one of the favourites amongst graphic designers, SquareSpace can produce some excellent looking sites with minimal effort. It is a little pricer than either Wix or Weebly, but generally, I think well worth the extra.
It has a relatively well-supported community developing extensions for it, which allows for a respectable level of extended functionality and integration into other platforms. However, it is still limited, and can be harder to create a more custom look than some of the self-hosted options.
AirSquare: This is by far the smallest of all the platforms, but one we come across quite frequently due to it being based locally to us. It has a respectable range of functionality, including a ticketing option. It is competitively priced, and has a very personal level of support from its founder.
For New Zealand based businesses, it has the advantage of being optimised for the New Zealand market, and having support that runs during New Zealand hours.
Unfortunately, it comes with two massive downsides. The first is its page builder, which is exceptionally outdated. For anyone used to dealing with old school Content Management Systems, it may appear user-friendly, for anyone coming from any of the more modern page builders it is positively archaic.
The far more concerning issue though is its size. The company is tiny, which is why it struggles to keep up with the progress of much larger competitors. This leaves the platform not only outdated, but at massive risk of collapsing. And, should anything ever happen to the owner (which is when, not if), then it is highly unlikely the business will survive – which will mean the death of your website and all you invested into it.
For us, this last risk makes it impossible for us to recommend.
Shopify: While they do offer some content management and blogging functionality, unlike the others listed here, Shopify really specialises in eCommerce. It is also by far the most expensive.
It is quick and easy to launch a simple store, but can be much harder to customise the design or functionality. The base plan is relatively affordable, starting at US$29/month, plus 2% of all transactions on top of the usual credit card processing fees. If your store does okay though, you will soon be paying much more than this.
While their site shows the maximum plan of US$299/month, this is only for their primary offering. Once you start doing high volume, or want more advanced customisation, things can get expensive fast. One friend of mine is paying over US$6,000/month!
Even if you don’t take their pro plans, Shopify can still end up being very expensive. Many of the third-party plugins you will want usually cost from between US$29/month and US$97/month each. This adds up really quickly.
Shopify is stable, well supported, and typically cheaper to launch than self-hosted options. The hidden and long term costs though soon make this far less appealing in our view, hence despite its popularity, it is rare we ever recommend it.
Open-Source Self-Hosted Platforms
Open-Source means that the software is free for anyone to use. Usually, rather than a single team of developers working in it, there are individuals and companies all around the world working to improve the platform. Self-hosted means that you need to arrange hosting to run your site – which can range in cost from very cheap to extremely expensive (depending on your needs).
There are many possibilities in this category, but we will limit this overview to just those that stand out.
General Pros: If you chose one of the more popular platforms (covered here) there are thousands of coders working to improve the software. While not all of the improvements make it to the core updates, needless to say, improvements are fast and constant.
Because the core code is free and extremely popular, it is straightforward to find developers that can work on your site, which makes losing or changing a developer far less problematic. Also, as the code is open, it means that it is easy to modify, making it extremely flexible.
Another benefit is that you have control over both your server and your content. For serious businesses, this can provide both peace of mind and a competitive advantage over those using any of these previously listed solutions.
For long term control and expansion of your business, it really can be hard to beat the better options out there.
General Cos: Perhaps the most recognised downsides to these options are the often higher upfront cost (due to setup time), and a higher level of ongoing maintenance.
A more significant issue though is that of cowboys. Some of these options (such as WordPress) can actually be setup in under five minutes. The problem is that, out of the box, most of these options are prone to getting hacked, are slow, and are not well configured for SEO.
To make professional-grade sites on these platforms requires a lot of work adding and configuring the right plugins. If not, then the site will often be challenging to use, and cause many problems.
The sites also need constant updating (which, if setup well, can often be automated to a certain degree).
Another downside of the smaller open-source projects is that they can often become abandoned, leaving you with a site that becomes vulnerable and outdated. But don’t worry, I won’t cover any of the options that are likely to fall foul to this risk.
So let’s take a look at some of the more popular (and generally better) options in this category …
Joomla: A reasonably simple content management system that has been around since 2005, making it well supported. Its default installation is perhaps the easiest to use of all the platforms covered here, but its power and potential also the most limited.
It has lost a lot of market share over the years, and the benefits it has over the alternatives are simply not that great, and are easily matched with the right setup.
Drupal: This is by far the most complex, and not for the faint-hearted. For professional developers this may be the best choice to provide a base for something quite customised, but its audience is quite a niche.
Unless your developer can give an excellent reason for using this, we generally find that the complexity of everyday use, and the smaller community around this platform rarely make it the optimal choice.
WordPress: The king of website platforms, WordPress is so popular it powers approximately 1 in 4 of ALL websites. That’s around ten times either Joomla or Drupal, and almost 60 times more sites than SquareSpace!
It is often discredited as being an amateur solution, yet nothing could be further from the truth. While there are MANY amateurs creating shocking sites with WordPress, it is also favoured by most of the real professionals. To give you an idea, here are just a few sites that use WordPress …
TechCrunch, Microsoft news, TED Blog, BBC America, PlayStation, Skype, Disney, Yelp, Facebook Newsroom, MTV News, Vogue, Evernote, Flickr, The Whitehouse, Tucows, Sony Music, The New York Times, ExpressJet, Wired, Fortune, TimeInc, AirStream, Van Heusen, Cure.org … you get the idea.
In short, WordPress is chosen and trusted by many of the biggest companies and most popular sites on the internet. But why?
If you have ever used a poorly installed version of WordPress, you may wonder why indeed. It is horrible to use. The admin area can be confusing, the page editor very limited, and its security and SEO shocking. However, if setup well with the right plugins, it is an entirely different kettle of fish.
Sadly, by far the majority of WordPress sites are awful, both in terms of front end design and backend usability. Learning to setup WordPress, install a theme and add a couple of plugins is not that hard – which is precisely why cowboys are creating sites for people, and so many business owners are trying to do it themselves.
A bad WordPress site is a really, really bad idea. A good WordPress site is perhaps the best option for the vast majority of business. When setup well, security, speed and usability are no longer a problem, and an expert has enormous control over everything.
While initially designed as a blogging platform, WordPress now has over 65,000 plugins available for it, which can give it the ability to become anything from an eCommerce or booking platform to a membership or directory site. It also has some of the most powerful, yet simple to use, page editors of any platform out there.
We are big fans of Elementor (though Beaver Builder and Thrive are both decent options too). Elementor gives WordPress a drag and drop interface to add all kinds of content and functionality (including text, images, layered images, video, testimonial feeds, forms, buttons, maps, etc.). This can help make it faster to build a site (therefore reducing cost), and makes it super simple for clients to manage themselves.
The real benefit to WordPress though, is its ability to be future proof, and grow with you as your business needs change. You can not see the future, but if you want to add eCommerce functionality in the future, no problem. Want to do advanced tracking, add an affiliate program, members area, booking system, directory, or a custom calculator? No problem.
Because it is the most popular platform by far, it is also the most well supported by far. If you need to integrate any payment gateway, autoresponder, analytics, or other third-party platforms, then you are sure to have no issues.
Also, if you ever need custom functionality, then you should find someone who can build it into WordPress for you. And, if you ever need to find someone to take over the management or development of your site, there are more WordPress experts than experts for any other platform.
This is not to say WordPress is the perfect solution for everyone, or that every WordPress website is excellent. As mentioned, many are terrible. If you are not willing to invest in getting a true professional to configure it for you, then you are probably better off going with one of the proprietary hosted platforms. There are some projects too that are so customised they are better off being built as custom code – though these are a tiny minority of sites.
For digital marketing, WordPress allows for unparalleled control. No matter if you are doing SEO, creating landing pages for Ad campaigns, running an affiliate program, doing advanced tracking, testing or analytics, WordPress almost always beats the competition.
As you can probably guess, WordPress is our platform of choice more than nine times out of ten. It is not that we are not aware of its downsides; it is just that we know how to overcome them. And, when you do, it is hard to find another option that comes close to comparing.
Magento: This is the ‘Shopify’ of the open-source world as it specialises in eCommerce (and does a very respectable job). Many large companies use it as it is a more powerful eCommerce solution than Woo for WordPress – though for most online stores Woo on WordPress is more than powerful enough.
There are occasions though where Magento is preferable, but it is not without its downsides. For a start, Magento developers are usually more expensive, especially for v2. (Version 1 of Magento had shocking usability, and was much slower, so if you are building a site you will want to be using the latest version.)
Magento does have a good community of third-party developers; however extensions are usually more expensive than WordPress, and options far more limited. And, while it does have a blogging capability, its page builders and content management are very primitive compared to WordPress.
Occasionally we have used the two solutions together (using Magento as the store, and WordPress for content, SEO, and other functionality). The downside to this is that you need to setup and maintain two platforms, so it is only recommended to do this if you have specific eCommerce needs that WooCommerce can not manage.
For the vast majority of businesses, WordPress is by far the best solution to use for their website – with the one caveat that it is setup correctly and has the right plugins installed.
It provides the highest degree of power, flexibility, control and future-proofing. It is often dissed by those who lack the understanding, skills or team to use it properly, but it remains the first choice by the vast majority of industry experts.
As a business, we would not recommend anything we would not use ourselves, and we use WordPress for almost all our own projects. This is not because we can’t create a site faster or cheaper using SquareSpace or something similar, it because we do not believe the pros outweigh the cons.
And don’t forget, whichever your platform of choice, never sacrifice design for usability or conversions. The purpose of your site (make sales, booking, enquiries, give information, generate store visits, etc.) should always drive decision making.
Going for the cheapest option now will almost always cost you more later. Any short term extra cost is quickly repaid, making far better financial sense in the long run.
If you have had a bad experience with WordPress before (which the majority of previous WordPress users will have had), then drop us a line or give us a call to discuss how these can be overcome or avoided in the future. ;