I recently heard a web design podcast describing website builders to be a bit like Lego. You choose the bits you want and place them where you want them, and as long as you're comfortable with the trade off where ease of build comes with boundaries and limitations, you can build a nice looking website without having to learn anything about code. That is what many web designers do today...
So... What is a Website Builder?
There is a growing number of no code tools available such as WordPress, Wix, Squarespace and Ionos, which can make the process of building a simple website relatively simple.
These are called website builders, and they're great if you want to try your hand at some DIY web design without knowing how to code. Some of them can also be used to great effect in the right hands.
They each have their strengths, weaknesses and limitations, although you’ll sometimes see exaggerated claims from time to time with advertisements saying Build a website that can do everything!
A website that can do everything?
Let me put that claim into context...
I worked in e-commerce for many years where the core website was dynamically displayed in 28 languages. It allowed customers to make international reservations in real time at over 8000 worldwide locations based on the range of car rental vehicles available for the specific location, dates and times selected.
Additional items and insurances could be added, and these varied by country and selections made. Pricing was dynamic and displayed in multiple currencies, and we had a very comprehensive loyalty scheme and CRM programme.
Even a multi-million dollar web platform like that couldn’t do everything, so I would recommend adverts saying Build a website that can do everything be taken with a pinch of salt!
Most website builders work on a drag and drop basis, whereby a pre-defined template can be selected, and then with the help of a menu of tools the web designer can insert things on a page.
This may include text areas, images, banners and boxes, and usually you'll be able to change sizes, colours, borders, etc., and move things around within the boundaries of the template you chose.
There will be ways to structure your website's navigation, and create new pages. You might also want to add a feature such as a contact form, which might require you to select from a number of options available.
If you're considering using a website builder, or employing a web designer to create your website using a one, you need to be aware of the limitations of whichever platform your new website is going to built on.
As versitile as many of them are, all website builders have limitations, but you'll find that to expand on their capabilities, additional features and pieces of functionality are available for some platforms. These are commonly known as plug ins
Features and Plug-ins
Plug-ins can be used to help with the build process or add features, and some plug-ins will be used during the day to day working of the website.
Selecting plug-ins can feel similar to choosing apps for your phone. As you'll know, there are literally 1000s of apps for phones which cover a wide range of purposes, and to begin with you might feel that the more apps you select for your phone, the more things your phone will be able to do.
Be very selective about plug-ins
Plug-ins for websites can also add features, but be very selective because they can also consume data which could contribute to speed problems. They might also add complexity, because plug-ins are usually made by independent 3rd parties, and not all plug-ins are compatible.
Plug-ins also get updated. Features change... usually for the better, but not always... but unlike a phone where you can choose to delete a app you don't want, if you remove an installed plug-in from your website it might cause you to make some additional changes to avoid the remove causing problems with your website.
Even applying an updated version of a plug-in you already have installed could, in some cases, lead to certain things on your website displaying differently or stop working.
Many web designers do not understand web code!
Are there disadvantages when using website builders?
Many website builders generate a LOT of additional code, which along with the usual plug-ins, very large images, and dozens of links to large external code files, styling and font libraries, can result in a website which might look good, but loads slowly.
There are exceptions, of course. Webflow, for example, allows the designer greater control over the code it generates, and in the right hands is capable of producing some incredibly slick, stylish, fast responsive websites.
The platform is in control
One thing that should not be overlooked is that the platform is in control.
What I mean by that is that if you have your website built with a website builder such as WordPress or Wix, your website will remain within the environment of that platform.
For example if it was built in 2021 using WordPress version 5.7, when version 5.8 was introduced in mid 2021 you would expect everything on your website to still function. And likewise when version 5.9 was introduced in early 2022.
So what could go wrong?
Sometimes things happen. They (WordPress, Wix, SquareSpace, and even some of the plug-ins they use) may have introduced something new in one of their version releases, and some of the earlier functionality might have been changed, removed or bugs fixed.
Platforms and plug-ins will get updated
So besides WordPress releasing updates, the third party companies who build the tools and plug-ins you choose for your website will also submit updates.
For example you might have used a plug-in for contact forms, such as JetPack or Formidable Forms. You might use SEO tools such as Yoast, RankMath or SEO Press, or plug-ins to integrate with social media.
Those plug-ins will evolve over time, and any changes will potentially impact your website in ways that are outside of your control. Most of the time these changes will be positive, but the point I want to emphasise is that if your website has been built using a website builder tool, the platform your website is built on WILL change whether you like it or not.
In addition to this, the scope, features, styling, design and capabilities of your website will be determined by the capabilities and limitations of the website builder you choose.
Not all plug-ins are compatible with each other
Bear in mind too that not all plug-ins are compatible with each other. Fortunately there are some which will detect incompatibility and alert you, but that doesn't mean that they all will, and therefore you need to be aware of potential issues.
So if an update to your website builder platform negatively impacts your website, you're likely to need someone to fix a problem which happened outside of your control.
Web browsers don't need lots of additional code
The most efficient websites use no more code than is necessary.
Your web browsers (Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Edge, etc) only need to be told how and where to display the contents of a web page. An efficient well designed website will provide everything your browser needs (including the browser on your phone) to enable most pages to load in less than a second, and will only use the code needed for that purpose.
Less efficient websites may be pulling their main content from one server, font styles from another server, icons from another, styling definitions from somewhere else, and also requiring excessively large codebases to be downloaded, but only using 5-10% of the code. The remainder is excess but still needed to be downloaded before the web page would display.
The usual reason for this happening is the way many website builders work, and their tendency to generate websites using excessively heavy bloated code files which are 10-20 times larger than most sites require.
Also bear in mind that the more links on your page to external sources for fonts, styles and other things, the more connections any anti-virus software (Kasperski, Norton, McAfee, etc) may need to monitor each time someone visits your website. That can be another reason a page takes longer to load, and it may be completely unnecessary.
What is Code Bloat?
I like to travel light. If I want to visit my family for the afternoon, I won’t need a suitcase. If I’m stopping overnight, I’ll need a change of clothes and a few other essentials, but I won’t need my Speedo’s, snorkel, Leatherman multi-tool, mosquito net and first aid kit.
In other words I’ll take what I need as I won’t need everything including the kitchen sink (my Mum already has one of those).
So on that basis, why should every web page you visit on a website have to download MASSIVE data files when at least 90% of that code is not needed?
A real life example
Here's an example, but out of respect I won't name the website as the company paid good money to a web design agency to build their website.
In the screenshot below you can see that this particular page calls for several external styling files to be downloaded, regardless of whether or not it needs those files or all of their content. The first of those files is the type of file which tells your web browser what colour, size, position and styling to apply to the text and images you see on a page. When I opened up the file to take a look, there were nearly 18,000 lines of code, with a file size of over 470kb.
That one file, aside from all of the other files which are also being downloaded for a mobile display, is more than 24 times the entire size of styling file we use for TargaWeb.com so it's understandable why so many web builder sites are slow and clunky.
Why is that so important?
Well if you or your customer is trying to view a website on a mobile, the mobile network coverage is slow to medium, and you don’t have a phone contract with unlimited data, you won’t want to have to wait to download lots of huge data files and images if the page you’re trying to view doesn’t need them.
But how would you know that. All you'll know is this website is real slow, and you'll decide with persevere or move on.
A real life example using Wix
Here is a real life example produced by a local web design agency using Wix. It shows the difference in how just two small pieces of content are handled.
Reignite Your Brand, Boost Your Business
These two very small pieces of content could be achieved with very little code, such as:
<p style="font-weight: 600">Reignite Your Brand, Boost Your Business</p>
However, the following extract this was taken from a web design agency's own website which they had built using Wix. As you can see from the code below, Wix handles this a little excessively because of the code it generates in the background when the web pages are being designed.
What does that mean in reality? Is it really a problem?
Based on the above example, it is easy to understand why, when an entire website is built using website builder tools which apply excessive code, the pages on that website can be slow to load.
This can also impact success with search engine results, and when there is such a lot of clutter just to display two small pieces of content, the chance of errors further down the line can be quite high and may be difficult to diagnose and fix.
Large images can be an even bigger problem. All of this can result in frustrated users or customers, who are more likely to leave your website than they would if it was quick and easy to use.
Besides streamlined code, images need to load quickly, and therefore they need to be of a size, format and resolution which will not keep your visitors or customers waiting, nor consume excessive data when viewed on a mobile phone.
Using different versions of an image and serve the most suitable version for desktop, mobile and tablet in landscape and portrait orientations is the best approach. I always consider this additional effort and attention to detail worthwhile.
Many website builders are free with limitation on their use, and some have costs attached (see below). Understandably many people are attracted by a free website tool, but then realise that the learning curve to get acquainted with the tool and everything else involved in building and publishing a website is outside of their comfort zone.
Do some research to figure out what their limitations are too. Whilst it's possible to make use of free tools and free plug-ins, they're limited. But you can make use of a great range of features by paying for annual subcriptions for different plan levels.
The scope of this article cannot hope to cover an extensive list of subscription plans for website builders and plug-ins, but to give you an idea, here are just a few:
But why not give it a try? If you get stuck, overwhelmed by the process, or decide that your time could be put to better use elsewhere, feel free to get in touch. My contact details are at the bottom of the page.
Likewise, if you reach the point where you have got your domain name registered and your website has been uploaded onto your hosting server, if you need some help with what needs to happen next, contact me.
Beyond the website
Remember that building the website is just part of the story. Targa can provide a website audit, and have a range of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) services which might suit your needs.
Thoughts, suggestions or comments?
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About Daron Harvey: I began building and managing websites way back in 1996, and I'm now in my 27th year of being professionally involved in website design, UX and eCommerce best practices, including management of large multi-lingual multi $Billion global websites. Following the global pandemic I founded Targa Web Solutions, specialising in website design, Search Engine Optimisation, User Experience (UX/UI), testing and consultancy.