These days there are a dizzying myriad of options available to us and many of them are a darn sight easier to use than ever before. This choice is a great thing but it can also leave people feeling overwhelmed, just like I feel when I turn up at my local supermarket to buy shampoo (or whatever) only to be greeted by 30 different choices. Call me a stereotypical ignorant male if you must, but they all look much the same to me. Just give me the one that makes my hair clean. Strewth.
So in this post I’m going to sort through the clutter of choices and break down your options, describing three broad types of website and the upsides and downsides of each.
I won’t be comparing specific providers but giving an aerial view of each way of getting a website.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of website*:
- DIY online website builders
- Dynamic websites
- Visual code builders
- Static pages
Online DIY website builders
Think Wix, Weebly, Squarespace, Shopify and GoDaddy, among others.
These services are usually very easy to set up, don’t charge much upfront but are often limited.
Using DIY website builders is like renting a house – you pay monthly and the landlord limits what you can do with it but it’s the landlord’s problem to fix the boiler.
The provider of the website builder allows a certain amount of freedom but ultimately tightly controls the themes and customisations available. This flattens out the learning curve but limits the heights to which the website can reach.
Paying a monthly fee is a nice low-cost commitment when starting up, which can make a world of difference for a business just starting up. However in the long run this can end up costing much more. Say you pay £15/month for a website. How long do you expect the website will remain live? 5 years at least? That brings the total cost to £900.
Providers also often take a cut of any sales transactions made through websites on their platform, adding another middleman.
Also, if your needs ever outgrow what the DIY website can provide it’s difficult to reuse your website data. Because the website system is ultimately controlled by the DIY website provider you can’t simply cancel your monthly subscription and move the website to another provider, it would likely have to all be rebuilt from scratch. Just like a rented home the website isn’t truly ever “yours”.
But DIY websites can be fantastic options for people starting out who just need a simple and low cost presence online.
- Shallow learning curve
- Well designed premade templates make set-up easy
- Cheap to set up, often with limited free starter packages available
- Limited functionality and you’ll probably have to pay for each little extra, like using your own web domain, customising colours, selling products etc
- The templates can all be a bit “samey” and difficult to fully customise without hiring a developer
- It’s difficult to grow beyond a small website as the website isn’t exportable
- Monthly fees may cost more in the long run
Self-hosted dynamic websites
Dynamic websites use a database and a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, Magento, Drupal etc. The administrator has full control of the website’s hosting, database and all its content so they’re able to do whatever they want with it.
Having a self-hosted dynamic website is like owning a house – it could initially cost more to develop but if you know what you’re doing it will be way cheaper, especially in the long run. The biggest plus is that you can do exactly what you like with it, but it’s also your problem to fix the boiler.
Web developers like us can be helpful because we’re not a big international landlord like the DIY website builders but we can build you a much more bespoke self-hosted house at a decent price and keep the boiler working for you. It’s like hiring your own architect, builder and maintenance personnel.
Just like with a DIY website builder, having a database and content management system allows you to store content and website properties efficiently, using it in many ways and places, easily editing it as regularly as you need. The database can keep records of things website visitors do, allowing people to add products to a basket and pay for them, set up user accounts to view private content or simply to leave comments on articles.
- As you own and manage every aspect of the website you can customise any element of its style and functionality, making it truly bespoke and suited to your needs. If you can dream it, someone can (probably) build it.
- Ongoing costs can be low
- It’s very easy to manage content
- Initial development costs can be higher as more bespoke work is needed than with DIY website builders
- It can be harder to keep a dynamic website secure with plugins or coding standards going out of date
Visual code builders
Webflow is a popular forerunner in this category, and it’s very unique. It’s basically like Adobe Dreamweaver, except it’s simpler, all online and includes its own web hosting.
Technically it’s an online DIY website builder but it allows designers to build code visually, putting together a website with actual HTML elements. This makes it a much more powerful tool than the likes of Wix, Squarespace et al, and makes the learning curve much steeper. However it’s gaining massive popularity.
Webflow includes a full content management system and growing e-commerce functionality.
- Works on a monthly subscription basis which is good for businesses starting out without much cash
- Much, much less restrictive than standard DIY website builders
- Webflow manage all the hosting so you don’t need to worry about maintaining security or speed
- Users can export generated website code to host their website elsewhere
- While no coding is necessary an understanding of how websites are built is very helpful, so this isn’t a tool for the uninitiated
- Websites made in Webflow and exported to be hosted elsewhere can’t continue to use the CMS, e-commerce, site search or form functionality
This is the most old-skool method.
Static websites are simply made up of files that contain code and other media like images and videos. They don’t use databases and content management systems so they can be harder to manage. However static websites with many pages can be built using code on each page that tells servers to draw commonly used content from a single source, creating a template that can be reused throughout the site. For instance, pages can include code that says:
Insert the contents of a file called menu.php here Insert today’s date here Display “picture.jpg” 400 pixels wide and 300 pixels high
So the administrator can create the menu in one file that’s reused everywhere. They then only have to edit that one file to have the menu updated on every page of the website.
Static sites operating on their own aren’t powered by databases and full content management systems. This means they’re not ideal for websites with a lot of content or content that needs changing regularly.
However many more people are adopting a type of static site that is coupled with a separate content management system (look up “headless CMS” or “decoupled CMS”). The CMS is run separately and creates code that is then published to the static site, providing the advantages listed below without the disadvantages. However it’s usually the case that not all the user-generated functionality of dynamic websites is possible using this method.
- As static websites don’t have to pull content from databases they can load very fast
- Static pages are usually quite secure as there’s no database that can get hacked
- They can take longer to set up, although prebuilt frameworks can help with this
- Changing content sitewide can be difficult and time consuming
- It’s difficult to allow users to generate content or interact with the site the way they can with a dynamic website
So what do I recommend?
It depends what you need.
If you’re just starting out with a personal blog or in business with a small budget and you only need to get a few pages online, then DIY is probably the way to go. WordPress.com is good for blogs, Shopify is good for e-commerce and I’ve heard good things about Squarespace. I wouldn’t recommend Wix, Weebly or GoDaddy.
If you’re getting serious with a budget of at least £500 and want a professional looking website with bespoke functionality, I recommend WordPress.org, and we can definitely help you get set up – see our web design portfolio. We also offer to continue hosting WordPress websites, providing ongoing support to keep the website content and software up to date for security and speed.
If you want to learn how to develop your own website and want something cheap and simple that performs very well, you would do well to take a few free online web development courses and start building your own static website using HTML, CSS and PHP. Go on, I dare you! Then you can get stuck into WordPress and web hosting and put me out of business.
* A note for devs:
I know, DIY website builders aren’t exactly a “type” of website like the other two, but I’ve sought to create some very basic categories for people looking at a myriad of options. Broadly speaking using a platform’s proprietary hosted DIY website builder is another way of going about getting a website, to, say, self-hosted WordPress or static coded stuff. My lack of precision is an attempt to be as helpful as possible to non-devs.