Since I build websites for a living, you may be surprised to know that sometimes I suggest to clients that they might be better off building their own.
It all depends on what they need and what their priorities are.
When you don’t need an expert to build your website…
When starting out, most small businesses or organisations don’t need much from a website. Generally, they just want a “brochure site”, i.e. a few pages explaining who they are, what they do, how to contact them, and so on.
Of course I can do that. But if the budget is tight (as it often is for a new business), then is that a wise investment for you?
If your website’s main purpose is “so that I have a website”, then it probably doesn’t matter whether the design is a bit rough around the edges, or the copy isn’t perfectly targeted to your audience, or it’s not perfectly optimised for speed and for search engines.
Is it going to attract more customers to have a bells-and-whistles website? Unlikely. Is it going to make your business processes more efficient? Probably not.
In these situations, it might be better to do it yourself (for now). In a year or so, when your business is more developed, take another look and see whether you need more.
…and when you might.
Having said that, of course there are times when it’s sensible to get a professional to build your start-up website, even if money is tight.
Time, as they say, is money, and creating a website for yourself will definitely take time. Among other things, you’ll need to:
- work out what web-building tools to use and then learn how to use them;
- get to grips with new bits of jargon;
- write text and select images;
- think about layout and site structure;
- research and make decisions about what you need from your website hosting and which company to use;
- decide who’ll be responsible for content updates and for technical maintenance.
When you’re setting up a business, you’ve got a lot on your plate already, so it could make sense to get someone else to do that work.
Or perhaps you need something a bit more complicated than a brochure site.
You might want to take bookings online, or to display listings, or create multiple image galleries, or offer downloads, or to restrict some parts of the website to members only, or many other things that aren’t quite so straightforward.
Of course there are solutions for all of these, but do you know how to find them? Do you have time (or inclination!) to work out the options and get it set up right? What if you pick the wrong one and have to go back and start again?
If you’re not sure whether or not to try building your website yourself, do get in touch for a chat.
Tools to build your own website
If you’ve decided that you want to create your website yourself, here are some of the ‘DIY’ options that are available, and a few general tips.
One of the cheapest and simplest DIY options is to use a website builder like Weebly, Wix, Google Sites, Squarespace etc. Many hosting companies, such as 1&1 and GoDaddy also have their own web-builder tools. You’ll often get a free domain name bundled with these, and some also make images available to you to use.
This means that they can be great value.
Which website builder you choose often comes down to small details or to personal preference. Many have a free trial period so it’s worth signing up and trying out a few to decide which suits you best.
With hosted website builders, all the “back end” stuff is taken care of for you. You don’t have to worry about backups or security or updates, which means you can focus on your website content and design.
However, website builders do have their drawbacks.
The main issue is that you don’t actually own your website!
Of course the content is yours, but the code isn’t. If you decide that you want to move to another provider, you can’t just take the website with you as it is – it will need to be rebuilt. If you’ve used images provided via your web builder tool, you won’t be able to use those elsewhere either.
Squarespace has some export features which mean you can import your content (but not design) into something like WordPress or Joomla. Otherwise, you may find that you have to copy and paste your content page-by-page into a new website.
If your site is small, this may not be too much of a headache. But if you have a lot of pages, or image galleries, or sales and customer information stored in your website, it can be much more laborious.
Also, be aware that these companies tend to upsell a lot. The basic offer may be very reasonably priced but there are often ‘optional’ extras, which can tot up quickly. The most extreme example of this I’ve seen is a company that actively hides your website from search engines unless you pay a hefty extra fee!
In particular, watch out for those ‘free domain’ offers as the renewal prices are often higher as a result.
This is effectively another website builder but I’m giving it a special mention as with WordPress.com you do own your website and the basic package (including updates, security and hosting) is completely free!
However, for a business, you’ll almost certainly want to remove the WordPress branding and use your own domain name, so you’ll need a paid plan (starting at £4/month).
Another big strength of WordPress.com is that it’s very easy to expand as your business grows. If and when you need more from your website – perhaps e-commerce, a booking feature, or a more functional gallery – you can migrate to a self-hosted WordPress set-up, which gives you huge flexibility to add any features that you need.
Self-Hosted Open-Source platforms
They’re completely free to install and use, and you can adapt them however you want. All you need is your domain and some web hosting.
All three of these systems include the ability to add extra features through ‘Plugins’ or ‘Extensions’ (depending which CMS you’re using).
Many plugins/extensions are free, others come at a cost. They can provide anything from social sharing buttons to membership systems, job listings, galleries, or e-commerce. In short, these mean you can build exactly what you need… without having extra stuff that you don’t.
There are also many design ‘Templates’ or ‘Themes’ to choose from, both free and paid. Alternatively you can get a developer to build a custom theme so your website looks exactly how you want it.
The downside of a self-hosted CMS is that you are wholly responsible for your website set-up. This means that you will need to:
- organise your own web hosting. (Note that this is also an upside! It’s very simple to move your entire website to a new web host, meaning you can move whenever you want to get better service or price);
- take sensible precautions when installing plugins/extensions and themes/templates. Because these are open source, absolutely anyone can build these, so you need to check for yourself whether you trust a certain application or author;
- keep the software up to date (usually just a matter of occasionally clicking an ‘update’ button);
- make sure your site is backed up regularly. You may find that your hosting company do this for you (note that some may charge a fee to restore from a backup). Alternatively, you can do this for yourself via a plugin/extension.
The biggest advantages of an open source CMS are ownership and flexibility. You own your website and can do absolutely anything you want with it – often at very low cost.
Of these three examples, WordPress is the simplest for a novice, and it’s also the most widely-used. Joomla! and Drupal are generally better for enterprise-level websites or those with a complex e-commerce set-up. However they are also more complicated to use. If you’re not comfortable with code, you’re likely to need specialist help.
Of course, I realise that I’m a little biased towards WordPress so here’s a more impartial comparison of WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal.
Other things to think about
1. Domain Names
Whichever solution you opt for, I strongly recommend registering your domain name with someone other than your web host/web builder company.
- Having the domain registered elsewhere makes it much easier to move your website (and/or email) if you want to. (I have even heard of occasions where a web-builder company refused to release a domain name until the contract had expired).
- That tempting ‘free domain for the first year’ offer with your web hosting often translates into ‘we charge you double in the second and subsequent years’!
I currently use Namecheap which is, as the name suggests, good value, but there are many other excellent domain registrars. It’s worth shopping around to find the best price for your domain. Remember to check the renewal costs too.
It can be very tempting to choose the cheapest web hosting around but do so with caution. Think about the cost to your business if your site goes offline, or if you have to spend hours on the phone to your hosting company’s support line.
Just because you can buy hosting for 99p a month doesn’t mean you should!
The quality of your hosting can have a big impact on the speed of your website, which is hugely important . Some hosting companies will charge extra if you go over a certain number of users. Some charge for an SSL/TLS certificate, whereas others offer this free.
Most companies have an introductory offer, so make sure you check what the cost will be after that introductory period.
If you have an ecommerce site, or one with high traffic, it’s even more important to have a robust host.
For brochure sites, blogs, simple business websites, and low-traffic ecommerce sites, I currently use and recommend SiteGround. They have strong security features, great customer service (via ticket or live chat as well as phone support), offer SSL/TLS as standard for all sites, and are GDPR-compliant.
Other web hosts recommended by my fellow developers are:
There’s a bit of a WordPress bias in this list as that’s my area of expertise! In particular, Kinsta and WP Engine are both fully-managed specialist WordPress hosts. This means that they’re optimised to make WordPress run well and they’ll take care of all the routine backup and security issues I mentioned earlier.
Some web hosting or web-builder packages don’t include email services. Assuming you want to use a ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ email address, you’d need to set that up separately.
One of the best options is G-Suite which, in addition to a great email service, offers a range of business tools such as video conferencing, online document editing and sharing and online calendars.
A slightly cheaper alternative is Zoho which, like G-Suite, includes online business and collaboration tools. You can even use Zoho free if you don’t mind using webmail instead of downloading emails to your device.
No matter how beautiful and informative your website is, please don’t expect people to come flocking to it spontaneously, ready to buy your products or services.
Some people might stumble across it but, if you really want to drum up business, you will need to do some marketing. That could be via traditional advertising methods or through online methods like social media or SEO and SEM. Either way, it’s likely to cost you time and/or money, so be prepared.
If you have any questions about setting up your own small business website, or tips you’d like to share, do get in touch.
Edited Sept 2019 to update WordPress.com pricing info and add link to Google Sites.