Website Builders 101

A beginner's guide to website builders. Learn about the basics of website builders, how they work, and if you should use one for making your own website.

A guide to website builders

Welcome to our Website Builders 101 page. Here, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about website builders and help you decide whether using one is right for you and your business. If this is your first time making a website, we’d recommend watching our full video series guide on how to make a website yourself or request a consultation for our free training services. Although building a website will take time and offer many challenges for novices and pros alike, this article is designed to inform you about the basics of website builders – the greatest asset available to those who want to build websites themselves and as easily as possible.

What is a Website Builder?

A website builder is an invaluable tool that puts the power of web development in the hands of any “do-it-yourselfer” looking to build their own website. The key to their utility is they eliminate the need to code in HTML & CSS in order to build a fully functional website.

Website builders allow for a more intuitive development process, using a visual drag-and-drop toolset that feels comfortable and familiar to users of any technical skill level. With a website builder, you can do things like:

  • Swap images in and out on the fly.
  • Edit color schemes, fonts, and page layouts with a few simple clicks
  • Get your site mobile-ready almost instantly without needing to rebuild entire pages
  • Use premade templates to get a professional looking design

In addition to their ease of use and zero need for code, website builders can also serve as all-inclusive solutions for building, hosting, and maintaining your site.

Platforms like Wix, SquareSpace, and Weebly offer complete packages where everything from domain registration, hosting, technical support, eCommerce solutions, and email services are all provided in one place. Not only does this simplify the process of getting a website online for non-techies, but the total cost of their monthly plans will likely end up being comparable or considerably less than if you were to set up these services independently.

Who Should Use a Website Builder?

Chances are if you’re here reading this right now, then you are already the perfect candidate for a website builder. Business owners who want to take charge of their online presence, or who simply want to cut out the high costs of hiring a developer, will benefit greatly by using these tools.

Working with a website builder is a great option for anyone looking to create a blog, online storefront, landing page, digital portfolio, informational site, or just about any low to mid-traffic level website.

For much larger sites (think Fortune 500) that require ambitious backend programming or tremendous eCommerce catalogs, then hiring a skilled development team is the necessary way to go.

For Both Professionals & Everyday Users

The small business do-it-yourselfer isn’t the only intended user of popular website builders. Many freelance web designers and digital agencies will now tailor their services towards website builders if the client’s needs or preferences warrant it. Some agencies have even carved out a niche in the marketplace to work exclusively within these platforms.

Some web developers may turn their nose up at the idea of using a website builder, while others recognize the benefits and necessity of using one. I believe that the end product is all that counts; it doesn’t matter what tools were used, just as long as they were used with integrity. Is using a site builder going to help reduce extraneous workload? Or is it going to be used just as a shortcut? Charging premium prices just to swap new text and some photos into a premade template is not the most honorable service for a client—not to mention it will likely do nothing to bolster the client’s unique brand.

Website builders are ideally best served as a launching off point. Although they can be the most useful tool in a web designer’s arsenal, they still require a deft hand and sharp wit to maximize their potential. (More on that later.)

The Different Flavors of Website Builders

In the olden days (the 1990s), if you wanted a website built then you’d have to hand code it yourself, resulting in a hideously rudimentary page of simple text and gruesome colors. Or you could hire an “expert” in the new field of web design to build a slightly less gruesome web page for you.

Thankfully, websites have since evolved into much grander beauty and functionality—and so too have the tools that build them. To clear any confusion, it should be noted that there are different types of builders out there; some of them serve certain types of users, and others have now become obsolete. Here are some examples of what we mean by a website builder:

The WYSIWYG Editor

WYSIWYG (pronounced “whizzy-wig”) editors were a web development breakthrough. Short for “What You See Is What You Get”, this type of editor appropriately allowed designers to build websites visually as it automatically handled the HTML markup underneath the hood.

Their output, however, was hit or miss (largely a miss). The old versions of GoDaddy’s site builder may have allowed the average user to get a website up, but their limited features and bland themes look antiquated and unprofessional by yesterday’s standards. You’ll likely find many websites still out there haunting the Interwebs from this initial boom of GoDaddy sites. Let’s hope their owners find this article.

Macromedia’s Dreamweaver (now an Adobe product) was tailored as a professional WYSIWYG editor that allowed for advanced website creation without the need to code. Again, the results rarely looked state-of-the-art—and, arguably, the learning curve required to master the software made it even more unwieldly than just learning to code anyway.

The Modern Website Builder

In just a few recent years, the capabilities of visual drag-and-drop website creators have grown exponentially. Now you really can build a website without touching a single line of code. The leading platforms offer everything one would need to get a website up, including hosting and domain registration.

Screenshot of a modern website builder
A screenshot of using Wix's website builder, a modern and all-in-one solution for building a complete website yourself.

Their predesigned templates are often enough to satisfy most users’ requirements. If you’re a restaurant owner, there are many excellent restaurant-themed templates on Wix. If you’re a photographer, SquareSpace offers beautiful portfolio themes to work with. If your only objective is to sell products, there is no better solution than Shopify.

When advanced styling is needed, many all-inclusive website builders will also allow you to tweak the page’s CSS if you’re savvy enough—although not all will allow this level of freedom. Also, depending on which platform you use, many additional plugins and apps can expand the functionality of your site, such as form builders, media players, and members-only portals.

It truly is possible to create professional-quality websites with easy-to-learn builders. They look stunning, and they’re capable of almost anything…

The Professional Builders

There is one more type of website builder out there, and they are generally reserved only for the true professionals or design experts. These serve a specific niche of freelance web designers or mid-size agencies who excel at creating pixel-perfect designs but also—you guessed it!—don’t want to code.

Platforms like Webydo, Webflow, and Adobe Muse are structured similarly to the more consumer-friendly website builders previously mentioned (and even offer similar pricing models), but their design freedoms and more complex toolsets are better suited to professionals who probably could write code but just don’t want to. (Nobody wants to write code.)

If you’re experienced using software like Adobe Photoshop, you may find it worth your while to try out these advanced website builders. For the purposes of this guide, however, they will pretty much be excluded from the discussion.

What About WordPress?

WordPress is the most popular content management system (CMS) on the internet—and about one third of all websites in the world are powered by it. It’s a bit of an interesting beast in that, yes, it is technically a website builder, but in order to customize it you will likely need to get your hands dirty in code.

There are two options when going the WordPress route:

WordPress.com

WordPress.com is a traditional site builder service that offers all-inclusive plans with page design tools, web hosting, domain registration, templates, and other additional features. Their monthly plans are reasonably priced and suit businesses of all sizes.

While there’s not much inherently wrong with using WordPress.com as your website builder of choice, you’d be better off with using one of the major three listed above to accomplish the same thing. In order to harness the true power of WordPress, you will need to pursue WordPress.org…

WordPress.org & Page Builder Plugins

WordPress.org is a whole different monster. This open source software is free to download and start using to build websites. However, you’re pretty much on your own here. You will need to set up your own domain, hosting, and perform all the customization yourself. There is also no technical support—but thankfully an enormous online community is always there to help.

When you build a site with WordPress, you do have an enormous resource of themes at your disposal to assist with its design and layout; however, there is no getting around the fact that in order to customize the appearance and functionality of those themes you are going to have to mess with code.

Luckily, that’s where various page builder plugins come in. Plugins are add-ons that expand the functionality of WordPress themes, which are usually installed in order to accomplish something that dozens of hours of coding would otherwise require. Page builder plugins offer the same drag-and-drop interfaces and ease of use that services like SquareSpace and Wix offer – but with the level of freedom WordPress allows.

Beaver Builder, Divi Builder, Elementor, and Visual Composer are premium plugins (often for a one-time fee) that can create stunning websites without writing code. Bear in mind that their main objective is to simplify the design process, and they may not offer on their own the same feature set as all-in-one solutions like Wix—but that’s where additional WordPress plugins come into play.

While WordPress requires a steeper learning curve to master, its freedom and level of control is unmatched. You can literally create any type of website within this powerful system, and with the help of the right plugin it’s now much easier to do so.

QUICK RECAP: Platforms like Wix, Weebly, and SquareSpace are all-inclusive solutions best suited to consumers. Webydo, Webflow, and Adobe Muse are more advanced platforms better suited to design professionals. WordPress.org is the most powerful option but requires advanced coding knowledge—but with page builder plugins the design process is simplified..

The Pros & Cons of Using a Website Builder

All the website builders mentioned are technically sophisticated platforms that bring a simplicity and control to the web design process that just wouldn’t have been possible five years ago. While the benefits may seem obvious, there are still a few shortcomings to be aware of when using one to build your website. Here is a rundown of some pros and cons of website builders.

Pros of Using a Website Builder

  • Ease of use – Website builders are the best solution for beginners with little technical know-how. There is still a small learning curve involved, but our free online course will help get you oriented and quickly building your first site with ease.
  • No Code – Did I mention there’s no code? That’s the whole point!
  • Affordable – Many platforms can offer you everything you’d need for under $15/month. Compared to the thousands of dollars you could spend hiring a professional web designer, you’re looking at a real bargain!
  • Support when you need it – Included in your monthly plan is helpful email support if you ever get lost.
  • Customizable designs – Although you may be sharing premade templates with other businesses in your industry who use the same website builder, many platforms nowadays offer advanced customization for design-savvy users.
  • Responsive, mobile-ready designs – Responsive design is the norm on the modern web, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a reputable website builder that doesn’t use mobile-ready templates. This is an invaluable time saver!
  • Clean & SEO friendly markup – Your site’s HTML markup plays an important factor in search engine rankings. Site builders that make it easy for users to include keywords, meta tags, and descriptions on each page will produce more SEO-friendly markup.

Cons of Using a Website Builder

  • Limited functionality – Functionality may be limited to what your website builder offers. Website builders are typically not the best choice for websites that require unique features or advanced backend functionality. You’ll need to hire a web developer to accomplish things like that, which brings us to the next point…
  • Code – Did I mention there’s no code? Oops… While it’s true that most anything can be accomplished without writing code, it is often quite useful to have at least a working knowledge of HTML & CSS in order to modify a template’s aesthetic to fully suit your needs. JavaScript also comes in handy when it becomes necessary to expand a site’s functionality.
  • Transferring your site may be problematic – Website builders often use their own specific system, and switching over to a new one may be tricky. You may even need to recreate the site from scratch. For example, Wix doesn’t offer an export function so you’re pretty much stuck if you ever want to leave them.
  • Cost – Although website builders certainly cost less than hiring a good web designer, not all the services they offer are free, and the final bill may come as a surprise. Quite a few website builders advertise a free plan, but they usually come loaded with ads and limited functionality, such as not allowing you to use your own domain name. Though if the service is great and frees up the time you need to run your business, try viewing the extra money as an investment rather than a cost.
  • Ownership concerns – If you use the builder’s images and assets, it’s likely you can’t copy them over to your computer or publish them somewhere else. However, you should be legally entitled to do whatever you like with any piece of content you create and upload yourself. It’s very important that you check the user terms and conditions regarding intellectual property of your website’s content before committing to a website builder company.

Tips for Website Builder Beginners

Website builders, magnificent as they are, should not be viewed as a magical solution that will do all the work for you. While there seems to be a popular belief out there that you can have a fully-fledged website up in a matter of minutes, it’s worth noting that this type of result is highly unlikely and will most definitely not serve your business well. Good websites take time, careful planning, and plenty of nurturing if you expect results for your business.

An infographic by Webydo reveals a sobering statistic that only 2% of website DIYers actually succeed in publishing their website on a domain. This suggests that many business owners begin with bright ideas and good intentions, but along the way they become discouraged by the challenges of web design.

Don’t give up. Creating a website is no small feat—even with the aid of a website builder—but with enough determination you can absolutely succeed in the end. To encourage you on this journey, here are some useful highlights to consider when building your first website.

  • Start by learning the basics of web design. Gaining an understanding of the fundamentals will lessen the initial panic you might feel when opening a website builder for the first time.
  • If the endless options of color palettes and fonts are leaving you with a spinning head—or worse, if you’re mixing and matching without really knowing what you’re doing—take some time to learn about color, typography, and font pairing.
  • Planning the right user experience on your site will ensure it is generating those ever-important conversions for your business. After all, you’re not just building a website for aesthetic reasons.
  • If you find that web design just is not your forte, or if you end up getting in over your head with ambitious customization, then hiring a professional is really the smartest solution. If you’re bringing a developer on board to deal with only piecemeal modifications, the cost won’t totally break the bank—and the time and frustration you’ll save is absolutely worth it in the end.

Conclusion

By now you should have a solid idea if using a website builder is the right solution for you. If it is, then take the next step and compare website builders to make the best choice for your small business.

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