What is a Website Builder?
If you are new to the internet, it can be daunting — especially if you want to publish on it.
In this article, we will look at your simplest option if you want to create a website: the website builder. But will go beyond that too!
Options and How to Choose
Today, very few websites are coded from scratch, instead, most sites are built using a framework or platform with an intuitive graphical interface, and template-based designs that can be customized with simple drag-and-drop tools.
If you need to create a personal blog, website for your business or social organization, or even an eCommerce site, you can do so without needing to know any code.
While some coding knowledge will certainly come in handy, it isn't mandatory for many of today's most popular website building application.
Template-Based Web Design
All website building platforms rely on templates. Website templates are very similar to the templates you'd use in a word processing application, except instead of choosing a brochure or a form letter, you're selecting an overall "look" (including colors, fonts, and images) for your website.
As with other templates, the elements within a website template are fully customizable. For example, you can swap out the boilerplate text and images with your own copy, or change the header, bullets, and sidebar to your corporate colors.
You also have the option to move or even delete elements altogether (useful if you're keeping things simple or creating a placeholder site for a more robust site that's still in development).
Some folks have a negative mental image of a template, and if that's you, you need to let go of that mental image. Today's website building platforms offer hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of templates from which to choose, giving you sufficient creative leeway to avoid the dreaded "cookie-cutter syndrome."
Picking a Website Builder
If you're ready to jump into building your site with a template-based website building application you're in the right place.
This guide will cover some of the most popular options on the market, and provide an introduction to some of the things you need to think about as you decide which platform is right for you.
In the interest of keeping things simple, we're going to consider website building applications using four major categories.
- Integrated website building and hosting platforms: these are complete packaged products that include a proprietary website-building application, access to proprietary templates and layouts, and hosting for your website.
- Web host provided website builders: several web hosts offer an easy site builder as a feature of their hosting plans.
- Self-hosted website builders: with a self-hosted solution you start by selecting the website builder and then choose from the hosting companies that offer them. Or, in some cases, install your own.
- Self-hosted content management systems: although somewhat more complicated than standard website builders, they offer extraordinary amounts of power. And the truth is, they are easier to use than ever. So don't count them out. They are worth looking into.
There are good reasons to select a platform from each of these categories. This guide takes a look at some of the most popular options on the market in each category, and considers the top pros and cons for each category.
At the end of it all, we'll offer some recommendations on which platform and option we think makes the most sense.
Integrated Website Platforms
The promise of an integrated website platform is simplicity. With an integrated product, you don't have to figure out how to buy a domain, how to upload files to a web server, how to install software, or how to keep anything updated and secure.
The platform you choose will take care of all of those concerns leaving you free to focus on building a site you're proud of.
Before jumping in with an integrated website building and hosting platform there are limitations inherent to this type of platform that you need to consider carefully.
- First, an integrated platform means you don't have the option to change hosting providers or hosting plans if your hosting needs outgrow what the platform provides.
- Second, since your website is built with a proprietary system, if you ever do leave the platform you may have to start from scratch building a new website.
- Third, you will only be able to host the files and applications allowed by your provider, as opposed to a standard web hosting account where you have a wide degree of latitude in how you use your server space.
- Finally, when you select an integrated platform a part of what you're paying for is convenience. These types of providers are typically more expensive than a shared hosting account.
With those limitations in mind, let's take a look at some of the most popular integrated website platforms available today.
Blogger is a completely free blogging platform from Google. Blogger is a great platform if you want a free personal blog.
However, if you ever hope to expand beyond a simple personal blog you'll want to steer clear of Blogger since it does not support the creation of revenue-streams, has a definite amateur feel and appearance, will only let you use a domain that is a subdomain of blogspot.com (for example: yourdomain.blogspot.com), and does not export data very well to other platforms.
Another free platform to think about, and one that is ideally suited to personal blogs, is WordPress.com.
Even if you've never used WordPress, you've probably heard a lot about it. It's the software that powers more websites than any other software. There are two flavors of WordPress available:
- WordPress.com is a free integrated website building and hosting platform provided by Automattic, the company behind the WordPress software.
- WordPress.org is the community where you can download a copy of the WordPress software to install on any web server and create a self-hosted WordPress-powered website.
Right now we're going to talk about the integrated platform at WordPress.com, and we'll talk about the self-hosted software available at WordPress.org when we get to self-hosted CMSs a little later in this guide.
When you sign up for a free account at WordPress.com you'll gain access to a few dozen decent templates, and free hosting at a WordPress.com subdomain (for example: www.yourdomain.wordpress.com). However, the free account lacks any support for commercial sites or custom domains.
If you want to do more than what you get for free, or if you want a custom domain name (for example: www.yourdomain.com), you'll need to opt for a premium (paid) account upgrade. WordPress.com offers quite a few premium solutions such as custom domains, support for e-commerce and revenue generating affiliate marketing.
If you ever decide to leave the WordPress.com platform you can export all of your content to a self-hosted WordPress site pretty easily. However, you can't export your website's design and layout. So even with a WordPress.com site you are pretty well locked into that specific platform.
With WIX you can get a great looking site posted quickly with only minimal technical know-how, and you can even integrate e-commerce features. However, when you select WIX you are locked into their system, and switching to a self-hosted solution will mean starting from scratch.
Squarespace templates are beautiful. While Squarespace is a much smaller company than WIX, the industry-leader in premium integrated website platforms, Squarespace is the one getting all of the hot press right now. Squarespace offers a very user-friendly interface, and award-winning templates.
Squarespace does support e-commerce sites, and is a viable option for creating most types of simple websites. However, Squarespace suffers from the limitations that afflict all integrated platforms: once you build a Squarespace site you're locked in unless you want to start a new site from scratch.
Weebly is another popular integrated platform. It offers lots of good-looking templates and integrated hosting. Weebly is arguably the strongest e-commerce site builder available from the ranks of the all-purpose integrated website building and hosting platforms.
Just as with the other players in this category, migrating a site to Weebly, or away from Weebly, just isn't very easy. So if you don't plan on using Weebly forever, it doesn't make a lot of sense to get started.
As we will discuss later, you can get Weebly self-hosted, so you aren't stuck with the same host the rest of your life.
Shopify is a niche player within the integrated website building and hosting space. With a dedicated focus on e-commerce sites, Shopify doesn't go after other types of website building such as blogs or corporate sites.
Many Shopify users will actually use it to build just the e-commerce component of their website. In those cases, the main portion of the site is typically hosted by a general web hosting provider while the e-commerce portion of the site is hosted by Shopify. BigCommerce is another online shop builder worth looking at.
There are many other integrated website building and hosting platforms to choose from. We've talked about the most well known and respected platforms, but there are many others you could also consider.
If you've decided to make a go of it with an integrated website building and hosting platform check out all the options we've mentioned and also take a look at two more: Jimdo and IM Creator.
Using an integrated website building and hosting platform is the fastest and easiest way to get a website. Just remember that it isn't the cheapest option, and you'll be locked in with the provider you choose for the life of the website.
Web Host Provided Website Builders
Positioned firmly between the integrated website products and the self-hosted platforms we find web host provided website builders.
If you take a look at many shared hosting plans you'll find that many include access to some sort of free simple website builder which is integrated into the hosting account control panel.
If you go with a web host provided solution you get the scalability of working directly with the hosting provider, coupled with the convenience and ease-of-use provided by a simple website builder. However, with this option you are still locked down to a certain degree since most websites built with a web host provided website builder do not move well to new hosting providers.
There are many different hosting providers that offer integrated easy website builders. In this article, we'll take a look at three of best known.
The website builder offered by GoDaddy is offered as a separate stand-alone product, and is not included in their standard web hosting plans. The builder is sold on a single-site basis (you can't host multiple sites with a website builder plan).
To be honest, while certainly serviceable, the templates aren't as compelling as what you can get from an integrated website builder and hosting provider such as Squarespace or WIX. However, when you select Go Daddy you're hosting with an honest-to-goodness hosting company — and a respected one at that.
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Self-Hosted Website Builders
Self-hosted website builders usually work in an unusual way that is not as constraining as integrated and web host provided builders. But they usually do constrain you to the extent that you are limited to hosts that you can move to.
Most hosts will offer you the use of one or more website builder included with your hosting. This is good in that it doesn't lock you into that host. But if you choose to leave the host, you will likely be limited to hosts that also offer that website builder.
Thus, it is a good idea to see what hosts will be available to you before making a final decision. Below, we'll discuss some of the more popular ones:
Self-Hosted Website Builder List
Here is a list of some of the better website builders that you can find at a fair number of hosting companies.
- RVSiteBuilder: this website builder has been around a long time, but has constantly improved and moved with the times. So don't be misled by old reviews that claim it isn't drag and drop. It's a solid website builder worth checking out.
- Weebly: yes, it also has the equivalent of a standalone website builder that hosts can provide. But be careful. Depending upon the set-up it may be difficult to move hosts — or even impossible.
- Kopage: an easy-to-use website builder that also allows you to code in HTML if you like.
- SitePad: another drag-and-drop website builder offered by many hostingcompanies.
There are many more. A good thing to do is go to our web hosting reviews and see what different hosts offer. A2 Hosting, for example, offers a sitebuilder package with over two dozen tools — a number of which are classic sitebuilders like SitePad.
The Open-Source Options
The option with the most control is the open-source one — that is, the one that is free and can be installed everywhere.
The biggest open-source website builder is Soholaunch. Many web hosting companies offer it because it is free for them to do so.
However, if your host doesn't offer it, you may not be able to install it on your server. If you have a VPS or dedicated server, it is no problem: you are in control. But if your website runs on a shared host, you could get stuck.
You likely won't have the permissions to install Soholaunch. If you can't, you will be forced to ask your host to install it for you. They may not be willing to. There may be a reason they haven't already installed it. So still be careful.
Here's a pro tip: the best time to ask your host to install software is before you sign up.
Self-Hosted Content Management Systems
There is simply no comparison between the flexibility and power of a self-hosted solution, and either an integrated or web host provided platform.
When you select a self-hosted website building platform you have complete control. You select the website building software, you select the hosting provider and plan, you install applications exactly where you want them installed, and you have the option to integrate third-party applications to your heart's content.
Of course, the downside to all of this freedom and power is that you have to know, or learn, how to do all of these things.
Thankfully, to make the process a little easier, most hosting providers offer automatic installation of website building platforms, or easy one-click installation through a commercial script library that is integrated right into your hosting account control panel. If all else fails, manual installation of a website building application using a file-transfer protocol (FTP) client isn't nearly as complicated as you might think.
The correct name for a self-hosted website building application is a content management system (CMS). A content management system is an application that gives you an intuitive interface from which to design your site's appearance and add content to your site. It allows you to see as little, or as much, of the code behind the site as you wish.
Depending on the CMS you choose you'll be able to pick from hundreds or thousands of free and premium templates and plugins to customize the look and functionality of your self-hosted site.
We already talked about the integrated version of WordPress, now we'll talk about the self-hosted version which is available for download from WordPress.org. In addition to the manual download and installation process, WordPress is also offered as an automatic installation by many hosting providers, or as a one-click installation by virtually all hosting providers.
WordPress itself is free, however, you'll need to select a hosting provider and sign up for a plan before you can get moving with WordPress. The good news is that virtually any hosting plan will support a WordPress installation.
Since virtually any hosting provider can support a WordPress installation you are completely free to jump from one hosting provider to another, or from one hosting level to another as your needs change.
While we don't mean to downplay the reality that some technical know-how is required to make such a move, it's important to remember that going with a flexible application like WordPress, and a self-hosted platform, means you are in control of your hosting situation and not the other way around.
Managed WordPress hosting has also been growing in popularity recently. With managed WP hosting you have a hybrid solution that takes all the installation and application management work out of the equation (similar to integration website building and hosting platforms), but retains the flexibility and robust hosting options offered by a self-hosted WordPress installation.
Established and Flexible
It's hard to overstate the influence of WordPress on the internet. WordPress is the engine that powers around 40% of the internet. About half of these sites are WordPress.com sites, and the other half are self-hosted WordPress installations.
One of the things that has driven the popularity of WordPress is its flexibility. It is possible to create nearly any type of website with WordPress. WordPress with WooCommerce powers more e-commerce sites than any other platform. BuddyPress turns WordPress into a social media platform. Unless you're planning on creating a brand new website concept that defies current definitions, it's likely WordPress can, and has been, used to create something similar.
Another thing that drives the popularity of WordPress is the mountain of themes and plugins available for free, or at a reasonable cost. There are themes suitable for beginners who want to create a simple blog, as well as themes that are used every day as a website development framework by professional developers.
Loads of Support
WordPress is supported by an incredibly large and passionate community. There are literally thousands of WordPress theme and plugin developers, as well as professional website developers who only build WordPress-powered websites. The WordPress.org community is one of the best designed and most active on the internet.
WordPress — Cons
Sounds great right? So what's the downside?
WordPress isn't as easy to get started with as an integrated solution. The incredible flexibility of WordPress means that it's up to you to figure out how to use it. You won't be without help — remember that great community we talked about? However, if you're new to WordPress it will take longer to get a site up and running with WordPress than with an integrated solution.
In the long run, we think a self-hosted WordPress site makes a lot more sense than just about anything else. However, you can expect more of a learning curve when you get started with WordPress than you would see if you were to go with an integrated website building and hosting platform.
Joomla is another popular free CMS. While not as widely used as WordPress, Joomla also boasts a strong user community and lots of themes and modules you can use to craft Joomla into whatever sort of site you want to build.
While you can get away without seeing a single line of code in WordPress if you want to, it gets a little tougher to do that with Joomla. While you don't need to be a programmer to use Joomla, you will probably end up spending at least some time tinkering with code to get your site exactly the way you want it.
Using Joomla for a blog or standard website is certainly a possibility, but doing so will be more challenging than accomplishing the same thing in WordPress. Where some developers give Joomla the edge over WordPress is in the creation of complex e-commerce sites and social networks.
Another free general-purpose content management system, Drupal is the least beginner-friendly of the three general-purpose CMSs featured in this article. However, many developers would argue that it's the most powerful. Drupal is free, like Joomla and WordPress, and normally offered as an easy one-click installation. As with any self-hosted solution, another major selling point with Drupal is hosting flexibility. If you want or need to make a hosting change, go ahead and make it, no sweat.
Security is where Drupal really stands out. While Joomla and WordPress are both considered to be fairly secure, Drupal is one of the most secure platforms available — even Whitehouse.gov was built with Drupal. This makes Drupal a compelling choice for e-commerce sites, healthcare industry sites, or any type of site that will store sensitive information.
Magento is the CMS for self-hosted e-commerce websites. Available in free and premium versions, Magento is intended to power e-commerce websites, and while it does have limited functionality as a general purpose CMS, and can be fitted with extensions for features such as blogs and forums, Magento should only be in the running if you're creating an e-commerce site. As an e-commerce website CMS, Magento is a very powerful platform.
Other Notable CMS Options
It seems a little unfair to stop the CMS conversation with just the four mentioned so far. There are many other high-quality CMS options to consider. While we won't devote a lot of time and space to each, here's a brief word on some of the other major players worth considering. If you're seriously thinking about a self-hosted website build with a CMS, you should spend a few minutes considering each of these.
- vBulletin: A premium (paid) application designed primarily as a forum platform, but includes content management and blogging functions. A worthwhile option for forum type websites.
- ExpressionEngine: Another premium (paid) content management system that provides very strong layout and templating control without requiring knowledge of programming. This has made ExpressionEngine a popular CMS among developers who either don't know, or don't want to mess with, backend PHP script.
- DotNetNuke: Available in a free community version and a premium version. One of the few CMS options designed for Windows servers. If you're a Windows developer looking for a CMS in a familiar language, DotNetNuke (recently renamed DNN Platform) is worth checking out.
- ModX: A free CMS aimed at developers who want to tinker with PHP to get the site looking exactly the way they want it.
- Honorable mention: TextPattern, RefineryCMS, Concrete5, TinyCMS, and many more (but we have to stop sometime).
So what have learned? If you want to create a website quickly, with a great looking template, and don't anticipate ever moving to a new hosting provider, an integrated website building and hosting platform is a compelling option. However, if you want complete control over your website, and the flexibility to switch between hosting providers and plans as your needs change, a self-hosted solution is the only way to go.
If you want to know our opinion on the matter, here it is: for the vast majority of situations a self-hosted WordPress website makes an awful lot of sense.
That doesn't mean that other solutions are without merit, but in our opinion, a self-hosted WordPress solution offers the most compelling combination of beginner-friendliness, the flexibility to be molded into just about any type of site, great looking templates, scalability, and an expansive and supportive community.
If you're like us, and you've decided a self-hosted WordPress site makes the most sense, but are still a little worried about the technical hosting aspects you should give serious consideration to a managed WordPress hosting plan.
With a managed WordPress hosting plan you'll get automatic installation of the software on your account, automatic software updates and security scans by the hosting providers, and customer support by support techs who are WordPress experts.
Building even a simple website used to require a lot of technical knowledge and coding know-how. However, those days are in the past. If you need a simple website, and don't have the budget to hire a professional web design and development firm, a little research to make sure you pick the right platform, coupled with some patience and persistence, will empower you to build a website that meets your needs at a cost that won't overwhelm.
Other features in Hosting Types
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Website Builders Frequently Asked Questions
- What is a web site builder?
A website builder allows you to create a website without any coding knowledge. You use your web browser to design the site by dragging and dropping components onto the page.
Website builders typically include widgets, or modules, for things like RSS feeds, contact forms, blogging, and social media links.
- Which website builder is best?
That depends on the type of website you want to create.
If you need a regular business site, any website builder can make basic layouts.
But if you want to build an ecommerce store, you may need a more specialized product.
Look at hosting companies' website builders, and compare them with platforms like Shopify (an ecommerce website builder), and BoldGrid (a website builder that sits on top of WordPress).