Free website builders: pros and cons

If you’re planning your company’s web presence, it can be difficult to know where to start. There are a wealth of options out there, ranging from free of charge to very expensive monthly subscriptions. For beginners, researching the different options and deciding which one is right for you can feel like negotiating a minefield. One attractive option is to take advantage of a free website builder, meaning you get a web presence to use right away that doesn’t cost you a cent. But if these free website builders were right for everyone, then surely there’d be no market for fee-based website design packages.

So what are the pros and cons of free website builders, and how do you know if a free package is right for you? We’ll explore these questions by looking at the types of free software out there, the different features they tend to offer, their technical limitations, and who they’re best suited for. 

What are free website builders?

Free website builder software is exactly that: readily-available online software that can be used to build a homepage free of charge. These free site builders operate in the browser, meaning you don’t need to download any software onto your computer – you can simply log in online to design and run your webpage. Free website builder software tools are designed to make it as straightforward and cheap as possible to create a simple website for beginners. Some of their typical features include:

  • WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor so you know how your website will look

  • Drag-and-drop tools and other step-by-step solutions with pre-made text boxes and images to help simplify the creative process

  • No prior experience of programming required

  • No installation necessary – built-in external databases for storage

  • Simple, intuitive functionality

  • Free of charge to create and run

There is a plethora of free website builder software available. Some services remain free forever, while others are only free in their simplest form, with subscription upgrades possible for extended services. But which is the best free website builder software? Here are five of the most popular and commonly used free website builders:

  • DoodleKit Website Builder: a website builder which offers hosting, templates, and gallery functions free of charge

  • Weebly: a website solution which offers Google Ads credit and a free domain name for upgrading to one of their premium packages

  • Website Builder: a website creator with thousands of free templates and SEO tools included

  • Wix: a website builder with mobile optimization, customer support, and plenty of templates created by expert designers

  • WordPress: the world’s most popular content management system also offers a free website builder, meaning you can enjoy WordPress in your browser with no installation necessary

Free website builders and hosting

Free website builders let you create a simple, attractive website easily without prior experience. But do they always offer hosting? The answer, unfortunately, is no: In most cases, free providers don’t offer hosting as part of their basic package. Web hosting requires expensive hardware, which means it’s often not financially viable to carry out yourself. To have hosting included as part of your free website builder package will come at a cost. The other option is to source an external web hosting provider independently.

Some free website builders, including DoodleKit, do in fact offer website hosting as part of their free package. But this normally means that other features are limited. In Doodlekit’s case, the free basic package comes with hosting, but doesn’t offer a custom domain name, SEO tools, additional users, or an e-commerce function. Other free website builders that offer hosting may place other restrictions, like removing the sign-up function for site visitors, stopping offline page maintenance, not offering SSL security, or blocking certain payment functions, like PayPal or credit cards.

Lastly, some free website builders that offer hosting run ads on your site. This is their way of funding their company to be able to offer you a free website builder – and you’ll typically see no commission for these ads, regardless of how well your website performs.

Free website builders with e-mail functions

When setting up your company website, you might want to have your own, domain-specific e-mail address incorporated into it. For example, if you were to acquire the domain name ‘bestcars.com’, then it can add an extra level of professionalism to have e-mails for all your employees and customer services using this domain name (for instance: miranda@bestcars.com or info@bestcars.com), rather than using a centralized e-mail address domain (such as bestcars@gmail.com or mirandabestcars@hotmail.com). Unfortunately, free website builders don’t offer this e-mail address feature free of charge. So if having a professional e-mail domain is important for your brand online, then you’ll need to upgrade to a premium package.

In fact, many free website builders don’t offer an integrated e-mail service as part of their basic package, meaning that you’ll need to either use plugins (such as MailChimp) to integrate an e-mail function yourself, or run your e-mail service externally from a separate place entirely (such as Hotmail or Gmail).

Free e-commerce website builders

Many small to medium-sized businesses looking to create a web presence want to include an online shop as well. E-commerce solutions are a great way to create revenue for your business, because the majority of shopping is now done online. But are there free website builders that offer e-commerce solutions? The answer is generally no, but there are some exceptions. If, for example, you decide to create your website using WordPress and take care of the hosting yourself, then it’s possible to use plugins like WooCommerce to add an online shop to your new site.

But there are disadvantages to this. Firstly, the more plugins you add to your website, the more complicated it becomes to maintain. This is why many beginners prefer to opt for solutions that take care of this side for you with integrated functions. Secondly, even the free website builders that offer an integrated online store feature free of charge do so in a beta version, meaning it’s often not possible to integrate PayPal or credit card payments without upgrading to a premium package.

Technical limitations to free website builders

Free website builders usually come with certain technical limitations that can impact creativity, design flexibility, security, and general functionality. Free website builders often limit certain technical requirements, like CSS, mobile optimization, JavaScript, PHP, private databases, and video upload. Here are some of the things to look out for when choosing a free website builder:

  • Is it possible to create in HTML5? HML5 is the latest version of the classic text language format used for content presentation on the web. If you want your website to stand out, it’s important to make sure your free website builder of choice offers HTML5. Some don’t.

  • Can I customize my HTML doc with CSS? CSS is a language that takes care of the style in your HTML text document. It describes how HTML elements are displayed, with regards to color, size, font, and more. Customizing using CSS is how you can make your website look individual.

  • Can I embed videos? Multimedia features like videos are crucial for retaining customers and offering site visitors added value. Some free website builders don’t let you embed videos unless you pay for a premium package.

  • Can I optimize my site for mobile devices? Mobile optimization is an increasingly important factor in customer retention, because mobile browsing on smartphones and tablets is growing. This then affects the Google SERP (search engine results page) rankings: Sites that are not optimized for mobile devices are punished with lower rankings. Most free website builders only offer mobile optimization for premium customers.
     
  • Does the free website builder offer JavaScript? Along with HTML and CSS, JavaScript is the third part of the holy trinity of web design. Just as with the other two, being able to edit with JavaScript will make a big difference to the final presentation of your website.

  • Is it possible to use PHP? PHP is usually embedded into HTML code or combined with pre-existing templates or frameworks. It adds further flexibility to your code and allows you to personalize content. Some free website builders don’t offer PHP editing free of charge.

  • Can I easily connect to a database? Free website builders often feature their own database for you to use, but this is normally restricted to only a small amount of data storage. To extend your storage options, you’ll need to either connect to an external database or pay for an upgrade. 

Free website builder templates

Templates are a great way to give your website consistency and style. If you’re a beginner with no prior experience in programming or web design, templates are crucial to making sure your site is attractive and has a clear layout. Since free website builders are usually aimed at beginners, most offer a range of templates to suit your needs. Here is a selection of examples to demonstrate the range of templates available:     

Ixion, WordPress

Ixion is a simple template available for free on WordPress. It offers a straightforward layout with integrated drop-down menus and a clear logo in the top corner. There is a central call-to-action button in the main picture, designed to instantly grab the site visitor’s attention. It’s available free of charge for nonprofit organizations and schools. Get it here.

Wildlife Adventure, Website Builder

This template, available from Website Builder, is designed for displaying photos. If you’re a budding photographer or a blogger looking to showcase your work, then slotting various images together like a puzzle with taglines in between creates an attractive display. Get it here.

Templates like these are certainly very attractive and also simple to use right away. If you find one that suits your needs perfectly, then it makes sense to use it. But unfortunately, they don’t offer a great degree of flexibility, and they won’t be exclusive to your site. So if you have an exact idea in mind but lack the programming and web design skills to make it a reality, or if you just want a nice, smart design that is unique to your brand, then a free website builder template probably isn’t the answer.

Who should use free website builders?

As we’ve discussed, there are many benefits to free website builders, but also several major limitations. Free website builders function well as blogs or showcase pages, meaning they’re suitable for musicians, beauty experts, models, and photographers (provided you just want to display your portfolio rather than sell your work). Websites like this rely more on the content than the design, showing site visitors exactly what you’re all about.

Free website builders are also useful for teachers and students for educational purposes, or to create academic portfolios/advertisements for extra tuition. In fact, many free website builders make certain specialist templates available exclusively for educators and nonprofit organizations, incentivizing them to take advantage. This means that nonprofits can use these free solutions to display the good work they’re doing and encourage people to take part.

Free website builders for small businesses

Clearly, free solutions like the ones already mentioned in this text are suitable for nonprofit organizations, individuals, and educators. But what about small businesses? The answer is that it depends on the type of site you need. If you just want to display informative content on your page, encouraging customers to visit your high street store or contact you over the phone, then a free website builder might be okay for your needs. The same is true if you’re looking to use your website for content marketing, designed to give site visitors added value and build up brand loyalty and trust.

But if you’re looking to integrate an online store for e-commerce, then you’ll usually have to pay for a premium package. Additionally, free website builders usually only offer a subdomain, making it harder to attract repeated customers, boost your Google SERP ranking, and increase your credibility as a business. So you’ll usually need to either purchase a domain separately and redirect it to your site, or upgrade to a premium website design package. Free website builders don’t always offer hosting or SEO tools either, meaning small businesses need to either pay for expensive hardware to host on-site, or pay for an alternative hosting provider.

Conclusion: is a free website builder right for me?

Free website builders offer a great deal of advantages: above all, they’re free. On top of this, they don’t usually require any installation, and they can be used right away without prior knowledge of programming or web design. Thanks to their intuitive WYSIWYG editors, with drag and drop tools and attractive templates, these are attractive options for beginners.

But there are some major downsides and limitations to free website builders. Firstly, they don’t provide a full domain; usually just a subdomain, such as bestcars.wordpress.com. This makes it harder to build your brand and makes your website look less professional. Free website builders usually don’t include any SEO tools or other useful analytical features, and many of them don’t allow e-commerce in their free version either.

This is where a fee-based service can come in handy – by paying for a premium website builder, like the 1&1 website builder, you get all the benefits of easy design, beautiful templates, and quick setup, but also some added extras, like a free-to-use photo archive, web apps for your website, mobile optimization for all devices, e-commerce possibilities, SSL security, a free domain name, and free hosting, all included in a monthly price starting at just $0.99. This is great for businesses, as it offers a wide range of extra features to boost the professionalism and marketability of your website. 

Tags: Target Groups / Digitalization / Company Start-Up / Wordpress

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