When choosing to build (or rebuild) a website, you might be presented with some options that depend on functionality requirements as well as your budget. This spectrum is bookended by off-the-shelf templated solutions and fully custom solutions. Since it is a spectrum, there may be other options in-between, but the web world is always evolving and trying to explain every conceivable option in detail is beyond the scope of this article. For the sake of simplicity, we'll focus on just the two.
Off-the-shelf templated sites
The term "off-the-shelf" refers to website builders like Squarespace, Duda, 1and1.com, and other "website builder" sites. These services are meant to provide budget-conscious people with a means to create a website cheaply, without having to pay a web development firm to build the site for them. Although these services do not require coding knowledge to use, they still require some degree of technical prowess. What makes them so cheap is that they have a catalog of templates to choose from that integrate directly with their proprietary content management system.
- Cheap and quick - In general, these types of sites are the cheapest and quickest to build, as there isn't much to the actual "build" process. It's mostly just selecting a template that you think fits best with your brand, customizing some colors, and then inserting content.
- Support - Since these sites use a proprietary content management system and templates that are all built by the same people within the same company, their support and customer service tends to be quite good, as all pieces of the site (CMS, templates) are their code.
- No coding necessary - Only a moderate amount of technical knowledge is even required to build the site and it often requires even less technical knowledge to make content updates once it's built.
- Cookie-cutter look - Since these sites are simply off-the-shelf, you're limited to the options available to you. There might be a large amount of templates to choose from, but you won't be able to really set apart your website too much from another one that utilizes the same template. It might look a bit "cookie-cutter".
- Functionality limitations - In the same vein as the previous con, you're also limited to the functionality in their proprietary content management system. If they don't have a tool you're looking for (perhaps some online appointment scheduling), you'll have to wait for that to be implemented by their team (assuming it ever happens), be forced to push your website visitors to a third-party website that provides that service (if you can find one), or just go without that feature.
- Security - Using the same platform (website builder service) as hundreds or thousands of other people means that the platform is a higher priority target for hackers. I'm not saying you'll get hacked, just that the platform is a larger target.
Best/Worst Used For
These off-the-shelf templated solutions are best used for websites that only need to function as an online business card. They can have some basic functionality as long as it's popular enough for the company to have built the feature into their platform.
Do not use an off-the-shelf templated website if you have very specific functionality requirements, or if you plan to expand the functionality of your website to features that might not be included in the content management system. If you did this, you'd likely have to rebuild in a more flexible platform later, so consider starting with a more scalable solution in the first place.
Custom sites can have a completely custom, built-from-scratch design that matches your brand to the letter. It can also have custom tools built directly into it that meet your needs exactly. Are your needs a bit atypical? Do the templated sites not have the exact tools you need? Then a custom website solution is your best bet.
With a custom solution in it's purest form, there really aren't limits to what you can do. We built the Fairbanks Museum's website which includes the "Eye on the Sky" and "Eye on the Night Sky", a weather (and night sky) forecasting tool with a SoundCloud integration. We also built the Vermont Energy Dashboard, which (among many other things) maps out the renewable energy system in the state of Vermont. These are just examples of what can be done when you're not limited by off-the-shelf products.
- Custom design and functionality - You can have a completely custom design tailored to your branding. In that same vein, you can have completely custom functionality tailored to your buisness needs.
- Scalability - Even if your website launched with maybe just a custom design but no custom tools at all, the custom tools can be easily added at a later date. People often build a website in phases like this, where Phase 1 includes a custom design, content, and some very basic functionality (like a contact form). Once their site is launched and working for them, it can be further enhanced with custom functionality as part of a Phase 2.
- Security - Utilizing a less popular (among the world wide web) platform to create the custom functionality just automatically makes your website less of a target. Hackers want to spend time finding exploits that they can use on as many websites as possible. They aren't usually interested in even attempting to find exploits in platforms that are not used by as many websites throughout the internet. It just isn't worth their time.
- Higher upfront cost - The biggest con with custom websites is that they can be significantly more expensive than the off-the-shelf solutions. This is why we recommend building your site in phases if there's a need for scalability but initial budget is limited.
- Limited initial feature set - The initial feature set might be more limited than the off-the-shelf sites, but any unavailable features can be implemented without issue, when the need arises.
- Longer development time - Custom sites also generally take longer to build than off-the-shelf solutions. This is mostly because of custom design, which introduces an entire design phase that doesn't happen when utilizing a template (or at least not nearly in the same capacity).
- Support - There is generally not as much support available beyond the team who builds the website. However, VDW takes pride in writing clean code that is easily readable/understandable by developers who've not built or worked with it.
Best/Worst Used For
Custom websites are best used when there is a need for the website to do a lot of work, such as handling event registrations, complex form submissions, detailed data visualizations, or just displaying content in a very specific way.
Definitely do not use a custom solution for a simple business card website unless you intend to scale up by adding custom features at a later time, specifically features with specific requirements that might not exist with the off-the-shelf solutions.
So Which Option Should I Choose?
At the end of the day, you really have to think about what your goals are and what goals your website could help you meet. Each option has it's place, and sometimes you can find options that exist between these two extremes that handle your situation in the best way. My suggestion would be to consider the options yourself and at least have an idea which way you are leaning, then contact a firm like us who can advise you and help you find your best path forward.