I coded my first website in the late 90s, when I was still in high school. I had a Star Wars fan site and a beauty tips site too. I used HTML guides online and a little bit of practice to get them to work. I had an FTP connection and everything. That was back in the day when content management systems were only for big companies and when the internet wasn't quite as ubiquitous as today.
But that's obviously not the case anymore. Websites are now an usual–nay, expected–part of our personal and professional lives. But website development and management has also become more complex, thanks to advancements in coding, mobile devices and interactive applications.
Of course, it would be easy if everyone could as easily code websites as they read and write. But unfortunately, it's not the case. Website development is still in the hands of experts, or at least well-trained amateurs. Going to a designer isn't the only answer, though; there are plenty of tools, programs and apps to help non-technical people build their own websites, some of them free. The question is: are they worth it? Can these free tools make websites that are appropriate for businesses?
For this post, I've investigated two of the most popular free website tools on the web, Wix and Weebly. I also discuss WordPress as a free option. As a non-developer person who's aware of technical requirements for effective, usable websites, I developed a few criteria to evaluate the tools:
- Easy access
- Intuitive building and updating interface
- Good content management functions
- Security and stability
- Compliant code
In the cases of Wix and Weebly, I attempted to build a basic website for Stikky Media, our sister online marketing company.
As far as a small business is concerned, these are the most important elements to consider. Let's take a deeper look.
Wix is probably the most visible website building tool on the internet. I keep seeing ads for it on my Facebook feed. So I thought I would give it the first try in this experiment.
Wix lets you sign in with an email address, your Facebook account or your Google account. Practical for data mining I imagine, but it also makes it easier to sign up and log in. After signing up, you get to a template selection tool. This tool is meant to match your type of website with the most suitable templates.
The website boasts HTML5-compliant websites and responsive designs for each template. After you choose a template you like, you're brought into an editing tool–but not before an introductory video on auto-play, which may annoy some users.
The templates have dummy text and images set up so you know where to put your photos and copy on the page. However, it's not always obvious where you can change, remove or modify these design elements to your liking. But using what's there, I found that it was easy to play with the placement of elements (drag and drop pretty much anywhere on the page), even though it wasn't always obvious where you needed to click to add or change elements.
The first thing I tried to do was to change the dummy title for the Stikky Media logo. After deleting the title, I uploaded the logo to the system (an easy enough task). I then had to change the logo's size, but I couldn't seem to make it quite fit into the heading of the site. I had to click around quite a bit to figure out how to make it larger so the logo would appear clearly. The flexibility of the design was more of a problem than an advantage here–I wish it was clearer what I can or can't put in a section.
Changing text required double-clicking and highlighting to change it. It's not too difficult to change a heading or a title, but I can see see major complications for highly dynamic, frequently updated websites. As a content person, I would certainly get very frustrated with having to go change or add content in the Wix system. I can also see eventual problems with unwanted visual design changes that may mess up with the rest of the website as you try to add or modify content.
The blog section was just as unpractical. In order to add a blog post, you need to go in the Wix system, then on the "Blog" page of your website, then into a blog post:
Of course, this system would also cause problems if your posts aren't strictly text, pictures or videos–like most blog posts on the web today.
The resulting website is visually appealing, that's for sure. But I personally have my doubts about the stability of the system, the security of the data and Wix's compliance with Google's SEO requirements. Wix claims to have good SEO options, but I'm not sure how Google feels about it. My main gripe, however, remains with the severly impractical content management system. I guess if all you need is a few static pages that you plan on not changing very often, it works; otherwise, I suggest you look elsewhere.
Weebly is the other popular free web builder I tried for this experiment. The signup is email-only (so no data mining from your social media feeds or Google account).
The template selection page is more attractive and somewhat faster than Wix's, although I doubt it makes much of a difference. The themes are definitely more modern; they integrate lots of current web design trends like large background pictures and flat design. The designs are responsive, and Weebly actually lets you edit the mobile version of your website.
One thing I appreciated was that the introductory video didn't auto-play. I'd rather choose whether I want to watch it or not and start it on my own time. It's a minimal difference, but it's an important one.
I found the design interface a lot more intuitive than Wix's. Somehow the icons made more sense, and it was clearer what I could and couldn't do with the system. However, you can't play with the dimensions of sections so much, like Wix let you do. But I found this a good rather than bad thing, since it means that a clumsy designer wouldn't make mistakes while trying to add or change content in the website.
Speaking of content, the Weebly templates are a bit more barebones than those on Wix. As you can see in the previous screenshot, there's very little dummy content in the template. This can either be an advantage or a problem depending on your level of creativity and knowledge of web design best practices. Wix's ready-made templates are easier to manage for absolute beginners, but Weebly's are more flexible and don't force you into one-size-fits-all content.
Which brings me to, again, content management. Just like Wix, you need to sign into your account and click the part of the website where you want to change the content. Adding blog posts is just as tedious as with Wix, which would make me think twice about using Weebly for a business that intends to have an active blog and social media presence.
My concerns with coding stability, security and best SEO practices are the same as with Wix. You can see my test website here.
I'm already a WordPress fan. I have several WordPress-powered websites and I work with it on regular basis.
If you want to have a good website that is also free, I think you should choose WordPress over any of these types of free website builders. The advantages are numerous: a proven platform, millions of websites built on it, plenty of free themes to choose from, design flexibility, lots of free apps and add-ons, and, of course, an excellent content management system.
Using any iteration of WordPress (either .com or .org) is free. WordPress.org requires you to get your own domain and hosting; however, WordPress.com will host your website for free and will charge you a minimal cost for your domain name if you haven't claimed it through another domain provider. But if you have, you can use WordPress.com too.
WordPress requires a bit more technical ability to build your design and content, but the few hours you will put into learning the platform will be worth it. Most free themes only have a few customization options to make your life easier, too. And if you don't find your match in the free themes, there are plenty of premium themes sold for an average of $70. These have more customization options and are more flexible.
However, in both cases, there's no need to learn code of any kind. Knowledge of CSS and HMTL is helpful, of course, to make custom changes to the website, but there isn't much need for that kind of expertise for a small business website.
The biggest advantage of WordPress over the Wix-type free website builder is its content management system. Adding and changing content is easy and doesn't require any manual changes to the code or access to the design itself. The Wix-Weebly approach in that regard is still very old; back before the days of large-scale CMS, webmasters had to go into the code to change the writing. Working in Wix or Weebly still feels a little like that. However, the content management system approach separates the content from the design; you can add, remove and modify content without any changes to the design. This keeps you from making unwanted changes to the visual appearance or coding of your website.
WordPress websites also have compliant code and are SEO-friendly. Most WordPress websites are secure (depending on your theme, mostly) but you can improve your security with the proper add-ons.
Websites are more than just a sandwich board on the street; they are virtual storefronts, the first impression businesses make on the web. That's why it's important to have beautiful, usable and useful websites.
But not everyone has the kind of budget needed for a professional website design. Free solutions exist, but some are better than others. In the case of Wix/Weebly vs. WordPress, I do believe that the time needed to learn WordPress is going to pay off in the long run.
Have you tried to use a free website builder? How satisfied were you with the results? Share your free website building experiences with us.