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Free Website Builder vs Website Designer vs Open-Source CMS

Free Website Builder

There are a number of “free” website builders available. Some well known, others not. Moonfruit are quite prevalent at the moment and are pushing out their advertising far and wide. Many hosting providers will provide one for you. Are these “free” services too good to be true?

Full Custom Build

In the early days on the publicly accessible internet, easy options to build a website didn’t exist and you needed the coding skills to make a website happen. Fully customised builds still do happen, but do they really need to?

CMS

CMS stands for content management system, and as the might expect they’re a system that allows you to manage the content that appears on your website. They come in two basic flavours: open-source (free) and commercial (paid). Are there pitfalls to using such a system?

Having a free website sounds great, but without wanting sound as though I’m trying to dismiss them offhand (after all, web design is part of what I do for a living,) you need to be aware of a few things before going ahead. If your needs are very simple e.g. you don’t need to add videos, picture galleries, or your site isn’t going to continue growing, then a free site may be suitable for you.

There are two main types of website builders out there, defined by where you’ll find them: hosting providers usually provide their own proprietary builders though will let you build your site however you like if you don’t want to use the included builder, and then there are companies such as Moonfruit which advertise themselves as website builders who will offer free hosting for your site.

Proprietary website builders aren’t really any easier to use than a freely available CMS, but their spiel may have you thinking otherwise. Companies such as Moonfruit are there to make money, and you’ll likely soon discover that your ‘free’ site starts racking up expenses.

This is how these companies tend to operate – the free package which which you signed up for will look slick, and you’ll quickly be able to get a site up rather quickly, but lets move forward six months…

Your free site provider has their logo stuck on your site site, and you don’t think that it puts across the professional image. Well in order to get rid of it you’re going have to pay a fee, probably in the guise of purchasing a premium account with a monthly charge. Free sites also tend to have a paltry amount of storage space, meaning that after adding some photos you may find you can add no more. Never fear, for an additional monthly charge you can buy more space.

I’m not trying to put these companies down too much, they do have their place, but a quick study of a relatively newcomer to the scene, Wix, could see people racking up some expensive monthly bills. It seems that every add-on doesn’t mean a one-off fee, but rather recurring monthly payments.

I made some quick calculations based on my site and to achieve the same thing (bearing in mind I have unlimited storage and monthly bandwidth,) I’d be looking at a figure of at least £90 per month (and I was being generous) That’s more in a month than my hosting costs for a whole year.

So you realise that maybe this proprietary website builder isn’t for you? You can just take your site elsewhere, right? No deal. It’s their system you’re using, you can’t take your site elsewhere. You’ll have to build it again.

Ah, the full custom built website. This used to be the only way that you could get a site online, you’d teach yourself the programming languages required to build one, or you’d hire a professional. This is difficult for those without the honed skills, and expensive to do f you hire a professional.

Fortunately, there are alternatives, but custom built sites do exist. I’ve built a few myself, though I haven’t been required to do so for quite some time, and when I did, more often they were my own websites. I think that it’s true of many designers/developers, whereby the site itself is a part of their portfolio.

One issue I came across when developing my own website from scratch was that if I wanted to give it a complete design overhaul, it proved to be a lengthy and complex process. Much of my code could be reused in newer versions, but it still proved to be an arduous task – however, having the skills to be able to do it is very useful.

Depending on the project, a fully custom built website may be the only option for you. If you’re trying to do something truly different and unique, you may find that a custom-built website is the way forward.

The problems surrounding such a site are numerous. Firstly, it’s proprietary, and when it comes to making some major changes to the back-end of the site, you may be tied into using the same developer. Even if you can get a different developer in to carry out the work it may turn out to be very very expensive. Different developers have their own way of working, and it can prove hard for another developer to untangle the code. It’s not unknown for developers to create code so complex that they themselves can no longer understand it!

Custom developed sites will always exist though. They can be a quick and simple way to get a holding page up, or develop a simple static website that won’t need changes. An example was a show-specific site I made for a theatre production. The design was quite image-heavy, but the content didn’t change. Instead, feeds from social media channels were embedded.

So fully-custom built websites certainly retain some use in modern day web-development, though it’s usually only used for very small, static websites, or very complex and unique ones.

Although ‘free’ website builders are a Content Management System (CMS) in their own right, I’ve separated them from what I consider to be true Content Management Systems (I’m sticking to open-source here) as they are genuinely free to use and adapt as you wish.

There are lots of CMS available to use, the three most popular being WordPress, Joomla and Drupal. In fact many medium and large companies, charities and organisations use a site built using one of the main three, including the BBC, Channel 4, the White House and so on.

Your basic CMS website will actually look rather ugly to start with, that’s because they’re meant to act as the basic structure which you then develop into something beautiful.

The beauty of a CMS is that you can you it on almost any hosting provider (dependent on the hosting package you have) and you’re not tied to to that hosting provider either – you can move your entire site from one hosting provider to another as it’s yours and doesn’t rely on a proprietary technology that’s specific to your provider.

Now using a CMS can be rather complex, and may appear to be a little overwhelming at first, but generally they’re quite easy to learn by yourself. However, you will most likely find that you need a designer or developer to create your site in order to make it look professional.

There are some pitfalls to be wary of when using a CMS. If you’re using a commercial option there may be recurring fees, if you’re using a free CMS, stick to one of the main three. This is because they have thriving communities of users and developers who keep it up to date. However, you may find that some plug-ins (add-ons which give greater functionality) that are available from third-party developers are either paid, or sometimes the developers just decide to stop updating a plugin meaning that they can stop working with newer web browsers or version of whatever CMS you’re using.

This has happened to me before, when a developer just simply stops working on a project. Fortunately, there’s so many developers, and so many plugins available, you’ll always be able to find a replacement for a broken plug-in.

Of the three options, this is my chosen route. I may be biased of course, but I honestly believe that an open-source CMS gives the best balance of usability, functionality and design / development cost.

To Summarise: Free Website Builder

  • May be a suitable option for a very small, first-time site
  • Be wary that your storage space and other essential elements will be severely restricted
  • Free websites are likely to have the bandwidth and page site load speed severely throttled
  • May include advertising on your site which can make it look unprofessional
  • Upgrading to premium packages and purchasing add-ons can work out considerably more expensive in the medium to long-term
  • You can’t take your site with you if you want to use a new provider
  • Generally user-friendly and easy to use
  • Future-proof (unless the company goes under)

To Summarise: The Full Custom Build

  • Quick to build a static website
  • Difficult and expensive to build a dynamic website
  • Would take a long time to build a dynamic site from scratch
  • Can be good to build truly unique websites (sometimes the only way)
  • May be difficult / expensive to maintain

To Summarise: Open-Source CMS

  • Initial set-up can be daunting, though many hosts provide easy installations
  • Free platform to use, actively maintained by a vast community
  • Changing the look and adding content may be a harder than a free website builder
  • Lots to learn, but a useful skill, and the basics are easily picked up
  • Lots of free plugins. Also lots of premium ones
  • Some plugins may not be maintained and so will need replacing
  • No unexpected costs
  • Highly flexible
  • Future-proof

The Conclusion: The Open-Source CMS

The Open-Source CMS trumps your other options. If you know what your doing, you can create your own site like you can with free website builders, but with more flexibility and absolute control. You may well require a designer to setup and design it for you, but it’s more cost-effective when you look to the medium term and beyond. With a free website builder you could actually end up paying more in a year than it would cost you to go straight to a website designer.

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