What’s the best way to set up a website?

What’s the best way to set up a website?

Business owner comparing options for how to set up a website

All websites, at their core, are built out of computer code. But you actually don’t need to know any code to set up a website or run your own site.

When preparing for your new website, it’s important to consider how your site will be set up for you to make changes to it in the future. With so many options available, it can be difficult to figure out which is the best choice for your needs.

In this article, I’ll go over the three major ways to set up a website—with plain code, with a Content Management System and with a visual page builder. All three ways have pros and cons, but any of them can be right fit depending on the situation.

Set up a website in plain code

This kind of site is built from code like HTML, CSS and JavaScript—without any special features that would let someone update it any other way.

Want to see an example of what website code looks like? You can click here to learn how to view the code for this (and any) website using the built-in tools in your browser.

Pros of plain coded websites

  • It’s generally less expensive to hire a developer to build you a plain coded website, because they’re less complicated to design
  • Anyone who knows HTML/CSS can make changes to them; it isn’t difficult to find or hire someone who can do the work
  • They tend to be very stable, because they don’t include any special programs or software that need to be kept up to date. They also don’t have a user login that can be hacked (except for the login to your website hosting provider).

Cons of plain coded websites

  • They can only be edited by people who know how to code in HTML/CSS and who know how to use programs to access/update the website files. This means, if you want to make changes to your site but don’t know how to code, you’ll need to hire someone or find someone who can help.

Who should set up a website with plain code?

  • People who don’t regularly use computers (eg. do not use email) and wouldn’t be comfortable using a program to make changes to their website anyway
  • Business owners with an established company that hasn’t changed its scope in several years, so they don’t need to make changes to their website often
  • People who want to display basic information about their business that is unlikely to change much in the next few years

Set up a website with a Content Management System (like WordPress)

A Content Management System or CMS is a program that lets people log into a website and make changes to the text and images. It’s different from a visual page builder because it keep the content (text and images) of a website separate from the design. When logged in as a contributor to a CMS website, there is no way for you to accidentally make a whole page disappear or “break” the website.

I like to tell my clients that I’m setting up specific “boxes” on their website that they can edit. You can visualize those boxes like this (the purple sections show what you are able to edit on the site):

Purple boxes over the content areas of my site (titles, text blocks, non-layout images and icons only).

By contrast, in the image below the purple sections show what you cannot edit (the overall layout):

Purple covering over all non-content areas of my site (the space between elements, the menu and logo, background images, etc.).

CMSs are powerful programs that allow a lot of useful features. You can assign different logins for many people to make changes to the site, but limit what each of them can do. For example, a small news website may give each of its writers an login that lets them post articles, but not allow them to access certain pages like the “About Us” section.

When setting up a CMS for my clients, I use the most popular one on the Internet: WordPress. WordPress is an open source program, meaning that the program itself is free to use, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s therefore a low quality option. WordPress runs about 32% of the sites on the Internet, including the The New Yorker, Beyonce, the Official Website of Sweden, Disney and Mercedes-Benz.

One of WordPress’s strongest features is its huge library of plugins: smaller programs that run within WordPress. You can think of them like individual apps running on a phone. These plugin “apps” allow a multitude of extra features, including contact forms, online store checkouts and event calendars.

Pros of a CMS like WordPress

  • You can log in and easily update the text and photos of your own site, with no special technical knowledge
  • The user account system makes it easy to work on a site with a team of people
  • It has powerful plugin “apps” that let your site do pretty much anything you need it to do
  • Finding a web developer to work on big CMSs like WordPress and Drupal isn’t too difficult
  • It’s the easiest way to post regular content, which improves your search engine optimization (SEO)

Cons of a CMS like WordPress

  • There can be a greater initial expense for a customized site, because the behind-the-scenes web development is more complicated
  • Much like your cell phone and its apps, WordPress and its plugins need to be updated over time. If you choose not to update them, you risk having things break down over time. Paying someone to update and monitor your system, however, means a small but ongoing cost.

Who should set up a website with a CMS like WordPress?

  • People who want to be able to easily and continually update their own website
  • Businesses or organization that have a team of people adding/editing content on the website
  • Business owners whose company is likely to grow/change a lot over time (eg. rates, hours, location, services offered, staff)
  • Businesses who have continual programs/events/sales to inform clients about
  • People who want to build an online portfolio or provide a growing collection of tools/resources for clients
  • People who wants to boost their site’s search engine optimization (SEO) with ongoing content creation

A note on WordPress themes

WordPress has a library of design templates called “themes” that can change the design and add extra features. Some of these themes are free and some fancier ones are available for a flat fee or a yearly subscription.

Free and paid themes give you limited design flexibility. I can often spot them when I see an unused section on a website. An “Our Team” section with one employee or a blog with one post, for example, screams “This section came with the theme and I don’t know how to get rid of it.”

Still, for those who can’t afford the investment in a custom site, I recommend free or paid themes. In most cases, they’re more stable and easy-to-use than setting up a website with visual page builders. Also, you can hire a web developer to remove sections you don’t use or add new features.

Set up a website with a visual page builder

Visual page builders are programs that let you drag-and-drop images and blocks of text and arrange them visually into a website. The program “translates” the design you’ve built into website HTML/CSS code. Popular page builders you may have used or heard of include Wix, Weebly, GoDaddy Website Builder, Beaver Builder, Divi and Elementor.

In theory, a good page builder that’s easy to use and creates a stable, attractive design is the holy grail. But in reality? Computers are still very bad at guessing what humans are trying to design and turning that design into good code.

If I’d known page builders would still be this bad in 2019, I’d have gone into web development straight out of high school. How was I to know?

I continually get work from businesses that hired a designer to build them a site using a visual page builder. In the end, many business owners find it difficult to understand how to update the site, or worse—they’re afraid to touch it because it’s too easy to accidentally break the design! They’re often not even able to hire a developer to make small changes (I talked about this more in an earlier article).

A bunch of unintuitive boxes and menu options
Here is what one of my clients saw when she logged in to her site, which was designed using a page builder. She was actually a bit relieved when I told her I couldn’t figure it out either.

Still, using a visual page builder to set up a website can be the right fit for certain people. If you’ve got a strong eye for design and a lot of patience, a page builder can help you put together an attractive, inexpensive website—as long as no one but you need ever look “under the hood.”

Pros of using a visual page builder

  • As long as you’re building the site yourself and not paying a designer, using a visual page builder is one of the least expensive ways to set up a website
  • If you have patience and strong design skills, you can build yourself an attractive site that looks professionally done

Cons of using a visual page builder

  • Page builders are often frustrating and confusing to use
  • Many page builders don’t distinguish between content (text and images) and design elements, so it’s as easy for you to delete part of the design as a line of text
  • The page builder limits what design options are available; therefore, sites created with page builders often end up looking alike
  • It’s difficult for multiple people to work on a page builder site without someone changing or deleting something important
  • Sites created with page builders by people without a design background often look unpolished and amateurish
  • Web developers generally aren’t able to work on visual page builder websites
  • Many page builder sites are not optimized for search engines or designed to be accessible to people with disabilities

Who should set up a website with a visual page builder?

  • People who don’t have the budget to have a developer set up a website with straight code or a CMS
  • Hands-on people with a strong eye for design, reasonable computer skills and a lot of patience
  • Websites that will only be updated/edited by one person, not a team

Which is best for you?

Now that you know more about your options, which one do you think is the best fit for you?

I design and develop websites using straight HTML/CSS code and CMS platforms like WordPress. Are you ready to make the investment in a quality custom website? Or do you have more questions about what options are right for you and your business? Please send me a message and we can figure it out together.