Like choosing a suit, you have options when building a website. Do you go custom-tailored or off-the-rack? This is your guide to making that decision.
There is a derisive expression in English called “off the rack”. It means to buy something premade, and it more specifically refers to men’s suits. There are two ways to buy a suit:
- Custom tailored, so that every measurement exactly fits your body.
- Off the rack – premade at a factory in a number of sizes, one of which should be pretty close to what your body requires.
I don’t know about you, but I have never bought a custom tailored suit. For starters, it costs a lot in time. In addition to choosing the fabric, you have to stand there to get pinned. Then you have to return to the store to pick it up. Two trips to a store instead of just one – not fair! More importantly, a custom tailored suit costs more money. The price for custom-tailored is measured in thousands of dollars; the price for off-the-rack is measured in hundreds of dollars.
That’s a big difference.
What does all this have to do with building a website? You can get websites off the rack or have them custom built, too. And the same factors apply to building a website as apply to buying a suit.
Some people will scratch their heads and ask, “Are you nuts?” to get a website built from scratch, because the cost is so much higher.
Other people will scratch their heads and ask, “Are you nuts?” to buy a ready-made website, because their discriminating eyes can see a difference in quality that many people would not notice.
The fact is that most websites these days are a hybrid of off-the-rack structure and custom-tailored design. Many sites are built on WordPress (originally just a blogging platform that has recently been adapted to other types of websites), Drupal, Magneto or Joomla. These content management systems (CMS) have all the structure in place; you just have to add your own custom design, and choose features to add as modules or plugins.
Many other sites are offered as ready-to-use programs, or “hosted solutions”, such as IM Creator, Weebly or Shopify. In other words, you take one of their templates and customize it with your graphics, maybe pick-and-choose from certain features, and you are ready to go.
To the end user, a website built from scratch, a website built on a CMS, and a website built from a hosted solution don’t look any different. What is different is the back-end, the amount of effort required to maintain the website and the pricing. According to Erez Zundelevich, VP Online Marketing of IM Creator.
“Our users create websites that look and feel just like they have been custom-built, without all the hassles of actually having to build a website. Our market is people who don’t want to spend money and time running a website, so that they can focus on running their business.”
Custom built website
Obviously, the most expensive option is to build from scratch. There are some excellent reasons to do this, and if you have the financial means, why not? Like getting a custom suit made or like designing your own house to your exact specifications, why not design your own website? Assuming you have the money. And the time.
It is not just the upfront cost to factor in. You will also have to manage your own hosting and look after your own security, you will be fully responsible for your own SEO and whenever you want something fixed, changed or added, you will need to hire someone to do it for you. If you have the money, these are not issues, of course.
A custom-built website is not always just a matter of prestige, as is a custom-tailored suit. Nor just a matter of preferences, as is a custom designed house. There are things you might need to do to run your business that just don’t come in a box. Just as exceedingly tall people or very portly people might need to have custom-tailored suits, some businesses are doing things differently enough that they just need a custom-built website.
Joshua Alexander, who does custom coding, explains the advantage of building to custom specifications:
“It allows them to build a system with understanding of potential growth into the future. I always ask clients what they can see themselves needing in the future so I can see if we can plan that into the initial design and development.”
Custom coding is ideal for someone who wants to do something really different and can afford to do so – someone who doesn’t mind being fully responsible for all aspects of the website, and can afford to be.
CMS based websites
CMS based websites cost less than custom-built websites, because the architecture is already in place. If you use WordPress, the platform is 100 percent free, and most of the optional features (called “plugins” in WordPress) are also free, although there are some that cost money. Drupal, Joomla and several other lesser-known CMS platforms operate on a similar basis.
Although the structure of the website is free, there is still some tailoring involved. You will still have to hire a designer, and in most cases you will want a “theme”, which might be free or might cost money, and which is not always easy to install without some basic programming knowledge. A “theme” in WordPress is more than just the look; it is a coding structure of how elements of the page appear. Some themes are easy-peasy to use, others hijack your interface and actually require some pretty advanced programming skills to navigate. Yes, I’ve been there.
If you have some coding skills, and are willing to spend the time, a CMS based website might be for you. You will still be responsible for your own hosting and for the site’s security. If you want to make changes, you can always get plugins or hire somebody to do custom coding. The CMS is free, but customization of both the design and the features still requires hiring somebody (or learning a fair amount). Basically, it is a lot like taking a huge short cut to a custom coded website.
Here is a great video leading you through the process…
CMS based websites are ideal for people whose pockets are not too deep and who are willing and able to look after their own website or hire someone who is capable.
Unless you can do your own coding, the cheapest path is a hosted solution. Like a CMS-based website, there are rarely any up-front fees, although you might want to hire a designer to do custom design work so that your website looks like yours and nobody else’s. When we spoke with Erez Zundelevich, he said IM Creator connects customers with designers familiar with their code structure on request.
Henri Goldsmann of Blunt Pencil, recounts how he built his custom website on the IM Creator platform:
“I built the site myself. Though the templates looked very professional, I wanted to see how far I could take this. I used a template, and deleted all the elements, kept the basic frame in order for the site to display well on a tablet and smartphone as well.”
However, if you are really strapped for cash and don’t have Henri Goldsmann’s skills or interest level, the major hosted solutions all offer very nice templates that you can use until you can afford to replace or tweak them with custom artwork. Just double-check that you are allowed to do so before signing up.
Some offer free plans, but in most cases you’ll want to pay for at least a basic upgrade. For eCommerce there are often transaction fees. A transaction fee might be when you sell clothes or crafts or gadgets through the shopping cart on your website. This would obviously not be a cost if your website is for a cafe or a tattoo parlor or a motel.
Where you really save money, time and headaches with a hosted solution is on maintenance, such as security, fixing things that break, adding features, updating things that seem to change so ridiculously fast on the Internet, etc. You don’t have to learn to code and you don’t have to hire anybody, and for the most part you don’t have to monitor such things. That is all taken care of for you. In most cases, the monthly price is less than what it would cost to have a coder taking care of things, and you don’t have to worry about managing any of the technology.
Erez Zundelevich explains:
“The biggest benefit of a hosted solution like IM Creator is that a small business can have a professional looking website, without having it drain their time and energy looking after it. That is worth more financially to an entrepreneur than the actual cost savings of design and programming.”
Here is a short video he shared with us about how a hosted solution works:
Hosted solutions are ideal for people who don’t want to invest the time and energy in becoming web savvy or in taking care of a website, and don’t want to spend the money to hire someone who can.
Are hosted solutions too good to be true?
Does this sound too good to be true? In life, you get what you pay for. You save money and save time looking after the website, but you do lose flexibility. For instance, if your business eventually grows to be as big as Amazon, you will eventually have to fork up for custom programming, dedicated servers, etc.
And there are some risks with hosted solutions, so make sure to cover your backside on just a few critical items.
Make sure you legally own the content. A reputable hosted solution will not claim ownership of your text or images. Of course, if you use one of their templates, you won’t own that.
Make sure you practically own the content. Some businesses are riskier than others. For instance, if you run a tattoo parlor, who knows when an image might be seen as offensive by someone and the site gets taken down for a terms-of-service violation. And any business can lose its website if the hosted solution goes out of business. When Windows Live Spaces shut down, they gave a six-month migration period, but there is no telling what might happen if some other hosted solution shuts down and doesn’t give users any options. In other words, keep a back-up copy of all text and images and anything you actually own.
According to Jeremy Wong, of all the hosted solutions, only Weebly and IM Creator allow you to export your website from their platforms, so if you need to go elsewhere, you have more than just the images and text on file. There is a good comparison of these two services here.
Make sure they cover all the bases. You want a site that is HTML5 compliant, so that it shows well on all devices, one that has SEO built in (that does not mean you will rank well, just that the fundamentals are there, on which a good ranking can be built) and that there are good security measures in place to protect against hacking and other threats. Ask these questions before signing up for any hosted solution, because these are some of the tasks you are delegating to them when you sign up.
Own your domain. Make sure that when you set up your website, regardless of platform, that you own and you control your domain. That is your business real estate and your business identity on the Internet.
The bottom line
I think it’s fair to say that all three approaches have worked well for many happy people, and there are probably plenty of nightmare stories that can be told from each option.
Joshua Alexander told me the story of having to rebuild an exact replica of a website because the designer/ programmer had control of the site…until he died in a car crash. The owner had no access, and the man who did was dead.
That story reminded me of a time I had to fight to get control of the domain name on behalf of a client, because the programmer had registered it in his own name and had subsequently vanished off the face of the Earth. Funny story, because I actually went to knock on his door in Akron, Ohio…and discovered that his address did not even exist. I finally tracked down a former partner of his in Chicago (by phone) and somehow recovered the client’s domain. Once again, the importance of owning your domain, both legally and practically, is evident.
In short, even if you hire people to do custom work, you still need to make sure you own everything.
I have worked on many websites that have been custom built and many that are CMS based. I have not worked on any hosted-solution websites, because they just don’t need me.
So which is better, custom tailored websites, CMS-based websites or hosted solutions? As with suits, that’s a no brainer. But that is the wrong question to ask. The question is which approach is right for your business? And that depends on your budget and how much time and effort you want to invest in your website.