To answer this question, we have to go back a few years.
Websites are built using HTML, a markup language (as opposed to programming languages such as Python and C++).
In the early years of the internet (1993 to 2003), coders had to build a site from the ground up, writing code for each feature as they went along.
Thus, every time they would have to create:
Every block inside it (basically, delineation of text and image areas)
Build a menu (so that users can jump from page to page, e.g. About Us to Home)
Create contact forms for the input of username, email address, etc
But inside a decade it struck American developer Matt Mullenweg and British developer Mike Little that most of this task was repetitive.
Thus was born WordPress, the first web builder in 2003.
Note that the first rudimentary site builder was FrontPage from Microsoft in 1995. Yahoo GeoCities was a one-page solution that was popular before WordPress. But they were primitive applications.
Early AOL Homepage circa 1997
GeoCities Login circa 1999
What is a Website Builder?
A website builder is software that allows an user to construct a website without writing code. Anyone can fully operate modern site builders without knowing any coding.
The process of creating a site and publishing becomes very easy. One can construct and publish a basic blog site using WordPress or Wix in less than a day.
Why is this important?
The cost of hiring a coder is sky high.
At between $30 and $100 hourly, the cost of development can be huge since coding from the ground up requires hundreds of hours. A plain five page site can end up costing $2000 or more.
The use of website builders made it highly affordable. The neighborhood dentist and the mom-and-pop store across the street could put up their signboard in the digital universe.
In addition, most website builders (barring WordPress to be exact) have their own hosting servers.
A website builder made it possible to buy a domain name, buy hosting, build a site, publish it—all from the same dashboard.
How Does a Website Builder Work?
Site builders are software like MS Excel or Paint. It is not quite possible to describe how they work since the lines of codes do the magic.
When you create a website first, you need to pick a template.
What are website builder templates?
A website template is a pre-designed layout.
Have you noticed how Amazon and Target websites sort of look the same? They don’t at all look like your bank account web page or Wikipedia.
Both these online stores have a front page adorned with Best Deals and infinite scrolling. You could scroll down and come upon about a hundred different products that are new arrivals or being sold at a discount.
One panel is dedicated to fresh arrivals that are curated for you.
In the same way, all bank accounts look the same.
A Wikipedia page looks similar to a fan Wikia (a ready reckoner for devotees of Tyrion Lannister and Sansa Stark) for Game of Thrones. In other words, all of them have a similar arrangement. They are not identical but definitely look the same.
So much so, if you were to glance at the laptop screen of someone three tables away at a McDonald’s, you could more or less tell the sort of site they were browsing.
Note that the phrases website template and website theme are used for one another.
Choose how you want to create your website
A theme applies across the site whereas a template applies to a single page.
But when you use a website builder it will usually ask you to pick a template.
There are hundreds of templates available with most site builders. WordPress offers you thousands for free and far more if you buy a premium theme.
The theme would offer you an option to Edit (with what else but an editor).
With help of Edit, you can change the theme to what you want but the underlying structure of the site cannot change.
Usually, you can alter text, images, add specific pages (such as Gallery) and elements (such as white space or an envelope icon for email).
Option to Edit
Remember always that site design is an evolving process. No one gets it done on the first try or even in the first month.
You are not trying to build a site completely and publish it. You are merely trying to build a minimum site completely and publish it. The expansion and addition of widgets would come later.
The thing you have to focus on now is a site structure.
In web development lingo it is site navigation.
A simple site has a Home Page, About Us, Contact Us, and a Blog. Creative people such as photographers might have a Gallery to give visitors easy access to their work.
Site design has changed enormously and most modern sites have a Home Page with a very long scroll with snippets of Blog and everything else built in. when the visitor clicks they get transferred to the required section.
That does not mean old-fashioned menus and navigation are dead.
In fact, it is the first thing you have to focus on.
On a plain sheet of paper draw the site navigation. Essentially how many pages and what is nested.
Online stores need a lot of nesting since the category of products is highly granular. Clothing → Men’s → Semi Formal → Under $200 and so on.
Category of products
If you do not have a lot of product pages the classification is simplified.
In case you are unable, the best way is to visit several sites in the same niche and get an idea. It’s not that navigation cannot be altered later on but it is a hassle since sitemaps have to be resubmitted to Google.
SEO and Website Builders
Modern website builders have built-in SEO.
When you first create a site, it is not going to show up on Google search pages. If you perform a deep search, it will turn up on page 22 for some arcane keywords.
Such as, if you open a new website for a content agency in New York, no one is going to find it during a search.
The process of climbing through the search engine results page or SERP is known as search engine optimization.
SEO (search engine optimization) is a subject by itself and not much about how it works can be described here.
However, know that it is of two types—on-page and off-page.
On-page SEO consists of:
Title Tags – These are the topmost heading or H1, as we know it in HTML. It has two purposes –
Defining to the search engine the topic of the article
Shows up as a search snippet and lets viewers have an idea of the content.
Meta Description – It is the TLDR of a webpage. In no more than 155 characters, the summary of the content is given. It shows up in search under the title tag.
Alt-Text – Alt-text explains to the search engine what an image depicts.
Most website builders allow you to add alt-text, title tags, and meta descriptions.
Though they are by no means effective by themselves, they work well when combined with robots.txt files and a generous number of backlinks.
What are the Main Features of a Website Builder?
We take a look at website builder features. Most of them are quite similar and work the same way. The same holds true for most software of a type. It is hard to tell Google Docs apart from MS Word and LibreOffice.
1. Exceptional simplicity
The best website builders are very well designed. They use minimum technical jargon (e.g. alt-text) and use very intuitive navigation to guide the user.
They aim at one thing alone—to let you publish a site with as little hassle as possible.
WordPress is slightly old-fashioned, but once a user spends an hour learning the functions, it is highly adaptable and powerful.
2. Very flexible
They can be made more attractive with themes and fonts. Almost all offer premium themes that have a high degree of visual appeal. Using images of your own choice, you can completely customize them.
3. Ease of editing
WYSIWYG or “What You See Is What You Get” is available natively with all editors except WordPress.
As you make changes to a webpage, the transformation is visible in the work area of the editor.
You could split a page into three columns, place a text box here, an image carousel there, and the changes would be available live.
Before the era of easy website builders with WYSIWYG editor, every time the user made an adjustment, they would have to hit Preview.
This slowed down the process of putting together a webpage.
WordPress still ships with an old-fashioned block editor known as Gutenberg. However, adding a premium drag-and-drop editor such as Elementor or Divi to WordPress takes a few minutes.
4. Uses Plugins
Plugins are small modules of software that add functions to the site.
Such as MailChimp helps businesses reach out to possible leads with an email. It maintains track of every mail and is essential for email marketing.
Website builders use plugins to provide functionality that could not be dreamed of if coding from the ground up. There is something for everyone.
5. Mobile Compatibility
Netizens might view a website on a desktop or laptop. There is a possibly greater chance of them using tablets and smartphones. Half of all Google searches originate from handheld devices.
Each of them has a different screen size and resolutions. It is impossible to code and fit all of them together in a single template (instead of hosting several versions of the same site).
But website editors offer this unique feature across the board. It might be the single biggest advantage that any mobile website builder offers.
What are the Types of Website Builders?
The development of website builders—from Front Page in 1995 to Elementor and Squarespace today has been gradual.
There are two types of website builders – online and offline.
If during work your connection snapped, the browser page needs to remain open to maintain the last changes.
Offline website builders are able to work without an internet connection. That can be a big plus for many who do not have access to an efficient connection. 90% of Americans have broadband. But 10% do not.
There are massive swathes of the country where it is impossible to get one bar on a cellphone, let alone a 5 Mbps connection to download a theme.
Think of the state of affairs in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.
But a school in the remote KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa has as much right to a website for school as one in Brooklyn, New York. That is why offline website builders such as Mobirise thrive.
Why is an Online Website Builder better than an Offline one?
Investment in R&D
Businesses such as Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace have put in millions of dollars to make their website builder top-notch.
What makes a top-notch builder?
It is easy to use, highly responsive, uses code that is optimized, offers lots of high-quality themes, and offers on-page SEO capability.
It is no wonder that these modern yet low cost website builders work so well. In case of any error, just click the Undo button.
In fact, building your own website has become as easy as using MS Office.
Access to Themes
A website theme is between 10 and 50 MB in size.
While that is small, apply it across a hundred themes and you easily end up with 2 GB.
An offline site builder is small—usually no more than a hundred MB.
It can offer very few basic themes.
Online, the access is almost unlimited (WP has 9,225 free website builder templates and at least a couple of thousand premium ones).
Since a theme is a major differentiator when it comes to sites, without a doubt, an online site builder is better.
Offline site builders do not offer access to top-of-the-line plugins and one-click install.
Any install has to be by code injection.
A beginner cannot modify HTML and trying to insert Google Analytics into a site manually would cause a disaster.
Those who have plenty of practice in developing sites and writing HTML code can use an offline site builder with ease.
For a newbie, no such luck. It is safer and better for beginners to use an online website editor.
All online site builders except WordPress offer native hosting.
A website is a folder that has several HTML, CSS, image files.
The file resides on a server and is fetched as required by any device across the globe.
The server is provided by the online website builder. They offer a free, trial period and tiered paid plans (with different facilities).
All that a user has to do is buy a domain name and attach it to the folder (so that anyone who types in the domain name has access to the site).
Though WordPress has no such functionality, every web hosting company worth its salt provides a single-click WordPress install.
Many go a step further and offer managed WordPress hosting (a type of dedicated hosting for WordPress sites that takes care of everything).
It is not hard to see the appeal of online website builders and why it wins.
Online is convenient and that counts.
What are the Categories/Niches of Website Builders?
This was the biggest application of online website builders once.
Blogs are weblogs and have long-form text content interspersed with images.
Blogger (now owned by Google) and WordPress were once known as blogging platforms, since their sole use was to quickly set up a blogging site.
Ecommerce Website Builders
It all began with Amazon. By 2020, the year of pandemic, US online sales reached $760 billion. There are 9 million online retailers and 2.5 million of them are in the USA.
Ecommerce sites are offered by specialized site builders such as Shopify.
Ecommerce software differs greatly from a traditional web builder platform.
They have (in addition to all the features of a traditional platform) electronic fund transfer, supply chain, and logistics management, product pages, order tracking, abandoned cart tracking, tax invoicing, email and SMS for verification, and delivery status tracking, a complete CRM system, and chatbots.
Portfolio Website Builders
Creatives, such as photographers and fashion designers, have a different necessity. They don’t need to write as much text but showcase images. The site needs to be trendy, fashionable, and elegant. The stress on aesthetics is far more than in a plain website.
A plain gallery page cannot fulfill their needs.
How Easy is a Website Builder?
First, let’s examine what has to happen if there are no drag and drop features in a site builder.
One has to use HTML.
HyperText Markup Language was invented by Tim Berners Lee in the early 90s.
It is a markup language, i.e. it can display text as well as contain code that tells the browser how the text would be displayed (the markup).
The code and the markup
But that is the text. A website also has a background color, cool fonts and so much more that makes it appealing.
That is another language known as CSS or Cascading Style Sheets. It does exactly that—lends style to a drab block of text.
Similarly, it might show stock prices, temperature, updated product list, and other facts that can change several times every minute.
A static site (a site where no information changes) can be built using HTML and CSS. Moist modern sites also use JS.
JS comes in several flavors—Node.js, React, Angular, Vue are a few names. Then there is the backend where the data is stored. We code it using PHP and MySQL.
Impossible for a beginner.
But open a website builder, login, pick a template, edit it, publish it. Voila, you have a website that looks perfect and works smoothly.
No bugs that glitch the rendering, no bottlenecks in data flow between server and browser. A website builder eliminates all barriers to creating a site. It is a great democratizing influence, allowing everyone to have equal access to owning a site.
Drag and drop website builders and live preview have made it a fantastic, responsive tool that is worth using.
What Skills are Needed to Use a Website Builder?
If a user has used basic software such as PowerPoint and knows about the icons normally used in a desktop environment (Undo, Redo, Save, etc) they could operate an online web editor with no hitch.
There is no need for additional training or learning.
All of these platforms have plenty of video tutorials and PDF guides that make it remarkably easy to create websites.
If there is a question you cannot solve the turn to the 24×7 helpline.
Of course, that is missing in the case of WordPress but fellow developers at Reddit and Stack Overflow would help out.
How Long Does it Take to Create a Website with a Website Builder?
Setting up and publishing a site can literally happen in as little as fifteen minutes. What takes time is the creative work and content generation.
Every user has to ponder about color and template, font and widgets. Then content has to be written for Home, About Us pages and the Blog section needs a few articles. Images and alt-text have to be carefully inserted. Page URL, title tags and meta descriptions set up.
This part can take between a week and a few months depending on the complexity of the site and amount of time you are willing to work.
How Much Does a Website Builder Cost?
It is free to download and use. Hosting can vary between $3 and $10 per month. Managed WordPress hosting is a little pricier at around $20 per month and more.
Wix free does not allow you to connect your domain name. Wix paid plans commence at $18 per month and go up to $500 for enterprise sites. Most users would never need a plan priced at more than $25.
Weebly too offers free hosting that contains ads. To connect a domain (but keep ads) would cost $5 per month. Other plans are priced at $12 and $25.
Squarespace plans start at $14 monthly. All those top-notch themes cost a bit. A business plan costs $23 and an ecommerce site $49 monthly.
Why are there Free Website Builder Plans?
No one will pay for a service they know nothing about.
For this reason, every site builder offers a free plan. It is therefore for you to tinker around with the editor.
You are not allowed to connect to your own domain and neither do you have access to any sort of tech help.
But, and this is important, you can experiment with the editor to your heart’s content and find out if you at all like the way it feels and works.
For this reason, everything related to the editor is usually unlocked.
All that is related to SEO (and of course, your own domain) is locked.
You could create a perfectly working free WordPress (dot com version) site. But no access to high ranking on search engines, which essentially means the site is dead on arrival.
The same with Wix, Weebly, Webnode, Site123, and many others free website builders.
Why are Pricing Tiers Necessary?
It is all about hard disk space and bandwidth.
The bigger your site, the more space you need. Ten product pages and ten thousand are vastly different.
The bigger your site, the more the visits. It eats up data transfer.
Thus, if the data transfer is capped at 10 GB and you get 2000 visitors daily looking through three product pages on average, the site would die down after the first few hours.
The pricier plans offer more hard disk space and more bandwidth besides priority support.
Priority support is necessary for those who have customers visiting always. Losing a lead is a loss of several dollars’ worth of sales.
It is better to migrate to a higher plan with more support in that case.
In addition, you get:
Free SSL encryption
Free domain name
Traffic analytics and lot more freebies
Lastly, many website builders offer plugins and premium themes at a discount to customers on a higher tier.