At the beginning of every website project comes a decision: should the site use a self-hosted publishing platform (think Perch, WordPress, Craft, Drupal, etc.) or should it take advantage of a third-party offering that also takes care of the site’s hosting, like Wix, Squarespace, or Medium. It’s an important decision with big consequences.
A quick background
In the early days of the web, websites were built by hand and hosted with a hosting company. Seeing opportunity, businesses came along that tried to make publishing easier while making a buck in the process. Remember Geocities and MySpace? Thousands of people invested millions of cumulative hours building out their websites on these platforms only for these services to evolve or vanish.
Easy Come, Easy Go
Today, companies like Medium, Wix, and Squarespace offer easy publishing tools to build websites or publish content. Website owners no longer need to worry about website hosting, or keep their content management systems up-to-date, or think about whether their site works with mobile. That’s the pitch anyway—and it has plenty of allure. Let’s look at the considerable caveats.
When you use a third-party service, you have no long-term control over what happens to your content. Companies—internet firms especially—come and go, get acquired, and shed employees. A question to ask: would you be fine with having to start over five years from now if the service is terminated?
Of course, not all third-party offerings are on shaky ground. Squarespace, for example, provides robust website creation and hosting offerings. The monthly cost is low compared to building a custom website. However, pricing rises quickly as the size and scope of your site increases.
To achieve low buy-in costs, services like Squarespace automate the creation of websites. To the untrained eye, the results look superb—if you like their templates. Peek under the hood, though, and the common issue with machine-generated code is terribly bloated sites with so much page weight that many customers will likely go elsewhere before your site even finishes loading.
Catch the 2017 Super Bowl? See the Squarespace ad for JohnMalkovich.com where he’s staring into a computer screen, wondering who took his domain? Well, his actual site’s homepage is at Squarespace (see below), which takes you to nothing but a splash screen weighing in at a whopping 14.9 MB! If you’re not on the fastest connection, you could be looking at ten to twenty seconds of lag time. An entire website could be built with less space and loaded in less time. If you're on mobile with only a bar or two of reception you could take an elevator to floor 7½ of the Mertin-Flemmer building and enter the portal into John Malkovich more quickly.
It gets worse. Click through to the actual site and you’ll find shop pages that are 20 MB! A fan of John Malkovich’s line of clothing could find themselves eating up their data plan in no time. (Granted, the budget-data-plan demographic and the John Malkovich clothing line fan group likely have a pretty slim overlap in a Venn diagram.) Still, slow sites are bad news for any customer experience.
Automated site design also lacks what an experienced designer can bring to a project: design sense. It’s no wonder Mr. Malkovich was peering so closely to the screen in his Superbowl commercial. Look at the size of the menu items!
We’ll leave navigation systems for another post. Our point here, though, is that machine-generated sites can’t match the quality of hand-coding: not for speed, size, optimization, or plain manageability. We’ve taken on projects that were built on such systems and the result is a need to start from scratch: the generated code is incomprehensible.
Another ding towards using a third-party publishing platform like Wix or Squarespace is that they limit what can be done on a site. They have easy publishing tools, but you’re limited by the templates that are offered. And if you need to hire a developer to tweak a Squarespace site, why not own the whole publishing chain to begin with and forgo the recurring monthly costs those services charge? Choosing a pre-built template from Squarespace or Wix means building your site backwards. Instead of creating a site that fits and amplifies your content, your message, and your brand, you find yourself choosing form over function and then trying to shoehorn your content into someone else’s design.
The Benefits Of Self-Reliance
No, we’re not going to go all Ralph Waldo Emerson on you here. Instead, we encourage our clients to own the entire chain of their online presence. That means owning their domain name, owning their hosting account, and owning their website and all steps of the publishing workflow.
When you’re using a content management system running on your own website, you own your content and how it’s published—and you don’t have to limit yourself to how you want your website to function and appear. Being in control of the entire publishing workflow also gives you unmatched flexibility. Example: let’s say you don’t like your hosting provider because the CEO of your hosting company has turned out to enjoy hunting elephants. No problem. Your web firm can grab your site and sling it up on another hosting provider. It’ll look and function exactly as before. Try that with Squarespace, Wix, or the other third-party solutions. Sounds outlandish, but these things happen. Or say your web developer wins the lottery and moves to Tahiti. Same thing: with a well-coded, comprehensible site you can simply hire another developer who can then quickly make sense of how your site is built and provide you with the service you need. (We won't move to Tahiti. We'll move to Hawaii.)
When you control the entire publishing workflow from domain name to the published website, you’ve also made the investment to start off strong, without the limitations of a third-party solution. Your content is safe, your publishing system stable, and your site quick-loading and built to amplify your message in the precious seconds you have to make a first impression.