Years ago, you’d be forgiven for dismissing website builders as template services. But nowadays, website builders are exactly what their name implies: tools that streamline the construction of websites from start to finish.
Although website builders still take advantage of premade templates, many also include custom design tools, hosting services, site security and analytic features within the same platform. Businesses of all sizes and budgets have integrated website builders into their workflow, rapidly building and launching web pages without much need for written code.
Website builders take a lot of the stress and cost out of the web design process, but newcomers can still find them daunting to use. There are so many options to choose from, with the sheer number of different builders out there and the vast amount of themes, templates and add-ons offered by each. To make it easy, we’ve put together this ultimate guide to choosing the best website builders as well as using them, including what to look for when deciding on yours.
What is a website builder?
Website builders are content management systems (CMSs) in which users can create, edit and publish a functional web page using visual, menu-based tools instead of writing code.
So how do website builders work? One of the reasons website builders are so popular is that they commonly use WYSIWYG interfaces (What You See Is What You Get). In short, they allow users to live-edit a preview of how the page will look, instead of guessing how it will look from lines of code. For example, most website builders let you drag-and-drop elements like buttons where you want, a much easier system than specifying their location in the code.
Most website builders automatically generate the frontend and backend code based on the pages users create. This makes them a much more visual and intuitive way of building websites than the traditional method, not to mention they’re more helpful for web design novices and experienced developers who want to speed up parts of the process.
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Templates are another common feature of website builders: they allow users to select from a library of premade website layouts and themes (or color and font schemes), giving users a foundation on which to build. However, higher levels of customization typically involve some coding knowledge or hiring a developer.
When the website is ready to be published, the platform usually also takes care of hosting and securing a domain name (with a recurring pricing plan).
Overall, website builders by and large limit the amount of software and contractors necessary to create a web page, resulting in a significantly reduced overall cost. There are, however, limits to what they can accomplish, so it’s worthwhile to weigh your options carefully with traditional web design versus a website builder.
That said, it’s not an either/or choice. Hybrid solutions are common, like using a custom approach for the main site and using a website builder like WordPress or Square to power specific areas of the site like the blog or point-of-sale pages.
How to find the right website builder
Not all website builders are made equally. There are hundreds of options to choose from and making the best choice takes a bit of planning and research. At the end of the day, your decision comes down to which website builder allows you to accomplish exactly what you need, at the best possible quality, for the best price.
Before committing to a decision, we recommend assessing what your website will need beforehand and researching your options to the fullest. We’ll walk you through both below.
Assess what your website will need
Most website builders specialize in different types of website content. To make your decision, start by cataloguing everything you need. This not only gives you a checklist to compare against each website builder’s features, but also saves you a lot of time in the building process by collecting these assets ahead of time. In particular, consider…
- Number of pages. This can help you understand the degree of complexity you are undertaking. Be sure to think about what task each page is supposed to perform, such as conveying information, transmitting messages between users, etc.
- Media assets. How many images will you need and where? How many sections of copy or input forms? If you need video, animations or other multimedia, you’ll also need to make sure the web builder can support it.
- Site functionality. What will the website need to do? Some website builders are made specifically for ecommerce, some are better for informational websites, others for blogs and forums.
- Add-ons and plugins. Some website features are available within the website builder, but many require purchasing third party integrations called plugins. The amount of plugins you’ll need depends on the features you want, but it’s best to plan them out ahead of time for a more accurate budget. There are many, many plugins out there, but you can consider your needs through the following common categories:
- user functions (live chat, support ticketing, subscription servicing, etc.)
- marketing tools (SEO monitoring, Google analytics, promotional tools, etc.)
- site infrastructure (speed optimization, security, file backups, etc.)
- site building (tools that simplify customization and design).
- Budget. How much exactly are you willing to spend? Most website builders include a subscription fee, but even those that claim to be free can get expensive quickly when you factor in asset generation, stock images/video, font licenses, add-ons, a domain space, site maintenance, hosting and media storage. Don’t forget to factor in time: how long it might take both learning the website builder software and actually building the website.
How to research your options
With your asset list in hand, it’s time to decide which website builder to commit your time and money to. There are an abundance of popular programs out there, and the subtle differences between them can be hard to identify at first glance. Here are a few guidelines to consider when finding and comparing your website builder options.
- Review ranked lists. Many publications and content creators have gone to the trouble of testing out different web builders, comparing prices and features before ranking their favorites. You can search for these on blogs and YouTube.
- Rule out those with limited features. Use product specs to identify and eliminate any website builders that can’t accomplish what you need them to. Don’t forget to research useful backend tools like analytics and whether plugins are supported to compensate for missing features.
- Review the quality of the available templates. Compare the template and theme offerings of each website builder, checking for design quality, number, variety and the extent of customization they allow. More customization tools means that, with a little work, your website will stand out from the hundreds of others using the same template.
- Research websites made with each builder. Although the quality of the templates is important, the quality of actual live websites made with the website builder show you the real possibilities. Some templates might look nice, but testing out live websites that actually use them may reveal lacking user experiences. Many website builders highlight star customers, but you can also find others by searching “websites made with” + the specific builder you’re researching.
- Compare each product against user reviews. User reviews (that aren’t listed on the testimonial section of a company website) are helpful because they’re not curated by the business. Platforms like Trustpilot and sitejabber offer an unfiltered look into customers’ overall experiences—how intuitive the product was to use, what the results were like, and how effective the customer support was. While you have to consider that each individual review is reflective of that particular customer’s experience (which may be influenced by personality, expectations and taste), common complaints and praises can give you an average consensus.
- Test out your top choices. Most website builders offer free trials, allowing you to test out your favorites before making a commitment. To save time, you should only do this with your favorites. Pay attention to ease-of-use and the range of features beyond those listed in the product specs. This is also where you’ll find out just how customizable the templates really are.
- Make the final decision based on price and aesthetic preferences. By now you should have all the information you need to make your final decision. It all comes down to what will give you the best result (both in terms of design and function) at the best price.
How to use a website builder
Picking your website builder is only half the battle. Now comes the hard part: actually building the website. Although each website builder has its own specific workflow and includes its own instructions, here are some general tips on how to get the most out of any website builder.
Start with wireframe sketches
Although website builders give you a number of templates to choose from, you should still plan the layout on your own. Go back to your list of assets and sketch out your ideas for how your website content will fit together.
These sketches don’t have to be anything fancy or detailed—most designers use simple boxes to signify content areas in wireframes. While not be an essential step, it does help you visualize the user’s journey without a premade layout to influence you. It can also come in handy when you need to narrow down which templates will or won’t work and can give you direction for customizing the template.
Choose the best template for your website
Templates are often the selling point of a website builder, an immediate visual representation for prospective buyers of what their website will be. As a result, they are often showcased in a way to heighten how attractive they are. But when it comes to choosing the best template for your website, remember that a website must be functional first and aesthetically pleasing second.
A general rule of thumb is that a website should make it as easy as possible for the user to find what they need and accomplish their tasks. For example, if you want customers to review their shopping cart costs and purchase, a simplified point-of-sale screen accomplishes this much better than one with flashy graphics or too much text.
You also want to keep in mind reading patterns and visual hierarchy when evaluating template layouts. Although most templates take these into account already, you can’t always rely on these generic setups to work with your particular website content. Review which elements of your web pages are essential for users to find or read, and then choose a layout that optimizes their placement and scale.
Also, it should go without saying, but pay attention to the type of website each template is designed for (a blog template probably won’t work for a traditional website, for example). It can be easy to fall for the visual appeal of a template and without realizing it’s made for a different functionality.
Customize the template
Once you’ve chosen a template you like, you need to replace all of the placeholder images and text copy with your own. But don’t stop there! A good website builder gives you the option to customize the template — sometimes, extensively so — and you should go above and beyond to take full advantage of these tools.
Part of the reason why you want to completely customize a template is to avoid a generic look, but even more important is how customization helps in building brand consistency on your website. Your brand is unique, and every element should be taken into consideration as to how it best exemplifies your brand, from color and font choices to spacing and alignment.
If you’re looking for even more customization, many website builders allow you to work with a web designer to make your site unique, either by customizing a template for you or by designing one specifically for your needs.
The commonplace WYSIWYG editors and drag-and-drop tools simplify editing a template, but it’s always a good idea to consult with a professional digital designer. A web designer has more knowledge in regards to design principles and what makes web pages work. Given all the money you’re saving by not making a website from scratch, you might as well put some of that towards professional design expertise to get the best result.
It’s also at this point you’ll need to integrate your third-party plugins. WordPress is one of the more popular website builders that not only supports plugins, but also makes them easy to install. There is a dedicated plugin menu, from which users can search for, purchase, install, activate, deactivate and delete plugins. In the absence of a menu like this, you‘ll need to follow the instructions outlined on each specific plugin’s site about how to install them on supported builders.
Once you’ve finished the design, all that’s left is to publish the site at your domain and from there it’s live. A domain is simply a website’s digital address where users can find it.
Many website builders allow you to secure a domain through their platform (otherwise, you can use a service like GoDaddy). Although it can be more expensive, it’s better to purchase a custom domain made only of your brand name (www.companyname.com, for example) rather than one that includes the name of the website builder. The latter are harder for users to remember and awful for SEO, not to mention they announce to the world that your site was built on a template. Of course, there’s no shame in using a website builder if it’s cost effective and gets you a great result, but that also doesn’t mean you have to advertise it through your domain!
As a final step, be sure to test your website once it’s live. This includes testing every page and interactive element on multiple browsers and at multiple screen sizes. If anything is not working or displayed incorrectly, use the website builder’s CMS to make changes as needed.
A website builder is great start
Website builders are used by many businesses these days to quickly generate high-quality websites without making huge sacrifices to quality. They can be as simple as choosing a template, filling in the blanks and publishing to the internet. But even if you’re using a website builder, you want to take advantage of customization tools to ensure the template is working as well as it can. And the best way to get your design on par is to connect with an awesome designer.