As a small business you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to services and tools that let you create and publish your own website. Whether your aim is to sell your wares, showcase a unique service or make an arresting branding statement, there’s a platform that suits your level of knowledge and the complexity you need. At first glance many of the pay-per month services seem similar, but in many ways making your own website is all about after-market costs.
Some tools are open source and (theoretically) free, but they involve further costs as you get ready to publish and market. Likewise, even though most paid website building and hosting services fall in a pretty basic range anywhere from $5-50 per month depending on the complexity, there can be a lot of hidden charges beyond your monthly subscription fee when you consider themes, apps, data migration and a host of other requirements you might have in the future.
Understanding both what’s involved in using a website building service and what you need for your particular circumstances will help you cut through the marketing spin and make the right choice.
What is website builder software?
Website builder software is a program where you can build, design, edit, and update your website. These tools allow people with all levels of technical knowledge to design and build a website. Using design and construction methods like pre-made HTML templates or drag-and-drop content areas, the page and site code is built on the fly in the background as you work, putting the power of web design in your hands.
But it’s also easy to forget there’s a lot more to making and publishing a website than just design and writing the content. You need to tell potential visitors about it. You want them to stay there when they find it and check it often. You want it to work seamlessly with marketing campaigns and social media activity.
Website builder software does (or should do) all that stuff for you, either by taking a lot of it out of your hands or automating it behind the scenes, and the best put it all in plain English.
The best website building software for small businesses
Wix – Best for beginners
Wix feels like the simple page layout applications you might have used to create your Facebook banner or company logo. Most competitors exert some control over where you place elements according to web standards, but Wix is far less constrained – sometimes resulting in a free-for-all.
The design interface is clear and intuitive, and Wix guides you through the process from the outset by suggesting the best template and advising on the features you should think about. . In fact, it turbocharges the whole notion of helping you – its AI algorithm asks a few questions about your needs and builds the site ready for you to apply content.
Because Wix holds your hand to such an extent it’s perfect for beginners with no web design experience. That’s good not just for your site’s presentation but because advice about other aspects of your project like SEO is all part of the tool’s methodology.
However, because you can play with design and there’s no hard perimeter to what you can do on the page, you can end up with a mess that fails spectacularly in user experience (UX). You can keep changing things until properties like suitability for mobile is completely broken, and if you don’t really know what you’re doing that can mean paying a developer or expert to sort the mess out.
And beware: Not all Wix templates are mobile-ready out of the box, an almost-unforgivable sin in an age where over half of your visitors will use handheld devices. If you don’t choose the right template you’ll need to do the job twice over – once for your site’s desktop version and one for the mobile site.
Shopify – Best for online sellers and ecommerce stores
The clue is in the name. From the first line of code, Shopify was created to be an ecommerce website builder, and every element from the template designs to the selection of plugins is built for online stores. In fact it goes beyond just a website. Your published site connects easily to a raft of other services that make marketing and selling online seamless.
Payments, social marketing, and the other features you’d expect of an ecommerce engine aren’t just present, they’re pivotal within Shopify. Many of these features are available as apps that make your whole project very modular as you add and remove pieces.
Unlike self-built solutions like WordPress, it’s not just the design and hosting that’s included in the monthly subscription price but the point of sale payment gateway, transaction security and other critical parts of the store. You can select a template, add content, choose payment providers and be online within minutes. It’s a self contained, easy to use, end-to-end service.
But the focus on ecommerce gives Shopify limitations in other areas that aren’t directly related to selling. If that’s your aim, you’ll find every function you need included and ready to switch on, but other platforms have better baked-in tools that aren’t strictly sales focused like blogs and social media connectivity.
There’s some subjective and anecdotal wisdom around it not being as easy to use as other platforms in constructing pages, and it’s in Shopify’s payments engine where it’s perhaps unwittingly revealed the company makes most of its income. If you opt for any other payment gateway apart from the native Shopify Payments system, the transaction fees are much higher than comparable services from other platforms.
WordPress – Best for pros
WordPress is the clear winner when it comes to popularity, being behind around 40 percent of the world’s websites. But does that mean it’s so much better than others, or just popular for its own sake?
The answer lies in several factors. The first is longevity – it’s been around for 18 years, so it’s a proven entity. Second, it started as a blogging platform when blogs were the hottest new trend, propelling it to the forefront of the field.
But today, even professional level web developers use it rather than code a website from scratch because the functions necessary for a modern online presence are already built as modular parts that can be reprogrammed or discarded as desired. If you’re familiar enough with HTML and CSS you can make any possible design change to whole pages or the colors, sizes and styles of any single element on them.
There’s a thriving market for pre-made templates with thousands of choices at many price points. But if you only pick and deploy it without crafting it to your own vision a little it’s something of a waste of potential.
Being open source, WordPress is free up front, but costs can mount up through the process. Some templates cost money, and if you engage a pro developer to execute the whole project it will jack the cost upwards considerably.
After that, the software architecture and ecommerce rules and constraints you need like hosting, security, site speed, analytics and digital marketing are on you, all of which can impose their own costs, whether monthly subscription of one off fees and time spent researching, testing and deploying them.
Squarespace – Best for visuals
Squarespace gives you little access to your site’s code, and with good reason. The pre-made templates are cited by many as the most visually attractive of any website design service. If you like to really tinker you might find it frustrating, but Squarespace’s design guidelines are like those kid friendly bumpers at the bowling alley, stopping your whole site going off the rails.
Everything in the Squarespace platform has been built to make it easy to select, maintain and deploy the most presentable website possible. The tools behind the scenes are just as user-friendly and refined as the front end of your site will be, and the design aesthetic is just as important in the design tools you use to place and style content as it is in the template you choose.
Where every website design platform has its plugins and apps, you won’t find as many in Squarespace as some others. A lot more of the essential functions that make Squarespace sites the most standards-compliant and visually rich are built in. Blogs are a good example – where a lot of platforms offer plugins to attach a blog engine, in Squarespace you need only apply it like you would any flat page and start adding posts.
A slightly unsung feature that isn’t present in a lot of competing platforms is also the ability to restore content within 30 days of deleting it. It’s a great tool to future proof how a page, blog post or other element is performing for your audience or SEO efforts, forming a kind of do-over if you make a sweeping change you later realized was a mistake.
WooCommerce – Best for intermediate programmers
As a plugin for the WordPress framework, WooCommerce straddles two worlds. On the one hand, it contains all the website technology you need to get an online store up and running quickly including payment engines, sales and marketing functionality and design templates. But because you have full access to the code like you do WordPress itself, there’s no limit to how many changes you can make, either directly to the code yourself or by attaching any number of weird or wonderful apps that give your website behaviors and functions you can barely imagine, let alone need.
WooCommerce is easy to deploy straight out of the box when applied to a basic WordPress build, but when stacked up against more full service paid platforms, choosing WooCommerce if you don’t want to make development-level tweaks doesn’t make much sense.
Once built you’ll still need to find somewhere to host your site, which shifts the responsibility for security, minimum ecommerce standards, etc onto you. And when those responsibilities include all the extra functionality you need like an SSL certificate, it’ll end up costing about the same as you’d pay per month for a platform like Wix or Squarespace anyway. You might be better off choosing a full-featured platform that does all the hosting and updates for you and save a bit (or a lot) of time.
And because WooCommerce is community-driven, there’s no official tech support. There’s a wealth of blogs, tutorials and message forums online if you run into problems, but because WooCommerce and WordPress are targeted at the more pro-level user, their fairly technical nature can be a bit beyond the beginner. Your host can help with a lot of issues related to your site, but they won’t get involved nor advise you on site code itself.
Web.com – Best for the time-stressed
Web.com has a natural home in the small business market because of its user-friendliness and the extent of what its templates and technology can do, so it gives most other services a run for their money. Where it gets complicated is in pricing, so bear with us.
If you need a domain name it’s free for a year but almost $40 per year after that (depending on a few factors), far higher than the industry standard. After the introductory month – which offers rock bottom pricing of between $5 and $10 a month – your subscription then goes up almost threefold, and if you’re after an ecommerce-based site that means monthly rates of anywhere between $50-100.
If you want to go with Web.com but don’t want to do any of the actual grunt work yourself, there’s a service called ‘Build It For Me’ which gives you access to a Web.com specialist who’ll talk about want you want and build your site, a pricier option at $115 per month.
Then you pay monthly for hosting on top of all that. Costing around $6-10 it’s not going to break the bank, but that’s all a way of explaining that while it seems cheaper up front, Web.com goes on to charge considerably more than competitors for the same services.
But before that puts you off, if you choose Build It For Me your agent will work with you over time, providing advice and help with all the usual functions like inventory management, payment processing, shipping rates, analytics, SEO and social media marketing and more. You’ll also get a phone call every month to make changes as part of the price.
Add that up and it might still be cheaper than engaging an SEO expert, attaching an email marketing service subscription and everything else you’d need to make an online store successful.
GoDaddy Website Builder – Best for tool integration
Where some platforms have thousands of templates, GoDaddy.com has just 300, many of them so similar the number of truly unique designs reduced to just a couple of dozen. Godaddy.com Website Builder is targeting the single user or (very) small business owner who wants a no frills web presence quickly, not the power user who wants to control every facet of your visitors’ experience.
The interface is simple no matter how tech savvy you are, with an intuitive drag and drop interface that gives you easy access to change fonts, colours and topline elements quickly.
But the themes and underlying code have several limitations that are hard to overlook. If you want to increase your page heading size, for instance, the only tool at your disposal is a slider that increases or decreases the size of every font on the site together. Design chops have certainly been put into the initial templates but there’s little means to fine-tune individual elements.
Where GoDaddy.com stands out is in access to a host of other proven tools from the GoDaddy.com stable, from domain names and SEO management to email marketing and analytics. As you build a site or edit content, there’s even a product called GoDaddy.com Insight that triggers suggestions based on your actions like ’email your customers a link to your new blog post’, or ‘send a coupon to your social media channels’.
Ecommerce with GoDaddy is a mixed bag. GoDaddy.com Site Builder has a broader potential than most because you can add up to 5,000 products with up to 10 images per product without any plugins or extra functionality. But the way customers are redirected to an entirely new website (GoDaddy.com’s payments portal) to check out is a huge red flag, a surefire way to lose sales because of the number of people who’ll assume your site is pointing to a phishing scam.
But an honorable mention has to go to a feature that’s very rare in this field. The iPhone app is just as easy to use to select, populate and deploy your site as the PC desktop builder is.
Weebly – Best for try-before-you-buy
Weebly is actually two services. If you want a regular website you use the traditional editor where you have control over sections and elements, dragging pieces onto the page and editing them right there.
Square, Weebly’s ecommerce site creator and editor, is far more rigid in element selection and placement and a lot more limited when it comes to broader functionality. There’s no video backgrounds on pages, membership systems, no native blogging platform and (most curious of all considering you build an online store with it) no app store.
There are a few interesting upsides. If you use Square for an ecommerce store you can send your product to Weebly and they’ll have it professionally photographed for the site. But it’s simply not as user-friendly as the original build platform.
To know which one to use, you simply answer a single question when you sign up (‘I need a website with an online store’ versus ‘I just need a website’), but by way of a little free advice, you’ll want the plain website builder every time. If you need ecommerce with higher specs than the absolute basics, there are better website builder services around with better value for money.
The main reason the traditional Weebly is worth sticking with is because it has one of the best designed interfaces you’ll ever use. As you action different elements, the side panel menu changes to give you different tools that only relate to what you’re doing. It gives you both comprehensive control and a very uncluttered interface.
There are around 70 templates, a very workable number that doesn’t overwhelm you, and the quality of designs finds itself midway between the gorgeous work you see on Squarespace and the simple, user-friendly designs offered by Wix.
It also has among the best free service offerings in the field if you want to test the waters, merely putting an unobtrusive ad for Weebly across your site footer.
Who needs a website builder?
If you don’t have six months to learn the ins and outs of code, the website building services online have you in their sights. It’s likely you’ll already have some experience with laying out attractive and effective marketing – even if you’ve had the budget to outsource it to a designer or agency, you know what best represents your name and market position. That means you know what your small business’s web presence has to look like, how it has to behave and what features it needs for your particular way of doing business.
The website building services and platforms we’ve talked about offer those elements to varying degrees (and plenty more besides that you don’t know are possible), and they combine the best and latest in design techniques, website standards, hosting technologies, ecommerce, email marketing, SEO and much more – all of which you probably need to some degree no matter what your industry.
So if you need to stand out among far better resourced and deeper-pocketed competition and cut through all the white noise online about your product or business, it’s not a question of why but when, and most importantly, how.
Major features of website building software
Different platforms and services have feature sets with vastly different strengths because the companies behind them are aiming at slightly different segments. Although they’ll all promise to be all things to all users, features that are native to their sites often perform better than add-ins they’ve jury-rigged later.
Here are the features you need to be aware of to help figure out which has the better offering.
You can code a website design from scratch yourself, but no matter what you’re selling, blogging about, showcasing or featuring, someone somewhere will have a pre-programmed site design that suits your needs perfectly.
Platforms that then host and maintain your site for a monthly fee when you’ve built it will have a selection of design templates to choose from, many of them built for the particular market you’re likely to occupy. They usually have a decent number of free templates, but most have paid marketplaces as well. When it comes to building a site from open source tools like WooCommerce or WordPress the templates number in the hundreds of thousands, from the free and frankly awful to pro-level ones that attract appropriate costs.
Once your website has been developed and is ready to launch, hosting is the next step. Even though services like Wix and Weebly promote themselves as website building tools, hosting is usually where they make their real money – your monthly fee pays for the associated bandwidth, storage space, transaction systems, server and site updates and security protocols.
If you build your site using a free platform and/or template, hosting will then be one of your homework tasks. In fact you should investigate it concurrently with choosing the best building tool, because different hosts will have different strengths with particular systems – although every major hosting provider offers dedicated hosting for the world’s most popular website systems like WordPress.
Every website building platform will make the same promises around ease of use and seamless transactions when it comes to ecommerce, but some have much better sales and payment functionality than others.
Because it’s such an important area that’s so heavily legislated when it comes to capturing and storing customer’s personal financial data, online selling and payments systems at all major providers are usually robustly built. That means the only real point of difference is how easy they make it to select and deploy the necessary technologies to facilitate sales.
For some, ecommerce is in their DNA, payment gateways, secure checkouts and robust inventory management critical components straight out of the box.
Blogs are about much more than sharing your thoughts or telling visitors about upcoming sales or products. They’re a strong signalling device about how much attention goes into your site. The content is certainly important, but if the last entry on your blog was in 2014, potential customers will immediately assume nobody’s monitoring the site anymore and move on.
A regularly updated blog (even if you’re sharing funny cat pictures), sends a strong message that you’re there, you’re contactable and you’re likely to fulfil enquiries and – more importantly – orders.
If you’re selling things your wares will probably change to reflect tastes, seasons or availability anyway, but your blog is one of the most important parts of your site because it’s where content changes on a regular basis and keeps people coming back.
WordPress is the unchallenged leader because it was originally written as a blogging engine. Other services treat blogs differently, some making them a central part of the codebase, some offer plugins or apps and some barely support them at all.
You can have the best website in the world but if nobody can find it it’s been a complete waste of time and – ultimately if you’re an SMB – money. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the very slippery art of making sure you appear as high as possible in search engine results.
You can do it manually if you have full access to the site code by applying concise site descriptions and sensible keywords in the HTML and making sure the addresses of each page (the URL) makes sense. But even then, algorithms inside the search engines are always changing and it can be hard enough to stay ahead of the game even if you know all the rules.
Self-hosted websites have a slight advantage in that you can fine tune your SEO efforts by accessing page code directly as well as choosing from the wealth of SEO plugins in the open source world. When it comes to paid, per-month subscription services, you’re a bit more constrained by what the company behind them offers you either as a core service or in their own app ecosystems.
Back in 2019, research said up to 70 percent of web traffic took place on mobile devices. In the US alone 57 percent of all traffic was conducted on smartphones and tablets. After the pandemic era that number is sure to be considerably higher. That means there’s an argument not only that programming a website to be user friendly on handheld devices is equally as important as doing so for a PC or laptop, it’s more important.
That makes it a bit of a mystery why some of the website building platforms and systems out there still treat it like an afterthought. Some of them do a great job because their templates are large- and small-screen ready as soon as you select one and start building (and that’s the way it should be).
Others could frankly treat the area with far more care. In one example (Wix), there are templates you can choose which don’t even have a mobile equivalent, so your site will appear as the full PC screen version when viewed on a mobile device, albeit so reduced in size it’s little better than useless. If you want your site to work on mobile as well it means a whole new mobile-only website project in your account.
The range of plugins and apps available has a close parallel with the system you choose. If you opt for an open source solution like WooCommerce or WordPress there are as many programs for extra features as there are websites potentially using them. Many of them are from pro-level studios and developers and add real value (and cost the commensurate amount of money), but it’s a very unregulated market and if something goes wrong, the open source software world means many providers adopt an ‘all care, no responsibility’ stance.
There are plenty of reputable plugin vendors around but it will take research and recommendations to find them. If you use an all-in service where you build and then host your site, you’ll have a one stop shop for apps and add-ons. They might also come from third party vendors and some cost extra depending on the complexity, but you can be pretty certain they wouldn’t find their way into your provider’s app store if they didn’t work as promised.
How to choose the right website builder software
Before you even sketch a homepage on a napkin, take careful stock of your business and make yourself intimately aware of what you do. That sounds counter-intuitive, but think in very practical terms. Do you have a large customer list that’s responsive to email marketing? Are images and video important to showcase your service or product? Can the average web user find you easily? Do you need to update content often?
That process will give you a list of five or 10 top features that are non-negotiable. Whatever service offers them will then be the obvious choice, or at least a great place to start a more serious investigation.
A final word; don’t be shy about contacting their sales or tech support to ask questions – and there are no dumb questions. If nothing else, the promptness and professionalism they respond with is an audition for how they’ll behave if you sign up.