Squarespace vs WordPress vs Custom For a Small Business Website
So you're thinking about building a new website, huh? That's great! Before you dive in, let's take a look at three of the best platforms you can use—and how each one fits with your budget, goals, and resources.
First of all, what is it? Squarespace is a "website builder," which means that it can be edited by someone with no technical experience (rather than hiring a developer). You'll pay a small monthly or yearly subscription fee which covers everything you need—from hosting and support to e-commerce and content management.
If you've ever felt like your website was being "held hostage" by an unresponsive developer or agency, you'll appreciate the freedom that Squarespace provides. The editing interface allows you to easily drag and drop content, so there's no hidden functionality. If you see something you want to change, you can probably do so just by clicking on it.
Most business owners I've talked to say they just want to "set and forget" their website. Of course, you'll want to keep updating your content, but with Squarespace you'll never have to worry about the boring, stressful stuff: security, hosting, updating plugins, etc. Your subscription of $12–40/mo takes care of all that (unlike the other two platforms, which we'll get to in just a bit).
I also love how Squarespace sites look. While you have plenty of options for customization, Squarespace places helpful limitations on the design changes you can make. It's kind of like bowling with bumpers—you're never going to land in the gutters (aka, it's pretty hard to mess things up). Other website builders give you way too much freedom or not enough, so my clients appreciate the balance.
Affordable ($12–40/mo, billed yearly)
Good design limitations
No technical experience required for editing
Secure and low-maintenance
Free Getty Images access
Eventually, you're going to envision a custom feature or design that can't be done in Squarespace. You can hire a developer to implement these kinds of updates, but the question to ask yourself is: "Do I really need this?" In other words, will it significantly benefit your business or is it just something that would be nice to have?
I think the answer to this question is "no" 99% of the time, and for the 1% when it's "yes," you're probably better off switching to one of the other options I'll cover below, instead of trying to hack Squarespace into something more advanced than it was intended to be.
There are a few minor annoyances with Squarespace. For example, the editor can be slow at times and you might find yourself copying and pasting to reuse content or styles because there's no built-in way to create "custom post types" and automate their display, etc.
Limited custom functionality and styling
Editor is occasionally slow
Sometimes requires copy-and-pasting to reuse content
Small businesses who want a modern, easy-to-customize website that provides all the basic features they need and requires no longterm maintenance. You expect to pay between $2–5k for the site, then $12–40/mo for your all-inclusive Squarespace subscription.
Did you know WordPress powers 33% of all websites on the internet? Holy cow! Technically, it started as a blogging platform, but with a library of literally thousands of "plugins" and "themes," you can now build (pretty much) anything you want with WordPress for a reasonable price.
The first thing to understand about Wordpress is that it's an "open-source content management system (CMS)." Ahhhh, tech jargon...run away!
It's ok, don't panic. Here's what that means:
While Squarespace is a service you pay for, Wordpress is just a piece of really flexible software. It's free to use—you can edit it as much as you want and host it wherever you prefer.
Customization is one of the major reasons you might consider WordPress, and you can do this by either hiring a developer to build you a "theme" from scratch or by using one of the many "theme templates" that are available to purchase for as little as $5.
You can also mix-and-match by buying a template and modifying or adding certain functionality through custom coding or by installing a plugin—which can be done in a matter of seconds (although there are significant risks, which I'll cover in the next section).
Open-source and highly flexible
Tons of plugins for quick customization
Many different theme templates
Custom styling and functionality
Huge pool of developers to hire
Generally, very good for SEO
Having worked as a WordPress developer for three years, I've experienced both positive and negative aspects—they're often connected.
For example, if you can envision a new feature for your website, chances are you can make it happen simply by installing a plugin. However, the vast majority of WordPress plugins are either low-quality or downright dangerous. As of 2017, 70% of all WordPress websites were vulnerable to hacker attacks (it only takes one line of bad code).
Worse, you can't "set and forget" a WordPress site like you can with Squarespace. You'll have to keep updating the plugins and "core files" from now until the end of time. This can be automated, of course, but there's no guarantee that a bug in a future update won't crash your entire site. The best remedy is to go with some kind of managed hosting service that deals with all this nonsense for you.
Finally, we come to the massive WordPress community. I personally love open-source projects, because they allow lots of different people to contribute innovative ideas. Unfortunately, this has also resulted in WordPress being pulled in a thousand different directions—no one can seem to agree on what it actually "is."
The clunky interface, inconsistent functionality, and odd remnants of the blogging-only platform is started out as all give you the feeling of someone having attached a rocket engine to a horse and buggy.
Vulnerable to hacking
Many low-quality plugins and theme templates
Requires constant updates and maintenance
Outdated, clunky interface
Slow to release new features and improvements
Small and medium-sized businesses that need special functionality and/or styling. You can expect to pay between $5–15k+ for your site, then $5–200/mo for hosting, depending on how much traffic you get and how maintenance support you need.
This is basically a catch-all category for any solution that involves more than just making some tweaks to a WordPress template. At this point, we're moving into the $20-100k+ budget range, so, as a small business, you would want to have a really good reason to go down this path.
When I (and my clients) finally got sick of dealing with WordPress, I started moving all the sites I manage over to a more secure, lower-maintenance "stack" (aka, a group of technologies you use to achieve a certain result). FYI, while there are tons of different custom coding stacks you could use, they're going to share many of the same benefits and downsides.
I used a combination of Contentful and GatsbyJS to create "static sites," which was initially fantastic because it totally removed the need for maintenance and allowed me to start from scratch, instead of hacking away at a Wordpress install. Imagine the difference between building a house and modifying an existing one—assuming you have the budget, the house you build will always be closer to your ideal.
Another benefit of custom coding, which increases in value as you scale, is the ability to fine-tune your website's performance. With minimal effort, I was able to optimize my sites so that they loaded in under ONE-FIFTH of a second, which had a significant impact on SEO. Contentful also allowed me set up custom backends that saved my clients time and were a general pleasure to use (unlike WordPress).
Freedom to use cutting-edge technologies
Ability to fine-tune your site's performance
Starting from scratch versus hacking a template
Excellent for SEO
The biggest drawback of fully custom-coded websites is their price. When I switched away from WordPress to Contentful and GatsbyJS, I thought I had found the holy grail. My sites were blazing fast, easy to manage, and perfectly-styled. Unfortunately, coding is expensive and time-consuming. I ultimately realized that there was no way to make it affordable for small businesses.
Part of the problem was that even though my custom-coded sites didn't need to be maintained, my clients still wanted to make revisions from time to time. And because I was rapidly improving my process to keep up with the pace that technology changes at, a website I built even two months ago would feel alien and outdated (aka expensive to start working on again).
When I looked at the benefits of custom development, they simply didn't justify the cost for my smaller clients. Squarespace could do 95% of the things I needed for a fraction of the price tag, and it even has some benefits over custom-coding. For example, my clients can now manage their websites in-house—they don't have to rely on a developer for every little change they want to make. Which means I have more time to help more businesses. Win-win.
For larger businesses, I think custom-coded websites can be an excellent option. But, you're probably best off hiring an agency or an in-house developer, as freelancers can go AWOL or simply run out of bandwidth.
High price tag ($20k+)
Reliant on a developer or agency
Cutting-edge = fewer qualified developers
Medium or large companies who can afford to keep an agency on retainer or hire an in-house developer. Expect to pay $20–100k+ for more customized solutions.
The Bottom Line
So, what's the best website platform for your small business? The answer for almost everyone will be Squarespace. The templates are beautiful and flexible, the interface is user-friendly, it's highly affordable, and you can manage your site in-house.
If you think you need special functionality or styling, ask yourself, "Will this actually benefit my business in any measurable way? Would the reward be worth the investment?"
If you answered "yes" to the first question and "no" to the second, then WordPress might be a good middle-of-the-road option with lots of flexibility for a lower price. However, if you have $20–100k to spend, I would go for a custom solution because the money you save by using WordPress will not be worth the headaches.
Whatever your goals are, I'll help you find a great solution—whether that means getting you up-and-running on Squarespace or recommending an expert in one of the other options we covered. Feel free to reach out with questions, and thanks for reading!