NOTE: This article discusses two broadly divergent approaches to relatively simple small business website development. It focuses on two example platforms and therefore ignores dozes of other qualified web creation platforms and toolsets. All misstatements and gaps in analysis are mine alone.
In the ongoing evolution and simplification of website development tools and processes, an evolution I’ve written about before, two platforms seem to be making the biggest waves among both the small business website development community and the small business owners who depend on professional, stable websites to drive and support their businesses and customers. In the past 2 years, I have worked extensively with both WordPress and SquareSpace to create websites for clients. While both platforms provide excellent tools and access to pre-designed and coded templates to help both professional developers and DIY business owners establish great online presences quickly, they are different beasts, each with their own pros and cons.
This article aims to discuss some of those differences, on behalf of small business owners who are considering DIYing their websites, or who are looking to be better educated when hiring outside talent to help get it done with less risk, trading a dollar investment for the investment of time creating a new website typically takes. And I write this based on my own evolution from a DIY business strategist looking to build his own web creation standalone practice. Take it from one who’s been through the fire for his own business, and hopefully you can avoid some of the mistakes and steepness of the learning curve I’ve endured (and still endure).
This is a story about simplicity versus control and flexibility. Each solution will make sense to different business owners. Hopefully, the details below will help you make your choice more easily.
SquareSpace – the simple choice
According to SquareSpace.com, “SquareSpace helps anyone build a beautiful home online. By blending elegant design and sophisticated engineering, we empower millions of people — from individuals and local artists to entrepreneurs shaping the world’s most iconic businesses — to share their stories with the world.”
In my experience, having built a variety of restaurant and professional services websites on the SquareSpace platform, this is absolutely true. The tools are easy to learn, intuitive and relatively “idiot-proof” for those business owners with a bent to the self-sufficient when it comes to website creation. With a free trial period that allows testing out a variety of pre-designed templates, each arranged based on the type of business or website you’re looking to build, the initial risk is almost non-existent.
For businesses where imagery plays a key role in the presentation of your services, products, or point of differentiation, SquareSpace might make a valuable choice if you’re looking to get something up quickly and which will look generically fantastic. Additionally, since SquareSpace is inherently a website hosting company, the fees you pay (currently $18/mo for a professional site) cover all your expenses other than any third-party image licensing costs you incur (SquareSpace has an integrated partnership with Getty Images at $10/image you choose to license). There are also a variety of pre-packaged third party integrations included in your subscription which can be added to your site easily (map and video presentation modules, MailChimp integrations, OpenTable reservations widgets, etc)
The risk for anyone who is not a coding professional is one of design differentiation and design control. First, there are a limited number of pre-built design “templates” for you to choose from. At first glance, there may seem like an vast array of choices for how you want your new website to look. However, it quickly becomes clear that many templates that “look” different are merely using different pictures, icons, fonts and other custom imagery coupled with slight variations in navigation and display features. This means you or a developer you hire are responsible for selecting just the right images, navigation organization and text fonts to make your particular business come to life, and this can be a challenge to many business owners. So the default text fonts, and an amateurly-chosen set of stock photography can lead to a visual look that many others in your business category are already using. Not a great way to break through competitive clutter.
Also, the provided templates are built in a way that constrains your choices substantially as you look to customize various features of your new website. You don’t like the way the “Menu Block” lays out pricing in your chosen template? Too bad. You don’t like the spacing that is forced between various content blocks? Too bad. You want the navigation centered instead of right-justified? Sorry. The only way around many of these constraints is to experiment with various CSS or HTML coding modifications, which is well beyond most business owners’ capability.
That said, If your website serves a basic utilitarian purpose, acting as a brochure with limited functional purpose such as making restaurant reservations or displaying a map of your location, SquareSpace may be for you. Note however that if the website development partner you are considering hiring plans to use SquareSpace to build your new website, make sure to press them on their ability to maximize the advanced capabilities of the platform to present a differentiated experience for your customers.
WordPress – powerful flexibility and control
WordPress is the most popular website platform and content management system (CMS) in use today, with millions of installs and some of the world’s largest websites depending on it. There are two “flavors” to WordPress; a super simplified free blogging platform at http://wordpress.com (not discussed here) and a software package which can be downloaded and installed at a third party hosting facility from http://wordpress.org. The software is free, but you’ll have to choose and pay a third-party hosting provider to bring it to life. I like to use http://wpengine.com, a hosting company wholly dedicated to hosting WordPress-driven websites, with great tools and 24/7 customer service as part of the basic $29/mo hosting fee.
In addition to the basic software, WordPress comes with a few basic “themes” or pre-designed website packages. However, these free themes are only the tip of the iceberg. There are currently over 40,000 licensed themes available at websites like http://themeforest.com which have been created by third party designers and developers, costing anywhere from free to $100 per license. I typically end up using a theme that costs about $50 for my clients (a one time licensing charge). These themes provide tons of built in functionality and design baselines that can support the needs of pretty much any business requirement.
And to add additional high-end functionality, such as an eCommerce store, a sophisticated event management module, or a paid-membership database, there are thousands of “plugins” created explicitly for WordPress by third party developers, many of which are free and have been downloaded and used millions of times.
So what do all these themes and plugins offer to a small business owner or a website developer that simpler platforms like SquareSpace typically can not? Two words: control and flexibility. Pixel-perfect control. Website-wide flexibility. If you want your restaurant website menu to display and act in a specific way, you’ll have the tools that allow the precise customization you’re seeking. You want to change one part of your website but not another? WordPress allows page by page customization in a way that simpler toolsets aren’t designed to easily support.
The big downside to developing your website with WordPress is one of complexity. Most business owners simply don’t have the time, skill or staff to create a WordPress site from the ground up. It’s certainly possible for the non-technologist, but a steep learning curve is in store.
How To Choose the Best Website Platform?
Whether you plan to build your business’s website yourself or hire a professional to help you, each platform offers room for consideration.
Price: SquareSpace is the clear winner here. With no upfront licensing costs, and only $18/month for a professional-grade website and all hosting costs, this is a good bargain. WordPress requires a third party hosting company ($5-30/month), and typically a selection of a theme and premium plugins to get the design and functionality you are looking for ($50-200 upfront)
Design: SquareSpace provides limited, highly visual design templates that are not easily modified beyond its base functionality and the small number of service integrations provided. WordPress on the other hand, and the 10s of thousands of themes available, make design choices endless and the ability to customize to your heart’s content a reality. WARNING: website design is not for the feint of heart. Unlimited choices in how you design your pages, your navigation, and other pieces of the puzzle can be overwhelming
Maintenance: Both WordPress and SquareSpace offer relatively simple, intuitive dashboards for maintaining and modifying your website. WordPress, being dependent on third-party themes and plugins can end up pretty complex to manage, while SquareSpace’s dashboard rarely changing simplicity gives a DIYer comfort and familiarity quickly.
With great features and ever-expanding support available for small business owners who chose either SquareSpace or WordPress for their website platform, the decision is a personal choice. However, it seems to me and in my experience that the DIYer is better off with a SquareSpace-like solution (there are others including http://weebly.com and http://wix.com that are comparable to SquareSpace). In contrast, businesses with more complex needs, or who aren’t in a imagery-rich business model (if you’re a doctor for instance, or a financial services firm, or a manufacturing company) then WordPress is going to offer you a more suitable set of design choices and the expanded functionality that simpler offers typically can’t support.
We believe strongly in empowering our clients with the latest web-based tools and platforms. We happily create with either type of platform, but in our experience, SquareSpace is better for the ambitious DIY business owner, while WordPress is the more powerful, flexible and professional platform for business owners looking to hire outside help. We continue to be a fan of both platforms overall, and encourage you to talk to us about your website needs at any time, we’re happy to have a free initial discussion to help you decide which approach is right for your small business.