Could it possibly be easier? Click. Drag. Drop. Done. Presto! Congratulations – you’ve just created a website.
With a few easy steps, you could be Picasso with pixels, an artist who needs no training to create a stunning website. This is the work of automated website builders, sites that simplify the otherwise coding- and time-intensive (not to mention expensive) process of building a website. They are the IKEA of the internet, clarifying an otherwise prohibitively complex task for the average user in a few steps, all the while staying easy on the eyes.
But the site-building process, although simplified, is not by any means totally simple. Here’s the first irony of automatic website builders: it’s exceedingly difficult to find them with a single, or even many, Google searches. There are a few potential reasons for this: that they all excel at Search Engine Optimization (or SEO, for short), by now a standard service for the websites they create; that there are a bunch of charlatans posing as free website builders hoping to dupe the unsuspecting newbie into buying overpriced services; etc. After hours of frustrated searches, I felt like I wanted to take a sledgehammer to my laptop (an unusually drastic response, it should be noted, from someone usually very mild-mannered).
So, fortunately for you, dear readers, read no further. After having experienced this frustration myself, I will do my best to spare you from the dead-end searches for a service that is supposed to, at the end of the day, make our internet-based lives easier.
The audience for DIY website builders
This admittedly discursive venting touches upon an important distinction, one that, when ignored, has brought ruin on many a business plan: who is the target audience for these automated website builders? Are they targeting novices or professionals? The answer to this question has serious ramifications that quickly relate to differences in dollars. Does a website builder focus on its intuitiveness and ease of use to attract beginners, or does it add more power, features, and customability for more experienced and even professional users? More on the companies that do this later; for now, suffice it to say that this post is aimed towards the uninitiated tech greenhorns like myself.
So, let’s start from square one. Want to make a website?
Here’s how: on a high level, there are three basic parts to a web site, each of which parallels an element of brick-and-mortar stores:
- The domain name (for instance, ourcrowd.com), which is analogous to a business’s street address, directs the web browsers where to find the site.
- The web-hosting, or server, is the rented space on the web, similar to the a store’s square footage with the furnishings not included.
- The site files themselves, including of the text and images sent by the host from step #2 to the user, are what the furnishings and interior design are to a physical business.
Or, skip all the steps and use a website builder
Enter automated website builders, which (ideally) simplify this process. Here is a list of free web hosting services (the vast majority of which have a free site builder). [Though not on this list, there also exist more specialized and/or not free site builders – like Zozolo (start a website within Facebook) or Strikingly (free, but consists only one page to optimize for mobile websites) – but for the purposes of this post, I’ll be focusing on easy-to-use, free, and comprehensive site builders.]
These free sites generate revenue with what’s called a “freemium” model, in which they offer their product for free, but charge for advanced functionality once your foot is in the door, so to speak. In addition, to use all these sites, you don’t need to know how to write even one line of code, but you do have to have sufficient hand-eye coordination to “drag and drop” graphics to where you want them on the site. And this is exactly how the site will appear, as these site builders are all WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), meaning no annoying toggling between editing and preview modes.
Leading the pack
Of all these options of free site builders, which to pick? I’ll discuss three interesting players – Wix, Weebly, and Jimdo – and if you’re still curious afterwards, feel free to try out some of the others. If you are interested in a more detailed comparison between these three sites, look at this very lucid slide deck for more information.
With 34 million registered users, and about 30,000 new ones signing up every day, Wix is the biggest of the free site builders. It is also arguably the best way for non-technical beginners to create a beautiful site. Founded in Tel Aviv in 2006, Wix has raised nearly $60 million in venture funding, and is planning to go public in an IPO on Wall Street.
Similar in style and function to Wix, Weebly boasts 15 million registered users and is a bit quicker to use. It allows you to make a very decent website quickly and painlessly so that you can focus on other, presumably more important, things.
Looking to make an e-commerce site? One of the main advantages of Jimdo, with 8 million users, is that it’s a hassle-free way to build an online shop, which allows you to track your orders and inventory and has a secure payment portal.
Even though they are paid players, it’s worth briefly mentioning two more sites: SquareSpace’s visual aestethic is way richer than those of its competitors, and might be worth splurging on if your site is photo-intensive. SnapPages is a scrappy Austin-based bootstrapped startup that, with no venture funding or advertisements, and at most three full-time staff, has managed to remain profitable. In addition, SnapPages tries to appeal to both novices and developers, unlike other site builders, target one side of the aforementioned novice-expert dichotomy.
The future market for website builders
Because my predictions have just as much predictive power as anyone else’s – that is to say, very little – I will venture that in the future, paid site builders will be passé as free sites improve their quality. Paid site builders will be like paid email providers. Who pays for email anymore? So why should a web address be different from a web site? And this quality will come from a few places. The first is secondary applications, the other things you can do with a website once the site is built. SEO is a good example, and is already pretty standard, but don’t be surprised if more free providers offer heatmaps, mouse tracking, A/B testing, etc. Second, the user experience can still be improved. The same way Israeli startup Magisto makes a movie for people who don’t want to go through the hassle, there’s room for a wall-to-wall, fully automatic website maker were the user only has to input her information to be returned with one (or three for that matter) automatically-created and completely finished websites.
Website builders, 2 trends, and Jar Jar Binks
I think the automated site builders touch upon two important trends.
The first is the trend towards automation. In a previous post, I wrote about how automation is increasing in automobiles, if incrementally. It’s hard to think of an area of our lives that can’t be made more efficient by delegating through technology. One area with room for improvement pertinent to our topic is step #1, finding a domain name. There’s a need for a domain name generator that finds a name not by using simple hacks (like dropping the last vowel or rearranging the letters, which just ends up butchering the words), but rather by identify the semantic meanings of the inputted words to create normal-sounding domain names, scouring the internet afterwards to see which are available. (Yup, creativity as a service.) This might allow for website names that don’t sound like they are mimicking the tongue-tied Jar Jar Binks articulating a random handful of Scrabble tiles while gargling water. (This, in turn, can – but will not – turn into a discussion of internet drivel.) What, though, in my opinion is an equally interesting topic (for another time) is the inverse question: what cannot be automated? What stuff needs that contribution that only humans can provide?
Second, in general, there is an interesting product/service shift going on. It was the fashion for a decade to “productize” a service in order to reap its commercial potential; now it may be the other way round, as we increasingly divest ourselves of the physical and lend increasing value to the virtual. However, the automated site builders represent a countervailing shift, a way of turning the service of website creation, previously done by coders, into a product that anyone can use. It’s akin to how Turbotax can elide the need for accountants. The immediate result of these sites is that coding won’t be a barrier of entry for someone to put up a website. In the future, perhaps more areas that were formerly coded will become automated, to the extent that one day we might look back on current forms of coding as passé as their punchcard predecessors, as something that once was a sine qua non but now is almost totally automated for the masses.
Speculation aside, automated site builders are making websites easier to make, which is good, and the internet generally more accessible, which is also good. In the meantime, enjoy being Rembrandt on Rails. I wonder if that domain name is taken…