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How should you build your first website?

Should you use a service like Wix or Squarespace for your new website?

Every day, web design and publishing becomes accessible to a wider group of people.

Individuals and small businesses can create any website they can imagine with no technical skills by using services such as Wix and SquareSpace.

Anyone can easily set up an account, pick a domain, layout a website, plug in extra features, upload images and enter text all from one login. What’s not to love? Why would you ever need to hire someone to build and maintain a website when you can do it all yourself for less than £100 per year?

It is easy to make a website, but will it be any good?

Well, there are a bunch of reasons professional web developers, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) specialists and digital marketers still exist and thrive in a world with web-based website building services.

Depending on your objectives, these sites might deliver everything you want. If you need a website to display all the information your guests will need for your upcoming wedding, then they’re a great solution. For most other scenarios these sites are not going to perform as well as a professionally designed site.

It’s easy to create a website on Wix and SquareSpace but it’s also very easy to make your site unpleasant for users.

The current main drawbacks of using full package web-based website builders:

1.      It will probably be slow to load

Have you ever clicked on a link and had to wait for what felt like forever to load a website? It’s annoying and often you will just give up waiting.

When you click a link or type a url, you send a request to a service that fetches the files needed to display the website on your computer. If the files are large and the server the files are stored on is slow, the website will take a long time to load.

The What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) type editors that allow users to visually lay out websites without writing code are enabled by ready-made libraries of code. For example, one of the most popular libraries of code is called Bootstrap. Bootstrap is a package of code that includes CSS (the code that tells the browser what the site should look like) and JavaScript (the code that enables interactive features). It allows you to easily add features to your website by using packages of code already written by other people. The web-based website builders are often designed to use these libraries.

The final website built using libraries like Bootstrap will be slow because you are sending large CSS and JavaScript files to a user’s browser. There are techniques a web developer can use to mitigate against this if they decide to use bootstrap packages, but a web app probably can’t do anything about it.

You may have designed a simple, beautiful and minimal website but if you’re using pre-made features, then you are sending a file containing many unused lines of code that the browser still must process.

If you then add additional plugins such as an enquiry form, social media displays and other fancy little applications, this all adds to the amount of code that must be sent to your computer and then interpreted by your browser, slowing the process down.

You are also sharing the server that your website is stored on with many other customers. This means the server is not just looking after your website. It is processing requests for many websites. The providers can even limit the amount of data it will process for your site depending on how much you pay them for hosting it.

2.      The overall user experience can be bad

As a novice website builder, you might get excited about all the features you can now add to your new site, but you probably haven’t thought about all the performance implications. You might want to plug in lots of web apps. You might want to load lots of beautiful images on one page at the same time. All this data is going to make it difficult for users trying to use your site. Web designers consider all sorts of things from the layout of information, the amount of information on a page, navigation menus, placement of links and buttons and many more factors. They will also draw from their experience of monitoring and testing their designs and gather advice form experts in the industry.

Web developers can customise and optimise the code so that it only contains what is needed. They can leverage features built into browsers and limit the amount of back and forth communication with the server, all to optimise the performance of a website or web app.

Hidden away in their tips and advice pages, the web-based website builder sites tell customers about limiting certain plugin tools and features for a faster site. However, customers may be drawn to the service because they want to easily plug in a feature for ecommerce, social media or something else they rely on for their business. The creator might find it off putting if they faced all the considerations and restrictions that a web developer would have in mind when creating an efficient website.

3.      Your rankings on Search Engines will be disappointing

These web-based services offer you the ability to add all the tags, data, titles, etc you need to create an indexable page but that doesn’t mean anyone is searching for the topic the page explains. It also doesn’t guarantee search engines are going to reward what is there with a high-ranking position. SEO experts can research what people are searching for and how best to answer those searches. They can also benchmark the competition for search results and put together tactics to beat them.

These drawbacks may not always be the case in the future

The website building services do work on things to improve the performance of the sites they produce. About a year ago, I ran an audit on a Wix site. One thing that impressed me was that the images are all automatically optimised for the size the user has specified. Wix converts the high-resolution JPG images their customers input into optimised WEBP files. One task that a web developer or digital marketer would do (optimising the files size and dimensions for all the images on a site) is redundant for a Wix site.

The overall site speed was still not great. The ‘time to first meaningful paint’ (time it takes to display the basic content) was over three seconds and it took a long time until the site was fully loaded and interactive. The creator did not have a complex site. (They only had one non-standard web font and no iframes on the pages I tested.) The main issue that slowed things down was the time it took to execute all the complex JavaScript.

The current standard test for a website’s page load speed is to simulate its performance on a 3G connection. When 5G is commonplace, 4G could be the next standard test. When sites built on these web-based services become faster and most people have 5G connections, the page load speed could become less of an issue. The tipping point could be when any standard website built on a web-based website provider like Wix or SquareSpace is easily fast enough to load quickly on a mobile device.

There are lots of things these services could do to improve their offering to catch up with professionally designed websites. They could develop smarter website builders that allow a user to design whatever they want but only serve the minimum amount of code to browsers. They could develop design apps that use AI and machine learning to help customers create a good user experience and optimise for search engines. They can continue to invest in and upgrade their servers and Content Delivery Networks, so customers never have to worry about how to host their website.

This may all happen but by the time it has, we could have all moved on to different ways of finding out information on the internet. While these websites catch up, your competition will have optimised for voice searches, augmented reality, virtual reality and who knows what else. Adaptability is going to be key to stay on top of digital marketing trends.

Currently if you want a high-performance website then you need a bespoke or professionally tailored front end, an SEO strategy and a good hosting package. Depending on what you want to achieve, you don’t need to spend millions when you’re starting out, but you probably do need to spend more than £100. Digital marketing is an investment. Of course, it is possible to waste or lose money investing in the wrong things but if you don’t invest and you go cheap, you will get what you pay for.

Until we get to the point where we can download all of humanity’s knowledge into our brains and connect to any human we want telepathically, you’re still going to need web development, design and marketing expertise to help you get ahead.