From bloggers to fitness coaches to restaurant owners, anyone can make a website today with the right tools.
The most popular of these tools — website builders and content management systems — have ushered in a new era of web design. Since you don’t need to code or even know how to code to use these tools, you can build a site without relying on web developers or designers. This has led to a proliferation of websites. Since 2000, 1.5 billion websites have been created.
With more and more individuals and businesses going online, you might be looking for a tool to create or redesign your website. To help you choose the right one for your needs and goals, we’ll take a closer look at the differences between a website builder and CMS platform below.
Then we’ll walk through the process of choosing a website builder and explore some of the top builders on the market. Let’s get started.
Website Builder vs. CMS Platform
Website builders and CMS platforms are sometimes conflated, but they offer two very different approaches to creating and managing a website.
With a website builder, you’ll get website building tools and hosting in one place. You can select a hosting plan with the bandwidth and storage you need, purchase your own custom domain, and then select a predesigned template to begin designing your site. From there, you can choose the colors, fonts, and layouts of your pages and add more advanced elements like animation and scroll effects.
Website builders tend to be easy to use, but limited in functionality and flexibility. Not only do they lack the advanced features for managing content and users that you’ll find in a CMS, they also offer a more limited selection of add-ons and integrations to extend the functionality of your site (and some don’t offer any at all). That’s fine if you don’t have the time to learn or use advanced features and add-ons. You’re better off using a website builder than overpaying for a more robust platform with features you’re not using.
Those looking for more customization options, content management features, and extensions can use a CMS.
CMS platforms provide many options for building and extending the functionality of your site. Drupal, for example, offers 44,000 modules to add additional features to your site. CMS Hub offers thousands of apps and templates in its app and asset marketplace. From adding interactive elements like live chat and forms to the front end to having multiple users collaborating in the back end, a CMS can provide the built-in features and flexibility needed to improve the experience of your team and your visitors.
This applies to content delivery as well as content creation. A subset of the CMS market, headless CMSs, allows you to create and manage content in its dashboard and then use any front-end tool to deliver it to any device, from smartwatches to virtuality reality headsets. To keep up with today’s diversifying content consumption landscape, you can use a headless CMS like Ghost, Gatsby, or Netlify or treat a flexible CMS like CMS Hub as headless.
Are you looking for a platform that will display your content on any device? A drag-and-drop editor? The ability to edit a predesigned template or start from scratch? A vast marketplace of extensions? The best CMS systems check all these boxes, enabling users at every skill level to create custom sites and grow them over time.
It’s easy to understand why millions of people choose to build their sites on a CMS, but that doesn’t mean a CMS is right for every site owner.
In exchange for complete control over the look and feel of your site, you’ll have to forgo some ease of use. Since CMS platforms have a steeper learning curve, it will take longer to learn the platform and set up and launch your site. You’ll also have to take over more of the day-to-day management of your site, including maintenance and security, unless you opt for a proprietary CMS like CMS Hub.
Website Builder vs. CMS Platform Analogy
You can think of a website builder and CMS in terms of Legos. Building with a website builder is like building with Legos Duplos: you’re given templates and modules that you can use and customize to build basic sites. These pre-assembled pieces might not meet all your specific needs, but they will make it easier and faster to create a site. That’s why website builders are ideal for creating personal blogs, online portfolios, small online stores, and other sites that don’t require advanced functionality.
Building with a CMS, on the other hand, is like building with Legos Technic. There are still templates and modules you can use, but they’re more specialized and versatile than those of website builders and they’re compatible with most other parts of your site. That means you can create much more customized and advanced sites. As a result, CMS platforms are ideal for creating both business and ecommerce sites with a wide selection of products and services, membership sites, and online magazines.
Now that we understand the major differences between a website builder and a CMS platform, consider which one aligns with your site’s needs and goals.
Let’s say you’re looking to create a site for your restaurant and your main goals are to easily and quickly launch the site, keep costs low, and focus more on design than functionality. Then you’ll probably be better off with a website builder. Below we’ll take a closer look at how you can further narrow down your selection.
How to Choose the Best Website Builder
If you’ve decided that you’d like to use a website builder to create your site, you’ve already significantly narrowed down your selection. But there are still hundreds of options available in the website builder market.
When evaluating different website builders, you’ll want to consider their cost, built-in functionality, and flexibility, among other factors. This will ensure you choose a website builder with capabilities that align with your needs. Let’s take a closer look at these criteria below.
Budget is an important factor to consider when deciding on a website builder. In fact, it might be your number one criteria for a few reasons. First, it can help rule out options that are too expensive. A website builder that has all the features and extensions you want but is way out of your budget is not the right choice for your site.
Second, budget can also help prioritize what features are must-haves and which are nice-to-haves. You might be willing to to have ads on your site, for example, if the website builder is free. Or you might be willing to pay more for a platform with robust built-in functionality so you don’t have to worry about shelling out cash later for extensions and third-party integrations. That brings us to our next point.
When evaluating different website builders, consider their built-in functionality. Does it offer all the features you need? Maybe you’re creating a personal blog and must have an auto-save feature, drag-and-drop editor, and templates designed specially for blogging.
By checking that the website builder offers those features, you won’t have to worry about installing an extension or living without that feature once you’ve built your site. Let’s move on to our final criterion.
Extensions and Integrations
No matter how many features a website builder offers out-of-the-box, it’s unlikely that it will have every feature that every site owner needs for their site. In that case, it’s good to check if the tool offers extensions or integrations with third-party apps. This will ensure that you can add any missing features, like forms and live chat, to your site.
When looking through a website builder’s selection of add-ons, check how many are free and how many are premium. If the add-ons are mostly premium, then you’ll want to factor that into your budget.
Now that we understand some of the factors you should consider when selecting a website builder, let’s walk through some of the most popular options below.
Best Website Builders
Below we’ll walk through the cost, pros and cons, ideal users, and best use cases for each website builder. We’ll also give each a final grade based on G2 ratings. Let’s get started.
Squarespace is a powerful website builder that offers everything you need to run a business in one place.
Squarespace is one of the most powerful website builders on the market. It offers a vast selection of out-of-the-box features, including audio files support, newsletter signup forms, and more. It also provides blocks for integrating with popular apps, including ChowNow, MailChimp, and Open Table.
Using its LayoutEngine and Content Block system, you can create custom content types and complex multi-column layouts. You can install more than one template on your website and work on multiple designs at once. You can also add custom CSS to any template design using the built-in CSS editor.
While it’s built-in functionality is robust, Squarespace lacks flexibility, even when compared to other website builders. You can't install plugins or additional modules, so you’re limited to the features Squarespace provides out-of-the-box.
Plus there’s only 60 templates you can choose from to design your site. While you can add custom CSS to make your site look more unique, that will require you to be familiar with coding.
Unlike many of its competitors, Squarespace does not offer a free plan. Its first tier costs $12 per month and comes with a free custom domain for a year, unlimited bandwidth and storage, and templates for quickly building a custom site.
To support more than two contributors on your site, premium integrations, advanced website analytics, and full integration with the platform’s ecommerce features, you’ll need to upgrade to the next tier. The business plan costs $18 per month.
If you’re looking to build and manage a fully-functional ecommerce store that directs customers to a secure checkout page and accepts different currencies, you’ll need to purchase one of the Squarespace commerce plans. These plans cost $26 and $40 per month, respectively.
Please note that these rates only apply when you purchase a plan for an annual term. If you want to pay month-to-month, monthly rates increase to $16, $26, $30, and $46.
Squarespace’s ideal users include artists, fashion designers, photographers, lifestyle bloggers, and entrepreneurs.
Squarespace is best for portfolios or image-rich sites that offer a small selection of services or products. Keanu Reeve’s site Arch Motorcycle, which features three models of his custom motorcycle, is a great example.
Like G2, we’ll give it 4.4 stars out of 5 for its rich built-in functionality and ease of use.
Shopify is one of the most innovative ecommerce website builders.
Shopify has continued to add advanced features to its core offerings over the years. In 2013, for example, it released its own credit card processor called Shopify Payments so store owners didn’t have to purchase and install third-party integrations with Paypal or Braintree. It also added Multi-Currency and Shopify Pay to allow customers to pay with their local currency and save their payment details between Shopify stores for a faster checkout.
At the same time, it has also continued to grow its app marketplace. This avoids adding unnecessary bloat to its core or cluttering up the Shopify editor. With over 3,200 apps in its marketplace, Shopify significantly outmatches WooCommerce and its other competitors.
The greatest potential drawback to Shopify is price. Its monthly packages are some of the priciest you’ll see on the list. Plus, some Shopify apps and themes also cost money.
And don’t forget about the unavoidable credit card processing fees. While you can avoid transaction fees by using Shopify Payments, if you opt to use a third party credit card processor then you’ll be charged a transaction fee in addition to the credit card processing fee you’re paying the third party processor. These additional costs can add up so it’s critical to plan your budget carefully.
Like Squarespace, Shopify does not offer a free plan. Paid plans start at $29/month and include web hosting, SSL certification, and the option to use a free Shopify subdomain. If you want a custom domain, you can purchase it through Shopify for an additional cost.
Shopify’s lowest tier includes built-in blogging, analytics, customer reviews, ready-to-go payment options for customers, and abandoned cart recovery. For additional seats and other advanced features like gift cards and more reports, you’ll have to upgrade to the next tier for $79 per month. If you need even more seats, analytics, and discounts on payment processing fees, then you can upgrade to the Advanced Shopify plan for $299 per month.
Shopify is designed for small to medium businesses looking to create and grow their shop.
Shopify is best for purely ecommerce sites. If you want an ecommerce site and a content site, then you’ll be better off with Squarespace or one of the options below.
Take a look at Cee Cee’s Closet NYC below. Notice how you get a pop-up notification every time a sale has been made. This is just one example of sophisticated functionality on this Shopify website.
Like G2, we’ll give it 4.4 stars out of 5 for its intuitive dashboard and advanced tools.
WordPress.com is the free hosting service offered by Automattic, the same company that powers WordPress.org. If you’re confused, read more about WordPress.com vs. WordPress.org before continuing.
Since WordPress was first established as a blogging platform, it offers a rich selection of features, themes, and plugins designed specifically for blogging. This includes built‑in SEO, social media integration, sharing features, and website statistics.
WordPress.com is designed to combine the ease of a hosted solution with the flexibility of a self-hosted solution. At the Business tier, WordPress.com takes care of your site’s updates, security, and performance while also allowing you to install plugins, upload your own custom theme, and choose your own hosting provider. This allows you to focus on creating rich content and visitor experiences without having to worry about the technical aspects of running a site.
This flexibility does mean that WordPress.com has a steeper learning curve than most website builders. Rather than try to be an all-in-one platform like most of its competitors, WordPress.com is designed to allow users to pick and choose themes and extensions from its own directory as well as third-party marketplaces and sites. The time and effort it takes to research, install, and manage these different pieces can be overwhelming for beginners.
It also requires site owners to flip back and forth between WordPress.com’s clean interface and WordPress.org’s admin dashboard, which can be intimidating for first-time users.
WordPress.com offers a free, ad-supported plan as well as four paid plans. There is a personal plan that costs $4 per month and a premium plan that costs $8 per month. Both plans include an SSL certificate, access to free themes, and some essential Jetpack features for speeding up your site, protecting it from spam, and improving your SEO. The premium plan has some marketing and monetization tools that are best suited for freelancers.
There’s also a recommended plan for small businesses for $25 per month and one specifically for ecommerce stores for $45 per month. Exclusive to these tiers are the ability to install custom plugins, upload custom themes, remove the WordPress.com branding from your site’s footer, and get personalized customer support.
Ideal users for WordPress.com include bloggers and site owners who are familiar with the self-hosted variant, WordPress.org.
While WordPress.com can be used to build a business site, portfolio, or online store, it’s best for blogging. Look at how feature-rich Ann Morgan’s blog is below, with her bio, top posts and pages, a categories drop-down menu, and Twitter feed all featured in the sidebar.
Again taking the lead from the G2 rating, we’ll give it 4.3 stars out of 5 for its advanced blogging features.
Wix makes it easy for anyone to create a website and manage their business online.
Wix offers three options for customizing the look of your site. You can choose from over 500 pre-designed templates and then customize it using Wix’s drag and drop editor. You can start from scratch if you know HTML and CSS. Or you can answer a few questions and Wix Artificial Design Intelligence (ADI) will build a personalized website for you. It will include custom text and images, but you can change the text, layout, and style, add more features, and make any other changes you need.
Another pro is the variety of pricing plans Wix offers, starting with its free version. There is also a premium version with specific tiers for individuals, businesses, and ecommerce stores so you can find a plan that meets your unique needs and budget.
While Wix provides a lot of control over the design of your site, it limits your control over its functionality. For example, you can’t switch templates after your website goes live or add forms or featured images to blog posts.
While there are some advanced elements you can add, like music and maps, you’ll have to add HTML code to do so. This process can be intimidating for beginners and too time-consuming for others. When comparing Wix vs WordPress, for example, the process for installing plugins to add any missing features seems much easier.
Wix offers a limited free plan for individuals and small businesses to build a site. This plan comes with hosting and hundreds of templates and lets you create unlimited pages, but it is ad-supported and assigns you a URL. Your assinged URL will look something like: username.wixsite.com/siteaddress. To provide visitors with an ad-free experience and purchase your own custom domain, you’ll have to upgrade to one of the premium plans.
Wix’s paid plans start at $13 per month. The higher tiers, which cost $17, $22, and $39 per month, offer unlimited bandwidth, more storage, and more advanced functionality, including a built-in integration with Google Analytics.
There are additional plans for business and ecommerce websites, starting at $23 per month. The major difference between this set of plans is that you can accept online payments on your sites. You’ll also get more storage and video hours.
Wix is ideal for creative professionals, agencies, and small shop owners.
Wix is best for creating online portfolios and other sites that require more advanced design options than functionality. Take Paolo Azarraga’s portfolio, for example. He uses a full-screen monochromatic video as the background for his homepage and a unique grid display for his other work.
Like G2, we’ll give it 4.2 stars out of 5 for its robust design and pricing options.
Weebly is designed to simplify and automate many of the tasks that go into creating and managing a store online.
Weebly offers the core features you need to get started — from hosting to design tools to analytics — and much more. Not sure how to photograph your products? You can ship them to the Square Photo Studio and eCommerce experts will take photos for you based on best practices.
Want to make extensive edits to a template? You can use Weebly’s built-in code editor to customize your site’s HTML and CSS right in your dashboard. This is an excellent feature considering that Weebly offers a more limited selection of templates than some of its competitors.
One of the biggest drawbacks of Weebly is its lack of SEO features and extensions. You can optimize your titles, meta descriptions, and custom URLs for search and use any template to build a responsive site — but Weebly doesn’t offer much else beyond these standard features.
The ten SEO apps in its marketplace are pricey and have only been given average ratings. That means that though Weebly offers a comprehensive step-by-step guide for making your site SEO friendly, most of the optimization process will fall to you.
Like Wix, Weebly offers a limited free version that can be used to create business websites, ecommerce websites, and blogs. This includes everything you need to build a site: hosting, SSL certification, blogging and design tools, advanced site stats, and more. But it will display ads and branding for Square (the company that acquired Weebly in 2018) and will require you to use a Weebly subdomain. That means your URL will look something like example.weebly.com.
You can upgrade to the first tier of premium plans for $6 per month to connect a custom domain, but ads will still be displayed on your site. To provide visitors with an ad-free experience, you’ll have to upgrade to the Professional or Performance plan.
These plans are $12 and $26 per month, respectively. With these plans, you’ll get free domain registration for the first year, unlimited storage, and more advanced functionality. Advanced features include password-protection for different parts of your site and a shipping calculator for ecommerce sites.
It’s important to note that these rates only apply when purchasing an annual plan. If you opt to pay month-to-month, then rates for the Personal, Professional, and Performance tiers increase to $9, $16, and $29 per month.
Weebly is ideal for first-time shop owners and start-up companies, who need customer support and resources like Square’s automated product photography as they try to generate and grow their online sales while keeping their cost margins and teams small.
Weebly is best for creating ecommerce sites with basic functionality but lots of content and images. Check out Alibi Interiors below, a website for a reclaimed wood company that’s run by a husband and wife, for an example.
Going with the G2 rating again, we’ll give it 4.2 stars out of 5 for its vast functionality and support for ecommerce beginners.
Duda combines powerful team collaboration features with client management tools for quickly building and managing multiple websites.
Duda offers an array of tools for collecting customer feedback, securing your sites, and reducing time to publish. You can easily import existing content from multiple websites or any structured dataset directly into a template, switch into Developer mode to quickly access a site’s underlying code and then switch back to the interface, and interact with other users using site comments. You can also use Duda’s widget builder to create and reuse widgets across different clients’ sites and create dynamic pages based on one design.
All of these features enable you to have multiple stakeholders working on a website so you can create and launch them faster.
With so much built-in functionality, Duda’s interface can seem overwhelming. It also lacks the customization options that some of its competitors offer. For example, you don’t have the option to start completely from scratch. There are 10 blank templates in addition to dozens of other pre-designed templates you can choose from, but you’re limited in how much you can customize these templates. You can’t drag and drop elements anywhere on the page like you can with Wix, for example.
There’s also no app store. That means the only way to extend the functionality of your site is to upgrade to one of the more expensive plans.
Duda is another website builder that does not offer a free plan. Premium plans start at $14 per month and include cloud hosting, SSL certification, and email support. This basic plan is will show Duda branding on your login screen and other parts of your site.
To remove Duda branding from your site, have more than one user, and import unlimited content from existing sites, you’ll have to upgrade to its Team plan for $22 per month. Agencies that need up to 10 users and advanced tools like a custom widget builder can upgrade to the Agency plan for $74 per month.
Like Squarespace and Weebly, Duda offers these rates as promotions for first-time customers purchasing annual plans. If you are a returning customer or would prefer to pay month-to-month, then the monthly rates are $19, $29, and $99 per month.
Duda is ideal for freelance web design professionals and agencies who need to build websites for clients quickly.
Duda is best for creating small business sites with interactive elements like pop-ups, videos, and promotions. Here's an example of a photography site built on Duda below.
Though Duda has the highest rating on G2 with 4.5 stars out of 5, it has only a fraction of the reviews of the other tools listed above. Because of this and its clunkier interface, we’re giving it a 4.0 rating and listing it as #6.
Card is a simple and responsive solution for creating one-page sites.
The advantage of Carrd is that it's designed exclusively for one-page sites. That means Carrd’s interface, features, and themes are all optimized for that unique purpose. For example, let’s say you want to make changes to your site. You just have to click on the title or another element and the customization options will appear on the right side of the screen. This makes the editing process much simpler.
Furthermore, because you’re not paying for other features and services you don’t need, it’s much cheaper than other website builders on the market.
In exchange for this ease of use and affordable pricing, you’ll have to forgo some flexibility and control over your site. For example, you can't change your website name without deleting the whole site and starting over. You can’t add maps or any elements that aren’t supported out-of-the-box. That means you’re stuck with the standard features ( text, images, video, and so on.)
Carrd offers a free plan for building simple, responsive, one-page sites. However, it will require you to use a branded URL and have Carrd branding in your site’s footer. To remove this branding, you’ll have to upgrade to a premium plan for $9 per year. However, even this pro plan does not support custom domains.
In order to connect to a custom domain, integrate with Google Analytics or MailChimp, and more, you’ll have to upgrade to its higher tier plans, which range from $19 to $99 per year. Comparing this annual fee to the others’ monthly fees, Carrd is a significantly cheaper alternative to the website builders on this list.
Carrd’s ideal users are freelancers, photographers, designers, or other individuals that want to promote their work or business.
Carrd is best for creating any type of one-page site, from personal profiles to portfolios to landing pages. Here's a demo of a personal profile below.
Like Duda, Carrd has a higher rating on G2 than some of the other builders on the list with 4.4 stars out of 5. But since it has the least amount of reviews, we placed it at #7.
Finding the Best Solution for You
Whether you’re using any of the website builders above or a CMS, you can create and customize a website for your business without coding. The key to selecting the right solution is understanding what your top priorities are and how the platform’s capabilities align with those priorities.
If you're looking for a platform that will allow you to build and customize a site as quickly and easily as possible, then any of the website builders above will meet your needs. If you're looking for platform that's easy to use but has more advanced functionality so you can grow, you'll need a CMS.
Originally published Apr 22, 2020 7:00:00 AM, updated July 29 2020