What exactly is a website builder?
A website builder – which can also be called a Content Management System or CMS – is an application used to create, deploy, manage and store content on web pages. It is software that allows you to build web pages without manually coding your web pages in HTML code.
Website builders can include desktop software that runs on your local computer but allows you to upload the pages to your hosting provider, or online (web-based) tools which let you create and edit pages using your Internet browser.
A website builder or CMS may offer a variety of design tools, interfaces, and functionality. Not to mention varying levels of required tech skills or know-how.
Website builder system options:
The first distinction in terms of the types of website builder options, is its type: desktop (offline) or web-based (online).
Desktop (offline) Website Design Software
Adobe Dreamweaver is probably the most recognized application of this type. This is the “granddaddy” of web software options.
Desktop web design programs operate much like word processing software (e.g., Microsoft Word). You download the software and install it on your own computer. Then you create pages using a WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) interface and save them on your computer. This means you actually design your site offline and then you transfer or upload it to your web host, such as GoDaddy, Doteasy or others. In the past you might have also needed a separate file transfer (or FTP) application to upload your pages, but nowadays this kind of capability is usually built into the editing software.
Desktop web design software is the most ‘mature’ option. This kind of program has been around for quite some time and can be powerful and versatile. However, it can also be very finicky and difficult to learn, especially if you don’t have graphic design expertise. Also, they are not well suited for situations where multiple people (e.g., volunteers or staff) might be working on the website at the same time. This could lead to different copies of versions of a web page on different computers – it’s the same kind of problem you might have trying to collaborate on Excel or Word documents.
PROS: Mature and powerful, can be used offline.
CONS: Can be tricky for amateurs to use, and makes it harder to share editing tasks with multiple people.
Web-based (AKA cloud) website builders
A web-based or online website builder works, as the saying goes, “in the cloud.” This means it is accessed from your Internet web browser, rather than being installed on a hard-drive of a computer. Some popular examples of online web builders are Wix, Weebly and SquareSpace. Also, some hosting companies such as GoDaddy and Doteasy give you the option of using a web-based page editor. These systems operate completely in the browser, without any need to download or install software on your computer.
Online website builders offer a lot of advantages. Since all of your web pages are created and edited directly online, publishing updates can literally happen with the click of a button. No need to wait and have a webmaster upload pages to your site. Even if you have multiple people working on the website, they will always be working on the most current version of the page. In addition, you can make changes anywhere and anytime you have Internet access, in some cases even from a mobile device depending on which service you’re using.
PROS: Easy to get up and running and create a decent looking site; can be used by multiple editors with access anywhere/anytime. No need to wait for webmasters to upload changes.
CONS: Can be less flexible for creating custom website designs, harder to integrate with other systems such as membership databases, event sign-up systems, etc.
Different types of web-based website builders
There are many different types of web-based systems to consider – from “open source”, to blogging platforms, to all-in-one integrated membership systems. Here’s an overview of these as well as a look at the pro’s and con’s of choosing one of these systems.
Open Source Content Management Systems (CMS)
Open source refers to the source code (computer instructions the software consists of) being available to view and/or modify. Examples of this category include Drupal, Joomla and *WordPress, the most popular open-source website builder by far.
Most open-source CMS’s such as Joomla and Drupal require that you have a separate web hosting provider, (again, this could be GoDaddy, Dreamhost or any number of others) where you install this software directly. With this type of system, you would go directly to a copy of the software hosted by your own provider, and make your changes there. The end result is a web-based system for managing your website.
This kind of software is extremely powerful and flexible in the hands of a tech-savvy person. For example, some systems (e.g., WordPress) allow you to install plugins that enable additional functionality (also see Wild Apricot widget below).
However plugins can present problems for less tech-savvy people, since there can be many risks – from security problems (it’s up to you to monitor for updates and install them) to things falling apart due to overlooking a seemingly minor technical aspect when making a change.
Another option for the less technical person, is to use a host that offers these open-source CMS's as a pre-installed application for you to use. Hosts like this will typically charge you a monthly service fee for software updates and other system maintenance.
*Please note – Blogging Platforms: WordPress was originally designed as a blogging tool and never intended to be a CMS, so the plugins/tools for building a website/event may feel awkward versus website builders like Squarespace, Wix, or Wild Apricot. Since blogging platforms were originally designed for blogging, these systems may have have fewer features and functionality. In addition, the free-for-all of plugins means that every section of their administration could look and work very differently. However, If you need to develop a website that is the gateway for events, membership self-service, etc, this functionality will need to be added through widgets or plugins*.
PROS: Very powerful and fully customizable to your organizational needs.
CONS: Initial set-up can be difficult, needs more technical knowledge for ongoing tasks than other options. Quite often, open source software requires you to monitor for security updates and install them.
Specialized (purpose-designed) Platforms
There are other systems available that are designed to help with specific tasks but also include tools to create a basic web presence. Examples of these include event software like Meetup or fundraising software like DonorPerfect. The website editing and customization capabilities of these packages are typically pretty limited – you can create one or a few basic web pages but not a full-fledged website. However, if your needs are limited to a specific task, such as building an audience for your event or raising funds, this may be a good option for you.
PROS: Easy to get up-and-running, provides other feature benefits
CONS: Provides a very basic web presence, very limited customization