If you’ve met me in person (or even if you’ve seen my face loom up on your screen during a zoom call) you will probably realise that I’m all for freedom. Freedom of choice, freedom of expression. Freedom of movement…
You know I care a lot and not only for the WordPress sites in my care. I have a kind of warm fuzziness that extends much further out, to all of the web and its users and potential users. The intense sharing of information is causing a few boils to pop in society at the moment, but my wider and longer term view is that the internet is ultimately a force for good.
I focus my care on WordPress, and it is my first love for a lot of reasons.
It’s open source for a start – (I could fill another entire blog post with the reasons that’s a good thing, and I probably will in the near future.)
It gives you total freedom to create (if you know how, or know somebody who knows how.)
It’s developed by a community rather than a company and it’s surrounded by a huge, helpful, global community too.
And of course I talk about WordPress a lot (I mean, the clue is in the job title – right loves?) but I’m not saying there’s only one system or platform for everyone.
When you’re choosing a platform for your site there’s an eye popping number of choices out there and there’s no shame in feeling confused about which way to go – so I’m going to try to decompress your brains a little bit
It’s important to start by realising that all platforms are not the same, and it’s well worth having a real good conversation with yourself (or your team) to get a wider perspective on your reasons for having a website, the job you want your site to do and where you see your business (or yourself) developing into the future.
Then you can start to look at pros and cons.
For simplicity I’m going to break the platforms down into 2 main groups.
Hosted proprietary platforms.
There are so many of these around, I cannot list them all – and there are new ones springing up all the time. Some are focussed entirely on being site building platforms – (Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, Moonfruit…and so many more…) and a lot of hosting companies also offer a site building platform as well as their other services (GoDaddy website builder for instance…)
These platforms are designed to make the process of building websites accessible to people who aren’t web developers – and they offer useful templates and drag and drop interfaces. You can build a website in the same way that you would put a document together with desktop publishing software (on the front end)
It’s worth remembering that although it seems, as the front end user, that you are creating a simple document, there is an awful lot of complicated programming behind the scenes making something so complex seem so simple. The simplicity is a neccesary facade.
The pros of this kind of software are:
You don’t need any coding skills or particular knowledge of the way websites work to use them
You can put a website together relatively quickly to get yourself an online presence
Security and performance are taken care of in house so you don’t need any knowledge of these areas
The range of templates offered varies from platform to platform but lots of them are well designed
And the cons…
You are limited by the functionality and the templates you are offered by the platform, and there’s no option to get anything custom built if you find you need to go outside their boundaries (I helped someone rebuild a site on a platform called Yola a few years ago, and we were several hours in before we found that they didn’t offer dropdown submenus… that was a deal breaker and we had to startfrom scratch somewhere else – so lots of wasted energy there)
Similarly, their development moves at their own pace, so you could find yourself left behind as technology sprints forward (an example, also from a few years ago, was when smartphones really took off and suddenly all websites were expected to be mobile responsive. I had a client with a website built on Moonfruit and although Moonfruit did get up to speed (in their own time) their customers initially had no choice but to either rebuild in a different system or just wait around with an old fashioned looking mobile site that didn’t work on all the different screen sizes.
They all have their own unique, proprietary software so you can’t transfer the site to a different company if (for example) they start to charge you exorbitant amounts of money… or worse still, decide to fold.
Basically, although you own the content of the site, the site itself is just rented. It belongs to them. That’s a lot of trust to put in a single company.
It’s important to highlight this last one I think. You can’t take your site away from a platform like Squarespace and host it somewhere else. The software thay use only works on their platform. So if your business expands past the boundaries offered to you by the software/platform you are using (or you want to leave them for another reason) then you may have to completely rebuild in a different system which, (amongst other things) can mean starting off from the start with your authority as far as search engines are concerned
In the other camp are:
The self hosted systems.
WordPress is the most famous but there are loads about. Joomla and Drupal are probably the best known of the others. They use software that is independant of the place where it’s hosted.
Pros of these kinds of system:
You (or your web developer) are free to add functionality and can have full control over the design (If you know how…)
Your site is independant of the server that its hosted on, so you are not entrusting your precious site to a single company
You can control the factors that make the site ready for crawling by search engines and easy to visit for humans – things like speed, performance and security (although of course there is a corresponding con if it isn’t done well
With WordPress at least there are a huge range of other bits of software and small bits of code that can be added to expand the functions and possibilities of the site (think site builders like divi and visual composer…)
WordPress also has a huge range of themes that you can use to build in a simpler way if you’re willing to stay inside the boundaries that the theme offers
You could, if budget allowed have a completely unique, bespoke site built. The only limitation is your imagination.
You need to take care of the sites and regularly update them to keep them secure and healthy.
You are exposed to the full mindboggling complexity of websites (this could also be a pro if you’re the type of person that likes to know how things work rather than just using them in a shallow way, but of course there is a hugely steep learning curve involved in this, which not everyone (or all businesses) have the time or the inclination to prioritise)
With the freedom to use the software however you like, comes the probable need to pay a specialist to do the more complex tasks for you (unless you have the time or inclination to learn how)
In the hybrid category a special mention goes to WordPress.com. This is a hosted platform so you have the same carefree privilege of having a large company take care of your site for you.
There’s a free version (with adverts and a WordPress.com domain name… probably not the best business choice but great if you’re a hobby blogger…) or a very cheap lowest level with the ads removed and the ability to use your own domain name. Then it carries on up in cost, adding new functionality at each new level.
It uses WordPress software though, and this is a big difference between this and something like Squarespace. Because the software is not proprietary, you have the option (on some of the higher priced tiers at least) to export your site, upload it to another server and make a self hosted site out of it.
This is an important distinction because it removes the most important con of the hosted platforms for me. You will still experience restrictions in functionality though and will never get to the level of freedom (or responsibility) that a self hosted system gives you.
Don’t forget though, I’m only talking about content management systems here. You could also opt to have a static site built. These are a lot more stable and efficient than a content management system, but you will need to use a developer to make even small changes to content as there’s no way to make changes to the live site. It’s old school, like the 1990s. The files need to be downloaded, have changes made to the code and then be uploaded again.
Obviously there are numerous choices to be made between the different systems of each type, but the choice between hosted and self hosted systems is an important one – and one that I think is often glossed over by the people who are proposing to build them for you.
I hope that gives you a starting point if you’re making this choice, loves.
Of course, a website is a huge project with many more choices down the line…
If you’re starting off down that road I’ve got a free questionnaire to help you to understand what you want your website to do for you. You can use it to plan a self build project or to send it to me to get a quote…