This post about WordPress and Website Builders is not about getting into all the nitty-gritty technical differences. Instead, we're going to cover the primary contrast and considerations for those who are not “techies.”
Based on the forums I help out on and the questions I get asked, there is confusion about what a “website builder *” is and which one to use. Many varied products use this moniker, and that's why you need to know the differences.
Isn't WordPress a “web builder”? Yes, you can build a website with WordPress. But the confusion comes in when you start talking about actual website builder platforms and WordPress builder plugins—two different things.
So let's do a little dive into the differences so that you can make the right choice for what you want to do.
What is WordPress — exactly?
WordPress is a free and open-source content management system written in PHP and paired with a MySQL or MariaDB database. Features include a plugin architecture and a template system, referred to within WordPress as Themes.wikipedia
There are two different official WordPress websites: WordPress.com and WordPress.org.
- WordPress.org: This is where you can discover plugins, themes, and documentation to assist you with your self-hosted WordPress website. Self-hosted meaning you subscribe to a Managed WordPress * Hosting service and install WordPress, the theme you want, and plugins in your own hosting account.
- WordPress.com: Offers various plans, features, and hosting all in one.
I recommend going the self-hosted route. This is how you will have the most control over your site and its functionality.
There are many other CMSs (content management systems) out there. Examples that you may have heard of are Joomla, Drupal, and Magento.
Back in the day, I tried them all. Unfortunately, none were as user-friendly and supported as WordPress. That's why WordPress now powers 37% of the web.
Types of Website Builders
There are two types of website builders. Platforms and plugins.
- Platforms: Wix, Shopify, GoDaddy's Websites + Marketing, Square, Weebly
- Plugins: Elementor *, Divi, BeaverBuilder, WPBakery/Visual Composer
Now let's talk about the differences. These are the things you want to consider before investing your time and money.
Website Builder Platforms
Platforms are hosted solutions that you login to that platform and customize your site. First, you choose the theme, colors, and layout. Then, you add your content and images. Finally, there is a selection of widgets and add-ons that you can integrate into your site.
The platforms mentioned above, and others like them, all allow you to build your website without having to know any code. But, of course, that list is not the end-all-be-all either — just the most popular.
I hear you out there… “But I read somewhere on your blog that you said I don't need to know code with WordPress.” True as well. But, if you do want to modify or tweak the code (CSS), you can do so with WordPress.
Not so much on website builder platforms. With website builder platforms, you do not have access to the back-end code. We'll talk about that more in a bit.
Each platform has its own set of built-in features and offers add-ons to increase your website's functionality. And that's it. It is what it is. Additional functionality is available as an add-on at additional cost.
Website Builder Platform Pluses
- Inexpensive to get started.
- No need to know any code.
- Themes and graphics are included.
- Point and click to add pages, drag-n-drop sections, and basic functionality.
Website Builder Platform Minuses
- Add-ons can get expensive — fast.
- You do not have access to the back-end code or CSS to customize further.
- Functionality is limited to what is offered on the platform.
- Migrating to another platform is problematic.
The primary wall that most folks hit with website builder platforms is that they are limiting in features and all-around customization. For example, unlike WordPress, you can't tweak the CSS to make font size, color, and padding/spacing modifications.
The functionality provided is pretty basic, and you cannot customize it as much as you may need. For example, performance metrics, system emails, appointment scheduling variations, shipping formulas, and carriers and payment gateways. Instead, you are relegated to what the website builder and platform infrastructure offer. Period.
Website Builder Platforms Bottom Line
Website builder platforms have come a long way and are pretty impressive. You can quickly and easily set up a contemporary great looking website in no time. However, in my experience, almost everyone finds them limiting — sooner rather than later.
Builder platforms are sufficient for small businesses that are just starting. Or if you want to get your feet wet because you've never had a website before and want to DIY. More times than not, the lure of fast, cheap, and easy is why folks gravitate to these platforms.
However, a smart play would be to include in your plan to move to WordPress as soon as you start feeling some growing pains. Better yet, invest in WordPress from the start and grow into it. Then you don't have to worry about learning a new interface and leaving the time and money investment you made in a platform behind.
Website Builder Plugins
WordPress builder plugins allow you to take any WordPress theme and customize it further. Some builders even offer their own themes. Shortcodes accomplish customization and layout.
BeaverBuilder, WPBakery/Visual Composer, and Divi all build the structure of your website with the use of their specific shortcodes. Deactivate these plugins, and your content no longer displays.
Don't get me wrong; I love shortcodes when used in a widget or on a page here or there. WordPress even has some shortcodes built-in.
Another builder, and the only one I would consider, maybe, if I had to, use is Elementor. Elementor is block-based, like WordPress's Gutenberg editor.
Elementor's “Hello” theme is one of the best performing speed-wise. But here again, if used and removed, your site will be unable to display the advanced designs you created with Elementor Pro.
To build your entire website to be dependent on one builder's elements or shortcodes means you are locked into that builder. Remove the builder plugin, and you end up with a messed-up site and your content not displaying.
At that point, you'll need to hire someone to help you migrate your site and content before deactivating your builder plugin. Otherwise, you have to start from scratch.
Website Builder Plugins Bottom Line
The most crucial downside for me, besides the fact I don't particularly appreciate getting locked into anything, is performance. Most builders slow down sites and leave a lot to be desired when it comes to mobile responsiveness.
One could say WordPress in-of-itself is a “builder” and that you are locked into WordPress if you chose to use it. To that, I say WordPress is the “builder” that you will have the most control over all aspects of your website.
I cannot justify using a product that causes me to have pretty much to start from scratch if I choose to use it no longer. Nor would I recommend that approach to my clients.
This gig is constantly changing. So you have to be ready to evolve and do what you need to do for your business when required. Getting locked into a builder will hinder that.
What about if you want to move off of WordPress?
Gutenberg is the built-in “builder” offered by WordPress. Initially, I was not a fan. But part of how I roll is that I lean into change; I don't avoid it. And that's what I did.
There is an ongoing improvement with every WordPress release. Add to that block additions and plugins that add more and more functionality (custom blocks), and I really cannot justify using another builder plugin.
I have not yet seen, heard, read, or discovered a reason to do so.
Performance and mobile responsiveness are top priorities. I read somewhere that users have the attention span of a goldfish (I usually say a gnat). So if you have a pokey site that is not set up with that in mind, you lose. As a result, pokey sites suffer in search engine rankings as well.
Mobile? Well, all those whiz-bang sliders and custom effects won't matter on that small tiny screen. This is where priorities come into play.
Yes, it is your site, and you should have exactly what you want. But I'm old school and like clean, contemporary, uncluttered design so that content is the focus. Not moving, sliding this or that.
Your efforts are better spent creating amazing content with imagery that draws your potential customers in. Without that, no builder plugin is going to make folks contact, buy or talk you up.
Keep in mind that themes that include custom blocks or block plugins that add additional block libraries and features can also cause display issues on your website when you switch themes or deactivate that block plugin.
Which is best for you?
You have to do your homework. First, think about what you need and what you want to accomplish. Then, it would help if you played the long game.
- Website Builder Platforms are limited in what they offer. You have no ability to be outside that box or customize the code or functionality above and beyond what is offered. Users assume that the builder platforms will do everything they need or imagine. They don't.
- Website Builder Plugins lock you into that plugin and can negatively impact performance and mobile responsiveness.
- WordPress and Gutenberg allow you to create the site you want, grow your website as your business grows, and have hands-on control over performance metrics. All without concerns of limitations or having to settle.
You don't want to make your decision based on cost alone. Or assume that you'll want to or be able to stay on the same platform as your business grows.
Create a comprehensive list of functionality you want now. Then create another detailed list of the functionality you think you'll need as your business grows. Then compare.
Of course, this is my biased opinion. Based on 25 years of online consulting and using WordPress since its inception.
Check out my ToolKit for the products and services I use and recommend.
This experience proves that you have the best chance for long-term success and ROI by taking a comprehensive educated approach instead of gravitating to fast, cheap and easy.
At your service,