Should I use a DIY web builder like Squarespace, Wix, or Shopify?

You’ve probably heard a pitch for a DIY website builder recently! If you’re a business owner, it might seem like they’re beating down your door to tell you that websites are easy and quick and you can have yours up by the weekend without ever touching code. So what’s the real deal?

Obviously, I am a web designer who primarily works with WordPress, and if I felt that there was another platform that was better for the businesses I serve, then I’d switch to that one. But I’m going to be super honest and transparent about the pros and the cons, as I see them, so that YOU can make the right decision for your business.

I’ll get this out of the way right up front: Is there ever a reason to use Shopify, Wix, or Squarespace? Absolutely, yes.

If…

  • You are an experienced designer who knows how to design for the web
  • AND you don’t need to prioritize SEO (search engine optimization), for instance a portfolio, resume, or “brochure” type site
  • AND you have absolutely no budget of time or money to check on your site’s maintenance every once in a while

However, I would say that literally only if all three of the above things are true would a DIY web builder be the right choice. Why? Here’s 6 reasons why.

1. Misleading about SEO

If you want to actually attract new customers online, and get found on the web by people searching for your services by keyword, you need to know the truth about SEO on Shopify, Wix, or Squarespace. This is real talk for businesses who actually need to be found on the web and need a steady stream of new leads.

Notice that the headline for this section doesn’t say “Bad for SEO.” These platforms are not inherently bad for SEO. But the message that they are sending is that you don’t have to worry about SEO– it’s all taken care of. And that isn’t true, not at all.

In order for Google and other search engines to understand your content, since they are bots and not humans, you need to format your content in bot-friendly ways. This means appropriately numbered h1-h5 headings, alt text for images, meta description, proper internal linking, schema markup, and more (way more, trust me!) To varying degrees, web builders do sometimes give you the power to change these things, but when it comes to getting it done right, you’re on your own. And if you do get it wrong, your site will be less effective and you won’t even know why.

There’s more to getting to #1 on Google than just your text and image content though. That part of the equation– the truly technical stuff of security, accessibility, and information architecture– is…

  • invisible to someone who isn’t familiar with technical best practices
  • largely beyond your control, and
  • currently often not done well by these all-in-one platforms.

Are these platforms getting better at SEO? Sure. But it’s certainly a disadvantage to not have all the tools at your disposal that the rest of the web has. SEO doesn’t have to be “bad” to dry up your flow of new leads– it just has to be worse than the other guy’s.

SEO doesn’t have to be “bad” to dry up your flow of new leads– it just has to be worse than the other guy’s.

But again, sometimes SEO is not a requirement. If you just need a site to direct customers to that you’ve already contacted in person, on the phone, or through directories, getting found by search engines won’t matter. Some businesses don’t rely on finding traffic that’s searching for their product or service online, and if you don’t need it, you don’t need it.

2. You don’t own your space.

If you use an all-in-one platform like Wix, Squarespace, or Shopify, you don’t really “own” your online space. It’s kind of like you are renting tools, as opposed to owning your own set. Clearly, there are many times that renting a tool is better than buying one you won’t need again soon… but just as clearly, a carpenter who doesn’t own a hammer is at a disadvantage.

Since you don’t own your site, you are subject to a number of risks, such as:

  • Price increases
  • Terms of service changes
  • Arbitrary account closure for real or perceived TOS violations

Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention the scenario where the platform itself is discontinued or fundamentally changed– can’t see the whole company folding being super likely, but you never know when a company is going to get bought out and make changes that their current customer base doesn’t like.

Because you don’t really own the space, you also have limitations on what you can change or customize. Kind of like when you rent an apartment– it’s not like you can just knock out a wall to make an open floor plan! On these web builders, the actual code is gated, protected, and you’re very limited in what you can change.

Like I said, I’m going to be transparent– limited customization has a major upside. It means you’re not going to be able to break your site! That’s not true for WordPress– it’s pretty easy to break your WordPress site if you start making changes without knowing what you’re doing. With great power comes great responsibility.

This relates to the scenario where you have absolutely no time to maintain your site and you don’t want to hire that task out– so if you don’t care about the lasting SEO value of your site and you want zero-maintenance, then you score 2/3 on “good fit for an all-in-one.”

3. Not free to shop around

I’ve been referring to web builders as “all-in-one” platforms. This is because normally, you need 3 things to get your website up and running:

  1. Domain name, i.e. example.com
  2. Web hosting– where your website files live
  3. The website itself, all the files and content that make up your site, its database, etc.

So you may go to someplace like Namecheap to buy your domain name (that’s where I buy all mine), you may go to something like Nearly Free Speech for very inexpensive but reliable web hosting, and someplace else entirely to get your site built. You are free to shop around for the best value and buying experience for all three. And if you ever want to move away from one of them, you’re free to do so without losing anything. Your domain name can be transferred; your website can be moved.

But with an all in one, your website is locked to your web host. You can’t shop around for the best equipment, the best value, the best hosting experience, or the best support. You can’t have a Squarespace website that’s not hosted on their servers (or Wix, or Shopify, etc). So if you want to shop around for a different web host, you will have to recreate your site from scratch.

4. Fewer professionals to hire

There is a much shallower pool of web professionals who can help you with your site, if you want to pay someone to design it for you.

This is kind of unsurprising, because it’s a section of the market that’s aimed at do-it-yourselfers. So it’s friendly and welcoming to those who are new to the web, but straight-jacket limiting to professional developers.

As a result, those who hang up their shingle to help you with your Squarespace, Wix, Shopify site (can I just start saying “squar-wix-ify”? “wi-space-ify”?) tend to be more visual and brand designers, and less technical. Unfortunately that means they may not know more than you do about the SEO pitfalls we discussed earlier.

Can the same be true of WordPress pros? Yes, absolutely– there’s a huge variety of skill levels everywhere in the field of web design, so there’s lots of non-technical or inexperienced WordPress designers. But you have two very important freedoms in the world of WordPress:

  • You can’t swing a cat without hitting a WordPress developer. It powers over a third of the web, it’s hugely popular, it’s free to use however you want, so there are so many competent individuals you can hire to help you.
  • And you even have the freedom to learn to do it yourself. There is a huge, thriving, friendly community of folks who are ready to help for free because that’s the point of open source software.

That makes me feel good about the sites that I build for customers, because I know that even though most of my clients want me to continue maintaining and improving their websites for them, they’re not locked in. If anything ever happened to me or they wanted to work with someone else, they have many options and will continue to benefit from their investment.

Also, for whatever reason, the low end of their pricing spectrum tends to be much more expensive than the low end of the WordPress pricing spectrum.

Speaking of price…

5. Nickel and dimed for every add-on

This is a major one. I see business owners all the time who see the pitch for the web builder at a fixed price per month and it can look like a screamin’ deal. But then you realize that there’s basic stuff you need that doesn’t come with that basic monthly price. Maybe a marketing tool, an SEO add-on, some eCommerce add-on, and every single one has a monthly subscription attached. Sometimes a BIG price tag.

Don’t get me wrong– WordPress has ongoing costs to factor in, too. Every business is different, especially when it comes to eCommerce, so you’re always going to run into some custom functionality that you want to add on and it’s not always going to be free, especially if it’s quality.

But WordPress also has a lot of competition for plugins that these web builders don’t have because they’re “walled gardens” where only approved vendors can contribute software.

As a result, once you add it all up, even if you only went with the most expensive, high-quality WordPress plugins available for every custom feature, a WordPress website is almost always going to be less expensive on an ongoing basis than the same site built in an all-in-one web builder– for instance, Shopify.

Speaking of shopify, here’s some bonus words-to-the-wise especially for my eCommerce friends…

6. Limitations on how you run your eCommerce store

Lastly, there’s a lot of hidden restrictions that may rule out web builders for your eCommerce, if that’s your game.

For instance, Shopify limits the countries to which you may sell, the number of different products you may sell, the type of products that you sell, and how many variations of products you may have (a variation is a specific combination of product attributes, like size/color/type: large red t-shirt, medium blue t-shirt, for example).

Taking the long view, as well, there’s business drawbacks to using an all-in-one platform: if you want to sell your business, and the new owner wants to run the shop in a way that isn’t possible because of terms and conditions, cost, or coding limitations, then it’s hard to view your site as an asset. It will need to be rebuilt.

Bottom line: if you’re confident in your design skills, and you don’t need your website to rank high in search engine results, and you’re looking for a web solution that you can put together and never touch again, a web builder may be a good fit for you.

But if you’re a non-designer, and it’s important to you to be found on the web, and you’re looking for the best value in the long run– a WordPress site may be an investment that will pay dividends.