Jessica Wicks

What you need to know before choosing your website platform

Nov
17

The internet has come a long way over the past couple decades. Design trends have come and gone, and so have the tools we use to create websites.

We’ve moved into the realm where most people I talk to realize they have choices when it comes to creating their website. The decision is no longer between learning HTML and hiring a website designer. Actually, those haven’t been the only choices for over a decade, but the popularity (and marketing) of tools like Squarespace and WordPress have skyrocketed them into the mainstream. Everyone seems to have some idea of what they are.

My experience with website design

Early in my career, I was a freelance graphic designer and I realized that website design would be a great add-on service for my clients. In fact, for the first couple years of my business, it was my bread and butter. Let’s be clear – I’m not a developer. The best way to describe my website knowledge is ‘front-end designer,’ which basically means that I would plan what the website would look like and use HTML to make it work. Sometime around 2011 I discovered WordPress as a way to create a website and hand it off to clients to make their own updates, and I never looked back to plain old HTML. It wasn’t until 2014 that I started hearing and seeing ads for Squarespace, and in 2016 I’ve had the opportunity to work with clients on each of the website platforms.

I’m a bit biased to WordPress but I’ll try not to let that affect this article. I teach basic and advanced WordPress courses at my local college and have used the website platform for years. My experience with Squarespace is much more limited, but I have a good feel for what it’s like to use it and will make comparisons between the two in this article.

What are Squarespace and WordPress?

First, let’s talk about what these tools are and why you might want to use them. As you have probably gathered, both Squarespace and WordPress help you make websites. That much is the same about them, although how they operate is where you’ll find the differences.

Squarespace is a web builder subscription. You purchase a monthly or yearly plan from the company and they give you access to their tools for building websites. It’s a very visual way to design. You literally drag a photo or heading where you want it to be. You also get access to customer support with your subscription.

WordPress is an open-source content management system. WordPress itself is a free framework for placing content into a website, but you will need to find and pay for your own hosting, domain, and free or paid tools from other developers to build your website the way you want. Because of its popularity, there are free online resources for pretty much anything WordPress related, but you would need to pay a designer/developer if you wanted customized support.

The two WordPress options

It’s worth noting that there are actually two options for using WordPress, and that makes it confusing. WordPress.org is the free, open-source framework that I will be talking about for this post.

WordPress.com is a service that uses the free WordPress framework and monetizes it as a subscription service (although the first tier is free). Similar to Squarespace, WordPress.com takes care of your hosting and domain, offers customer support, but limits your customization options.

The reason I’ve chosen to compare Squarespace with WordPress.org is that it is much more powerful (and popular) than WordPress.com.

Which one is easier to setup?

Both can be incredibly easy to setup, although the benefit to Squarespace is that the setup all happens in one place. For an absolutely basic setup, you need hosting and a domain.

Hosting

If you’re using WordPress, you’ll want to decide on a web hosting company first. Think of hosting as leasing a property to build your house on. You can move hosts at any time, but it will take a little work. Most hosting companies have a 1-click setup to install WordPress, but if the one you choose doesn’t there are a couple additional steps.

It’s worth noting that many hosting subscriptions (paid monthly or yearly) can hold more than one website. Hosting generally costs between $4-100 per month depending on the level of security you need, the size of the files you’re storing (e.g. videos or high-res photos), and how much traffic you expect. It’s ok to start with a cheaper host and move to a more expensive one when you start to feel growing pains (e.g. your website crashes from too many visitors).

One major benefit to using Squarespace is that the hosting is part of your monthly subscription, and it is a very good quality host. There is no such thing as a perfect host, but your website is not as likely to be down on Squarespace as it is with a cheaper hosting package and WordPress.

Domain

First, you’ll want to decide on a domain name. This is your website address (e.g. www.mysite.com), and it has to be unique to your site. On Squarespace, you can search for and pay for a domain right within their website. If you’re using WordPress, you’ll need to purchase a domain and connect it to your host. If you’re very new to this, I suggest purchasing your domain from the same company you’ve chosen for hosting. That way connecting them is easier, and the support team at your hosting company will have all the information they need to help you out. I’ve used GoDaddy for this in the past, and it was pretty easy.

Pricing

Price is a big consideration when choosing between the two options. If you are going to have one website and expect a lot of traffic, Squarespace can be more cost efficient compared to paying for similar high-quality hosting with WordPress. If you decide to host more than one website, WordPress can pretty quickly become the better deal.

Which one will make my site look better?

You want your website to look good, obviously. The good news is that the style or look of your website is customizable in both WordPress and Squarespace. In fact, at the time of writing this WordPress is used on over 25% of the websites on the internet, and you probably didn’t even realize it because they all look so different.

WordPress uses ‘themes’ to setup the basic structure of your website. This includes things like where your navigation might go, whether you have a big banner image on your homepage, and how your blog posts are displayed. There are thousands of themes available for WordPress that you can find in marketplaces all over the internet. Some themes are free, but many are paid and a theme is only as good as the designer who created it. Some themes will have built-in functions, such as places for testimonials or a portfolio, so it’s worth spending the time to find the one that is as close to what you want your final website to look like as possible and that has good reviews. In addition to the basic structure, you’ll usually be able to choose your own colours and fonts in the theme preferences.

Squarespace uses ‘templates’ for the basic structure. At the time of writing, there are 58 templates available. They are all created by the Squarespace team and free to use with your subscription. As with WordPress, after you’ve chosen a template you can customize the fonts and colours, plus add additional functionality with some of their tools.

Plan your pages

One of the steps people miss when they create a website or choose a design is planning what they actually want to put on their website. That’s why for me, this step comes before choosing a design.

Every website has a home page (the page you see when you type in the web address), but what information do you plan to put on it?

What other pages do you need? Some common ones include:

  • About
  • Contact
  • Products/Services

Will you have a blog? If so, what kind of content will you publish in it?

You can plan your pages any way you want, but having a basic idea of what you want to put on your website will help you pick a theme or template. With both WordPress and Squarespace, getting it to look exactly how you want is a pain and beyond this beginner guide.

Which is more functional for more advanced website needs?

If you want to go beyond the basic ‘brochure’ style website or blog, there might be specific functions your looking for. It’s important to understand that Squarespace offers certain functions as part of the tool set that is built into their monthly cost, but that’s it. You can’t add other features. With WordPress, you can choose from thousands of tools called ‘plugins’ that add specific functions. Some plugins are small and focus on doing one thing, while others are more robust. Additionally, plugins may be free or have a one-time fee, or they may require a monthly subscription. It’s all up to the person or company that built the plugin.

For example, if you want an online store you can set up an e-commerce website right out of the gate with Squarespace by choosing from one of the 9 templates available. The monthly subscription fee is higher for e-commerce on Squarespace, but the option is there.

With WordPress, you have more options when it comes to e-commerce. When you first install WordPress, there is no e-commerce function built in so you have to add it with a plugin.

Probably the most popular way to do this is with a service called WooCommerce, which is free for the basics. If you want to do specific things with the store, you may need to pay a yearly fee for each additional service. If you go with WooCommerce, it’s best to choose a theme that has it built in to keep things as smooth as possible. Other popular options for e-commerce include plugins for Shopify, WP E-commerce, and MarketPress. Each has its own pros and cons, so initially, you’ll need to do a little more research to find which one is right for you.

Another example would be a membership site. If you want to give your users their own login to access special areas of your website, you can do this with WordPress plugins but the function doesn’t exist in Squarespace at this time.

The massive number of plugins available for WordPress is one of the reasons the website platform is so powerful, but also one of the areas you’ll have to do research and make decisions about. If two or more plugins don’t work well together, it’s up to you to figure out what’s going on. Also, if a plugin is not updated by the creator when a new version of WordPress comes out, it may stop working altogether. Just like with themes, it is important to read reviews and find a plugin developer you trust.

Which is easier for adding content and making changes?

Both systems have a slight learning curve to them. In fact, I’ve helped out clients on both website platforms when they started a project and just didn’t know how to work with them.

Changes in Squarespace

The argument I hear often is that Squarespace is easier to get started with because you are using a visual editor (what you see is what you get). You have a menu on the left of your screen and the website itself on the right.

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-2-50-02-pm

Editing a page in Squarespace with the menu on the left and visual editor on the right.

 

With WordPress, the biggest hurdle for a newbie to get over is that there is the front of your site (what other people see) and a hidden area called the dashboard (where you make changes and add content).

Front of a WP blog post

Front of a WP blog post

screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-10-17-06-am

Dashboard of a WordPress blog post (where you create the content and choose settings)

 

With the Squarespace visual editor, you have to click around the screen to figure out what changes you are able to make. With WordPress, you’ll need to try out different settings (like where to put an image) and preview it on the front end before deciding on a style you like.

Both website platforms will require you to spend time learning how to use them, and the biggest struggle for both will be upfront when you spend hours trying to publish your very first site. In this regard, WordPress will likely take you longer to get setup. Once you have the design and basic pages in place, adding new pages and blog posts on both is fairly easy.

Final thoughts

Squarespace is an all-in-one website platform, which means that they have complete control over the templates and tools that they provide to you. This can be a good thing – everything works well together, and if you need help their customer service team will know how to help you. It can also be terrible if you want to do something with your website and they don’t provide the tools to do it. With Squarespace, your choices are much more limited, but again this isn’t always bad. Choosing Squarespace means simplifying your choices to just what they offer.

WordPress is a central place to pull together themes, plugins, and widgets from external sources. There are thousands of choices to make – which hosting service to choose, what theme to buy, which plugins you need and trust. It can be exhausting. It can also be very rewarding when you find the combination that is right for you. As you learn new tools and techniques in WordPress, you’ll be able to build a website that is exactly how you want it.

Websites are a lot more than just the platform you build them on. Both Squarespace and WordPress will be challenging and frustrating at times. Both have their limitations. On either one you’ll spend a good amount of time planning where things should go, writing content, and creating graphics. Knowing what you want your website visitors to feel and do while they’re on your site is still the most important factor.

If the last big decision you want to make is whether you should WordPress or Squarespace, choose Squarespace. If you like to have control over which hosting plan you use and you don’t mind spending some time making decisions on themes and plugins to get things exactly how you want, choose WordPress.

At the end of the day, it comes down to how many options and how much control you would like to have.

Was this guide helpful? Is there anything you were hoping to learn about that wasn’t covered? Let me know in the comments.