It seems like you can DIY just about anything these days, and that includes your website. Popular website builders like Squarespace, Wix, and Webflow, make it seem easy to create a curated, functional site without much technical knowledge. Meanwhile, a custom site, like those created via WordPress CMS, might appeal to you if you’d rather take a hands-off approach and get guaranteed design quality.
So, how’s a business owner to decide? You might be surprised to hear that, though we create custom websites, we don’t recommend them to everyone. Each option has its pros and cons, and what suits one business isn’t necessarily right for the next.
In this article, we’re offering up our expertise in six key areas of website design. Here’s how website builders and custom sites measure up in each category.
Design is likely one of the first elements that comes to mind when you think of websites. Design is more than just aesthetics—it also relates to how we plan and arrange a website. A well-designed website both looks appealing and offers a seamless user experience.
As designers, we can’t ignore the fact that website builders offer some very attractive templates. It’s also quite handy that you don’t need any coding knowledge to create aesthetic appeal—just choose a template and go from there.
Unfortunately, that can also be a drawback. Everyone has access to the same templates, which are often organized by industry. So, your real estate website might end up looking nearly identical to someone else’s real estate website. Plus, you can only edit a template so much. You may need to alter your own content to fit into the template, rather than the other way around.
Most sites need some third-party plug-ins to meet all of your needs, whether you’re starting a mailing list or selling a product. Every platform, Squarespace, Wix, or otherwise, is only compatible with certain plug-ins. So, by using a website builder, you have limited access to plug-ins that help your site function.
The design of custom sites is, well, custom. You get to create something entirely unique, crafted to fit your needs and no one else’s. That means there’s a ton of flexibility and room to play. You won’t find yourself changing your content just to fit in some pre-made box.
Custom sites provide you with more plug-in options than website builders, too, since you’re not at the mercy of a specific platform. Your web designer will have a long list of available plug-ins to add new features or improve functionality.
Time to launch
For some folks, time is a major consideration. We’ll keep this one short and sweet—a website builder might be the best option if you’re in a rush. You can typically get up and running in a few days, or even a few hours if you need.
Meanwhile, the timeline for a custom site is generally a bit longer. You’ll need to meet with your website designer, allow them time to research and create mock-ups, and then account for the actual time it takes to build the site. While you can expedite the process, it’s more nuanced and can’t match the same-day delivery of a website builder.
As you scale your business, your website needs to adapt to support that growth. It should also allow you to implement tools to help you grow, like SEO (search engine optimization). These kinds of tools help you reach a wider audience and ultimately make more sales.
To be frank, website builders aren’t built for SEO. They actually cause a number of issues that can affect your search engine ranking. For example, the faster your site loads, the better chance it has of showing up on the first (and most important) page of a Google search.
But the drag-and-drop interface of website builders focuses on appearance at the expense of the HTML code behind the design. That can lead to bloated code that slows down your page speed and pushes you farther down on the search list.
Similarly, search engines use your website’s HTML markups to understand your content. Then, search engines use that information to show your website to the right people. Website builders are known for sometimes making HTML validation errors that can mess up these signals, which—you guessed it—screws up your SEO and search result ranking.
We could go on, but that’s probably enough nerd-speak. The point is simple: website builders typically have limited SEO options. In fact, the builder platform itself adversely affects performance and SEO. Period.
SEO or no SEO, your business can still grow. When it does, you may want to change your website platform or move onto a custom site. In most cases, website builders make it difficult - if not downright impossible - to export your site to another platform. Once you commit to a website builder, you’re stuck there unless you decide to start fresh.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, website builders are also not optimized for big sites. For example, Squarespace limits you to two levels and 1,000 pages. That might sound like a lot, but once you build out your site with product listings, blog pages, and more, you can quickly hit that limit and need to upgrade.
You have nearly endless options for SEO optimization with your own custom site. Going back to our previous example, a website designer can create the same page without the bloated code that can result from the drag-and-drop builder model. With simple, skillful code, designers have complete control over page speed, HTML markups, and everything in between.
And it’s easier to scale the site as needed. If you realize your user experience is lacking, your developer can access the code and improve the site to better serve your audience. Still, this could be a drawback for some. Unless you or someone on your team has coding knowledge, you’ll likely rely on a developer to scale the site or add any major content upgrades.
You might want a “set it and forget it” type of website, but this isn’t really an option for most businesses. If you sell products and services, or maintain a presence online, you’ll need to do some basic upkeep on your website on a regular basis.
Website builders win in this category—they’re typically very easy to maintain. Platforms like Webflow or Squarespace usually include automatic software updates and maintenance with no effort necessary on your part. If you’re using any third-party plug-ins, you’ll also get to enjoy built-in support that makes upkeep very simple.
The flip side is that you may not own your website if you use a website builder. Yes, you own the domain, but not the site. The company that owns the website builder can remove your content at any time—whether you provide permission or not. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible and definitely worth considering.
You might have a harder time updating a custom site on your own, depending on your CMS (content management system) and your own technical skills. There is simply more to keep updated, and it will need to be done manually. We'd advise an ongoing care and maintenance plan with your designer/developer to make this work best for you.
Operating online, in any capacity, poses some security risks. Security becomes an even bigger concern if you accept payments online and handle sensitive customer information. Your website needs to have measures in place to protect your business.
Websites that use builder software are reportedly more susceptible to security issues. While these sites do employ a variety of security measures, like SSL certificates for encryption, you’re depending on the website builder here and have little control over security.
You have complete control over your custom site, so you can put all the security measures you like in place. Again, though, you’ll rely on your developer to determine what’s necessary and to maintain your security features.
Cost is a key consideration when deciding how to create your website. An obvious benefit of website builders is their price tag—they’re far cheaper than a custom site, especially when you’re first getting started. Website builders run on subscription-based pricing, while custom sites involve a one-time cost for site design and development. Since you’re working with a real, live person (or team of people) to get a custom site, it’s going to cost more. Sometimes a lot more.
Still, keep in mind that the subscription costs of a website builder add up over time. It might seem like a small investment, but it can equal the cost of a custom site over time.
If you’re hung up on cost, try thinking instead of the value of your website as a salesperson. How many leads do you expect it to bring in? And what are those worth to you? How much would that salesperson earn, in the real world, for making those sales? Would it be a few hundred dollars? A couple thousand? Or would it be a full-time salary with a handful of zeros at the end?
Our expert opinion
Not all businesses need a custom site. There. We said it.
In some cases, a website builder might be best for your business. It can be a speedy, cost-effective approach. Whether you want to do it yourself or hire someone who creates websites with builders, this is a great option for newer and smaller businesses.
On the other hand, investing in a custom site is well worth it for companies that compete for high-ticket clients. Why? Website builders inevitably leave subtle signs of a DIY approach that can harm your credibility. These small cues can make a big impact on buyer confidence. Plus, if your competitors are investing in custom sites (and we can promise that some of them are), your client is likely to equate their more professional websites with higher competency.
Ultimately, the choice between a website builder and a custom site is your call. If your business needs the flexibility, functionality, security, and branding to compete for those high-ticket clients, a custom site is likely best. Connect with Checkbox today to learn how we can help.