Building an impressive web site takes work, whether you love to code or don't know the first thing about it. There are lots of tools which aim to make creating a site easier, but no single option fits everyone's needs. In this post, we'll take a look at a handful of popular options, their pros and cons, and why you might pick them to build your web site.
I've constructed many web sites over the years, and the approach needed varies. Some sites work best when coded from scratch, while others benefit significantly from using a content management system (CMS) such as WordPress. Requirements vary from site to site, so sticking with the same tools every time isn't necessarily the best way to go.
Squarespace: A Rock-Solid But Costly Platform
Squarespace tops the rankings when it comes to ease of use. Sites are incredibly simple to build via the well-designed default templates. These templates are customisable, even if you don't know how to code, and they're minimal enough that a few changes will give your site a unique look. Seasoned coders get an even larger amount of flexibility. Either way, the service offers a solid platform for building sites quickly and a cloud-based approach that usually keeps your site online regardless of any traffic spikes.
Squarespace had significant limitations when it started out, but as of version 6 the service has grown into an ideal tool for creating a blog or web site. Anyone can use it, and it will teach you how it works the first time you sign in. Squarespace offers so many beautiful templates that you'll have a difficult time making a choice. This is a very different experience from something like WordPress, where the hard part is choosing a template you actually like from a potential pool of thousands. After selecting a basic design, Squarespace offers visual editing tools that offer instant feedback. People comfortable with code can jump in and make edits to the CSS as well.
On top of well-thought-out design and editing features, the platform makes it incredibly easy to add page content. Whether you're posting in your blog, creating a static page or adding a photo gallery, you can do it with little effort and expect beautiful results. If you want to allow comments on a blog post, you just turn them on. Users log in using their existing Twitter or Facebook accounts, or you can integrate the popular internet-wide commenting system Disqus. Integrating social media just takes a few clicks, statistics are thorough and well-presented, and you can even manage your site with a mobile app. In the past I've found Squarespace too limited, but the latest release is thoroughly impressive.
Squarespace offers a stellar platform, but that comes at a cost. If you're trying to build a small site, every other option we look at here will cost you less money. Building a site with Squarespace will cost you $US8 a month if you prepay for a year. That's a small amount but will add up fast if you have multiple sites. The feature set on the cheapest plan is also more limited; for the full range of options, you need to pay $US16 a month (on an annual contract). Paying $US192 a year is a hefty price tag for a single site if you aren't drawing loads of visitors every day.
Pricing aside, Squarespace only makes good sense if your site requires a number of pages or you want to start a blog. It's essentially wasteful to use such a powerful platform for a tiny, static site. That waste becomes even greater when you factor in how much you're paying for the service. The same could be said for other full-blown CMS systems, but those are often available for free.
The Bottom Line
While Squarespace is a phenomenal platform, it doesn't make sense for everyone. If you want to create a large web site quickly, avoid worries about traffic and don't mind the fees, Squarespace is the way to go. For smaller sites, another solution will suit you better.
WordPress: Nearly Unlimited Options
WordPress has been the CMS of choice for many bloggers and web site creators for years. While the original code dates back nine years, it still holds up as an incredibly powerful and versatile platform (we use it for Lifehacker). You can do a lot with WordPress even if you don't know how to code, but if you can the possibilities are enormous.
WordPress is an open source project with an enormous user base and developer community. Not only is the platform easy to use when creating sites, if there's something it can't do out of the box you'll usually be able to find a plug-in (or 20) that solves the problem. You'll also have access to massive selection of site templates (called themes in WordPress jargon). Some templates cost money, but many are available for free.
WordPress provides numerous options for just about every possibility you can think of, and if you know how to code you can create custom plug-ins and themes for yourself as while. (We have a detailed guide on how to do that.)
Thanks to WordPress' open source status, you can choose whether you want to install the software on your own server or sign up for a hosted version at WordPress.com or another provider. For $US100 per year (about $US8.33 per month), which is about the same price as a basic Squarespace account, you get a wide range of features, including a custom domain name.
Although WordPress is highly customisable, you'll still need to know how to code to have full control over the design. Even with a comprehensive tutorial, you'll still need to learn the basics of coding in order to create your own theme.
The massive number of plug-ins and pre-existing themes can be a little daunting. With so many options, you'll have trouble sorting through them all to find exactly what you're looking for. WordPress tries to alleviate this problem with a ratings system, but that doesn't mean a good plug-in has the exact feature set you want. Additionally, many plug-ins and themes become outdated when WordPress updates.
Because WordPress is so popular it's often a target for spammers and hackers. However, if you keep your installation updated regularly, you don't have as much to worry about. Spam comments are also a frequent issue, though plug-ins like Akismet (built into default installations) and SpamBam can help reduce the problem.
The Bottom Line
WordPress remains a solid choice for building sites. It offers more customisation options than any other platform, but you may miss out on some of that if you don't have any coding skills. It scales well and it's easy to get started for nothing.
Tumblr: Great For Non-Coders Seeking Community
Tumblr is a microblogging platform, which means it was designed for to host a lot of short posts. Nevertheless, you can use it to create a web site. Your options are limited, but you don't have to code and you gain the benefits of joining a large, thriving community.
Tumblr offers a very simple way to get your content online fast. All you do is sign up, pick a template, and start posting. Your posts show up on your site (yourusername.tumblr.com by default, though you can assign a custom domain), and other Tumblr users can reblog them easily. This makes it possible for your content to reach more people with virtually no effort on your part. Tumblr users who subscribe to your Tumblr will see all the new items you post, and non-Tumblr users can grab an auto-generated RSS feed to get updates through their newsreader application. If you want more than a (micro)blog, Tumblr also allows the creation of static pages.
Although you can create a site with Tumblr, your options are limited. The service wasn't designed for complex web pages. Any serious customisation requires a knowledge of CSS and HTML (for template editing purposes), and even then your options are limited. Tumblr has encountered serious security and downtime issues in the past. That's a potential challenge for any site, but worth bearing in mind, especially since you'll have limited recourse given you aren't paying to use the service.
The Bottom Line
If you want to create a simple blog, pay nothing, and benefit from Tumblr's online community, it's a good choice. If you want more flexibility, pick another option.
Coding From Scratch: First Choice For Control Freaks
When you want to construct a web site to exacting standards, you have to code from scratch. Obviously this means you need to know the basics of programming and how to make a web site, as well as some design skills. If you have the time and the skills, nothing offers more control than building a site from the ground up.
You can do anything you want. You can host the site anywhere you want. What you can accomplish is only limited by your ability to learn.
The Bottom Line
Building a web site from scratch offers a lot of control and costs nothing (aside from paying for a web host), but requires a lot of time. If you're building a small site and have the requisite skills, it's a good option.
The options above do not represent every single tool that's available; they're our pick of the best choices for a range of skill levels. If you want to look further afield, here are some other alternatives to consider.
The service you choose will always come down to the needs of the site you're creating. Even if you really like one of the services we have discussed herehere, remember that the next site you create may work better with a different tool. Choose wisely for the best results and you'll create a site that you're proud of.