How to Choose the Best Website Builder
Getting your message out these days requires good helpings of Facebook and Twitter, with maybe a dash of Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Tumblr. However, that is not enough: if you want an internet presence that truly represents you or your organization, you also need a customized website. A real website, as opposed to a social media page, gives you complete control over design and content. This lends credibility to your business, organization, or personal brand. Facebook pages all look somewhat alike, but on your own site, you can realize a true brand image, offer products for sale, and integrate third-party web services.
It has never been easier to set up a professional-looking, design-forward website. Well-known site builders like Squarespace, Weebly, and Wix are constantly improving. In addition, newer competitors, such as Simvoly, Strikingly and uKit, are popping up all the time with their own clever new twists on the process.
Why You Need a Website
First, let’s discuss why you even need a webpage in this day of social media domination of the web. On a personal level, you would not want to send prospective employers to your Facebook page, so a personal website makes more sense as an online, customized resume. Another reason worth consideration, for both personal and business sites, is that building your own site gives you endless design choices. You also get total control over products and services you may sell and how they are delivered.
Further, having a real, dedicated site makes a business seem more authoritative and trustworthy than a Facebook or Tumblr presence can on its own (though you should certainly also consider those services as elements of your online presence). It is as much an opening ante in the business world as having a business card for your company.
Getting your own website used to require a lot of tech wizardry, such as knowledge of servers, HTML, FTP, site registrars, and web hosting services. Thankfully, we now live in the age of easy online site builders. The services included here let you make a well-designed, mobile-friendly site with minimal technical knowledge. They can even take a small or sole-proprietor business to profitability with buy links, online stores, and other moneymaking options.
Larger businesses spend many thousands of dollars to get their custom-designed and programmed sites, but there is no need for smaller organizations and individuals to go to that kind of expense. For about $10 per month (or around $25 if you are selling products) and a few hours of your time, the services included here can help you create a unique, attractive website.
With all these services, you build everything yourself, using simple drag-and-drop interfaces. The services even let you include items such as social share buttons, photo galleries, blogs, and media players. Some even let you restrict viewing with a password and let you have people join up as members of your site.
Free Website Builders
Several of the services included here offer free options, too. If you choose that path, however, your site will include branding from the provider, which will necessarily make your site less impressive to savvy surfers—and shoppers. Free offerings vary greatly in the amount of storage and bandwidth they allow, so read the small print to find out how much you get with each provider. Weebly, Wix, and WordPress.com are among the most generous with their free offerings, if that is the way, you want to go.
Register Your Domain
Before you can start building your home on the web, you need an address for it. Most of the site builders here can register a unique domain for you, and all can give you a web address using the provider’s domain, for example, yourname.sitebuilder.com. The services also let you use a domain you have acquired from a third-party registrar such as pairNIC, but you usually must pay the site builder for that privilege.
Website Design Tools
All of the web services listed here have you start by choosing from a selection of templates for your site. The better ones, such as Duda, Squarespace, Weebly, and Wix, use templates that automatically reformat your site for viewing on mobile devices. They also offer specifically targeted templates based on your site’s purpose, such as for promoting a bakery’s sales, getting gigs for a musician, or keeping wedding guests informed.
Once you have chosen a template for your site, you need to make it your own. Most site builders let you tweak the color scheme, fonts, and page layouts, as well as add new pages. A good site builder offers sub-templates for the most commonly used page types: About, Contact, Products, Galleries, FAQ, Blog, and so on.
Of course, you will also want to add custom content to those pages. You do this by adding text areas, photos (see Photos and Galleries section below), buttons, and other widgets. The better site builders, such as Wix and Duda, offer a marketplace of third-party widgets, for things like forms, chat, reservations, and social feeds.
Some site builders, such as Squarespace, Strikingly, Virb, and uKit, restrict you to placing page objects in spots that will not make your site look garish, which can be an advantage if design isn’t your forte. Other builders offer more freedom; if that is what you are looking for, check out Wix.
Starting with Wix’s ADI (artificial design intelligence) tool, several of the site builders now offer a tool that lets you enter social accounts and other personal or business info, and presto bingo, they get you a no-work website. Jimdo and Simvoly now offer similar if somewhat less ambitious tools. Wix’s ADI even impressed a professional designer acquaintance of ours with results we saw in testing, mostly using images and information it scraped from her LinkedIn account.
Mobile Site Design
Any site builder that wants to call itself modern these days must be capable of producing sites that play well on mobile, and all of those listed here can do so to some extent. Some, such as Squarespace and Weebly, use strictly responsive-design approaches to create a mobile site from what you have built for the web. Responsive design is a popular web design strategy used by some of these site builders. This approach reformats the same webpage content to fit different screens. However, in terms of SEO (search engine optimization), the search engines only care about whether a site displays suitably on mobile screen sizes. Both Bing and Google have pages where you can enter your URL to see if your site plays on mobile acceptably.
The strict responsive approach of Simvoly, uKit, and Weeby means you get no control over the mobile-only view. Wix, by contrast, offers a mobile-site preview and lets you make customizations that only apply to mobile viewing. For example, you may want a splash page to welcome mobile viewers, or you may want to leave out an element that does not work well on the smaller screens.
Photos and Galleries
Let us face it, one of the things we like best about the web is looking at pictures. The site builders here all offer some degree of photo and gallery display. Some, like Squarespace and Wix, also offer loads of stock photography for you to use. Some let you touch up images with editing tools such as cropping, brightness, and in some cases even Instagram-like filters. Others, such as Simvoly and uKit offer no photo editing at all, aside from resizing and positioning.
Photo gallery options also vary widely. For example, Weebly offers a good selection of styles for your online galleries, while others like Duda and GoDaddy are more limited in options.
Making Money from Your Website
Of course, if you want to go all out for sales, you need to move up to a dedicated web shopping cart service like Shopify$9.00 at Shopify, but that is a step you might not be ready to take. Most of the services here offer some ability to sell items from your site, if only in the form of a PayPal button, but some do not offer that in free accounts. More-advanced options found in some builders let you process credit card payments and add your own cart and checkout pages. The more-powerful site builders include product promotions, email marketing, and inventory and shipping tools. Some let you sell digital downloads, while others do not; see the table above to find out which do. Only a couple of these builders let you put ads on your site, though most of them allow some degree of custom HTML code insertion.
Social and Site Stats
All of the site builders here let you put Facebook Like and Twitter Follow buttons on your pages, and some even let you display feeds from the social networks. Some give you help building a Facebook Page and tying it into your site design and updates. Many products offer some sort of SEO tools, but too often, this is just a form on which you can enter Meta tags. You are mostly left to wrestle with that black magic known as SEO for yourself. It is very important to submit and verify your site to the search engines, unless you do not want anyone to find it!
Most of the products here can tell you about site traffic, though the amount of detail varies greatly among them, and it is often tied to premium account levels. For example, Weebly can not only show you page views and unique visitors for each day of the month, but also search terms used to get to the site, referring sites, and top-visited pages. Wix and uKit, at the other end, have nothing in the way of built-in site stats, instead requiring you to create your own Google Analytics account, and even that requires a paid account. Another drawback of that approach is that you can only see traffic from the preceding day and earlier; it is not up-to-the-minute, or even the hour.
The WordPress Question
A new addition to this roundup is our review of WordPress.com, which is a big name when it comes to creating websites. However, you should know that WordPress.com, which is linked to in the table above is not what most people are talking about when they mention WordPress. That version of WordPress is a free open-source blogging platform from WordPress.org that requires you to find your own website hosting service. The WordPress.org software is a popular site-building platform that many web-hosting services even offer managed WordPress hosting plans. WordPress.com, on the other hand, is a service that deploys and hosts that software for you, so you do not have to go out and find your own hosting service.
WordPress (either version) is a blog-focused content management system that accepts plug-ins and themes that extend its capabilities to most of what the other products here offer, including commerce. In fact, WordPress.com uses plug-ins such as JetPack to provide many of its features. As a whole, WordPress (either .com or .org) is not as easy to use as the other options in this roundup, but if blogging and site transferability are of key importance and you do not mind digging into its weeds a bit, you should consider the platform. Furthermore, the ability to use WordPress is a valuable skill, as some estimates say that WordPress powers 30 percent of the internet.
Moving to another Site Builder
One downside of most of these services is that, should you someday want to move to another web host, you will likely be out of luck because of the custom code they use to display your site. Only a few services let you take your site to another web hosting service: The most complete example of this is Weebly, which lets you download the standard site server folders. Squarespace offers some transferability by letting you output your site in standard WordPress format. As you might expect, the same transferability holds for WordPress.com and WordPress.org.
Website Building Support Options
Support among the services varies widely, from free WordPress.com account’s only offering community support, to Jimdo’s email-only service, to Wix’s telephone-callback service—even free accounts! Many of the site builders offer rich online support knowledge bases and FAQs, so there is a good chance you will not even need to contact the company. I test each service’s support as part of the review process by asking how to connect a domain bought elsewhere to my site and how to sell digital downloads.
As you can see, there are quite a few factors to consider when choosing an easy online website builder. In addition, there are many choices of provider—there are at least 20 more vendors than included in this list. Hardly a week goes by when we do not get a pitch from a new one we have never heard of before.
The selection below should be plenty to get you started. Read the blurbs and then click through to the linked reviews below to find the one that best suits your needs. In addition, do not hesitate to chime in below in the comments section to report your experience with a site builder or praise one that has not included.
Check out our primer, How to Create a Website.
Website Builders: Wix, Duda, Simvoly, Squarespace, GoDaddy, Strikingly, uCoz uKit, Weebly, Jimdo, WordPress.com