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The Great Website Builder Smackdown

One of the most frequent questions I get from users, friends, and people I meet on the street is: what should I use to build myself a website?

Now, obviously my first choice for all website creation is to code it yourself. That way you get exactly the site you want, plus some super marketable tech skills to boot.

But I realize that learning to code may not be right for everyone, or may not be a step that you are ready to take.

So I figured I should educate myself on all the website building services out there so that I could stop shrugging my shoulders and be able to answer definitively: if you aren’t going to code your own site, then definitely use….

In the Great Website Smackdown 2013, I have pitted three popular website building services, Wix, Strikingly, and Squarespace, against one another and only ONE service can reign supreme.

The Challenge

To get a sense of what building a website is like in these services, I offered to build a website for my good friend Sara, a videographer who is looking to re-start her freelance video making career.

Sara’s goal was relatively simple (or so it seemed): she wanted a clean, organized site, where she could showcase her videography work. No frills necessary, just a place where she could publish her latest work and allow potential clients to contact her.

My challenge was to take an hour on each site and see how far I could get in the process of building her website.

What I learned

An hour isn’t nearly enough time to do anything, especially when you first have to learn a new web application’s UI. And let me tell you that none of these website builders were simple to use.

In the end, I ended up scrapping one option, getting about 75% done with a website on a second option, and only getting about 25% of the way done with the third.

Without further adieu, here is my review of each one of the website builders:

wix

Wix

Wix is a website building web application founded in 2006 and headquartered in Tel Aviv. According to Alexa, it ranks #252 of all website in the world, making it arguably the most popular website building web application on the market and the most popular one in this smackdown.

Wix had an uphill battle to climb with me after I saw it’s very ugly homepage and weird stock photo users.

Also, there is always something suspicious about marketing phrases like “advanced technology.”

Nonetheless, I forged ahead.

Unfortunately, the template designs were no better than the homepage design. They had that kind of early web look to them, like, iWeb circa 2006. Terrible. Second, Wix had the slowest sign up process and asked me to do weird things like define my type of business before I understood why I should be doing that (to add insult to injury there was no “video” option).

I had a moment of hope when I landed in the editor view and was presented with a list of color palettes to choose from with funny names like “I’m a bumble bee” and “Corporate Blues.” I opted for “Let’s hear it for the boys.”

Unfortunately, the romance was short lived and soon I was navigating through a maze of what I now understand to be a whole pile of wonky JavaScript effects that Wix presumably uses to impress users, but that I found super confusing.

It was somewhere around the time that I had three levels of popup menus open at once that I gave up on Wix.

4levels

NOT GONNA PLAY THIS GAME

Rating:
On a scale from ZOMG AMAZING to I want to poke my eyes out, I give Wix a Cringe. Those poor 40 million people using Wix. There is a better way!

And if any of you know how to embed videos on Wix, give a holler. I still don’t know.

strinkingly

Strikingly

Founded in 2012 and ranked by Alexa at 15,775, Strikingly is definitely the up and comer in this smackdown.

What I found immediately appealing about Strikingly was their focus on mobile web design. At anytime while you are editing you can switch from the desktop to tablet or mobile view!

Strikingly’s biggest asset is also it’s biggest weakness. What they do well is a few very specific things. Meaning, they have a small handful of templates each designed for a very specific use case.

If what you need happens to map perfectly to one of their existing templates, than Strikingly is your ideal option.

I can say that I got the farthest with Strikingly in an hour.

But, the problem was that there was very little flexibility. I could either do things exactly as Strikingly wanted me to do them, or not at all.

One key example was that in most instances I did not have the choice between video or image, and had to use an image, or nothing.

Rating:
On a scale from ZOMG AMAZING to I want to poke my eyes out, I give Strikingly a tentative thumbs up. Their site is quick, and the easiest to use, but it seriously lacks in flexibility and there is no WOW factor.

squarespacewinner

Squarespace

I am just going to give up the goat here and now: Squarespace was the unilateral smackdown winner.

And interestingly, founded in 2003, Squarespace is also the oldest company competing. Their Alexa ranking is 1,001, which is pretty darn good.

Squarespace just does a ton of things right: their sign up flow is awesome, they provide you with a ton of flexibility, and amazing galleries of example projects. Their editor is structured in a way that makes total sense (at least to a website builder like myself), and its really easy to discover lots of really fantastic bells & whistles like analytics tracking.

And as if I weren’t already smitten, I went to upload a video and Squarespace took a screengrab of it automagically so that the website wouldn’t get slowed down loading the whole video until the user clicked on it.

WOW.

That said, Squarespace wasn’t simple. I loved the user experience, but in an hour I only got about 30% of the way towards finishing Sara’s site.

Rating:
On a scale from ZOMG AMAZING to I want to poke my eyes out, I give Squarespace a resounding: Hurrah! Look, it’s no coding your own site, but at least it’s flexible and makes sense. Plus, video screengrabs!!!

Concluding thoughts

This is where I would like to sell you on coding your own website instead of using a website builder, but I will save you the lecture.

What I learned in this process was that no matter how you cut it, there is no “easy” or “quick” way to build a website.

Yes, Wix, Strinkingly, and Squarespace make it possible to build a website without knowing how to code, but I am not convinced that that is a simpler way to do things.

In fact, I think it may be the harder way. Or at least, the less straightforward way.

What this process really got me thinking about was user experience. User experience design is soo f*%&ing hard. I know I gave Wix a hard time for that multi-level-pop-up disaster, but look, I get it. Web applications are always changing, always getting more complex, always needing to respond to new and changing user needs, and it becomes really really difficult to keep things elegant, and streamlined.

But the problem is that as a user who isn’t coding a site from scratch, you are trying to make sense of this already built THING with no visibility into its structure and inner workings.

squarespace
I think if for no other reason, Squarespace won because they put a sitemap front and center, which at very least, gave you an immediate sense of what you were dealing it.

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15 comments

  1. markbrooks Replied

    I tried Squarespace in the past, and ended up opting for Weebly. Its $79 for two years for a basic site, and its just sooo simple. I had a hard time getting motivated to use Squarespace. Its more advanced, for sure, but I prize simplicity. And the price of Weebly was amazing for what they offer. Can’t really beat it IMHO.

    • Oliver Replied

      Weebly isn’t simple at all. At least for me compared to Squarespace…

  2. Aakriti Replied

    How do you weigh in on Weebly? I find its way more flexible than Strikingly. Completely agree with the constriction on Strikingly.. Their way or the high way: No Fun!!

  3. Hey there. To embed videos on Wix, or any external widgets for that matter, you have to use their embed application.

    Wix Widget Integration: https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=393228057497348.

    For the other two platforms you mentioned is much easier to integrate external widgets, they having this feature implemented in the core of their products.

    SquareSpace Widget Integration: https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=393229350830552

    Strikingly also has the possibility to integrate external widgets and video players, but for that you need a premium account (which is a bad decision from their part, if you ask me).

  4. Will Jenkins Replied

    If there were one skill I wish I had it would be website building. I feel like I don’t know a thing about website building. Most people can pick it up pretty fast though.

    http://www.dr-leonardo.com

  5. Robert Replied

    Stumble upon this article as I was thinking of using Strikingly. Just wanted to say I like your writing style and humour and the fact you saved me a few hours of research. I also agree that Wix is about as useful as a cock flavoured lollipop! I’ve put my hat on just to take it off to you, thanks for the insights and the chuckles.

  6. D'nelle Dowis Replied

    I’m happy to hear that SquareSpace is worth using if you’re going to advise someone who’s bent on DIY without being open to learning code… because I get that kind of question all the time. People who don’t want to pay for something but want it done fast and want it customized. I recently had a client say “Can’t I just get a piece of software to do this for me without looking at code?” I cringed and tried to explain why not.

    @disqus_NFZ6ak1vry:disqus I have said the exact same things! That’s why I love WordPress… scaleability and ownership.

    @008f9f7fa8c671e0813d6cf3d59513a6:disqus I’ve gotten to the point where I basically refute anyone who says the word “free”… and I *may* be getting a bit bristly when I do… /understatement

    NONE of it is free. It involves someone’s time and skill (be that actual, honed skill or simply a sharp intuition for quickly learning new platforms)… and perpetuating the idea that that’s free is harmful to us all. I’m sure you’ve had similar thoughts as you’ve been working on your project (lord knows I have… I’ve done work for family without charging, traded my services for someone elses, and under-reported hours to keep things within budget, and it’s stressful). This reminded me of a post that Chris Lema wrote a few weeks ago – http://chrislema.com/unintended-consequences-of-freemium/ – where he said “the unintended consequences of freemium is that we’ve all been conditioned to devalue the real and serious labors of someone else.”

    When discussion of tools like Wix or Squarespace come up, I try to steer the conversation in the direction of the time it takes to use the tool so that the siren song of “free” is quickly squashed.

  7. Sharon Thompson Replied

    weebly.com is another option that’s free and easier to use than WordPress requires no coding. Also it’s possible to use wordpress.com to make a free site and just buy a domain.

  8. Kristin Replied

    It’s hard to build something for free. A friend of mine is starting a small-scale organic farm, and I’m trying to build her website for free. She has no money, and I’m not charging for my services. I’m building it on WIX right now – it’s not ideal – but it’s free.

  9. MK Replied

    Squarespace is the builder I chose after getting super frustrated with a WordPress based site that had been built for me. I didn’t know enough about coding to do much on my own, I had to keep hiring people to do things for me, and then when the site went down in flames, I walked away. Squarespace works fine for what I need, while I learn to code so that I can at least do some customization!

  10. Amanda Replied

    I love this. I get this question ALL THE TIME, and I want to say, “Just hire me and my dev friend!” but usually they don’t have the money for a custom site. And I’ll admit, most people don’t need something custom. So when they ask me about what I would recommend I usually suggest Cargo Collective or Squarespace. I know some people who love Virb, but I’m not very familiar with it. There’s also Shopify for an ecommerce solution.

    One more point I would make for the custom/do-it-yourself route would be how it allows your site to scale and evolve over time. No one is going to argue that personal website are just a fad. They’re here to stay, and I expect everyone will have one at some point soon. So, do you want all your info, files, etc. on someone else’s platform that they own? That you have to pay to access? What if your business is growing so much, you need to transition to a larger back-end system? Well, if you’re using one of these template solutions, good luck. You’re going to have to hire people to move all your content, etc. and will probably loose some of your analytics, SEO, etc. that you’ve worked so hard to build.

    When it comes down to it, anything worth doing, is worth doing right.

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