Free Website Builders – Are They Really Worth It?
Getting your business online can be a daunting process. You might start by requesting quotes from freelancers, design & media agencies and offshore development companies, receiving prices which fluctuate wildly. Like any industry, without a sound understanding of what goes into a web design or development project it can feel like you’re flying blind.
To make matters worse, some of the people or companies you contact will require a detailed brief, something you may not feel comfortable producing and leaving you with doubts that you’ve covered everything. Others may be happy to take some basic information, offer up an estimate and run with it, again leaving you concerned that you might be in for a shock when the final website is delivered.
It’s no secret that producing a website is not nearly as complicated as it was ten years ago. The birth of out of the box content management systems and plugins now means that complex functionality can be implemented quickly and securely without significant development overheads.
Many companies now offer their own site builders, and for many, this might seem like a cost effective alternative to getting your business online.
Even back in the day, being able to build a website without any coding knowledge was fairly easy – there were plenty of free website builders, and pretty much every teenage geek had a terribly formatted website with garish colours, spinny GIFs and a counter at the bottom announcing you were the ninth person to visit that page (and one of those was your mum).
These days, teens can use social networks to talk about themselves. But the humble website builder lives on – and it’s grown up somewhat, with features such as social media integration, search engine optimisation and analytics often already integrated (or unlocked with a subscription).
If you’re a small business owner, you’ve probably wondered about doing it yourself, rather than spending the time learning to code – or spending the money to hire a professional developer.
But are they really worth your time? Here are a few of the best free site builders out there – and a few of the worst…
Weebly has built up a decent level of positive reception since its launch in 2006, and it’s become one of the front runners in the ‘free websites for all’ industry, along with Wix (who we’ll get to in a moment).
There’s a variety of pricing options to choose from, but the free package isn’t bad at all Besides the absence of some features such as on-site search and a built-in video player, and the addition of Weebly branding in your footer, you can build a simple but pretty much complete site.
The style templates are fairly appealing and modern, the build process is all drag and drop in-browser, and hosting is included for you free of charge.
You have three options for your domain. Those subscribed to Weebly’s paid plans can use their own existing domain without any additional charge . Otherwise, you can either choose your own yoursite.weebly.com subdomain (which is not necessarily the SEO insta-kill you’d expect, from what I’ve heard) or purchase a domain name from Weebly itself for a pricey $39.95.
One thing to watch out for with Weebly; you might end up getting bombarded with marketing emails. I know one unlucky soul who signed up for Weebly, intending to come back and build his site once he’d spent a while planning out the structure and design he wanted.
Over the next three months, he received about twenty emails trying to coax him back to the service – and it seems others have suffered a similar fate.
Like Weebly, Wix has garnered critical praise for its intuitive user interface, and to be honest the two are very similar – even the options for hosting are pretty much the same, with Wix providing their own hosting free of charge.
You can argue that Wix has the edge over Weebly when it comes to templates – the designs are stylish, smart and there are hundreds to select from.
In fact there’s so much choice that it’s easy to get bogged down – so to help you find one that works for you, they’ve divided them into categories based on industries and themes. Pick ‘Games & Toys’ under the ‘Business & Services’ tab on the left, for example, and you’ll be shown a variety of colourful, child-friendly designs.
One very cool feature is the App Market, offering users a variety of third party apps and widgets to enhance the functionality of your site. There’s a good variety of genuinely useful apps, and many of them are absolutely free.
On the negative side, Wix sites don’t seem to perform quite as well SEO-wise compared to Weebly. In addition, Wix lets you drop elements literally anywhere you want on the page, instead of a choice of pre-determined spots; this sounds like a positive, but if you later decide you want to switch to a different template, you’ll have to start again from scratch.
WordPress is a strange one – it’s probably better categorised as a free blogging platform and content management system than a website builder.
Nevertheless, it offers plenty of design versatility and customisation options (plus a wealth of design themes, plugins and third-party support), so it’s become a viable site-creation option for novices and web development experts alike. Many believe it’s the best one out there.
It’s certainly not straightforward, though. There’s a steep learning curve with WordPress, and while there are plenty of tutorials and resources out there to help, you might find a straightforward DIY site builder like Weebly or Wix is more useful to you.
This one isn’t free – or even available to the public yet – but it’s worth including just because the premise is so outlandish.
The Grid will offer ‘AutoDesigned’ websites which are tailored to your specifications – without a human developer. You tell it what you want, and The Grid’s artificial intelligence algorithms builds you a complete website which matches your needs.
And here’s where it gets interesting – when you add new content to your site, the layout will automatically adapt to include it. You can even repost interesting content from other sites by simply right-clicking on it and selecting The Grid’s ‘Save’ option.
Images are automatically processed to create maximum visual impact, and the service even offers responsive functionality, based not only on the size of the user’s screen but also the content you’re showing them.
There’s a whole lot of other bells and whistles too, but does The Grid deliver on its central promise? Currently, the service’s own site is the only living example of the AI’s wizardry. It’s certainly a pretty site, though the layout is arguably a little disjointed in my opinion.
It remains to be seen if the software is really capable of producing beautiful, functional and unique sites for EVERYONE who signs up – we’ll have to wait and see when it launches later this month.
Web veterans will recognise this one. Lycos’s Tripod was one of the beasts responsible for all those aforementioned crappy personal ‘webpages’ that clogged up the net in the nineties and early noughties, along with the now-defunct GeoCities and current Lycos labelmate Angelfire.
Remarkably, it’s still alive and kicking – but while the builder has been updated, it’s clear the service has seen better days.
What of web giant Google? They must offer a site builder, surely?
The good news is they offer at least three. The bad news is… none of them are strictly site builders.
Blogger (the blog platform/host they acquired in 2003) provides a reasonable degree of flexibility, so you might get away with using it to create a simple site. However, like WordPress, it’s probably not a viable option if you’re an absolute beginner. Some would argue Blogger is obsolete these days, anyway.
Google Sites allows you to create basic web pages and wikis, but the service seems to be positioned more as a collaboration tool for businesses (and even in that respect, it seems to have been outclassed by Google Drive).
And then there’s Google Web Designer. My fellow London developer and long time friend Ben Campbell posted a fantastic review of Google Web Designer on his own blog – it’s a HTML5 editor which lets you create full pages if you want, but mostly it’s a Flash-esque tool intended to help you create animated HTML5 adverts. Not much use as a site builder, really.
Site builders provided by hosting companies
No doubt you’ll have seen the adverts for 1&1 MyWebsite on the TV. A free website included with your hosting fees? How can you lose?
Here’s how – these kinds of free site builders exist purely to lure unsuspecting customers into paying for hosting. The builder itself is often poorly designed, with clunky navigation and features that you’ll waste an inordinate amount of time getting to grips with, and the site you end up with won’t have the kind of functionality that you’ll need from it.
What’s more, your site will be at the mercy of the hosting provider – you can’t switch it to another host if you experience downtime, because the hosting provider effectively owns it. Of course, this is also true for other site builders, but it’s in their best interests to ensure their customers’ sites stay up – their business depends on it.
The hosting provider doesn’t care. If you’ve bought a subscription with them, they’ll still be making money from you even if your site does drop out. I’ve heard some terrible horror stories from people who have been ripped off by the cheaper hosting firms – do yourself a favour and steer clear.
So, back to the title; are free DIY website builders really worth it?
Well, it depends what you want.
If you want a simple, standard site with a few pages and you don’t have the budget to pay for development, a website builder is definitely a good option. Just be aware that you’ll have to actually set aside time to create it, you’ll have no assurances that your design will work for your customers, data & content export options will be limited so you can’t go gallivanting off to a competing site builder, and if Weebly or Wix or whichever service you’ve chosen goes under, your site is gone.
(These aren’t necessarily deal-breakers; just things to keep in mind. Let’s say you run a small crafts business on weekends, alongside your steady 9-to-5 job, and you just want some kind of web presence that you can point your potential leads to – in this situation, it’s much smarter to use a DIY builder rather than hire a dev.)
If you have a specific project in mind, or you want a tailored and unique website that makes you and your business money, it’s a good idea to invest in the knowledge, expertise, time and elbow grease of a professional web designer.
A great web designer can use their ability (which they’ve honed over years of experience in the industry) to transform your ideas and plans into tangible solutions for your business and your customers.
You’ll be paying for someone to spend their time creating your site, so you can spend your time doing what you do best. They’ll already know what works and doesn’t work, so you’ll avoid hours of tedious trial-and-error and you can be sure your site will perform as you want from the moment it goes live.
Best of all, they can help you keep control over the evolution of your site, assisting with testing, analysing and improving your site’s performance (particularly when it comes you optimising your conversion).
Free website builders aren’t all bad – just remember that you get what you pay for.
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