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….
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 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.”
It was somewhere around the time that I had three levels of popup menus open at once that I gave up on Wix.
NOT GONNA PLAY THIS GAME
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!!
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.
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.