As a web designer, I often get this question from friends, family and acquaintances when they are looking to do (or redo) their website. It’s a big decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and there’s so much information out there that it can be overwhelming. The short answer is – it depends. It really does, and that’s coming from someone who LOVES WordPress – While it’s my preferred content management system, it’s certainly not the right fit for everybody.
So, to save me typing out the answer to this question ten million more times… here is my professional opinion on the top website builders (also known as Content Management Systems) out there.
In our opinion, there are only really a few strong contenders. The ones we’ve provided a review on are Wix, Squarespace, WordPress & Shopify. There are a tonne of other options available, but these are the most well-known and the ones we are asked about the most.
This builder is very popular with businesses who are just finding their feet – and for good reason. The interface is easy enough for someone with zero experience to get the hang of, and the setup is pretty straight forward. If your site doesn’t need any bells and whistles it can also be quite cheap – starting from around $7 per month.
But wait! Isn’t Wix FREE? Well, yes and no. While you can build a free website on Wix, it will include “Wix” in the domain name. In fact, your website address will be username.wixsite.com/sitename – which isn’t particularly professional! We definitely don’t recommend this for businesses, and if you’re going to use Wix it’s worth going on (at least) the lowest plan just for the ability to connect to your own domain.
We would actually recommend that businesses using Wix consider the Unlimited plan at bare minimum, as this gives you the ability to add a contact form (a must for businesses) and removes Wix Ads, as well as giving you a reasonable amount of storage to get you started.
We bag out Wix a lot (we see some truly terrible sites made with this platform!) but in reality it’s a nice little option if you have pretty much zero budget to work with but you’ve got some free time. It’s biggest advantage is the shallow learning curve – if you can create a Facebook page you can probably create a Wix website.
There are also loads of (mostly not terrible) templates to start with, so you don’t need to be a designer to make something that looks halfway decent.
The other benefit to Wix is that it is ridiculously low maintenance – no need to worry about things like hosting, security or updates and you can pretty much set and forget.
- Low maintenance
- Lots of templates
- Easy learning curve
The number one reason we disliked Wix in the past is because it was not optimised for search engines (yet). To a large degree that has been addressed, but we still don’t generally recommend it for businesses.
Running some of the websites that are displayed on the Wix showcase through the Google page speed tools, the results were pretty terrible. Industry research shows that pages taking more than 3s to load are likely to lose consumers. This is particularly important for eCommerce sites, where a one second delay in page-load can cause 7% loss in customer conversions.
One thing we would recommend for all Wix users is to optimise your images, and make sure that they are no bigger than necessary. Avoiding animations can also help to reduce the page load speed.
The biggest downside to Wix in our opinion is the lack of flexibility. If you don’t choose the right template to start with, you are pretty limited in what you can change down the track. You can’t change your theme – so if you want to make substantial changes it can be difficult and time consuming. If you want to switch designs, you will need to re-enter all of your content from scratch!
You are also limited to the “hundreds” of apps available in the Wix app market – whereas other platforms like WordPress have (at the time of writing this) around 55,467 free plugins available. That’s not including the thousands of premium plugins or custom made plugins.
Professional Support (or lack thereof)
Because Wix is designed to be a “DIY” website builder, you will struggle to find good developers and designers who work with it. This is slowly changing, but because of the nature of the builder (relying heavily on templates and making custom code very difficult) you are going to be fairly limited to the support you can get from Wix itself.
Wix – Conclusion
Wix is a great choice if all of the following apply:
- You have very minimal budget
- You want to do EVERYTHING yourself
- There is a template you like on Wix
- You are not in a super competitive industry and relying on SEO
- You are not running a “high stakes” eCommerce store
Page speed and lack of customisation are the two really big killers here, and for heavily competitive industries (like trades or professionals) hoping to rank on Google we definitely don’t recommend Wix. It’s not a bad choice if you are pretty much looking for an ‘online business card’ and most of your website traffic is via word-of-mouth, email or social media/advertising.
Tip: If you choose Wix, make sure you use the built in dedicated mobile editor to optimise your site for mobile!
This website builder is a relative newcomer, and has a much lower market share still than Wix. I won’t spend too much time on it, as for the most part the pros and cons are similar to Wix.
The key differences between Wix & Squarespace in a nutshell:
- A lot less templates (but they’re nicer and responsive)
- You can change template down the track
- Live chat support
- Slightly steeper learning curve
- Ability to have multiple access levels (e.g. admin vs editor)
- Allows some code editing (e.g. HTML & CSS)
While Squarespace doesn’t have a free plan and at a glance the prices seem much higher, if you take into account apps that you might need on the Wix App Market, you may find they are fairly comparable.
The biggest pro in our opinion is the quality of the design templates for Squarespace – They knock Wix out of the water and they are pretty good in terms of responsiveness on mobile devices. While the learning curve is a little steeper than Wix, it is still pretty simple with a ‘drag and drop’ interface. If you are looking for a clean, good-looking site that doesn’t need a huge amount of functionality (and you can’t afford a designer & developer) Squarespace would be our choice.
For those who aren’t technically minded, the fact that Squarespace is a hosted service is also a drawcard – it means you don’t need to worry about domain registration, hosting, security or any of those things that come with a self-hosted solution.
Compared to Wix, the starting price of Squarespace is higher – but we believe that in this case you’re really paying for quality!
In our opinion the real disadvantage of Squarespace is the lack of flexibility, which really comes into play when you’re trying to accomplish anything outside of the status-quo. Squarespace has a limited number of in-house apps that are great for basic websites. However, WordPress has over 55,000 plugins that extend the basic functionality of WordPress, so it is basically limitless in what it can achieve.
Squarespace – Conclusion
If you want a beautiful site, and you want to do it yourself, and you aren’t looking to do anything exciting – Squarespace could be for you. If you are picky and want full customisation, be wary that you may hit a wall when it comes to making it do what you want!
As the name suggests, Shopify is focused around eCommerce – or selling online. Shopify is a really strong contender if you are committed to building your own eCommerce website and you have no coding knowledge. Even the most basic of Shopify plans include eCommerce support – but it doesn’t come cheap. The cheapest Shopify plan is more expensive than the Unlimited Wix plan, but their inventory system is pretty good compared to most other platforms and their online payment plans are pretty competitive.
Once again, Shopify is a hosted solution so you don’t need to worry about things like hosting, separate domain registration, or security. The Shopify payment gateway is pretty competitive – they take advantage of the Stripe payment gateway but waive transaction fees if you use the “Shopify Payments” – that means 1.75% + 30c for Australian credit card transactions on the basic Shopify Plan, or 2.9% + 30c (the same as Stripe and Paypal) for international transactions. If you are mostly dealing with Australian transactions that is pretty good, and if you are running a fairly basic eCommerce store that could be a big bonus.
Another pro of Shopify is that there are a lot more developers and designers who work with Shopify than other builders like Wix and Squarespace – so if you need professional assistance down the track, you will have better luck with Shopify than most other hosted solutions.
Flexibility. That’s the biggest downside of Shopify, and I know it sounds like I’m beating the same drum, but you’re really limited by what a hosted solution allows you to do. You can do some front end customisation with Shopify, and they do have an app store with thousands of apps. Shopify is really focused on eCommerce, so if this is what your after Shopify is a really strong contestant. However if you’re looking to branch out – think membership or learning platforms, or even full control over your website – then you will eventually run into limitations with Shopify.
In our opinion, the Shopify pricing is also a little complicated, verging on misleading – so if you are looking at this option make sure you do lots of research into what plan you need early on.
Shopify is also focused very heavily around eCommerce, which is not the purpose of every website. Examples of sites that might not be a good fit for Shopify include:
- Complex memberships
- Publicly listed companies
- Medical or telehealth enterprises
- Online communities
- Learning platforms
First off, let’s start by clarifying an important distinction:
WordPress.com is a hosted solution similar to Wix, Squarespace and Shopify. It is great for blogs, but honestly has a much steeper learning curve than other hosted solutions. WordPress.com is great if you want to familiarise yourself with the WordPress interface, but you’re just starting up and not ready to go with a self-hosted solution. They also have a free plan, which like Wix includes ‘wordpress’ in the URL.
In this comparison we are going to mostly look at WordPress.org, which is what most people are thinking of (or referring to) when they talk about WordPress. WordPress.org, or WP as it is commonly known in the web community, is a self-hosted, open source solution that powers over 30% of the internet.
Open-source means that it is developed and maintained by the community, rather than by a company who profits from the platform. That can be both a good and bad thing – while you don’t need to pay anyone to use WordPress, you also don’t have the same level of professional support you might expect with a self-hosted solution (unless you’re hiring a developer to provide it).
Okay fine, it’s not very surprising and this drum has been well and truly beaten, but WordPress offers the ultimate in flexibility from a content management system. The platform powers around a third of websites on the internet for a very good reason! over 55,000 plugins that extend the core functionality of WordPress combined with the ability to customise to the extreme means that you can do literally anything with WP.
Being a self-hosted solution also means that you’re not dependent on a company for your website – which means you have control over how much you pay for things like domain names, hosting and functionality. With WordPress there are tens of thousands of plugins at your disposal, as well as the vast majority of web developers who are able to customise WordPress to the nth degree to achieve your desired outcome.
You’re also not locked in to paying the same company whatever they decide to charge you for the rest of your life – if your hosting provider hikes up their prices you can just transfer your site elsewhere. With any of the hosted solutions you are absolutely locked in to their pricing structure.
Overwhelm. With so many options it is easy to make the wrong decision, or not be able to make a decision at all. Which plugin do I use? What theme should I choose? Who should I use for hosting? How often do I need to update my website? Do I need to pay a developer, or can I do it myself?
These are just some of the questions that we get asked when people are looking at creating their own website with WordPress. That’s why we generally recommend using a consultant or doing some training if you decide to follow this route – but even choosing the right consultant can be really stressful.
Along with a self-hosted website comes the stress of making sure your hosting is reliable and secure, and keeping everything updated so you should also take this into account.
Lastly – the learning curve to go from zero to hero on WordPress is very steep, and not for the faint hearted. If you have the time to throw yourself into learning it you will likely find it very rewarding, but if you’re hoping to smash something simple out in a weekend this probably isn’t your best option.
WordPress – Conclusion
There are lots of great reasons to use WordPress, but you should be wary and do your research first. Most web developers will recommend WordPress for good reason, but you should ask yourself first:
- Do you have the budget for a professionally built website?
- If you don’t have the budget, do you have the time to learn what you need to know?
- Who will maintain the website after you launch?
Our recommendation if you choose to follow down the WordPress path is to either:
- Hire a trusted professional to manage your site on your behalf;
- Use managed hosting (such as WPEngine); or
- Get involved in the WordPress community!
One of the best things about WordPress is that the community is very active and supportive, so if you want to manage your own site there are loads of people willing to help you figure out how to do it. Most major cities have a WordPress meetup that is usually free to attend, and cities all over the world regularly host WordCamps.
Being part of the open-source software scene can be really fun and rewarding, but it also takes a level of commitment that (for example) an employee of an organisation might not be able to give.
If you determine that WordPress is the best option for your website and you aren’t going to be able to commit for the long term to learning your way around website management, you should perhaps consider hiring a web development firm to do it for you. If you choose to go down this path we’d be happy to have a chat!
For more details about choosing a web developer, check out this great article by US based company, Orbit Media. We’re Australian based and we prefer to work with companies who are either based in, or involved with the Australian market. If you come across our article and you’d like to have a chat, we can definitely help you make a decision about the best decision for you!
The platforms referred to in this article: