Easy Website Building Toolsor, how to run into the walls of a small room

A few years ago, a friend called me on a Friday afternoon in a panic: the next day was Earth Day, and her organization had a booth at a local fair. They had ordered thousands of pencils with the URL of the organization printed on the side. She had planned on putting up a simple, quick website using their web host’s website building system, which was touted as being so easy you could build your website overnight.

She couldn’t figure out how to get word one on the home page.

We sat down together to build a simple page on the web host’s simple template system. I’ve been geeking around with various website building methods since the mid-90’s, from hand-coding HTML to Adobe Dreamweaver to both open source and proprietary content management systems. I figured I could whip up a web page for her in 5 minutes, no problem!

It took me 45 minutes to figure out how to enter content on the page.

Once I figured out the logic of her host’s website building tools, I was able to kluge together a functional page for her. Not nearly what she had hoped to build for the next day’s event, but at least visitors wouldn’t be faced with a blank “This domain is reserved” page. The tools were very slow and clunky to use, requiring multiple clicks of the mouse to do the simplest task. Attempting to lay out the web page in an aesthetically pleasing manner was both difficult and limited. At one point I turned to her and asked “Couldn’t I just build you a website from scratch? I think it would be faster.”

The website building tools that come bundled with a budget web hosting package have their place. If you have to toss up a quick Under Construction page with minimal content and your contact information, and you don’t know how to code HTML or how to FTP an HTML page to your hosting account, then having a website building tool comes in handy. But I wouldn’t recommend it as the ultimate solution for building your website.

Pros and Cons of website building tools that come bundled with your webhosting account

The advantages of simple, template-driven website building tools are:

  • No need to know HTML*, CSS*, or any other alphabet soup
  • Free or very cheap
  • You can do all updates and maintenance yourself
  • No need to worry about upgrades—the web host takes care of those automatically
  • Usually a good variety of templates
  • Usually some level of customization per template (e.g., add your own logo, color/font choices)

The limitations may not be as obvious until you start actually using the tools. And while someone may encounter technical or aesthetic limitations fairly quickly, the business limitations may not be obvious to someone who is building their first website for their first small business:

  • “Easy” is not instant. There is still a learning curve, and if you’ve never used any kind of design template before (or even if you have!) you may find it frustrating to figure out how to do something relatively simple, e.g. resize a graphic. Since it’s likely a proprietary tool, the knowledge you learn won’t be directly translatable to another tool.
  • There are things you simply can’t do. I had a client who insisted on using his web host’s tools for his website. He also wanted a subtle image in the background of the entire page. It was simply not possible with his web host’s website building tool.
  • There are things you simply can’t do unless you know HTML or CSS. Some website building tools do have a back door that allows you to circumvent the limitations of the tool. But that back door is that you know how to hand-code HTML or CSS.
  • Generic website designs. Many of the templates are designed to be all things to all people, so they can look very dull and generic. Sometimes it’s possible to personalize them with your logo and some unique images, but you are often limited in what you can do.
  • Standard website designs for specific purposes. Sometimes the web design templates will have themes: e.g., there may be one soccer-themed template. The problem there is that you risk having a website for your soccer team that looks nearly identical to the website for your chief rival.
  • Non-unique, non-branded web design. Using either the generic or specialized templates for a business is not ideal. Your website should help to define your brand, and your brand should convey your unique selling proposition. If your brand is generic, or looks the same as your competitors, then it’s not really a brand at all.
  • A website that is not standards-compliant. Standards compliance is one of those aspects of web design and development that most end users don’t appreciate. A website that is not standards compliant can have several limitations, including limitations in search engine optimization (i.e., being found by Google) and accessibility. Your website may not read well, if at all, on mobile devices, which are a rapidly growing segment of the web browsing market. If you decide to move your website to a more robust system in the future, you may discover that most of the code is unusable because it is built using tables or includes deprecated tags.
  • Limited set of features. You may discover that simple things you’d like to have on your website—a contact form, an embedded video, an interactive map—may not be supported by the tool.

When is it appropriate to web host’s website building tools?

As a professional web designer, you might expect that I’d look down my nose at the so-easy-a-caveman-can-do-it website building tools. But I really don’t—I just believe they have limited usefulness. With all except the first of these, I’d include the caveat that there are better options that will allow you more features and greater aesthetic options. Nonetheless, here are some circumstances in which I think it would be appropriate to use your web hosts’ website building tool:

  • An under construction page. While you’re building your real website, you can toss this up with your phone number and/or email address so that people at least have a way to contact you, and you can start directing people to your URL.
  • A temporary page. If you are just looking for a place to deposit information temporarily for an upcoming event, or make a birth announcement with a couple of photos, it may be worth using these tools rather than going through a longer installation and learning process.
  • A hobby page. If you are just looking for a place to tell the world about your passion for model trains or growing orchids or collecting pez dispensers, this will allow you to do so cheaply.
  • A small association or non-profit. By “small” I mean a group with an operating budget somewhere between $1,000 and zero. If you are serious about gaining members or raising funds, there are plenty of better options. If you just want people to be aware of your mission, find your phone number, maybe see a couple of photos or news items, your web host’s website building tool may be sufficient.

*HTML (hypertext markup language) and CSS (cascading style sheets) are the scripting languages used for building websites. HTML is used for the basic structure of the page, and CSS is used for styling the page with color, images, typefaces and spacing. HTML and CSS are not programming languages, i.e., you don’t need to be a computer programmer to use them, but they nonetheless require a fair amount of study to master.