Maybe you’re just starting out and you need a new website.
Or maybe you’ve got a website that looks a bit dated and you need to freshen it up a bit.
Whatever your situation, you’ll soon discover that you are spoilt for choice when it comes to building a website, whether you want to do it yourself or get someone else to do it for you.
Nowadays, most websites are built using a Content Management System (CMS) and that’s what we’re looking at and there are plenty to choose from. We’ve selected the most popular.
Now choice can be a good thing, but it can also be a bit overwhelming.
So here are some pointers to help you make the right choice of web design tool.
Why Do You Need a Website?
The first question to ask is what do you need your website for?
In our diagram, we’ve broken that down to two main choices:
- For a personal/hobby site or
- For a Business website
Let’s first look at personal and hobby sites first.
Personal / Hobby Websites
As we are talking about personal and hobby websites we assume that you will be on a low budget and would therefore ideally want to build and maintain your own website.
Depending on your level of technical skills there are 3 main options for you:
We’re going to look at WordPress and Drupal in more depth shortly, but if you are not a technical user or not used to using web design tools then at this stage we would probably point you towards using a Website Builder tool that your hosting company offers. We explain why below.
Most web hosting companies will provide you with a Do It Yourself (DIY) Website Builder tool with their hosting plans. These are often included as part of your hosting package and they offer several distinct advantages:
- Easy to use – gentle learning curve
- Browser based so no software to download
- Template based
- Click and publish – no complicated FTP software to master
- Easy to build contact Forms
- Social Media ready
- SEO ready
- Drag and drop design (images, text, photos, etc.)
- Maps integration
- Unlimited number of pages
- Limited Shopping Cart (depends on supplier)
- Ability to accept card/PayPal Payments
Whilst you can quickly build a nice looking website quite quickly and optimise it for SEO without being a coder, there are some limitations that you should be aware of.
Since most website builders are template based it is likely that you will be using a template that someone else is using so your website won’t look unique. As long as you’re aware of that then that shouldn’t be a huge issue for most personal or hobby websites.
However, if you want something unique then you probably need to look at another option which we’ll come onto shortly.
In terms of functionality you’re covered if a basic presence is all you need. You’ll usually get ticks in the boxes for SEO features so you can add your keywords, etc. as well as being social media ready so that you can hook up to your social media profiles.
These days mobile internet is increasingly important and if this is important to you then make sure that any template you choose is mobile friendly, i.e. it uses a Responsive Design Template. Responsive Design just means that the website appears perfect whichever device is being used to browse whether a desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile phone.
As you’re hosting a personal or hobby site then payments and shopping carts shouldn’t be an issue. But if you do need that facility then most website builders will have some kind of limited online shopping cart and payment feature but do check first to make sure it matches your requirements.
Another point worth considering is whether you want the ability to create a blog. Website Builders will often allow you to add lots of content and new pages, but they will be much more limited than tools built specifically for the job such as WordPress. Things like allowing comments and encouraging participation are usually not possible.
Other limitations include things such as building a subscriber list. With a Website Builder this might be possible but it would not be an optimal solution as these tools are not built for that type of application.
If you are building a business website then the first question that needs to be asked is whether you are looking to sell online (eCommerce) or whether you want a brochure type site.
If you are not selling online then you have several options available to you depending on your level of technical skills and of course, your budget.
In summary these are:
Now each of these has their advantages and disadvantages and obviously they each have their own supporters, but let’s take a look at each in turn so that you can make an informed decision.
Powering millions of websites, WordPress is behind around 20% of all websites. It started life as a blogging platform but over the years has developed into a complete Content Management System. Sure, it still has it’s blogging platform at it’s heart but these days there is so much you can do with WordPress.
Here are some reasons to consider WordPress for your site.
It’s Free and Easy to Install
WordPress is free to download and use. These days most web hosts will provide you with a one click installation of WordPress so from a cost and set up perspective it’s an easy choice. You can also host wordpress on most standard hosting platforms.
If you want exceptional performance for a busy WordPress site then maybe consider SSD Hosting. SSD means Solid State Drives – if you’re not familiar with this technology then we have prepared a blog post which explains the advantages of SSD Hosting.
Gentle Learning Curve
Like any software there is a learning curve, but fortunately with WordPress it isn’t too steep. Whilst it would be a push to say it has an intuitive interface, it doesn’t take too much trial and error to get up and running with WordPress.
Loads of Ready Made Templates (Themes)
WordPress templates are called Themes and if you don’t want to spend a load of money getting a unique design made for you then a ready made Theme could be the best way to get started. That way you know what you’re going to get and you’ll cut down the time it takes to get your site up and running.
Some Themes are free whilst others are paid for. You can also get Responsive Themes too so your website is mobile friendly and futureproofed.
Loads of Additional Features (Plugins)
One area where WordPress really comes into its own is its extendibility. There are thousands (over 25,000 in fact) of plugins for almost any situation you can think of that will add that extra functionality you need.
Of course, no summary of WordPress would be complete without mentioning its SEO capabilities. Built from the ground up with SEO in mind, WordPress offers you a best of breed SEO friendly website. Of course, it won’t work on it’s own – you’ll need to do your homework in terms of keywords and content but WordPress scores strongly from an SEO perspective.
Social Media is an integral part of any online marketing campaign and WordPress is extremely well set up for social media. As well as being set up out of the box for social media there are tons of social media plugins for you to choose from.
Popular with Designers
One massive plus in WordPress favour is that it is extremely popular with web design professionals. If you choose an exotic web design tool then you may need to be prepared to pay top dollar for any changes but with WordPress you’ll find it easy to get support at a reasonable cost when you need it.
Creating media rich content is easy with WordPress. Whether you want to add images, photos, video or audio it’s easy with WordPress.
Whilst WordPress certainly has the numbers behind it to claim the title of the web’s favourite design tool, supporters of Joomla claim that it straddles the middle ground between WordPress and Drupal, offering an intuitive but powerful alternative.
If you aren’t prepared to have a look under the bonnet and don’t like tinkering then Joomla might not be right for you. However, if you are considering getting your site designed by a professional then here are a few points that may help you decide whether Joomla is right for you.
It’s Free and Easy to Install
Like WordPress, Joomla is free to download and use. Again, Joomla can be installed with one click via Softaculous or Fantastico make getting up and running very easy.
Another OpenSource CMS. Joomla, like Drupal and WordPress is constantly evolving and has an enthusiastic community around it for help and guidance.
Steeper Learning Curve than WordPress (but less than Drupal)
If you’re not a techie then you’d probably be wise to hand over to someone who understands Joomla or if you’re on a budget then you’re going to get faster results with WordPress. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but Joomla falls somewhere between WordPress and Drupal.
Whilst not built specifically for eCommerce, Joomla offers good eCommerce functionality. Whereas WordPress and Drupal have eCommerce addons, Joomla includes them as part of its set up. If you are a pure eCommerce business then you may want to look at purpose built options (see below), but as we shall see in a moment Joomla scores high in terms of social networking if that is an important factor for you.
If you are looking to build a site that’s heavy on user engagement with community and network features, forums, etc. then Joomla is a perfect fit. Now that’s not to say that WordPress or Drupal can’t do that for you, it’s just that with Joomla you’ll hit the deck running.
Whilst WordPress is accessible and popular, if you are looking for scale and you have a website that will be pumping out content in volume then Joomla is more of an Enterprise option. A word of warning though – be prepared to invest in hosting (either a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or maybe a dedicated server) and support if you are truly building a large scale site.
The first thing to say about Drupal is that it is very powerful. However, that comes with a warning that of all of the (non-eCommerce) CMS, Drupal is the most technical.
Let’s be honest here – Drupal is not for beginners, but if you’re looking to get your site built by a designer and they recommend Drupal, here are a few points to consider.
Free and Open Source
As with WordPress and Joomla, Drupal is opensource and free so there are no licensing costs and there is a large active community supporting and updating Drupal.
Fast Set Up
Again, Drupal has a one click installation option making it easy to set up.
There are thousands of Drupal plugins to allow you to add extra functionality to your site. But hey WordPress has tens of thousands too so they are equal, no? Yes that is true, but skilled developers will appreciate the fact that they can customise the source code to make Drupal do exactly what they want. So from a customisation perspective Drupal wins on that score.
In terms of security, Drupal scores heavily. That isn’t to say that WordPress and Joomla are weak – most common security issues arise from not keeping the CMS updated to the latest version or running insecure, out of date plugins. The simple point here is that Drupal offers Enterprise levels of security, hence why many government websites are built using Drupal – even the Whitehouse!
The bottom line is that serious security costs serious money. Of course, doing the basics such as ensuring that you keeping Drupal up to date (and any plugins) will help mitigate against most common hacking attempts, but if security is a big concern then Drupal has you covered.
Drupal is extremely scaleable so if you’re planning on growing fast and you need to think ahead in terms of scale then Drupal is probably the best option here rather than changing horses mid-race.
Drupal covers everyone from small business to Enterprise, although the caveat is that you need a higher level of technical skill (or an experienced Drupal Developer) to get off the ground.
Unless you are a skilled Drupal Developer yourself then you will need help. Due to the fact that there are fewer skilled Drupal Developers around you can expect to pay more than for a WordPress Developer. Also, as Drupal is extremely scalable then you will need to factor in extra web hosting costs such as dedicated servers.
If you’re a pure eCommerce business then likewise there are several options to choose from, each with their advantages depending on the scenario.
Let’s consider which is the right one for your situation so that you make an informed decision.
In terms of getting up and running Prestashop can be hosted on a shared hosting platform and is available as a one click install using either Softaculous or Fantastico. Even if you’re a novice you’ll be able to install PrestaShop.
Ease of Use
Prestashop has a pretty gentle learning curve. If you’re not technical you should be fine with some trial and error but for ecommerce websites it’s advisable to get some professional help at some point. This is especially true when it comes to integrating with your payment provider or configuring shipping options.
The good news is that if you do need help there is a large and active community around Prestashop so finding someone to help you shouldn’t prove too difficult (or expensive).
Prestashop doesn’t come with free support channels so you will probably find yourself turning to the support community if you are on a tight budget. If you do need help they offer paid support options or you could look for a Prestashop Developer at some point unless you are determined to learn by trial and error.
Once you’re up and running Prestashop’s Dashboard is intuitive and easy to use for beginners. Once your store is up and running you’ll see key metrics displayed so you can see how your store is performing. Accessing orders and client accounts is easy and intuitive.
In terms of functionality if you are just starting out it’s got you covered. The main features are all there:
- Merchant Features – Product Management, Digital Products, Catalog Management, Shipping, Payments, Currencies, Taxes, SEO, Analytics, Customer Management, etc.
- Shopping Features – Intuitive Checkout, Customer Accounts, Product Display, etc.
As a smaller eCommerce site the basic edition is going to allow you to get up and running with all of the key requirements. However, over and above that if you want to start extending and adding extra features then be prepared to pay for addons which you can find in the Prestashop Addons Marketplace.
There is a cost for extra themes, modules and templates and if you want to get more from your store it’s probably a wise investment.
Whilst it’s open to opinion, Prestashop certainly looks and feels modern and slick. If you’re just starting out then you need to use a degree of smoke and mirrors to help convert visitors into buyers.
Let’s face it image is important online and Prestashop will allow you to present a modern, professional website to the world. There are some fairly low cost templates you can use but again it’s probably money well spent.
Positioned as a turn-key ready “out of the box” shopping cart solution, OpenCart has a 1 click install which can be done through most hosting services via Softaculous or Fantastico so no issues there – easy for novices.
Ease of Use
Once installed OpenCart has an intuitive admin area although it should be said that you would probably need some technical skills to get up and running especially configuring the payment options.
OpenCart scores well in terms of design and there are plenty of 3rd party templates to choose from so you can build an attractive site on a low budget.
As an OpenSource tool you will need to rely on community support mostly or turn to a skilled OpenCart Developer. There is a support forum as the first port of call as well plenty of video tutorials.
As with Prestashop you will have all of the main features to get off the ground including:
- Unlimited Categories, Products & Manufacturers
- Template design based
- Multi-Language, multi-currency and multiple tax rates supported
- Add Product Reviews & Ratings
- Sell Downloadable Products
- PCI Compliant
- Automatic Image Resizing
- Show Related Products
- Shipping Calculation based on weight
- Create Discounts
- Search Engine Friendly (SEO)
- Backup & Restore Features
- Downloadable & Printable Invoices
- Sales Reports
Out of the box OpenCart will get you up and running quickly. If you want to add extra functionality then you will need to purchase and configure OpenCart Extensions. Fortunately there are over 9,000 to choose from so you should be able to find what you are looking for.
eCommerce for WordPress
A free, Opensoure eCommerce solution that is built to work seamlessly with WordPress, WooCommerce is a powerful, attractive and SEO friendly option.
Set Up & Ease of Use
If you’re using WordPress then you’re halfway there. A couple of clicks and you can install WooCommerce via the Plugin area. Easy stuff! Once you’re past the setup if you are happy to learn on the go then you shouldn’t have too many issues doing the basics, but if you’re looking for advanced features it may be best to use a developer familiar with WooCommerce.
There are tons of WooCommerce Themes available to choose from. There are a limited number of free ones but there are plenty of high quality, low cost ready made templates so you know what you’re going to get without worrying about expensive designs.
Support is via a community or via Woothemes if you have have a paid service from them relating to WooCommerce.
As WooCommerce is built for WordPress it has SEO baked in so it is perfect for businesses who want to create great content around their online shop. It also allows you to sell physical products, digital products, memberships or subscriptions so it is really flexible.
It has all of the Core features you would need to get started including pre-installed payment gateways, multi-currency, guest checkout, inventory management, shipping calculator, tax calculator, discount coupons, product reviews, SEO friendly product pages and loads more.
On top of the Core features there are hundreds of paid Extensions so you can customise WooCommerce to match your exact requirement.
Magento (Community and Enterprise versions)
Hailed as being the eCommerce platform built from the ground up by Marketers and Website Owners (as opposed to Developers/Programmers) for marketers, Magento comes in 2 versions – Magento Community (Free) and Magento Enterprise (Paid – $15,000 +/- per year at time of writing Feb 2016).
Magento is aimed more at the higher end of the eCommerce market where it enjoys around a quarter of the market amongst the top 1 million eCommerce stores in Alexa.
Overall the two systems share many of the same features and benefits so which one is right for you? In a nutshell, if you are running a huge (and we mean huge) and busy enterprise eCommerce operation then Enterprise if the one for you. If you’re just starting out or you are looking to move up a level from your current entry level eCommerce platform then Community is the one to go for.
Either way, unless you’re a confident Developer who is prepared to get your sleeves rolled up then you’ll need an experienced Magento Developer to help you.
Here are the main features and benefits of each option:
It’s free. Just register a domain name, set up your Magento web hosting and you can install Magento in one click and you’re ready to go. No licensing fees to pay now or ever.
As we mentioned above, it’s open source so you or your developer can create your store exactly as you want it. There are thousands of (paid) Magento Extensions to ensure that you aren’t continually reinventing the wheel as well as pre-made Magento templates (Themes) to choose from.
The most important part of a store is the shopping cart and Magento has an extremely powerful shopping cart feature which remembers your clients and allows the content of their shopping cart to be stored according to variables that you select.
Mobile is also increasingly important & again Magento scores strongly here.
If you want to have complex pricing and discounting offers then this can become complex with other systems but Magento handles this with ease.
Other areas where Magento excels are in terms of SEO, Analytics and reporting, Shipping, Product Configurations, Payment Gateways and International Commerce.
Overall, Magento Community is going to give you the best eCommerce experience of all of the Open Source options, but it does require a higher degree of technical knowledge both to get up and running and to maintain it.
So if the Community version has it all, why bother paying thousands of dollars for Magento Enterprise?. The answer to that question is scale really.
The way to determine whether it is right for you is to ask yourself whether paying thousands of dollars is a price to pay to give yourself an advantage over your competitors. If the answer is no then it’s not right for you, but there are plenty of Enterprise level eCommerce businesses who will not batter an eyelid at paying that cost.
That’s the real difference – if $15,000 a year sounds like a lot of cash to get an advantage then it probably isn’t right for you (yet). At this stage your money is probably better spent on advertising and marketing.
Here’s what you do get though if you are a huge eCommerce business who is looking for any advantage they can get.
Enterprise is built for sites that have tens or hundreds of thousands of products. This means that updating pricing, page load speeds and order processing speeds are dramatically increased. The Enterprise version also has a much more streamlined checkout process. These factors really matter when you have a huge site selling at volume.
Made a mistake updating pricing or products? With the Community version rolling back to previous copies is a troublesome process but with Magento Enterprise rolling back is much easier. Again, not such a big bonus for smaller sites but a life (and job) saver for larger sites.
Scalability is also a major decision factor for Enterprise. Community is built for single server environments whereas Magento Enterprise can scale across multiple servers to spread the load and improve performance by physically separating the components of the system such as DNS, database, web server, etc.. If you decide to scale to multiple servers though then be prepared for additional licensing costs (around $12,000 per year, per server – ouch!).
If you are running a smaller eCommerce operation then you will only need one or two admin accounts. Community is fine for this. However larger stores need multiple roles for admins and operators with the appropriate rights assigned to each. This is where you would need Enterprise.
But eCommerce is all about selling and building lasting relationships with your existing clients and this is an area where Enterprise comes into it’s own. The Enterprise version includes Solr search so that search recommendations are shown when typing in the search query. Also if you want to offer gift wrapping, gift cards, a loyalty scheme or segmenting your database to make special offers then Enterprise can handle it for you. Cross selling, upselling and automatic recommendations are also baked in.
Enterprise also handles returns – an unavoidable part of eCommerce but one which needs to be handled correctly in order to maintain the customer’s trust. Likewise, advanced email marketing features for abandoned shopping carts is another feature available to Enterprise stores.
So there you have it. If you’re just starting out and you just need a basic online presence on a budget then a Website Builder will be right for you.
If you’re comfortable with technology and you want to build something with more features and better SEO then a Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress, Joomla or Drupal will be the one to go for.
The choice depends on your level of technical expertise and whether your main focus is on SEO (choose WordPress), creating a social network (choose Joomla) or scalability (choose Drupal). Just remember that Joomla and particularly Drupal require more technical knowledge.
If you’re selling online then you are spoilt for choice. Prestashop and OpenCart are free and easy to install and will get you up and running with a fully featured eCommerce site.
Finally, is scalability and advanced eCommerce features are important to you then either Magento Community or Magento Enterprise will be right for you.
Magento Enterprise has a hefty price tag though. Only choose this if you are an Enterprise level eCommerce store.
So what are your thoughts & experiences. Leave a comment below.