The best way to build a website for a big business is to do it the old-fashioned way: hire professionals, give them clear instructions, and let them go to work. But for most small and medium-sized businesses, that option is prohibitively expensive.
Fortunately, the do-it-yourself alternative is a viable option, thanks to a variety of template-based website building services that walk you through the process from start to finish, with no coding skills required. And because these services also provide the hosting, e-commerce features, and even domain registration as part of the package, it's quite literally a one-stop shopping process.
A DIY website created with one of these point-and-click site-building tools can look every bit as slick as one built and maintained by a web professional, at a fraction of the cost. In this article, we'll help you ask the right questions so you can choose a site-building service that's appropriate for your needs.
Is a site-building service right for your business?
Especially with services that offer a free trial, it's tempting to jump right in, pick a template, and begin pointing, clicking, dragging, and dropping. We suggest that you set aside those details for now and instead think about the results you want to see at the end of the process. Asking the right questions now can help determine whether one of these services is the right option for your business.
For starters, there are the really big questions: Why do you want a website? What do you want to accomplish with it? What are your goals for your business and your clients or customers? What kind of information do you want to provide for site visitors, and what sorts of choices do you want to offer them?
And then there's the crucial issue of resources—not just money but also time and energy. Here are four questions to help you define what you can afford.
- What is your total budget? Keep in mind that the cost of a site-builder service is only one line item in your budget. Options that appear to be a bargain at first glance might not be such a great value when you factor in the time you and your staff will spend working with the software/service and, more importantly, the long-term costs and hidden expenses associated with that service. Pay special attention to costs associated with added functionality such as analytics and SEO, social media integration, and e-commerce.
- What's the projected lifespan of your website? If all you need is a simple online brochure, you don't really need to pay for a full year in advance. You'll be better off looking for one-page templates you can customize and deploy quickly. On the opposite end of the scale is a dedicated e-commerce site that you intend to build into a powerhouse over time; for that, you'll need to budget for updates and maintenance.
- Do you have the resources and time available to customize and maintain a website? Site building tools are easy, but they require an initial investment of time to create the site and an ongoing commitment to maintaining everything. If you're swamped by the details of running a business day to day, you probably want to avoid site builders that have higher learning curves and more complicated interfaces.
- How picky are you? (Be honest.) If you're the kind of person who can't help but fiddle with a design, if you want to tweak settings and noodle with fonts until everything's "just right," a site builder may not be a good fit. Anyone with ultra-high standards and a critical eye is much better off choosing a platform with the flexibility to customize the code on the backend and then hiring a professional designer to create a custom design.
You might find, after working your way through those questions, that you can make do with the services of a traditional web host. As we noted in our round-up, "The best cheap web hosting services: How to find the right provider," it's increasingly common for these services to offer generic site-building tools that are good enough for even a moderately complex website. But if you've decided that you need a service that can handle the entire job, it's time to make your choice. We've assembled a handful of finalists for your consideration here, followed by some advice on what to do after you've settled on a winner.
A closer look at five website-building services
For each of the five services we selected, we've included details about the company itself, the strengths and weaknesses of the online tools, and a link to detailed feature lists and pricing information. Each site has a core set of features in common: You pay a monthly or annual fee for a subscription, which in turn gives you managed hosting, access to templates and themes, a web-based site editor, e-commerce features, and (optionally) domain registration and management services.
These aren't reviews; instead, think of them as a way to winnow down the contenders so you can sign up for a trial version and experience the service for yourself. Susan Preston of Clearly Presentable, a New Mexico-based website and presentation design firm, provided research assistance for these listings.
All sites are listed in alphabetical order. Affiliate disclosure: ZDNet may earn a commission from some of the services featured on this page. ZDNet and the author were not compensated for this independent review.
Although Duda got its start providing services to small businesses, it's now the site-building option for businesses that already have dedicated freelance or agency design resources. The company, which has five locations worldwide, boasts that 14 million sites have been built on the Duda platform. Oh, and about that name? It's a play on a character from The Big Lebowski: The Dude.
All Duda websites are hosted on Amazon's cloud. Available templates are sophisticated and modern. The drag-and-drop editor offers slick features like backgrounds, font styles, flexible navigation for desktop and mobile devices, and a shrinking header that remains visible as site visitors scroll. Given the company's focus on professional designers, it's not surprising that everything is built for speed and SEO. You'll find a long list of top-tier platform integrations for commerce, social, and marketing as well.
Pricing: After a 14-day free trial (no credit card required), you'll need to choose one of Duda's three plans. The Basic plan, at $19 a month, covers a single website and provides email-only support. The Team plan runs $29 a month and also includes a single website, with support for up to four individual user accounts with role-based permissions as well as shared assets and chat/phone support. Paying $99 a month for an Agency plan gives you eight websites, priority support, and advanced design capabilities including API and custom widget capabilities. Significant discounts are available if you pay annually. E-commerce features cost extra, with price tags ranging from $8 per month for up to 100 products to $49 monthly for an unlimited catalog.
Squarespace is clearly aiming to be the Apple of website builders, as confirmed by a quick perusal of the featured customers page, which spotlights actors, fashion designers, photographers, musicians, and (under the Small Business heading) a hip-hop yoga studio. This is no struggling startup: Squarespace has been around since 2003 and has more than a thousand employees worldwide.
Indeed, this might be the best choice for podcasters, photographers, and other creative types, thanks to excellent built-in tools like an embedded audio player and photo gallery. The all-in-one platform also offers excellent e-commerce options, including inventory management, shipping tools, tax calculators, and abandoned cart recovery. Email campaign support is an extra-cost option, but analytics and social media integration are built in.
The template-based Squarespace interface has a modest learning curve, but that should improve when version 7.1 rolls out. (As of December 2019, it's still in beta testing.) The new version allows customers to choose color palettes and fonts with global options to maintain brand consistency while also allowing page-specific styles. The new "sections" feature provides pre-built layouts to customize pages beyond the basic template.
Pricing: Unlike some of its more populist competitors, Squarespace doesn't have a free tier. You can set up a site and tinker with it for up to 14 days, but when that free trial ends you'll need to choose one of the service's four plans, which range in price from $16 a month for the bare-bones Personal plan to $46 a month for the all-bells-and-whistles Advanced Commerce plan. (Significant discounts are available if you pay annually, with the $26-a-month Business plan, for example, shrinking to the equivalent of $18 a month if paid by the year.)
All plans except the entry-level Personal plan include the option to attach a Google-powered G Suite account for professional email, with one account free for the first year.
Unlike competitors that focus first and foremost on website design, Weebly's core feature set is e-commerce. That might explain why the online payment provider Square acquired the 12-year-old company in 2018. It also makes Weebly a logical choice for businesses that already use Square for a physical presence and want to expand online.
The site builder tool is straightforward and intuitive, easy enough for even novices to use but also sophisticated. Start by setting up an online store, then choose a layout, change colors, specify fonts, and add a logo to complete the branding. From there, you can use the website builder to add pictures and text, add sections to pages, link to social media, and embed galleries, videos, or documents.
Built-in functionality includes advertising options and membership management tools. A variety of free and premium/paid third-party integrations are also available, including Mailchimp, Salesforce, Hubspot, ZenDesk, ActiveCampaign, Convertikit, ClickFunnels, and Gmail. The commerce feature list is extensive, as you'd expect. In addition to Square, you can use Stripe, PayPal, and Authorize.net as payment gateways; direct credit card payment isn't an option. Shipping features in the most expensive plan include real-time calculators and discounts of up to 40% on shipping costs.
Pricing: You can get a basic plan for free, but for serious sales, you'll want one of three upgrades, which range in price from $16 a month for the Professional plan to the $79 monthly Premium plan. The most interesting add-on is the Square Photo Studio Service, which allows you to send in your products for professional photography; the cost is $9.95 for each product, including 3 photos, with 360-degree photos going for $29.95.
Based in Israel, Wix is a publicly traded company that specializes in site-building tools for small businesses. As of late 2019, the company reported that it had 4.4 million paying customers.
Getting started with Wix offers near-instant gratification. Choose a category and subcategory, answer a few questions, and allow the site's "Artificial Design Intelligence" feature to generate a full-blown website. Replace the generic content with your own words and pictures, and you're good to go.
As an alternative, you can start by choosing from a collection of handsome, well-categorized templates and then customizing it directly in the Wix Editor. There, you'll find lots of options -- perhaps too many. The interface can be overwhelming, and expect some frustration and wasted time as you climb the learning curve. Wix sites support app integration to Google Analytics, MailChimp, Facebook, and a dozen other services, mostly using inline frame (Iframe) elements. Built-in features include live chat and support for booking appointments, managing events, and selling music and photographs.
If you want to build an online store, there's a template for that, with support for product categories and SKUs, inventory management, multiple shipping providers, and SSL with PCI. It's a good solution for small stores but not a full-fledged e-commerce solution like Shopify.
Pricing: You can kick the tires with a free, ad-supported site, but connecting a custom domain (and removing the ads) requires an upgrade to a premium plan, at a cost of $13-39 per month (paid annually). To add payment processing options, you'll need to choose a business premium plan, which bumps the cost of each tier up another $10.
It's easy to confuse this web hosting and site-building service with its cousin, the open-source WordPress project, which lives at WordPress.org. In fact, the founder of WordPress.com's parent company, Automattic, is Matt Mullenweg, a founding developer of the WordPress software.
Given that ancestry, it's no wonder that WordPress.com bills itself as "the best way to experience WordPress," and they have a point. Combining the familiar WordPress software with hosting and management from honest-to-goodness WordPress experts feels qualitatively different. (The company's enterprise division, WordPress VIP, boasts some very big brands on its customer roster.)
From a design-and-build standpoint, WordPress.com offers few surprises. Answer a handful of questions to build a blog, business site, or online store, and then connect your domain. After you select a plan and provide payment details, you're ready to start customizing your site. The WordPress editor, design tool, and dashboard will feel familiar if you've ever worked with a hosted WordPress site, and the company now offers desktop apps for Windows, MacOS, and Linux to go with its mobile apps.
Pricing: The free tier at WordPress.com might be good enough for very simple personal sites, but don't even think about running a business here unless you're ready to pay for one of the four upgraded plans on offer. The Personal tier, at $4 a month, removes ads and allows you to connect a custom domain, while the $8-a-month Premium plan adds advanced customization options (including a CSS editor) and themes that go beyond the basics, as well as the ability to earn ad revenue and collect payments.
Even modestly ambitious businesses that want to do any kind of sales will need to pony up for at least the Business plan, which costs $25 a month and includes SEO tools as well as the option to upload custom themes and plug-ins. The most expensive tier, eCommerce, runs $45 a month and includes advanced marketing, shipping, and payment features.
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Step by step
Building your site
The actual mechanics of putting your business on the web are, frankly, tedious. Point, click, copy, paste, drag, drop, resize... The good news is that the site-building software does most of the drudgery on the back end. When you move, insert, and rearrange elements in the graphical interface, the site-building software does the work of generating HTML code and the corresponding CSS elements.
Likewise, the text boxes, image placeholders, interactive buttons, spacers, galleries, sliders, and social sharing tools make it possible for you to concentrate on the content, typing and pasting the words and pictures without having to worry about defining where everything goes. Most of what you'll do at this point is mechanical. Pay special attention to things like alt text for images and headline tags (an important component of SEO and content hierarchy).
To make sure you're ready to begin building your website, follow these steps.
Step 1: Assemble the pieces you'll need.
Site-building software can help you pick a color palette and a set of fonts, but you're probably not starting from a blank slate. At a minimum, your business should have a name and a logo, and you can move from those beginnings to more global branding choices. A law firm or financial services agency probably wants to project a conservative image. On the other hand, if the personality of your company is consistently friendly and open, you can afford to be more playful with your website's colors, imagery, slogan, and logo. The important thing is to think about those factors before you choose a website design.
Step 2: Lay out your site's architecture.
You can do this on a piece of paper or the screen, but do it before you begin the site-building process. How many pages will your site need? What is the best way to organize content in the navigation bar so your visitors won't get lost or come up short when trying to find the product or information they're looking for? If content marketing is a part of your business strategy, consider how to categorize your blog posts in a way that makes it easy for readers to select relevant articles.
Think about functionality, too. Don't jump for the coolest template and call it a day. Some spiffy designs might seem appealing but your business goals matter more. If you need an e-commerce site, for instance, you shouldn't waste time looking at options that don't already include a store component. All the site builders we've looked at allow changes to colors, images, and typefaces, but it's far more difficult to alter a layout once you've committed to it. And even if you can change the layout, a steep learning curve may be involved -- or you may need to hire a consultant to do it for you.
Step 3: Get professional help with words and pictures, too. Every service we looked at is capable of creating a beautiful, responsive design with a minimum of effort. However, none of them can tell your story. That professional design deserves quality copywriting and photography. Don't skimp here.
Step 4: Make a list of essential integrations. Your website isn't the only way to stay in touch with customers and prospects. Your site builder should integrate effortlessly with SaaS products that can continue the conversation. Pay special attention to email marketing and social media, especially if you already have investments in an existing service for either one. If you want your sign-up forms to link directly to your email via ConvertKit, Mailchimp, ActiveCampaign, or Constant Contact, for example, be sure you understand what you have to do to make that integration happen.
Step 5: Get your analytics in order. All the site builders we surveyed support some way of tracking visitors to your website, either by allowing you to insert Google Analytics code or using their own proprietary tools. In either case, you end up with data on the location of visitors by geographic region, device, and operating system, along with some personal details about visitors based on their previous behaviors.
Don't underestimate the importance of analytics. You can use this information to fine-tune your website's design and tweak the effectiveness of the call to action on each page. Pay attention to entry pages, bounce rate, time spent on the site, and whether a visitor is new or returning. Make that investment up front, and you'll reap the benefits later.
Step 6: Don't ignore the experience of mobile visitors. You're likely to build a website on a desktop PC or Mac, but statistics say more than half of your visitors will view your site on mobile devices. Don't ignore their experience: Check each template on a variety of devices to be sure you like how it displays on your phone/tablet. And don't just rely on clicking the demo buttons that adjust your desktop display to mimic smaller screens; check on a real device. Or several, to ensure you've covered multiple platforms and device form factors.
Watch out for these gotchas
Will your third-party SaaS accounts integrate? If a site builder platform doesn't offer integration with services you're already using, you may need to switch to a different, supported service. That can incur unexpected costs and hassle.
Can you move your site later? Most site builders (with the noteworthy exception of WordPress.com) make it difficult if not impossible to export content to another platform. If your company grows and you determine you need the added control and functionality that comes with a different host, you may have to manually copy and paste all of your content into the new platform. Additionally, when you shift to another platform your rankings on search engines may significantly drop, and it may take weeks or months to regain your Google rank.
Are you paying too much for a domain name? Some of these services offer free domain registration for the first year, but it renews at an inflated price. Year over year, those extra costs add up, especially if you've got several domains in your portfolio. You're probably better off registering your domain at a reputable third-party registrar like Namecheap and connecting it yourself.
Did you budget for photography? Those professional templates look great until you drop in your decidedly unprofessional photos. If the service offers stock photos, check carefully to see if you have to pay extra to use them.
Did you factor in all the hidden costs? You might think you're getting a great deal by not going for the top tier, until you realize that you're paying additional charges like an extra processing fee for every transaction, above and beyond what you're already forking over to the payment gateway.
Did you read the Terms of Service? Check the do's and don'ts carefully, lest you find your site unceremoniously deleted. At WordPress.com, for example, you'll find this ice-cold clause: "Automattic may terminate your access to all or any part of the Website at any time, with or without cause, with or without notice, effective immediately." Also, pay attention to "acceptable use policies" that could limit your bandwidth unexpectedly.
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