There are many different ways to go about building a website. If you’ve run a business for any amount of time, odds are you’ve spent hours sifting through a seemingly endless sea of providers. Each comes with its own pros, cons, and varying opinions, making it difficult to keep them straight without spending even more hours on a spreadsheet.
As a result, you’re probably going to walk into a few pitfalls you would have avoided under simpler circumstances. If you don’t work with websites for a living, you simply aren’t going to have the full picture of what to watch out for – especially when you don’t consult with an expert during your research.
Fortunately, you don’t have to make this critical decision on your own if you hire a competent developer. We stress the term “competent” because there are also a lot of “experts” that are anything but. The need for informed, honest professionals online is actually part of the reason we founded Midwest Websites and started developing websites in the first place!
We also recognize that hiring a professional may not be the way you prefer to do things. You might be among the many who like to be directly involved with as many aspects of your business as possible, and are willing to do what it takes to make that happen. While we respect and admire this mindset in many cases, you are strongly encouraged to read this post in full before applying it to the world of website development.
It’s no secret that we stand behind WordPress as the solution you should be using for any business or organization’s website. From its design flexibility to its full suite of SEO perks, WordPress has no true competitor among its many alternatives. Despite its merits, WordPress isn’t the first pick for a surprising percentage of businesses. Some find its menus too cumbersome, others feel that the price of hosting plans is too expensive, and a few simply feel that any environment is sufficient for their website.
Whatever the motivation, these people find themselves drawn to the wide array of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) alternatives on the market, and start using them as the foundation of their online presences instead. Between their low prices, promises of being up and running quickly, and appealing template-driven interfaces, most give off an enticing first impression.
So do the burgers in fast food commercials. Don’t get us wrong, we understand the temptation that free or low cost options bring to the table. Who doesn’t love getting something for nothing? When you start to look at what’s actually in them though, the old saying “you get what you pay for” couldn’t be more true. WYSIWYGs are as bad for your online health as fast food is for your own and will usually cost you thousands of dollars in potential revenue each year to boot.
That’s why we’re going into detail about some of the common problems of free WYSIWYG providers like Wix and Weebly today, as well as some of the more popular paid template platforms like Squarespace and BigCommerce. They are:
- Limited design control
- Inability to access your hosting platform
- Lack of content ownership
- Unfriendly SEO design
- Restricted integration with third party tools
These are also the areas that are scrutinized for our published and future platform reviews, so you’ll also get an idea of what we look for when comparing each environment to the gold standard of WordPress. It is important to note that not all of these shortcomings will apply to every platform, and we encourage you to look at individual reviews for each environment’s specific pros and cons.
Our areas of focus for each flaw are:
- Defining what these issues are
- The immediate consequences they’ll have
- Any long-term issues you’ll face after finishing your website
Design limitations restrict your ability to adapt and grow
A template looks like a great idea when you’re getting ready to design your website. Each one draws you a clear picture of the finished result, complete with built in walls that keep you from coloring outside the lines and accidentally marring your beautiful work. Everything you’re allowed to use is in one box, and you only need to worry about completing a checklist of tasks until your website is complete.
Unfortunately, this will create short-term and long-term problems that aren’t apparent at first glance.
The short-term problems might seem small at first. Perhaps you’ve got 3 great pictures to automatically cycle and show off on your home page, but your template doesn’t allow for a photo slider. Maybe you’ve got 6 pages you absolutely must have, but find out you have a maximum of 5 your template allows. An advertisement might stand out favorably across the top of your pages, but your template’s block system won’t let you place it where you envision it.
WYSIWYGs are specifically designed with very rigid guidelines under the pretense of being user-friendly. Once you start working under their rules, there’s no negotiating with them. The walls that looked so comfortable a moment ago will begin to close in under the guise of preventing mistakes. Without mistakes, you won’t be able to explore and learn different methods for achieving your design goals.
By the time you finish rationalizing all the compromises you made during the design process, you’ll find little more than a cookie-cutter website that is the very definition of mediocrity. If I asked most businesses if that’s what they wanted to be known for, they’d tell me off for even suggesting the idea to them.
Despite this, many companies voluntarily elect for mediocrity in their websites and their image in turn. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Your long-term problems will be, if anything, worse than the short term issues. As you’re probably aware, the Internet is constantly evolving. A modern website is going to look very different from the HTML sites you would have found on Geocities 20 years ago. If your WYSIWYG provider does not evolve by creating templates that keep up with the times, your site will become antiquated very quickly.
The last impression you want to give a prospective client is that your website has been neglected or abandoned to time. Trust us when we say this train of thought suggests a lot about your business and its services, and none of the implications are good. Updating pages and utilizing unused features will forestall this for a time, but there’s only so much you can do when faced with limitations at every turn – especially if these limitations also fail to account for a new business or website need as they grow.
If being completely dependent on your website provider wasn’t bad enough, let’s say they do keep up with the times and you elect to try a new template. Did you know most WYSIWYG companies give you no feasible way to transition content between templates? You’ll end up starting from scratch, being forced to completely build the site again or, if you’re lucky, paying the company to do it for you!
Perhaps you’ll get fed up at this point and choose to change providers. Problem is, what little SEO ranking you have will be damaged after the change because Google won’t know your new website’s layout and page structure. You’ll barely receive any reward for having a previously established website, and you’ll spend months or years reclaiming what you had.
WordPress has been around for 15 years, has global support, and can flexibly adjust content and features between most themes. Compared to WYSIWYG alternatives, you’ll save time, headaches, and money by using it from the start.
If you can’t access your hosting, you are at the mercy of your provider’s settings
On the one hand, this can be quite a strength. Hackers, bots, and malicious scripts all try to exploit vulnerabilities in your website’s code, SSH logins, FTP logins, and/or server configurations when trying to break into websites. If you’re locked out of these settings, they will also be locked away from the foundation that keeps your website standing.
On the other hand, this also means that if your online needs change, you need options to work around a coding restriction, or want to monitor much of anything beyond Google Analytics, you simply cannot. Even professional developers will be hindered by these typical WYSIWYG restrictions, leaving you with a difficult pair of options.
Do you move forward without the adjustments you want or do you start over in a more flexible environment?
By selecting the first option, you’re choosing to keep your website trapped on Alcatraz. It’ll be secure, but not free because expanding your site’s capabilities could create issues for other websites occupying the same server space. You usually won’t even be able to back up a full copy to your local computer. Because everyone on a WYSIWYG server remains bound by these restricted standards, your website has no ability to excel or outshine your competition while it is stuck there.
If you elect to start over, you’ll be investing a second allocation of time and money in the design steps that should have been taken during your website’s initial creation. While better late than never, part of the reason we created this post was to help you make an informed first decision. Spending extra resources when you don’t have to is wasteful, and will only lead to ruin if it becomes a habit.
Your work should be yours, but is often considered fair game or held hostage
This is one of the uglier elements of some free and template-driven providers, and there are many different ways it can come back to bite you.
In a best-case scenario, most WYSIWYG website templates are proprietary to the environment they were built for, meaning you can’t take a Wix website and set it up on one of our hosting plans. This is perfectly understandable, as these templates were never intended for use on other environments, and it is well within the rights of WYSIWYG companies to protect their intellectual property.
This will be inconvenient for you if and when you decide to change website companies, but you’ll at least be able to copy over your page text and pictures for the recreation of your website. That being said, did you know most companies also exercise this right for any content you set up on their servers?
That’s pretty gross, especially when you consider how hypocritical those clauses look when these same companies go to such lengths to protect their own content. Frankly, it’s intellectual theft. Worse still, if you’re a developer and are working with one of the very few WYSIWYGs that give you broader coding access, these clauses apply to your code too. While clauses like this usually claim your content is still owned by you as well, that rings very hollowly when you consider the legalese as a whole.
As bad as this all is, it can still be worse. Some scenarios with template providers, web companies, or less scrupulous independent developers can result in anything from your copy to your domain being held hostage. Since they hold all of the control, there isn’t much you can do about this when it comes up unless you get a legal specialist involved.
While this is a disgusting and despicable practice, many companies actively write this into their contracts because they assume people won’t know any better, and it gives them leverage should you start to think about leaving them. The worst part is more often than not, they’re right. Always take time to double check terms, conditions, and contracts and read the fine print. Doing so may save your online presence in the future.
We’ve seen shady situations like these blindside customers more times than we can count, and it’s heartbreaking every single time it happens. This is why we always tell our clients that they own the content in a website when we finish building it for them. Nobody should have to fight for what is rightfully theirs.
A lack of SEO features is one thing, actively harmful ones are another
There are 9 SEO features every WYSIWYG should have without exception. They are (in no particular order):
- Alt tags
- Clean, legible code
- Custom domain options
- Custom page URLs
- Header tags
- Meta titles (and corresponding descriptions)
- Redirect capability
- Responsive design
- SSL support
Every one of these that is unavailable will result in a strike against your SEO at some point during your quest to climb Google’s ranks. Unfortunately, excluding a handful of these key SEO features is standard fare for most WYSIWYGs because they are “too complicated” for the average person to understand. These deficiencies are then spun into marketing how easy it is to build a website.
Without the knowledge of a web developer and armed with nothing but the promise that “you too can build an amazing website if you simply work with us,” you won’t ever know that these features are missing, let alone that they’re important. That’s completely unacceptable for another reason beyond the obvious, so we’re going to use an example to illustrate our point.
While designing your site, let’s say you want an “About Us” page on your website, and would like to customize your page URL to be myawesomewebsite.com/about-us, which is an SEO-friendly setup for a page address. After creating your new page, you notice that your free website software has generated an address that looks like myawesomewebsite.com/about1576 or myawesomewebsite.com/about/%204a5dx with no way to change it.
“That’s odd,” you say to yourself. “If a web company knows this is a bad SEO practice, why would they design their software this way?”
There are two possible answers to this question. They’re either telling you “we don’t know how SEO works” or “we don’t care how SEO works – just give us your time and money.” Ignorance and malevolent stupidity that are this brazen usually lead to further problems and heavier consequences you’ll have to bear, leaving you with a finished website somewhere between “difficult for a search engine to understand” and “an environment that simply can’t be read at all”.
While the latter seems impossible, remember that Google tries to read websites as you would by using the code on a given page. If your template uses something like an iframe incorrectly, which displays content from another page or place on the web like an image, Google simply can’t read it because it isn’t written as text in your page’s code. As a result, you’ll be tossed to the bottom of the barrel for SEO.
Restricting third party tools restricts what your website is able to do for you
Creating a website is a lot like buying a house. There will be a list of needs and wants to include during your selection process, and any company that is unable to provide a need should be taken out of the running for your business. You’ll also want to make sure your needs are easily accessible and properly implemented, otherwise you’ll be left with a lengthy to-do list after making your selection.
This is because most business owners are not developers with time to babysit their website. They’re experienced professionals in their own field. Monitoring traffic analytics, updating content, synchronizing your inventory with other storefronts, and maintaining social media feeds all take time that isn’t often available in the hectic schedule of daily operations. You’re going to want all these tasks to be managed automatically or by someone capable so you can focus on turning your industry expertise into business success.
WordPress can make all of this and more possible because it is designed to integrate with tens of thousands of different tools developed by third parties. You’ll find creations from freelancers, established web development companies, industry professionals, and even Google. Content creators and web developers instantly know what WordPress is, and any who are worth their salt won’t need more than a few minutes on your site before they can dive in and start working.
WYSIWYG providers say they comprehend your needs, but if they truly did, they wouldn’t come up as short as they do in most of their market. While good providers will have widgets or coding options to integrate with big companies like Amazon, eBay, Google, Facebook, or Twitter, and even better systems will go the extra mile to provide industry-specific tools like MLS integration, at the end of the day you’re still limited by the effort and tools your WYSIWYG company puts in.
Most of the time, you’ll be lucky to get a small sample of these features from a WYSIWYG in 2018. And they wonder why WordPress runs 30% of the Internet.
Put simply, a properly designed website should always be in the running for employee of the month. They advertise what you offer, tell prospects how to become customers, keep you updated on how many people they’ve talked to, and are willing to change your message when you need them to. They work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, don’t ask for overtime, and can raise their voice among the crowds online if you invest in their ability to do so.
All you have to do is give them the freedom to do these things for you. Templates aren’t freedom – they’re a strict set of rules that will get in your way. While they can serve as a starting point under limited budgets, you should ALWAYS invest in a developer as soon as you are able. Hire one who will capably build your business website the way you want in a platform like WordPress. That way, you’ll have a great website to show customers without sacrificing options for expansion as you grow.
Hiring a developer is expensive – I don’t want to spend that kind of money
This is a common concern, and a fair one for companies that are just getting started. You typically have the funds to take one shot at designing a website up front, and the minimal risk to your wallet can be appealing when building a site yourself or using a free hosting platform.
In order for your business to succeed long-term, you must harness your website’s full potential. That simply isn’t possible for most free options or WYSIWYGs.
To put it another way, imagine a customer with none of your industry experience or knowledge trying to perform a technical task. That’s ultimately what you’re doing when you build your first website or blindly try to rank on page 1 of Google. You can learn the necessary skills over time, but you’ll receive faster, better results by entrusting your website’s management to an expert instead.
Braden is one of the founders of Midwest Websites, and has been professionally writing and developing websites for over 7 years. His blog posts often take an experience from his life and showcase lessons from it to help you maximize online presence for your business.