Advanced website builders — the tools provided by Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, The Grid and more — produce websites that look and feel like they were designed and coded by humans. They’re also software as a service, which is a different business model than traditional, custom-developed websites. So, should companies use them? At some point, will they replace custom development?
In short, yes.
Self-serve website-builder platforms are quietly becoming very powerful. A lot of us write them off without much thought, but it’s time for agencies and custom development shops to pay attention. It won’t be hard to stay ahead of the builders… once we acknowledge they’re coming for us.
Further Reading on SmashingMag:
- Designing For Content Management Systems
- A Comprehensive Guide To HTTP/2 Server Push
- Be Afraid Of HTTP Public Key Pinning (HPKP)
- The Current State Of Authentication: We Have A Password Problem
What Is An Advanced Website Builder?
In 2004, the year my web design agency incorporated, a professional website experience cost six figures and took half a year or more to launch. Today, a business can buy a website on Squarespace for $12 per month and be live the same day.
Squarespace is an advanced website builder. It’s a subscription service where, without code, you can build and serve a website for your business. It offers only templated design, little or no help with copy, and nothing in the way of advanced user experience design. However, the templates are very slick, businesses often pull content from other places, and the basic user experience is excellent. Basically, Squarespace works for a lot of businesses.
As standards solidify, websites are in danger of becoming commoditized. Instead of a custom website, money will be spent on social media, bots, email automation and all kinds of other things. For a growing number of businesses, the website is already becoming a box to check off, and money is going into other areas.
Squarespace doesn’t work for most businesses today, but that will not always be true. Functionality, quality and customizations will keep getting better.
The Current Website Market
Established best practices and improved browser technologies allow website builders to deliver a lot of value out of the box. Essentially, they cover all of the baseline requirements for a solid website — from SEO to responsive design to professional visual representation. Just a few years ago, only custom development could deliver that baseline value. Now website platform companies are doing it at scale. Scale gives the builders unprecedented flexibility in pricing, and it’s changing the website industry.
Most businesses today need more than a baseline website, but there are a lot that don’t. If website builders can automate coding and deliver the same value as custom websites, the market will notice. Why would a consumer pay more and wait longer to get the same value?
To be clear, I didn’t say the same product. I said the same value. Websites created with templates and builders aren’t going to win awards — but they can win business.
Custom Development Is Not Doomed
There are plenty of reasons to go with custom development today, but there are four main needs that advanced website-building tools can’t meet. I’d consider these the selling points of custom web development. These are the things we can tell potential clients so that they hire us, instead of using a website builder. One reason I felt compelled to write this article, though, is that it’s getting harder to sell custom development on these points alone.
Remember Arcade Fire’s Wilderness Downtown video, which integrated with Google Maps and zoomed in on your exact house as part of the video’s storyline? Squarespace can’t make that.
Or how about the Andersson-Wise website in the early days of responsive design? Or how about responsive web design itself?
The builders couldn’t have invented responsive web design. Humans (well, a human) had to custom develop it first. The web was forged by pioneers who took the tools available to them and pushed the limits. Experimentation and the wow factor will be around forever.
Security is hard at scale, and for governments and other super-sensitive organizations, being on a third-party platform and paying monthly is not secure enough.
Even in cases where custom development is potentially less secure than a platform, just the thought of putting security in the hands of a third-party is enough to deter some organizations.
Similar to security, some organizations require integrations and workflows that wouldn’t be available within website builders made for the masses.
Custom integrations are particularly important for legacy businesses and systems. If you’re using all the latest software as a service to run your business, then website builders are magic. If you’re the airline industry, they’re not even an option.
This one is getting tricky, because basic integrations are already part of the builders. If you use Google Analytics, MailChimp and Wistia, then you’re good with builders. If you have a custom Salesforce or NetSuite set up that needs to work with your website, you’ll definitely want to go custom.
This is a huge opportunity for custom web developers. As technology permeates every part of every business, there’s a real need for advanced integrations and workflows — the kind that website builders might never be able to touch.
As “basic” web development moves towards commoditization, businesses will look to advanced web development to stand out. Creating platforms for businesses and/or their customers is another opportunity.
I’m using the term platform to include website builder platforms, content management systems, account and project management portals, and similar web-based products. They could be customer-facing or internal, but they all help people accomplish tasks.
Projects like these are as custom as one business to the next, so they seem safe against builders for the foreseeable future. However, I still recommend managing advanced web development projects more like the builders (i.e. more like SaaS) to stay competitive.
Ultimately, I believe that most custom development shops will actually turn into website platform companies. It’s a logical evolution.
Development Isn’t Everything
Code is just one part of a website. Custom development typically comes with expertise in other areas, including business consulting. Website builders can help with things like the basic user experience, email automation and analytics reporting, but they still expect the business owners to do things themselves. They’re a tool, not a consultant.
This is a critical distinction, because even if website builders take a majority of custom development work off the table, businesses will still need visual and user experience designers. Then, if the templates get so good that designers aren’t needed, businesses will need copywriters. Et cetera. Ultimately, as more things are done automatically, businesses will look to specialized (read “custom”) execution to stand out. Another opportunity.
This parallels the TV and film industry. It used to take expensive equipment, airtime deals and a large crew to get on TV. Now with a mobile phone and Internet access, anyone can broadcast to millions on YouTube. The broadcasting process was commoditized.
Now broadcasting itself no longer means much. It takes stage presence, great content, organized presentation and more to get attention amongst all the other broadcasters.
Website builders are the YouTube of our industry, but like YouTube, that doesn’t actually say much about their quality or effectiveness. That’s to be determined. It does say that they’re going to put a lot more websites on the Internet and create competition in our industry.
Fortunately, agencies and custom development shops are not doomed. The landscape is changing for sure, but as it gets more accessible and more competitive, there’s a growing need for experts.
There’s a classic rule in service businesses: good, fast, cheap… choose two.
Advanced website builders are the exception. They build something good, slowly and expensively at first, but they license it to the world quickly and cheaply. The result is an advantage that’s hard to match with custom development.
This is the main reason that custom developers and the website industry should pay attention to the builders. For clients, getting something fast and cheap means they’ll let a little bit of good slide. Great is always better than good, but if great costs more and takes longer, good may be enough.
That’s why the builders are dangerous. They won’t make better websites than we do, but they only need to make websites that are good enough.
To stay competitive, we need to keep an open mind. Below are the areas that custom development needs to pay attention to. Without updating current business models, most agencies and custom development shops won’t be able to compete.
The web today is all about integrations. Every service has an API, and importing, exporting and combining data is essential to modern business. If a website isn’t reporting metrics, capturing emails and funneling leads in 2017, it’s not doing its job.
Custom developers can integrate services, but website builders come with integrations built into their platforms, and website owners pick and choose the services they want to use — at any time, and usually at no extra cost.
Look at the list of Squarespace integrations that are completely out of the box. This is stuff that you click to enable, and it works on your website instantly. It also fully supports third-party integrations, 24⁄7. Can your clients call you at 3:00 am about their Wistia video integration?
The Wix App Market is an example of both integrations and the sheer functionality that is made drag-and-droppable by builders. (Like it or not, it’s impressive.) As each website builder’s list of integrations grows, it gets harder and harder to compete with on price and speed.
Another example is Shopify’s Google Analytics advanced e-commerce integration. E-commerce businesses can report extensively on e-commerce activity in Google Analytics by setting up their property and website correctly. Store owners can track a full sales funnel, from referral source through to purchase, within Analytics for free.
This only works if you have everything set up correctly, though, and the setup can get in depth. With Shopify, all of that works out of the box, no setup required. Same for the e-commerce conversions in your Facebook account.
If custom development shops evolve into platform companies, then integrations would get built once. Without a platform, it gets really expensive to build them project by project.
It seems impossible to compete on price and offer the same features as the builders, because their business models are fundamentally different than agencies and custom development shops.
As long as consumers find value in their products, the website builders’ pricing model will remain very attractive. Over time, website buyers will learn to expect a better product for less money — custom or not.
Below is a breakdown of pricing for the popular website builders. You can see there’s still some room for custom developers to get creative and compete, but these prices are depressingly low compared to custom development. Beyond the pricing tiers in this chart, website builders offer more expensive monthly plans, one-time paid upgrades, and often a third-party marketplace for paid plugins. This chart is the lowest “business-level” pricing tier for each service.
|Brochure website||E-commerce website|
|The Grid||$8/month||Coming 2017|
The interesting thing about the monthly pricing model is that the buyer pays forever (as long as the website is up). The payments are low, though, so it would take 20 years to equal the high up-front cost of most custom development. Not to mention, all of the builders include hosting in their price.
Getting paid monthly forever has its upside for an agency, though. Agencies and development shops should think about what features or services they can add on and upsell over time, so that they can charge less up front or only a low monthly fee. Shifting the focus to customer lifetime value from a single project’s value provides a lot of opportunity to get creative with pricing and service models. It also encourages better work.
Website design has shifted in the last few years. There was once a focus on creativity and brand experience, but now there is a general emphasis on usability, familiarity and compatibility. Of course, there are brands that push their design, but in the grand scheme of all businesses, they’re not the majority. For example, does a law firm’s website require cutting-edge design? It needs to look professional and be on brand, but it mostly needs to load fast and be understood quickly on any device.
With most website builder services, you choose a design as the first step. And it’s not vague or conceptual — you look at finished designs and choose one. You see exactly what the website will look like, and you can assume it will generally be bug-free and polished.
This seems counter-intuitive to designers, but it’s actually super-intuitive for non-design minds.
In addition, it’s more or less a given that the design will be responsive (except for Wix, but they use a separately designed mobile version). Similar to the integrations, the platforms are doing responsive at scale, so they typically cover a much broader range of devices and circumstances than a custom-developed website.
The Grid takes the streamlined design process a step further and designs itself. So does Wix ADI. Based on some questions and the content you provide, the layout and structure of the website adapt and evolve. The website owner doesn’t need to think about design at all, and their visitors get a professional experience.
Design is amazingly important, and most businesses today realize this, but it’s not unique design that’s valued — it’s effective design. That small distinction could help reframe things for designers who might not see it from a purely business perspective (not that anything should be viewed from a purely business perspective).
Custom design and development shops just need to rethink their process. Typically, no two agency-client design processes are that much alike, and results vary wildly from client to client (even within the same agency). This is a sticky point for clients. The appeal of seeing a final design — knowing what they’re getting, knowing how much they’ll pay — is great, and it’s hard to compete with. The way that custom design can win is by focusing the process on education and expertise. The agency learns everything about the company, brand and mission, and they use their experience and expertise to present the one correct solution.
That pitch would certainly make me rethink my ability to choose from 10 prebuilt templates.
Dashboards (The New Content Management Systems)
Another underserviced area where advanced builders are pulling ahead is dashboards. Signing into Squarespace or Wix is unlike seeing traditional content management system back ends.
The dashboards are more like SaaS dashboards — beautifully designed and usually offering overview metrics, business insight and intelligent content suggestions (in addition to upselling). The value for the business goes beyond the ability to update their content.
Furthermore, most or all of the major providers offer app versions of their dashboards. This might seem trivial, but to the market, it’s a big plus. You never have to sign in or even remember a web address, and you can get push notifications when things happen with your website.
It’s challenging under the current model to add back-end-only dashboard features, but when done correctly, it’s a place to upsell and create tangible business value. Another opportunity.
Customer Support and Website Maintenance
The last areas that advanced website builders have an advantage in is ongoing customer service and self-serve front-end maintenance. Agencies and development shops typically deliver a content management system for content updates, but often it stops there.
As businesses grow and change, they might want to update more than content and imagery. For example, a business might need a one-off landing page, a campaign-specific lead-capture form or a new third-party integration. This level of self-serve customization is at the core of website-building platforms and doesn’t cost more money. Potential clients understand this.
In addition, if a website owner can’t figure out something on their own, 24⁄7 customer support is a call or email away. Knowing that free support and upgrades are available goes a long way towards making a purchasing decision.
It’s hard to imagine agencies building and supporting a website in that way for just $20 or $30 each month, but if agencies don’t find a way to make that happen (or provide additional value proportional to the higher cost), customers will use the builders.
Actionable Steps In Today’s Market
Ultimately, I’m a big believer in the market. Too many companies force their products or services on a market that has moved on or never existed. In the past, an eye-catching website was a way for businesses to get some attention or gain an advantage over their competitors, and websites were challenging to produce.
Today, however, a large percentage of websites use established layouts and patterns, and they’re easier to make than ever.
Everyone needs a website, but it’s not really about the website. For businesses, it’s about their content, brand and offering. The vehicle to deliver those things evolves — whether it’s made in Flash, handcoded HTML, WordPress, Tumblr, AngularJS, React, Squarespace or something else entirely. Facebook business pages even fall into this category.
If the content, brand and offering are what is important, how can we use our knowledge and experience as web people to promote those things? Can we optimize content and streamline content creation? What can we do to showcase brand values? Can we automate a marketing funnel? Or increase sales through an excellent user experience? We could potentially use the builders to create the website itself and sell those services on top! Our jobs as web developers and web experts aren’t eliminated if we don’t make actual websites — we move up.
I’m not trying to upend anyone’s business or career path. I’m trying to ensure we all grow as an industry. In a few years, the industry might look nothing like it does now. Those of us who ignore advanced website builders (and ignore the larger market) will fall behind, and those who pay attention will be just fine. In fact, those of us who pay attention have the opportunity to seriously improve our products, our businesses and our clients’ businesses.
That’s the message. This is a truly exciting time for the web industry, and it’s a great time to honestly evaluate what our clients want and need. More importantly, it’s time to acknowledge the competition from advanced website builders and to understand the things they’re doing right. We don’t have to use templates, charge pennies and answer clients at 3:00 am, but we do need always to provide more value than we cost and to put our clients’ needs before our own.