Static vs. Dynamic Websites: Here's the Difference

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Jamie Juviler
Jamie Juviler



During your research into website design and development, you might have come across two terms used to describe types of websites: “static” and “dynamic.”

woman using a computer to view static vs. dynamic websites

If you’re building your own website, opting for a static or a dynamic website is one of the first major decisions you’ll need to make, since it will determine how your web pages are stored and delivered to visitors in their browsers.

To help you understand the difference, let’s break down what it means for a website to be static or dynamic, and discuss the pros and cons of each approach. Finally, we’ll share some examples of popular dynamic websites to give you a better sense of what they can do.

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No matter how complex a website appears to be, at its core a web page is just an HTML file displayed in a web browser. When you visit a website, your browser sends a request to the web server that hosts the website, and the server responds by sending back an HTML file (along with some other related files). Your browser processes this HTML file and shows it to you as a page.

Ultimately, both static and dynamic websites generate HTML files, but what makes a website “static” versus “dynamic” depends on how the server creates this HTML file before sending it to you. To understand the difference, let’s first unpack how static websites work.

What is a static website?

A static website is made up of a fixed number of pre-built files stored on a web server. These files are written in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, which are called “client-side” languages because they execute in the user’s web browser. When a user requests a page from the server with a URL, the server returns the HTML file that is specified by the URL and any accompanying CSS and/or JavaScript files.

During this exchange, the web server does not alter the files before they’re shipped to the user, so the web page will look the exact same to everyone who requests it. The content is “static” — the only way to change how the website looks is by manually changing the content of the files.

This doesn’t mean that static websites can’t be interactive or engaging. They can still have clickable links and buttons, images and video, CTAs, forms, digital downloads, and animations powered by CSS or JavaScript. With enough skill, you can even get a static website to look pretty nice. But, a static site will always look the same to everyone.

Common examples of static websites include resume websites, portfolio websites, brochure websites, one-off landing pages, and other informational or read-only sites. These websites are small (three to four pages or fewer), limited in content, and don’t require personalized content or frequent updates.

Static Website Advantages

Most benefits of static websites stem from their simplicity. Static sites are the easiest kind of site to build and maintain from scratch. If you want to launch a basic website quickly and cheaply, static sites are a solid option. With knowledge of HTML and CSS, you can code up a decent one without too much effort or cost.

Static websites also tend to be faster than dynamic websites on the user’s end. This is because pages on static websites are already built and require minimal back-end processing. The server only needs to retrieve the requested files and deliver them to the client. Static websites are also easier to cache due to lack of variation in content. Site speed, also called website performance, is crucial for a positive user experience and also affects search engine ranking.

Static Website Disadvantages

As you can probably guess, a static website isn’t the best option in many cases. The most apparent issue is scalability: Any time you want to make a site-wide content update, like changing the header of your pages, you’ll have to alter each individual HTML file. Plus, whenever you want to add a new page, you’ll have to manually create a new HTML file. For large websites, this simply isn’t practical.

Another disadvantage of static websites is lack of personalization. If you can’t tailor content to visitors, you might miss an opportunity to create a more engaging experience for visitors. Sure, a static site can display information about your business, but what if you could show visitors different information based on, say, their location? For that, you need a dynamic site.

Finally, there are many types of sites that just aren’t possible to build statically. For instance, ecommerce websites typically let users add products to their carts and check out, functions you can’t do with a static site unless you rely on third-party tools.

For these reasons, most websites that you use today are built dynamically. Next, let’s explore what that means.

What is a dynamic website?

Unlike a static website that displays the same content to all visitors in the same format, a dynamic website presents different information to different visitors. The content that a visitor sees can be determined by several factors, such as their location, local time, settings and preferences, and/or actions they’re taken on the website (e.g., shopping habits), making for a more tailored and interactive experience.

To achieve greater flexibility on the front end, dynamic websites require more complexity on the back end. These websites don’t store each page as its own HTML file. Instead, web servers build pages “on-the-fly” — when the user requests a page, the server pulls information from one or multiple databases and constructs an HTML file custom-built for the client. Once the page is built, the HTML file is shipped back to the user’s browser.

To build pages on the back end, dynamic websites employ server-side scripting languages like PHP, Python, Ruby, or server-side JavaScript, in addition to client-side languages (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript). Depending on the amount of data that is being pulled to construct the page, this process can get quite complex. However, the user doesn’t see any of this process — they only see the web page loaded in the browser, same as with static sites.

These days, most websites you use employ at least some dynamic practices. Online stores, social media sites, membership sites, news sites, publishing sites, blogs, and web applications all rely on dynamic content to some degree.

For example, consider an ecommerce site whose home page recommends products based on what they think you’ll want to buy. This means that every visitor will see a slightly different home page. Of course, it wouldn’t make sense to hard-code a page for each person and store it on the server. Instead, server-side code works to determine what content you should see, fetch that content from various databases, and build a page from it.

Other use cases for dynamic content include changing the page language based on the user’s location or settings, displaying a user’s previous orders from your website after they’ve signed in, and gating certain content on your site according to a user’s membership status.

Dynamic Website Advantages

We’ve already touched on the primary advantage of dynamic websites: They enable you to personalize your website’s content to each visitor, which means a more engaging user experience resulting in more conversions and purchases.

Beyond personalization, server-side scripting is very powerful and unlocks a myriad of possibilities for functionality. Dynamic code allows us to build web applications, SaaS software, and rich experiences that simply aren’t possible with a static approach.

It’s also much easier to make site-wide updates on dynamic websites. Administrators can quickly and easily make sweeping changes on their site, rather than updating the source code for each HTML file. On websites that frequently update content and appearance to keep up with their industries, this is a necessity.

Lastly, dynamic websites are more scalable than static websites, as the server does not store a fixed number of pages. Instead, the server constructs a page when it is needed. Going back to our ecommerce site example, say you want to add several new products to your site. Instead of building separate product pages in HTML, you just need to store product information in a database. Server-side scripts can pull this data to construct the product page automatically.

Dynamic Website Disadvantages

Since dynamic websites are more complex than static websites, they require much more time, effort, and know-how to create from scratch. If you don’t have the technical expertise to build and maintain a dynamic website, you can invest in a developer or development team.

Alternatively, you can use a website builder or a content management system (CMS) to handle the technical side of things, so you can place more focus on your site’s content and design. For example, WordPress works by building its pages dynamically using the server-side language PHP.

One other tradeoff of using a dynamic website is a potential drop in performance. Dynamic websites do more processing on the back end in order to deliver pages to visitors, which can affect load time. There are ways to optimize your site speed, and website building software has improved in this area. Still, speed is definitely something to keep in mind when managing a dynamic site, since delays of fractions of a second can cause higher bounce rates.

Most websites you use today are likely dynamic ones. To wrap up this post, let’s look at five popular examples of dynamic websites.

1. Wayfair (Dynamic Ecommerce Website)

Anyone who uses Wayfair knows the company tailors its shopping experience to customers. Its dynamic website allows you to view products deemed most relevant based on your browsing and purchases.

dynamic website examples: wayfair homepage

2. Twitter (Dynamic Social Media Website)

Given that over 300,000 tweets are published per minute, I can’t think of a better use for a dynamic website. Twitter’s dynamic build allows its interface to change in real time with new tweets.

dynamic website examples: twitter

3. Netflix (Dynamic Entertainment Website)

Netflix displays TV and movie recommendations based on your viewing habits and other information that you set in your profile. This dynamic interface has made it into the streaming giant it remains today.

dynamic website examples: netflix

4. HubSpot (Dynamic SaaS Website)

All cloud-based software tools rely on dynamic pages to deliver customized experiences to customers, and HubSpot’s CRM platform is no exception. Every page is, at its core, an amalgamation of customer and business data, organized in a way that helps you take action.

dynamic website examples: hubspot

5. The New York Times (Dynamic News Website)

Any large news website requires a setup that enables it to publish frequent articles with minimal friction. The New York Times uses server-side JavaScript frameworks to generate new article pages dynamically and update its home page content accordingly.

dynamic website examples: the new york times homepage

Understanding Static and Dynamic Websites

In the early days of the web, all websites were static — websites were kept as collections of pages stored on servers, and these pages could be delivered to clients when requested.

However, this method became less workable as users started expecting more from websites, like more personalized displays, auto-generated content, and eventually full-blown software available through the cloud.

To sum up, a static approach works well for a small website with no personalization that you want to watch quickly. Anything beyond that, and you’ll probably need a dynamic website.

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Topics: Website Design

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