The Internet has had a fundamental impact across all major industries. Now, anyone with a web-enabled device can communicate and transact with people from around the world. While the Internet has only been around since the 90s, it’s almost impossible to imagine life without it.
Commerce is one major area that the Internet has completely altered. An online presence meant that geographic location was no longer a limiting factor, making it possible for brands to reach a global audience.
But the technology was still in the early stages.
Powerful computers and high-speed connections simply didn’t exist back then. As a result, most websites were comprised of largely text with minimal graphics. There was no such thing as what we know today as page layout—the arrangement of visual elements—which would eventually be one of the major building blocks of web design.
Here’s an early example of Amazon’s design from the 90s:
And here’s what it looks now:
Websites today are far more capable and functional.
A lot has changed since the first website went live over two decades ago. What was once a rather novel networking tool has now become an indispensable component for every business.
But a huge caveat at the time was that sites had to be built from the ground up. Business owners who wanted their own website had to either hire web developers or learn how to code it themselves. This presented a number of technical and financial challenges as developing a website was significantly higher. Maintaining a website was also rather time consuming as even making small changes required numerous steps.
Many of these challenges are no longer a problem today. New tools are now readily available that make it possible for any brand to build professional websites without having to write a single line of code. What’s more is that many of these solutions are incredibly affordable.
This is where website builders come in. Not software applications like Adobe Dreamweaver but hosted solutions that offer drop and drop functionality and pre-built templates.
If you use Facebook or any other social network, you’ve likely seen ads like this:
There is no shortage of website builders but Weebly is one of the more popular ones. It’s an example of a WYSIWYG (an acronym for “what you see is what you get”) editor that lets you build professional looking websites even with zero technical expertise.
Pricing is also very reasonable at up to $25 a month which includes a number of additional features.
And there is even the option to build your own e-commerce store if you want to sell online. But before you make the leap, you should understand the distinction between website builders and hard coding.
Website Builder Pros and Cons
Website builders are appealing for a number of reasons:
- Incredibly easy to use: Website builders are built to be as user friendly as possible. Features such as drag and drop allow you to easily arrange visual elements on a page.
- No coding required: Coding requires years of learning to become proficient, time that you may not necessarily have as a business owner. With website builders you won’t have to learn how to code as the system is already built with an editor. This can save you a great deal of time and frustration especially when you want to go live as soon as possible.
- Pre-built templates: The average page visit lasts 10 to 20 seconds. A professional website design is crucial to engage your visitors and keep them on your pages longer. But designing a visually appealing site is no easy task. Website builders come with a whole library of pre-built templates to choose from.
- Step by step wizard: The idea of building an entirely new website can be daunting. Website builders typically include a step by step wizard that walks you through the entire process from selecting a template to uploading photos and entering your business information.
There are many other website builders to choose from with similar features and competitive pricing but the general premise is the same: Build beautiful websites without writing any code.
But there are major disadvantages of course.
Just take a look at some of the largest sites in the world. One thing you’ll notice right away is that none of them use website builders. They’re either coded entirely from the ground up or deploy a CMS (content management system). And there’s a reason for that as website builders have numerous limitations.
Some of these include:
- Inability to export code: A number of website builders don’t allow users to export the code or even edit the HTML or CSS files. Some website builders also have limited export functionality, making it difficult to migrate to another platform.So if you decide to switch to a CMS, you’ll need to start from scratch again.
- Limited storage: Even paid options will limit your allotment of bandwidth and storage. Think of this as a self storage unit. It may be fine if you just have a few things stored, but once it starts to fill up things get clogged up and disorganised. This is much the same as hard drive storage. Not having enough of it can create a huge bottleneck for larger sites, even if you stil have some storage left. You undoubtedly want your site to grow but limited storage makes it difficult.
- Restricted features: Most website builders offer different packages that are suitable for personal or business use. But depending on the package you get, certain features might be restricted or even removed entirely unless you upgrade. Some examples include having a limited number of pages you can create.
- Pre-built templates: One of the advantages of website builders is also a disadvantage. Any pre-built template you choose is likely already used by hundreds, perhaps thousands of other sites. When you want to build a unique brand identity, pre-built templates just won’t cut it.
Another disadvantage is that some website builders even charge transaction fees to sell products online. For example, Weebly charges a 3% fee for each transaction for its Starter and Pro packages. It doesn’t sound like much but those fees can really add up.
On the other end of the spectrum are hard coded websites.
Hard Coded Websites
Hard coding is exactly what it sounds like, hard, coding work.
It involves coding a website with CSS and HTML entirely from the ground up. There is no step by step wizard to build your site or pre-built template to choose from. There isn’t even a “back-end” to log in to. Any and all edits must be made using software like Dreamweaver or a text editor, and then uploaded to the web.
The advantages of hard coding a website include:
- More control: Hard coding means that you have complete control over your site. This alone is why many business owners choose this approach over website builders. It gives them the flexibility to modify their websites as their business expands.
- Simpler code: Websites that are hard coded tend to be bare bones in terms of code. But because there isn’t any extraneous code, pages load faster for all users. Reduced HTML mark-up also helps to make webpages more search engine friendly.
- More secure: Even website builders are susceptible to hacking. Because the same code is used across all templates, it makes it a more attractive target for hackers. In fact, Weebly was attacked just last year with credentials from more than 43 million accounts stolen in a breach which left millions of accounts vulnerable.
- Little maintenance: Once a hard coded website is live, you won’t need to install any new updates or make regular backups. This means they can run on cheaper servers, reducing costs in the long run as most website builders require paid subscriptions to use the features.
The obvious caveat here though is that hard coding a website not only requires extensive coding knowledge, but it can also be incredibly time-consuming. Web developers have the technical know-how to build and maintain websites. But as a business owner, you have orders to fulfill and customers to manage. You simply don’t have the time to hard code your own site.
The question now is should you go with a website builder or hard code one yourself?
If all you want is a simple website with only a few pages and have limited technical expertise, then website builders may be the perfect option for your business. But if you are looking for more features and functionality, you’re better off with a custom solution.
Either approach will ultimately help get your business online but there are tradeoffs to consider.
While it’s next to impossible to get something that matches all three criteria, there’s another solution that offers a good compromise between website builders and hard coding: content management systems.
Content Management System Overview
Content management systems (CMS) are applications that streamline content creation on the web. Just like website builders, they provide an intuitive interface for users. Although there is a higher learning curve, building a fully functional site is possible even with minimal technical experience.
WordPress is perhaps the most popular CMS, powering 27.5% of the top 10 million websites. That percentage is even higher when you look at the market share of the top million websites:
WordPress is an open source software meaning that it is freely available for download. It’s also backed by a large development community so it is constantly receiving new features and security updates. What’s more is that you can have a fully functional site for just the cost of a domain name and hosting.
Here is what makes WordPress such a popular platform and why it might be a better choice for your business.
Ease of Use
WordPress comes with an intuitive interface that makes it easy to add or edit your content. Simply write your content and click on the Publish content for it to go live. No need to use any coding or FTP programs to get your content on the web.
WordPress is primarily a blogging platform. But as a CMS, it’s built to be flexible and can power anything from personal blogs to university websites. There are even ways to transform any WordPress site into an e-commerce store which is something that WooCommerce offers.
The WordPress theme directory includes tons of themes you can download and install right from the dashboard. And if you still can’t find a design that you’re completely satisfied with, there are plenty of paid options available. Or you can hire WordPress developers to build a custom theme for your business.
What makes WordPress so versatile is that new functionality can be added with plugins. Want to add social sharing buttons to your site or add a contact form on your homepage? You can easily download and install an appropriate plugin from the dashboard.
WordPress can be as simple or complex as you want it to be.
The obvious downside is that it’s not as straightforward as website builders. There’s also a slight learning curve and you’ll need to dig into the code to make tweaks to your themes. Not to mention that you’ll also need to install security updates as they get released. But getting over the initial hurdles means greater control and flexibility, options you’ll definitely want as your business expands.