Choosing Website Platforms — The Right Tool for the Job
There are a lot of options for creating, making or building a website. From do-it-yourself (DIY) website platforms to hiring a freelancer, consultant or agency; there are so many options the decision can be daunting. Consider the following simple factors and start your website on the right foot.
From free to paid, visual tools to hand coding, do-it-yourself to hiring agencies, freelancers, or consultants; there are seemingly too many options to know where to begin.
I hope to simplify things for you and help you figure out which is the right tool for the job.
Before we get to that however, I want to make sure you’ve done the proper groundwork and truly understand what you are trying to achieve with your website and why.
Do you know what exactly you want your website to do for visitors? Do you know what visitors are expecting from your website? Do you have measurable goals for your website that can be related to revenue or other measurable outcomes?
If any of those questions make you feel sick to your stomach or make your head spin, then I suggest you go download my Foundations of Website Design Strategy (coming soon) and work through it. It will give you a solid base from which you can survey your surroundings and figure out what you need built.
Free versus Paid
Perhaps the most critical question is ‘how much are you willing to spend?’
Nothing? Then go look at wordpress.com, wix.com or weebly.com. They are three of the more popular and easy ways to get a site up and online for free. The only ethical way to do a free website, in my opinion, is to do it yourself. You’ll learn a great deal, and if this is something that is important to you please don’t expect others to volunteer their time for free. You should be willing to invest yourself into it.
The major differences between free and paid solutions are features and control. These free options don’t allow you to have a custom domain name for example. You don’t have the option to develop additional functionality, and you will have limited control over the design, or look and feel of your site.
Among free options, I tend to lean towards wordpress.com. It is a super solid blogging system and actually quite great at managing pages of content as well. There is a huge theme marketplace, also with free or paid options, and it’s quite easy to transition a free wordpress.com site to a custom developed theme with a self-hosted WordPress site and custom domain. I prefer to work with WordPress because I am most comfortable with it and it usually is a great fit. Here is a more unbiased comparison of free website builders.
If you are more adventurous and like to learn you could learn HTML and CSS and code it yourself. There are great resources online to get started such as codeacademy, lynda.com, Code School, or treehouse.
If you are willing to open your pockets a bit then your options also expand greatly:
- Agencies. Agencies come in all shapes and sizes and can cover the entire price spectrum. Typically, agencies provide a team dedicated to your project that hopefully includes a project manager, designer, developer, and writer. You may be looking at websites costing anywhere from a few thousand to tens-of-thousands of dollars depending on the scale. Also consider a slight lose of control over the production of your website. Your project will be put through their processes, this is what you’re paying for, so giving up control to their expertise is probably recommended.
- Specialized Freelancers. A freelancer is just someone who works for a variety of clients rather than employed by a single company. You could build a custom team of freelance designers, developers, writers, or any mix to pull off a website. It would be inherently risky since you would have multiple relationships and contracts to manage, but you would have more finite control over the production.
- Consultants. I classify myself into this final category, a very small agency or one to two person company that can handle the project from start to finish, sometimes expanding the team to accommodate increased scope. These people typically have a lot of experience, and warrant higher rates than junior freelancers. They also don’t carry much overhead resulting in cheaper prices than agencies. Your risk is mitigated by their experience and reducing the total number of points of contact. You also can have a much larger impact on the final product (if you’re working with a open-minded consultant) by simply being closer to the process.
- Do-it-yourself. There are some viable paid do-it-yourself options as well. Squarespace is a beautifully designed system that starts at $8USD a month, with options to expand into online stores. You could go a paid route with WordPress either by using a paid theme on a free wordpress.com domain, or using a managed WordPress account with a product like DreamPress from DreamHost.
Weighing the Options
Let’s look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of your options:
Advantages of using a DIY tool, such as free visual builder, or paid visual builder, wordpress.com or hosted managed WordPress:
- Usually cheaper up-front cost, possibly free
- Usually “good enough” to get started
- Usually comes with support, could be from a theme provider or the tool itself (such as wix.com or Squarespace support)
- Pre-built themes are often available to quickly get a decent site up and running
Disadvantages of using a DIY tool:
- Often not overly customizable, can be an issue if custom functionality needed or potentially needed in the future
- Often overlooked is the cost of your time and effort in building it
- Pre-built themes aren’t designed “for you” and quite likely are being used by competitors
- Risk of losing the code if the company /service shuts down
Advantages to having a custom build, whether it’s built it yourself or hiring:
- Complete, or near complete control over functionality, and features
- Custom design to match your brand
- More open to future development
- You own the code
Disadvantages to custom build:
- Typically a larger upfront cost
- Risk of over-investing in a solution that you don’t truly need
A couple factors that determine if a custom build or pre-made theme is right?
- Are you ok with accepting someone else’s design? Competitors are probably using the same theme and look very similar. Is visual differentiation important to you?
- Do you need extra features beyond the theme? Developing on top of theme can be more difficult or time consuming; Is future development or expansion important to you?
- Are you comfortable with risking your files? Hosted options, such as wordpress.com and Squarespace, host the code on their servers; there is an inherent risk that they stop offering the service and your site goes down. Is renting and controlling your own server to host your code important to you?
When choosing the right tool for the job you need to know the job you want done, what you’re using the tool for and and why you’re using it. For example, a hammer is no good when you need to tighten a screw on a chair.
To recap, here are the basic list of tools, as I see them, and when they are most applicable:
- DIY Free. If starting from ground zero, have little to no budget, and want to get up and running quickly I recommend exploring wordpress.com, wix.com, or learning to code.
- DIY Paid. If you are relatively new entrepreneur trying to get a business presence online then investing a little money can go a long way. This will be a major source of leads and customers for your site, so you need to understand the value of the site. Entrepreneurs and small business owners can benefit from doing it themselves, learning a great deal about how the website works and fully understanding the primary means of communication between your business and your customers. Look at Squarespace or DreamPress from DreamHost.
- Agencies. I worked as an employee for agencies for over six years. We helped a lot of companies of all sizes get online, or get to the next level. That can all be done with a freelancer or consultant, but if you want a sense of safety and security with a dedicated team on your project this may be right for you. Just be prepared to have a moderate to large budget. If you want some suggestions of agencies I trust get in touch.
- Specialized Freelancers. I would only recommend this if you have some experience with project management. Orchestrating multiple parties can be challenging, and you may find a bigger portion of your time spent on communication.
- Consultants. Obviously, this is my preferred method, because it pays my bills. In my opinion, this is appropriate for anyone with a budget more than zero. Depending on the consultant, they should be able to discuss your project to understand your needs and offer a solution that prioritizes your goals, and addresses them in a responsible manner.
On some levels the tool is irrelevant if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you lack strategy it doesn’t matter what tool you use—an e-commerce system without a plan does not guarantee sales. Knowing the complexity of what you want to achieve, a simple daily blog versus online store for example, informs the tool you need. If want to start up a blog, then it really doesn’t matter if you publish on WordPress, Squarespace or Medium. But, if you want to eventually turn that blog into a source of revenue through e-books, courses, or ads a little foresight can go a long way.