Complete guide to website builders. Pic by Alex Kislow

Website builders (complete beginner's guide)

We've compiled research data on the top website builders; comparing and ranking them on everything from responsive design, to SEO, value for money and even overall popularity.

Because each website builder comes with its own design features, specialized functionality, strengths and weaknesses, it's important to be able to quickly analyze which platform meets the specific needs of your website.

And, in case you're still undecided about whether or not a website builder is the way to go (as opposed to custom Web design), we're going to start with a quick overview of the benefits of using online site builders to design and host a website. But first...

What is a website builder?

Serving a Web page, in it's most basic form, needs quite a lot of different things. It needs a file system to hold physical pages, it needs a network connection and an IP address (and ideally a domain name), a designer that can create HTML and style it with CSS, and if you want a page that's actually useful it's going to need a programmer (most likely PHP) and a database (most likely MySQL).

That's a lot of stuff for an aspiring entrepreneur to learn about and become familiar with. Realistically it's simply not possible to expect everyone who wants to do business or blog online to spend time learning all of it. That's where website builders come in.

A website builder allows anyone to build a site without knowing anything about the Internet, programming or Web design.

In the same way you don't need to know how to build an internal combustion engine in order to drive a car, website builders allow us to build awesome, cutting edge websites without needing to understand what goes on under the hood.

Why choose a website builder

In general, for the vast majority of all website requirements (whether for a blog, professional site, or online store), the best alternative is almost always going to be an online site builder.

Don't believe me?

Check out this Google trends graph that shows the rise and fall of popular CMS systems, as compared with the leading site builders like Wix & Weebly (note how site builders have overtaken CMS platforms in brand recognition):

1. Cost

The number of times I have heard horror stories from people complaining that they have spent thousands of dollars on custom Web development, only to have thing break, malfunction, do the wrong thing, and so on.

This is one of the major problems of using a hosting service to serve your own custom website - the site needs to be developed first. Unless you have great in-house Web design skills and experience, you'll have to pay someone to build your site, and the cost for this is like asking "how long is a piece of string".

Using a website builder means that the site's design and development happens for free (because all good hosted site builders offer a free trial), but you end up paying a monthly hosting fee.

You can check out the costs of hosting services and website builders at:

Basically, a website builder will set you back anywhere between $4 and $200 per month, while hosting companies and go between $2 and $2000 depending on your requirements. In many cases, website builders offer better server resources and bandwidth (and overall value for money) than the equivalent hosting service package.

2. Development time

Here's where things diverge significantly. Hosted website builders offer online graphic site design interfaces that anyone can learn their way around pretty quickly.

Custom development, even when utilizing a CMS like WordPress or Drupal, can be quick if the needs of the site are basic, or be open-ended (months to years) if the requirements are complex.

However, I should make the point that CMS systems offer more flexibility and power under-the-hood. This makes them suitable for startups looking to do new and innovative things with their platform. It's just that 99% of all bloggers and businesses don't need all that power and flexibility, so there's no point in gathering the skills needed for custom dev work.

To summarize:

web builder = quick

custom design + hosting service = sometimes quick, often slow

3. Skills required

Absolutely anyone can start using website builders without needing any skills or experience. Yes, it will take a little time to learn how to do the things you want... but there's little to no coding required.

Using a hosting service means building your own website, which means, at the very least you'll need:

  • a bit of HTML
  • a bit of CSS
  • familiarity with a server admin tool like cPanel
  • use of a DB admin tool like PHPMyAdmin
  • possibly some DNS experience to point your domain correctly
  • familiarity with plugins and templates of your CMS
  • familiarity with the admin system of your CMS
  • Email setup and maintenance - possibly MX settings
  • Software updates
  • awareness of hackers & security

The list goes on as you'll find out if you opt for a custom site and self-hosting.

In general:

A website builder manages everything for you (site, hosting, email, etc) in one place - and provides support on any aspect of the system in one place.

A hosting service offers support on their hosting. If you need support on the website itself you have to go to the forums, or find a developer.

4. Maintenance

Ongoing maintenance, in hosted site builders, occurs behind the scenes to keep your site up-to-date with the latest technologies and security.

You have to maintain your own site when it is self-hosted. This means updating your own server code with the latest security patches whenever they appear. But, assuming you are using a decent hosting company, they should at least keep your server updated so that it isn't susceptible to hackers.

Top website builders roundup

Site builders are designed for specific things, and you'll want to be sure to choose one that closely matches the needs of your business. For example, if you intend selling stuff online, use a hosted eCommerce solution instead of a blog type solution.

Here's a list of the top 4 site builders along with some guidance on what type of sites they are best suited for:

NamePriceSuitabilityGet started
Weebly$4+Weebly is great for organizational sites like churches and schools. It is also perfect for professionals - consultants, lawayers, doctors, and so on.Learn how to build a free website with Weebly
Wix$4+Wix is very popular with companies that rely on visual design - artists, photographers, film-makers and just about any business that relies on creativity.See a direct comparison of Wix vs. Weebly
Shopify$30+Perfect for one man online stores - but also caters for larger businesses. Arguably the quickest and easiest setup on offer.Learn how to start an eCommerce site with Shopify
Bigcommerce$25+Great for retailers who want to integrate with 3rd party platforms like Amazon and eBay. Perfect for dynamic eCommerce startups.Learn how to build an online store with Bigcommerce

To help clarify things a bit more, here's a platform by platform, in-depth overview of each one...

Bigcommerce (eCommerce)

Bigcommerce online shopping cart website builder

Bigcommerce specializes in 3rd party integrations that can be used to grow your operations effectively. They rely on plenty of 3rd party plugin modules that give you plug-n-play functionality for virtually anything.

All things being equal, if you are planning on selling stuff on different platforms (like Amazon, eBay, etc), or are looking to use the latest cloud based gadgets and technology then this is the right choice for you.

Bigcommerce is best for...

In general, stores that aim to sell high volumes of products through multiple channels will get the most from Bigcommerce:

  • Mainstream - books, electronics, etc
  • Virtual products, subscriptions, memberships, magazines, etc
  • Multi-channel, catalogues, directories, etc
  • Mail order
  • Online only

Bigcommerce offers excellent usability, design and a powerful range of features, and is well reviewed and liked. We scored it as follows (Hint: click on the name below to follow our step-by-step guide to setting up an online store with Bigcommerce):

BigCommerce$25+ /montheBay + Facebook integration. Email marketing integration. Abandoned cart saver. Single page checkout. No transaction fees.6989%


Weebly online website builder for professional sites

For complete beginners, Weebly is arguably the best way to build a high quality, professional online presence (which you can do for free). It is fast and very easy to use.

Not only that, the quality of the websites they produce are excellent, and Weebly came out top of the pile in our SEO comparison of the top site builders.

And while they are expanding their functionality to things like eCommerce (check out Weebly eCommerce vs. Bigcommerce), there are still some things they are better at doing.

Weebly is best for...

Weebly has a strong focus on designing sites for specific purposes, and, in particular, they focus on professionals and organizations:

  • schools
  • churches
  • professions - lawyers, doctors, etc
  • estate agents
  • skilled trades - plumbers, electricians, etc

What's nice about Weebly is that they take a lot of planning and research out of your hands by allowing you to choose a focused template at the start of the design phase. This means you are never more than a few clicks away from having a great site template/design.

Get started with Weebly right now.

Shopify (eCommerce)

Shopify eCommerce software
Shopify is arguably the most popular of all online shopping cart solutions, and this comes down to the fact that it is really easy to use (even for people who are allergic to technology and the Web), and is technically superior.

So, for example, it is known that the speed of a store often has a significant impact on the conversion rate of that store. As you can see from our forum answer Which is the fastest shopping cart software?, Shopify is generally the fastest.

Shopify is best for...

Choose Shopify if your priority is to capture a specific niche market and dominate it, or, sell high-value items to focused target markets, like:

  • Boutique store
  • Arts & crafts
  • Expensive, high end, luxury items
  • Bricks & mortar store

In our review of the top shopping cart solutions, we scored Shopify as follows (Hint: click on the name below to follow our step-by-step guide to setting up an online store with Shopify):

Shopify$29+ /monthFull featured CMS. Free SSL. Advanced store analytics.9990%


Wix website builder for visually dynamic sites

Without doubt, Wix are the masters of creating highly visual, stunning and emotive websites for their clients. They stay on top of the latest technology and developments to put a lot of cool features at your fingertips.

We did a direct comparison between Wix & Weebly and noted that Wix tended to be ahead of the curve when it comes to updates, upgrades, and new development.

However, the price you pay for visually rich design is worse performance, and while Wix is no slouch, it isn't as fast as Weebly.

Wix is best for...

Anyone who wants a strong focus on visual media will find that Wix is ideal. Rich media like online videos, images, and animations are all part and parcel of Wix design aimed at:

  • artists
  • musicians
  • architects
  • crafters
  • designers

Wix also has a thriving app marketplace that can add cool features to your site - think along the lines of 'interactive portfolio' that wows prospective clients, customers and employers.

Get started on a Wix site for free.

Website builders SEO comparison

The major Web design software services do a good job of building best practice SEO into their software. The reason? It's an extremely competitive niche so there is great incentive for each platform to ensure their clients enjoy the best chances of ranking in the SERPs.

List of top site builders ranked by SEO

Some do a slightly better job than others, however, so it is worthwhile checking out the differences:

RankPlatformYSlowPageSpeedLoad Time
1Shopify (eCommerce)84840.89
3Bigcommerce (eCommerce)76951.52

This table gives you a great idea about performance related SEO, which plays a big role in determining how Google ranks your pages (Google has stated that page load time is factor in their ranking algorithms).

On-page SEO features

What you want to have above and beyond great built-in features is the flexibility and control to customise them. In particular, an average page should have the following features available for editing:

  • H1 title tag
  • Meta description (& keywords if necessary)
  • URL
  • Image names
  • Image descriptions
  • Canonical tags

In addition, your Web builder should also have a sitemap file to help search engines pick up new, changed or deleted pages on the site. Fortunately, all of the major site builders mentioned above support these on-page features.

Here are our ratings in terms of SEO features, flexibility and underlying implementation:

1Bigcommerce (eCommerce)AllExcellentGood
2Shopify (eCommerce)AllGoodGood

It's worth pointing out that there is no 'penalty' for using one site builder over another. By far, the greatest impact on how well a site ranks is the number, quality and relevance of backlinks and referrals (building your backlink profile is an entire discipline in itself - see the list of helpful articles below for more), combined with useful and interesting content.

Website builders responsive design comparison

The following table shows how well each site builder supports mobile design compared to one another. The primary criteria we used in our rankings are:

  1. Quality of mobile support
  2. Responsive design
  3. Ease of implementation

We gave each platform a mark out of 10 in each category, and averaged those to provide an overall responsive/mobile design rating:

1Shopify91099.3Wide range of free and paid, high quality responsive themes for eCommerce. Implement at the click of a button. Easy to customize with basic Web design experience.
2Bigcommerce9798.6Limited range of free responsive themes. Wide range of beautiful, paid responsive designs. Easy to implement and customize.
3Volusion8787.6Nice range of responsive templates for eCommerce - both free and paid. Limited customizations, but easy to implement.
4Weebly7586.9Limited range of free responsive themes. Easy to implement. Can be tricky to work with and customize.
5Wix3022.6Mobile support. No responsive design. Boo. I would expect more from Wix.

To me, the most interesting picture to emerge from this review is that the eCommerce site builders are light years ahead of the two traditional site builders (despite the fact that the eCommerce site market is an order of magnitude smaller).

Shopify and Bigcommerce have rocking responsive theme and design features, while Wix (only a month before Google starts using mobile friendliness as a ranking factor) has not lifted a finger in this arena.

Naturally, I expect things to change quite quickly over the coming months, so I'll revisit this page and update it to reflect the latest developments in due course. However, it's important to remember that,

Responsive design is not the same as mobile support.

A website can be mobile friendly without necessarily being responsive. Wix has opted to make their platform mobile friendly (i.e. serve mobile pages to mobile devices) without being responsive.

A responsive site responds to changes in dimension in real-time, whereas a mobile friendly site may serve different HTML based on the detected browsing device. SME Pals is responsive. Why not resize your browser to see how the page changes to keep the most important information at the top of your page, while shifting less important content lower down.

Images also resize automatically, as do social share buttons, and the menu changes to a drop down (if your screen is small enough). But not all media types are blessed with responsivenees. YouTube clips embedded into your responsive page will break the layout because they can't resize automaticelly.

In fact, many companies have wasted a lot of time, money and effort developing .mobi sites that are essentially redundant - given that a responsive design can do everything a .mobi can without having to duplicate the site's content and functionality.

With around 30% of all Web traffic originating on mobile devices, and projections indicating that this trend will continue until PCs are in the minority of Web enabled devices, AND the fact that Google will now consider your site's mobile support when it comes to page rankings and organic traffic, it's time to become responsive (not just mobile friendly).

If your site is still not fully responsive, take a proactive step to safeguard it from drops in organic traffic via Google and improve the user experience by upgrading/updating/migrating to one of the platforms that support responsive design.

So that's are complete overview of why website builders are arguably the fastest, cheapest and easiest way to build a high quality blog, professional site or online store. What website builder do you use? How have site builders made things better (or worse) for your site?

Share your tips and experiences in the comments.

Wix website builder

Wix is one of the world's best online website builders with over 55 million sites created, and you can get setup for free in minutes by following our step-by-step guide.

SME Pals previously did a direct comparison review of Wix against another leading site builder tool called Weebly. You can see the results at comparing Wix vs Weebly.

We found that because of Wix's focus on rich, HTML5 themes and templates, they are perfectly suited for sites that have a visual focus.

Free Website designs from top website builders. Pic by Yann Coeuru

Website builders have forever changed the world of Web design by allowing us to use free, responsive themes and templates to manage the look and feel of our sites without having to learn anything about Web development.

But which ones offer the best free templates that will simultaneously be quick and easy to use, make your site look beautiful, respond to any device (mobile support), and offer excellent built in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) features to help drive organic traffic from Google?

Improve UX Web design to help users and grow your business

User eXperience (UX) plays a vital role in how well your site converts traffic, and we've got some interesting Web design tips that will give your visitors a better experience while maximizing your profits.

By thinking carefully about how traffic flows around a site, and what visitors are after at any given point (i.e. user intent), it's possible to make relatively small design tweaks that have a massive impact.