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Online Website Builders – Are They Worth It?

When you need to publish a website to promote a small business, club, or a personal blog, what are your choices?

There are a lot of services out there that let you build a website without having to know the mechanics of HTML or content management systems.

But are they worth it?

Can it be worth paying nothing for a website? And if you do use one of these services, which will give you a reasonable result?

I got this request today:

I’m starting my own supply chain business and want to build a simple and effective web site (I’ve seen Moonfruit.com)  Is this a ‘good’ path to head down?

The short answer – it depends on the service.

Avoid Flash Generators

I’ve looked into Moonfruit.com, and it seemed great until I learned that it generates Flash sites, which makes it useless for anything other than an online business card or brochure.

Sites that run entirely in Flash are unlikely to get indexed by search engines, so you’re unlikely to turn up in the search results for any but the most obvious searches (i.e. your site’s exact name). However, if all your marketing is interpersonal, and you just want to give people a business card with your web address on that they can check out, a Flash site may serve your needs.

Here’s an example of a site built on Moonfruit. What do you think?

For the other 99.9% of us, don’t bother. My advice is to avoid Moonfruit – or any other service that spits out Flash.

There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Many of these services, like Moonfruit, or 1&1 My Website, have a free option. In the case of 1&1, it’s a free trial, after which (the fairly small print says) you start paying £9.99 per month (about $15-16).

Moonfruit has various options from free up to £22.60 per month (about $35). The more you pay, the more “features” you get. The impression I get is that most people won’t need most of these features.

If you do take a free option, expect to be prompted to upgrade quite regularly. These are businesses, and it doesn’t help their bottom line to have thousands of people using free services. They have to upsell you to additional services. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

You Should Pay For a Website!

Frankly, I haven’t seen one free website builder that will be worth your time to use. (So far – please feel free to correct me.)

Why? Because they can’t give you the things that really matter.

What Really Matters

  • Keyword Research
    Before you build a site, you need to choose exactly what the subject of each major page should be.  You should identify terms that people are actually looking for online, and for which you’ll be able to rank in the top 10 of the search results. That’s a process that a human has to do. If you skip it, don’t expect to get any traffic to your site.
  • Fundamentals of Marketing
    Any website should be built with the clear knowledge of who its audience is, what they want, what we want them to do when they come to the site, and how to persuade them to do it. No free service can do that, and if a site is not built consciously with those questions in mind, it is very unlikely to convert any visitors to customers, followers or fans.
  • Promotion
    You have GOT to get people to see your site. Letting visitors add your pages to social networks like Twitter and Facebook can help. But if you’re going to compete in the search results for any term worth having, you’ll need other sites to link to you. Again, this link building  is something that should be done by people.

What Doesn’t Really Matter

The mechanics of creating a website have become easier and easier over the years. Ten years ago, I hand-built every web page using nested tables (if you don’t know what I mean by that, you really don’t want to). It was a time-consuming, laborious and pretty skilled job.

Today, you don’t need to know how to craft a web page from first principles in order to make a web page.

Frankly, you need a good reason not to run your site on WordPress. I have the skills to build websites from scratch, but this site runs on WordPress. Why? Because it lets me write and edit content more easily than any other system, it has thousands of free and useful plugins that mean I don’t have to code stuff myself, and it’s great for SEO.

There are great online services, like WordPress.com (free version with ads, or $99/year for premium version), Blogger.com (free), and one I’d recommend… It’s Built For You.com (from $19.99/month).

It’s Built for You will give you a professional WordPress theme, great help and guidance with set-up, and hosting. See my review here.

Hosting is cheap. Creating web sites is actually pretty easy. Depending on whether you need a business site or a personal blog, you have a lot of options.

You probably don’t need to hire a professional to do it for you, if you’re willing to face a small learning curve.

If you do need professional help, here’s a video about the package we’ve put together, which explains all the critical factors in more detail.

My advice is:

  1. Use a service like WordPress.com or It’s Built For You, which takes care of the hosting and WordPress side of things for you.
  2. Take the time to learn about SEO. Keyword research and link building are essential.

Here are some resources to help you

About the author

Ben Hunt

Ben is the creator of Web Design From Scratch. He started writing articles about web design to kill time on a long train commute, and is now one of the most influential figures on the subject of effective web design. He has written three books and spoken at multiple conferences internationally.

Niall - a couple of years ago

Thanks for the article. I’ve been trying to do some research on free website builders so this comes in handy. I guess most of the best things in life, you’ve got to pay for.

Scott - a couple of years ago

I’m a solo web designer targeting small businesses. I’m constantly competing against “free” web site builders. Potential clients don’t understand why they should pay me USD$Thousands to design/build their site if they can “get it for free”. You’ve provided some good information I can pass along to make my case.

Regarding WordPress, however, one reason *not* to use it is customizability. I’ve done two WP sites for clients, and even though they picked templates that were pretty close to what they wanted, they still required quite a bit of customization. Unlike hand-coded xHTML/CSS sites, where I can “directly touch” the code, WP spreads things among so many component PHP files that it’s often hard to find exactly where some page element is coming from.

For clients who can accept a template “as is” WP is probably OK (the plugins and SEO do add value). But for those who need more customization, I’d prefer to design from scratch (pun intended!) or at least emulate a WP theme’s design with my own code.

    Geoff @ Four to the 4 - a couple of years ago

    Fair enough Scott, that’s the way you prefer to work. I think the key relating to WordPress there though may be the fact that you’ve seemingly done just the 2 websites built using WordPress. Once you’ve worked with it for some time and know intuitively how it flows and how to plug in to its PHP interacting with it isn’t much of a problem, and as you rightly say it has a LOT of plus sides which I believe counteract any difficulties in that area.

David - a couple of years ago

@scott – if you start using WP framework like Genesis, which itself has thousands of themes, customisation is pretty easy, as you know exactly what is where.
I’ve made my first WP site just recently and after few hrs using Genesis I had pretty good image what is where.

Sarah Blackburn - a couple of years ago

There are a couple of ‘professional quality’ website builders out there that utilise HTML 5 and CSS3 but they aren’t free.

I use http://www.basekit.com as my platform for clients that need a basic brochureware (and very basic ecommerce) site. SquareSpace is also pretty good, although has no ecommerce functionality and is more of a premium blogging platform.

Anything beyond the basics and I use WordPress, or Magento for ecom, with the occasional foray into Drupal if appropriate.

It used to take me 40 hours+ to design, cut and build even a basic custom-designed WordPress site but I’ve cut that down to about ten with BaseKit. I just wish they’d enable whitelisting of their CMS, but that isn’t a huge deal.

Stuart Gray - a couple of years ago

Great advice Ben

Thanks

Stuart

Emma Leeming - a couple of years ago

Hi Ben! Really useful article. Thank you very much. I’ve just been messing about with moonfruit and found the image quality in the pop-up gallery to be absolutely awful so I googled for help and your article came up. So cheers;-) And how are you my dear?!!

    Ben Hunt - a couple of years ago

    Wow, great to hear from you Em! Glad to be of help. I’m doing great. Have given up Facebook (since New Year) so I’m harder to contact, but have much more time :-) Bxx

Andrea Kelley - a couple of years ago

I have been trying to decide whether to use a free website builder also. Thanks so much for the information. It has really helped me :-)

jimmy hassle - a couple of years ago

I think you are just using this article to promote WordPress !! Is the wordpress link an affiliate paid marketing link ??

Moodfruit is great , had no trouble at all getting ranked on search engines.

    Ben Hunt - a couple of years ago

    No, I am not an affiliate for WordPress.

R Zala - a couple of years ago

Howdy, Nice and very clear article Ben….. well its worthy…. i just started website desiging… gr8 tips…

Thanks,
R Zala

Ben Hunt - a couple of years ago

This article has been translated into Serbo-Croatian language here.

Matt B - a couple of years ago

I would point out that moonfruit generates a HTML version for the search engines, and has an easy to use SEO panel – later this year it will also have the option of publishing in HTML5 rather than Flash, which as you rightly point out is on the way out….

Simon - a couple of years ago

Hi Ben,

I’ve been looking at http://www.squarespace.com,
it seems to fulfill a lot of needs.

Any comments?

Thanks

    Ben Hunt - a couple of years ago

    Interesting, and pleasantly designed, but I have a bit of a problem with the home page above the fold. There’s nothing there, just a simple text message.

    One for the reserve list and another look later.

      Simon - a couple of years ago

      Do u mean when you make your own website with them that your header won’t be very interesting? Or were you commenting on their design? This is the website builders thread right? :)

      They seems to be on of the more professional website building sites i’ve managed to find…

      Ben Hunt - a couple of years ago

      Sorry, I got confused because you’d posted in the “Wanted 100 Best Designs” post as well :-)

      Ignore me, my mistake. Yes, Squarespace looks tidy on first sight, thanks for the recommendation.

Paul - a couple of years ago

Great article. As a graphic designer myself, I am often wondering how to compete against the free offerings when it comes to web design. For me, I love designing visual layouts in intricate detail, and I think personal interaction and advice is essential to the customer. Also, not selling them anything they don’t need. I used to build HTML sites, but love WordPress & other open source CMS’s such as Mod X simply because it saves customers a small fortune (from the days that a CMS had to built from scratch), and passes some control to them once the site is built. I craft my own front end designs to work with WordPress, so for me WordPress can be used to give a customer a purely customised site rather than a “one of many” themes. Also love the mention to nested tables – I know those very well!

Steve Charles - last year

Great article, helpful insights. Thanks for sharing, Ben! I will point out Puzl.com as a kind of complex marketing solution for small businesses. Websites on the platform are free and fully customizable. What I liked most is that the website builder is ads free so you website doesn’t have to get disturbed by other companies’ ads.

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