Free website builder?

Ask a question about small business. We'll answer by email & post our answers here to help others.

I have been trying to find the best free website builder to use, but it is almost impossible to get reliable information online.

At this point I'm not even sure if there is such a thing as a free website builder at all. It seems like all of them say they are free, but in fact, they have hidden charges down the line... or, they start charging you after a month of use, or they plaster any site you build with ads.

That's not really free, is it?

Am I being ridiculous in demanding a free site builder? I guess I should be happy to pay up a few dollars per month in order to have a website. It's just that it seems like something that should be free, right?

Please let me know which is the best website builder (free or paid), and if there is such a thing as a decent free website builder. Or, should I give the whole thing up and build a custom website and host it myself? I would probably do that, except I don't know much about Website design.

There are good quality, free website builders available

Let me address each of your concerns one by one...

1. Which website builder is the best?

That's a fairly easy one to answer as we already did a complete comparison review of the leading site builders one the market, over a range of criteria from SEO to popularity, user reviews, pricing and overall value for money.

Here's a list of the top website builders ranked by SEO:

Rank Software YSlow PageSpeed Load Time
1 Shopify (eCommerce) 84 84 0.89
2 Weebly 80 89 0.98
3 Bigcommerce (eCommerce) 76 95 1.52
4 Wix 84 95 1.70
5 Yola 80 86 1.32
6 GoDaddy 79 90 1.44
7 Webs 75 28 0.82
8 Homestead 79 57 2.76

Here's a list ranked by support for responsive Web design (i.e. support for mobile devices):

Rank Name Mobile Responsive Ease Overall Summary
1 Shopify 9 10 9 9.3 Wide 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.
2 Bigcommerce 9 7 9 8.6 Limited range of free responsive themes. Wide range of beautiful, paid responsive designs. Easy to implement and customize.
3 Volusion 8 7 8 7.6 Nice range of responsive templates for eCommerce - both free and paid. Limited customizations, but easy to implement.
4 Weebly 7 5 8 6.9 Limited range of free responsive themes. Easy to implement. Can be tricky to work with and customize.
5 Wix 7 0 7 5 Mobile support, but non-existent responsive design.

And, here's a table describing the primary uses of each website builder (remember, not all site builders are created equal, some have better features in one area while others may be better at other things):

Name Price Suitability
Weebly $4+ Weebly is great for organizational sites like churches and schools. It is also perfect for professionals - consultants, lawayers, doctors, and so on.
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.
Shopify $30+ Perfect for one man online stores - but also caters for larger businesses. Arguably the quickest and easiest setup on offer.
Bigcommerce $25+ Great for retailers who want to integrate with 3rd party platforms like Amazon and eBay. Perfect for dynamic eCommerce startups.

Overall, depending on your own specific website requirements, I'd probably go with Weebly for a professional site and Shopify for an eCommerce site.

There's a direct comparison between Wix and Weebly over at Wix vs. Weebly if you want to learn more about the differences between the two main options.

2. Is there such a thing as a free website builder?

Yes. There is. Weebly, amongst others, offers a free account that will stay free forever. However, it is limited and more than likely, at some stage, you will need to make use of some of the more advanced functionality offered.

But, no, you shouldn't expect to use a free service forever. If you don't expect to make a cent or derive any value from a website, why build one in the first place? In general,

Your time is more precious than money.

It's worth it to pay a bit for a service that saves you time. The longer you spend messing around with cheap, poor quality services, the longer it'll take to get to the point where you can start your business, start making money, start operating, or whatever it is you want to do with the website.

There is certainly no eCommerce website builder that is completely free, although they all offer risk free trials - Shopify and Bigcommerce give you two weeks free of charge before they begin taking recurring monthly fees. Bear in mind that these fees are exceedingly reasonable given how much you would pay to host your own website on a reasonable server.

I guess the moral is that you shouldn't expect a service that offers value to you to be free forever. Yes, you can get away with almost no cost for a while, but at some stage you should want to pay for a high quality service that is going to offer good support and reliability (trust me, there's nothing worse than trying to run a Web business on a site that keeps crashing).

3. Should I build a custom website and host it myself?

The short answer is... NO!

Don't build your own website. Despite there being plenty of great CMS systems like Drupal and WordPress that are freely available, you are letting yourself in for some real trouble in a number of areas.

First off, a CMS system has a fairly steep learning curve and it is a lot easier to create sites with these if you have some Web design experience - in particular a bit of HTML, CSS and PHP helps. It's not absolutely necessary, but you'll be limited in terms of flexibility if you can't modify any of their themes and templates by hand.

Secondly, hosting a custom website is actually more expensive than simply using a website builder (even if it's a paid website builder).

Not only that, but with your own Web host, the management of the server is your responsibility. Get ready to sort out your emails accounts and ensure the SMTP server is secure and not an open relay (amongst all sorts of other horrible technical server details). If configuring the php.ini file, customising .htaccess and robots.txt files, managing file permissions, FTP account access, and all sorts of other goodies sound like things you want to avoid, go with a hosted website builder that takes care of all of this behind the scenes.

If, however, you are still interested in doing it yourself there remains the task of finding the right type of Web hosting for the right price that also offers reliability and decent support. Check out the best small business Web hosting services, which has a comparison of leading Web hosts from site builders to shared hosting, to VPS (Virtual Private Server) hosting and dedicated servers.

If you're unfamiliar with definitions for hosting terms, read Web hosting definitions to learn the basics first.

Best of luck.