Choose a professionally built WordPress website only if you have specific functionality requirements or design needs that a do-it-yourself web builder, like SquareSpace™, cannot offer as reliably, intuitively, or as affordably. I’ll hit the major differences as I see them based on building websites since 2001, and building with WordPress since 2009.
WHAT IT IS
Content management systems (CMS) have been with us for decades. These web systems allow people to update text, images, and other aspects of a website with relatively little technical training using just their web browser. Many types of content management systems exist, such as SharePoint or Drupal, or WordPress. The do-it-yourself web building systems available from SquareSpace or Shopify are also content management systems (both are excellent, in my opinion).
Let’s start by explaining the difference between a website implemented with a CMS compared to a website without such a system. It used to be that website owners had to work with a web designer to update their website content. Some still do. I know of several major facilities that regularly pay $450.00 to have one paragraph of content updated on their homepage. For those concerned that your web designer is expensive, compare your situation to that. These websites are not built so that non-techies can manage the website content. That is perfectly fine with these particular clients because they can afford it. But most businesses have stricter budget constraints. This situation is where a website built with a CMS can save money (indeed, it is the impetus behind the evolution of CMS technology), but there are other costs to consider even then.
SELF-HOSTED WORDPRESS OVERVIEW
As the name implies, self-hosted WordPress websites require the owner to obtain their own web hosting. Proper installation of WordPress is the website owner’s responsibility, which means implementing best security practices beyond what the web host provides.
All the files used to build the website are the website owner’s responsibility, including ongoing system maintenance of those files. While WordPress itself is a free download from wordpress.org, you must install it yourself, connect it to the database server yourself, and secure it yourself. If your self-hosted website gets hacked, the web hosting company might suspend your account until you fix it; and web hosts rarely have in-house hack remediation services. Cheaper web hosting usually means less server level security along with less control over the required systems to implement the website securely.
ADVANTAGES OF SELF-HOSTED WORDPRESS
With self-hosted WordPress, a web designer can address a greater variety of aesthetic and functional requirements than SquareSpace offers, and with less reliance on custom code. Discrete modules of code called “plugins” are available in the web developer’s marketplace. Plugins provide instant functionality, such as a shopping cart system. They can significantly expand the website’s complexity in a manageable fashion, allowing web designers to implement capabilities without the expense of custom coding.
WordPress is user-friendly enough to implement a basic website with a CMS inside of 15-minutes out of the box. The website’s design and the site’s mobile behavior with that design comes from a Theme. Themes are what give a website its design. They are like plugins but are focused on presentation. Some people refer to them as templates, but that is not accurate. A WordPress theme contains the design, yes, but themes can also greatly enhance the ease by which otherwise-complex webwork happens. Some themes have controls for placing testimonials, web forms, or video into a page without getting a coder involved. Some themes even provide a “Page Builder”; a system that allows non-techies to layout pages with a drag-n-drop interface. In other words, you can perform some web design work without being a web designer.
WordPress plugins are modules of code authored by programmers that provide additional capability immediately without getting a coder involved. For example, the plugin GravityForms: to have something similar custom-coded would be well into the six-figure range. Then, to pay a coder to keep their custom work resilient against hackers would be yet another ongoing fee. Plugins bypass such expenses, as do themes, but the best components cost money. Free plugins and themes exist, but on average, they lack polish and stability.
BUSINESS CONSIDERATIONS OF SELF-HOSTED WORDPRESS
Most professional plugins have annual licensing fees for the plugin to continue receiving updates. For example, the security plugin “iThemes Security Pro” runs $80/year. “BeaverBuilder”, a page builder plugin, runs $99.00 a site license. It is still less expensive than what a custom coder would charge for similar maintenance. If you do not pay the license fee, the plugin will still work but will eventually be so out of date with the rest of the system that it might stop working. Stale components are also a huge security vulnerability, and some web hosting companies force updates to happen for that reason.
Notice the adjectives I use before naming the plugins; security and page builder. Plugins belong to categories defined by the problem they attempt to solve. One question that must be asked is, “what will it cost if we do not solve that problem?”
Updating components can cause system conflicts and brings its own technical troubleshooting requirements. In these situations, it is best to have a web designer on your side familiar with backup and restoration of your website.
System updates are a primary reason to hire seasoned, professional web designers that understand how to build securely since software stability and website security are interdependent.
The web designer you hire should have a plan for dealing with these aspects and should be able to put it in writing. They should be able to show (not just tell) any techies on your staff how they will build securely, how they will maintain and adapt the security profile of your website and should be able to explain it as well in non-technical terms.
Your web designer should provide screen-based training and a user guide to your content manager and track support requests in a private system that qualifies as a professional-grade help desk system you can access as well. Otherwise, when problems happen, you are on your own. This is self-hosted after all. Using a web design firm that takes technical support seriously is crucial for spotting patterns over time.
The cost profile is radically different between self-hosted WordPress and a DIY solution like SquareSpace. The difference is how self-hosted WordPress websites are built and maintained throughout the lifespan of the website. SquareSpace owns and runs all of its technology. But with a self-hosted WordPress website, you must purchase the technology you need beyond what comes free with WordPress. You must also keep it secured because hacking approaches rapidly evolve.
So, the additional costs come in four varieties:
- Consulting time with a coder if your need is unique enough.
- Web design fees if the Theme lacks the layout or design you want but is close.
- The cost of the Theme.
- The cost of plugins that provide additional capabilities. A plugin license can cost between $19.00 and $200.00 annually. These costs are in addition to web hosting and SSL certificate fees. The more components you use, the greater your expenses each year.
As expensive as this sounds, it is still a fraction of the cost or time required to get these capabilities from a custom coder, much less contract with that coder throughout the year to keep their code updated against the latest hacking techniques. But sometimes custom coding is the only way to get what you need.
Regardless of if you decide to trust plugin code or you hire a developer to create custom code, you should have some way of evaluating the quality and safety of the code you implement.
ADVANTAGES OF HOSTED SOLUTION WaaS
SquareSpace is what we call a hosted solution, or “Website as a Service” (WaaS). Everything required to host, build, and keep your website’s content updated yourself is delivered to you by logging in to their website in order to work on your own website. It is a website that lets you build a website.
When you build with a company like SquareSpace you not only get a CMS, you get a web building interface for creating a website with little technical training. So, both the web building experience and the content management experience are delivered through their own proprietary technology. Wrapped into their fees are the cost to access this capability, web hosting, and system maintenance of the CMS running the website. Technical support is available, but there are limits bound to the type of package you purchase. So, your subscription is also subsidizing some tech support. Overall, it’s a very good deal for the right audience.
Shopify is another example of an excellent DIY system. I built https://tankswappers.com on Shopify a few years ago. This company had a rather complex coupon code requirement that I eventually satisfied by implementing a Shopify Verified Plugin in a specific manner with guidance from the developer.
These DIY web builder companies invented and control their technology. Hacking websites built correctly through these services is difficult, and they have people that can help if that happens. You still might need to pay for a Template if you need something specific, or you might select a free one to be your design starting point. However, you never have to worry about keeping the Template updated with developer improvements against hacking. These companies do that for you.
BUSINESS CONSIDERATIONS OF WaaS
WaaS websites come with restrictions. Just a note at this point, WaaS is also used sometimes to mean “WordPress as a Service”, such as wordpress.com provides.
You may not do certain things without increasing your subscription fee, and some features you need might not be available at all For example, your website needs to have a client portal that uses a secure user sign-up membership workflow. Or maybe you want to stream videos from your Amazon S3 account because YouTube’s quality degradation on mobile is a concern for your type of videos. Then too, perhaps you want to deliver PDF files securely from an Amazon S3 bucket. When these kinds of needs arise, self-hosted WordPress is a better fit. All of these use cases I just described are readily addressable using plugins in a specific secure configuration with each other. No custom coding required.
These websites sometimes don’t work with any other web hosting platform without a lot of re-work since they get their web-building functionality from proprietary systems running on their servers. Most offer some level of portability. Some might be more technical than others to migrate away from, but the good news is that people do it all the time and there are plenty of web designers familiar with such migrations.
WordPress self-hosted websites offer greater freedom of customization. The greater control over the CMS comes at a higher cost than a flat subscription fee from a web-builder CMS like SquareSpace with no such capability. It is far more technical to maintain a self-hosted WordPress website, but the tradeoff is worth it for organizations that that cannot get what they need cost-effectively any other way.