Above: Dream it. Make it. Make a website worthy of your dreams. A campaign recently launched by Squarespace.

The Conundrum At Hand

You’ve just started your own business and you need a place people can find it and engage with it on the web.

Do you make use of a site builder to create it yourself? Or do you hire the professionals, a Web Studio, to build it for you?

It’s a good question. We get asked it a lot. The answer is: well, it depends. 

We thought we’d write this article to walk you through the decision depending on your circumstances. We’ll start with the basics, then talk about the key considerations that will influence your decision and then conclude with some take aways.

Site Builders

Squarespace, Wix, Godaddy, Shopify, Weebly are all household names for online tools that you can use to build your own website, also referred to as ‘Site Builders’.

Traditionally, websites are typically composed of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), CSS (Cascading Stylesheets) and JavaScript code written by a developer. Learning to write code in some ways is like learning to speak a language, it requires a significant investment of time and effort in order to develop proficiency, which makes the process of making a website from scratch, by themselves, challenging and infeasible for most people.

Site Builders allow users of any technical ability to build websites by providing a collection of pre-built website templates that can be selected and customised through a “drag-and-drop” interface. In this way, Site Builders make the process of building a website accessible to anyone, regardless of their experience working with a computer.

The “drag-and-drop” interface, commonly employed by Site Builders.

The Web Studio

A Web Studio is a team of people who’s professional occupation is designing and building things that live on the web: websites, blogs, apps, e-commerce stores.

At its core, a studio consists of: 

  • Web Designers who design how the interfaces will appear and behave when the user interacts with it.
  • Web Developers who will use the design to build the interface and functionality required to make it work, and make it accessible on the web.

People will come to a web studio with requirements for a web project they want built, and the studio will build it on their behalf. Where site builders will make use of pre-built template, a Studio will most often create the web project from scratch, writing their own code and cherry picking the best technology for the project.

Choosing Between a Site Builder and a Studio

When advising clients on whether they should opt for building their sites through a Site Builder or a Studio, for us it comes down to 1) the functionality required from the website / app 2) the budget, both in terms of cost and time, and 3) the expected quality of the final product. 

Functionality

Most businesses use their website as a means of finding leads and providing information to their customers. These are websites that function much like a brochure. The site might be composed of:

  • A page describing the services offered by a business
  • A page about the business, describing it’s mission, vision and team members
  • A page containing all the information how to get into contact with the business.
  • A blog sharing articles and news related to the business.
  • Possibly, e-commerce functionality allowing users to purchase a range of products.

Most site builders allow users to integrate the above functionality, as they specialise in providing the functionality businesses commonly need and can be easily reused. We can think of site builders as the cookie cutter of the web development world.

This is of course in contrast to the Web Studio, who designs and builds your web project from scratch. The functionality of your website is not confined to prebuilt elements or what is commonly required by other businesses - any functionality you envision (within the expertise of the designer and developer) can be designed and created.

This unique functionality might be from the perspective of aesthetic or behaviour. An example of this Pharrell Williams’ website.

Pharrell’s website. A mosaic of user created tiles.

Unconventionally, Pharrell’s site spans for an indefinite width and height, user’s can scroll for what seems like forever horizontally and vertically. Instead of curated content, the site is composed of user generated content, ‘fan cards’ where user’s can select their favourite Pharrell project. As a result, the fan cards are tiled across the home page to create an incredible mosaic.

Budget

The expense and time it takes to build through a studio will be greater. This is because your project will have to be scheduled, and then taken through creative processes and implementation phases:

  1. A brand and aesthetic direction and style for your business will have to be defined (if it hasn’t already)
  2. The structure of the website will have to be laid out in blueprints (sitemaps and wireframes).
  3. Then, how the website will appear and behave will be visualised in a high fidelity design
  4. And then finally, it is developed into a working product.

At a minimum this process takes between two to four weeks (60 to 120 hours), in which you are hiring and paying for the services of web designer and developer.

On the flip side, with a Site Builder, the template in which you start building your project from is a functioning website. The time it takes for it to go live on the World Wide Web is entirely dependant on the amount of customisation you want to make to the original, It would be entirely possible for your website to be ready to go within a day.

The cost for using a Site Builder platform and hosting your website through them starts at around ~$25 each month.

The contrast between your budget for a web project through a Site Builder versus a Web Studio can be likened to the comparison between renting and buying a home:

  • When use a Site Builder you can immediately move in, and you only pay in small incremental fees, but you don’t own the source code of the site and you’re limited to what you can change.
  • When you build a site through a Studio, it takes time to build and there is a significant initial investment, however afterward you completely own it and it has been created exactly how you want it.

Quality

An immediate quality difference between a site built by Site Builder and a Web Studio is the design. Site Builders offer a range of templates, often with quite impressive designs, however this template has to be groomed and moulded in order to be aligned to your business’ brand aesthetic. Employing a Studio means that through collaboration with a professional designer, you can create a design to exactly reflect how your business and brand should be represented on the web. The design is created from scratch, as opposed to being adapted.

The Timetable and Contact pages our studio designed for Look Happy, a local CrossFit gym.
The Timetable and Contact pages for another local CrossFit gym, built in a Site Builder.

Additionally, Web Studios stay on the cutting edge of technology, ensuring that your site is as performant as possible, whether it be in terms of the time it takes to load the pages on your site, to satisfying interaction behaviours, and the latest SEO tweaks to maximise your site’s organic search index. It is not as easy for a Site Builder Platform to implement and experiment with new technologies, as the technology must be integrated into their existing infrastructure and tools. For this reason they are usually slower to adopt to the latest practices and trends in the industry.

As mentioned in the Budget section above, when you build your site through a Studio you will collaborate with web designers and web developers to refine the vision for your project through creative processes and implementation phases. This workflow is a refined methodology, developed by people who do it as their sole occupation, to getting the best outcome when building web projects.

In terms of quality, the contrast with a Site Builder is dependant on the degree to which you can find a template that matches the aesthetic of your original vision, your own ability to customise it and the tools provided by the Site Builder in order for you to do so.

Our analogy here is that using a Site Builder is akin to baking a cake using a premix like Betty Crocker (a packet with prepared ingredients), as opposed to having a Chef (the Web Studio) prepare one for you.

Conclusion

One might assume that Site Builder Platforms and Web Design & Develop Studios are in contention with each other, but I hope that after reading this article you can conclude that this is not the case. They service two separate classes of web projects.

The ability for anyone to create websites is a wonderful thing, and the service Site Builders provide makes this possible. Web projects that can easy be reproduced should be built with a site builder, and we encourage it. To create unique, incredibly polished and ground breaking websites is the job of the Web Studio, Web Designer and Developer.

We encourage our clients to make a website for themselves in a Site Builder, as it is an excellent creative exercise to refine your vision, proof your concept, and determine whether it is necessary to employ the expertise of a Studio for your project.

FAQs

Q: If I build my website through a Studio, can I still customise the content on my site?

A: Yes, most studio’s will build your website on top of a Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress, Shopify, Contentful or Prismic. A CMS allows you to log into an administrator dashboard where you can publish new posts or pages and edit the text and media.

Q: Won't there be hosting costs regardless of whether they're built through a Studio or Site Builder?

A: At the moment most of the site's we're using make use of Prismic and Netlify's basic pricing plans, which are free. But, yes, if the scale of your project is significant (For example a web app as opposed to a marketing website) there may be some ongoing costs depending on the hardware and services necessary.

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