The Case for SaaS Website Builders
A SaaS website builder can be a smart choice for businesses who don’t have the resources to build a website in-house but plan to update content themselves.
This post is a brief overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the SaaS approach compared to a WordPress website.
A SaaS website is not the right solution for everyone so I will flag the important issues to consider early in your decision-making process.
SaaS or Software as a Service began with companies charging subscription fees for a year's worth of software's technical support and upgrades. Microsoft in 2010, and Adobe in 2013, adopted this approach for most of their products with some controversy.
SaaS website builders take the service part a step further with no software downloads. You access your content through a web browser interface. Your content is hosted in The Cloud, i.e. shared servers in multiple remote locations.
Some services allow you to pay on a monthly basis but given that most people don't move their websites around a lot, most services offer discounted annual payment plans. Wix and Squarespace are examples of popular SaaS website builders. Shopify is an example of a SaaS e-commerce platform and retail point of sale system.
Current Website Technology
Most business websites look outwardly similar. They share similar layout patterns and features much like an American family car has 4 doors and a trunk. Using a car analogy there will be different levels of finish and features between economy and luxury cars. For a website there are functional features and cosmetic details that might make a difference in both appearance and function for you and your visitor.
The technology running them can fall into one of these 3 broad categories:
- Self-hosted CMS PHP-SQL Database: WordPress, Drupal, Joomla
- Cloud Based SAAS: Wix, Squarespace, Shopify
- Cloud Hosted Static Site Builders: Jekyll, Hugo
So, if they look the same on the outside, why should you care what happens on the inside? Until recently very few people cared about the engine powering a family sedan.
Now, the choice between gasoline, diesel, hybrid or electric have ramifications on the price and performance of a car. Simple, the choice of technology affects the expense to get features you need, setup, and maintain your website.
Isn’t WordPress Free?
WordPress is the most popular website platform out there with at roughly 27 million installed websites. It’s open source so yes you can download it for free.
Open Source software like WordPress becomes expensive when you factor in the costs what's not included in the free download. The other options bundle these features in their prices often offering more value for the price.
Your website expenses fall into these buckets:
Name Hosting: Registering your domain name with a service like Google Domains, or Godaddy starts around $12/year. You can bundle it with other services but it's a good idea to keep this part separate.
Site Hosting: There are several tiers of hosting that start at $60-$72/year with restrictions on visitors, storage and bandwidth including:
- Shared hosting
- Managed hosting
- Virtual private server
- Dedicated server.
SAAS services are generally shared hosting. Restrictions tend to disappear at $180/year.
Extending Basic Functionality with Plugins: Paid plugins for SEO, and integrations with other services can add up in open-source world. SaaS products are more generous with these features at the lower price tiers to attract a DIY crowd. Some have a vetted 3rd party plugin marketplace.
Improving the Appearance with Themes: A Paid WordPress Theme can run $49-200. SaaS builders have free themes/templates or a vetted theme marketplace.
Improving the Appearance with a Designer: SaaS builders often advertise a DIY approach. The SaaS interfaces have a shorter learning curve than WordPress. If a template meets your needs exactly you will be fine. Hiring a Designer will take your site to the next level but with added costs.
E-Commerce Integration: In WordPress additional plugins will add e-commerce functionality. With SaaS it’s an upgrade feature that’s very tightly integrated into the website.
Improving Functionality with a Developer: You will likely need a developer with a WordPress site to customize a theme, install plug-ins, and build integrations with other services.
An open source platform like WordPress is fully customizable. Budget accordingly for developer time if you need that.
SaaS works with a walled garden approach. Integrations and plug-ins are tightly controlled so there’s less chance to break something. A designer with an understanding of HTML and CSS will be able to get integrate your website seamlessly with other services.
Changes to a SaaS website's content structure or the shopping cart will require a developer and likely require a more expensive enterprise level account with the service.
Brochure Site Comparison
Here’s a comparison of recurring expenses for a simple brochure site using WordPress with no paid add-ons, WordPress with a medium cost setup, and Squarespace Business Plan.
E-Commerce Site Comparison
Here’s a comparison of e-commerce expenses with WordPress using Woo Commerce, Wix and Squarespace.
Open Source Expenses
Open source projects can be overwhelming. It's difficult for the uninitiated to make sense of resources, plug-ins, and templates that are maintained by a large community. Finding the right resource will eat up your time.
In contrast SaaS services work as a walled garden where 3rd party resources undergo some vetting. Your options are limited but better.
WordPress is based on decade old technology developed for blogging. Older software to accumulate many layers of improvements that make the setup bloated and complex over time. An open-source eco-system with thousands of contributors introduces more points of potential conflict between components.
Unless you are looking for a very customized solution the technology might be overkill for a small brochure site.
WordPress's weakness as a low-cost foundation for simple sites often shows with site owners who are afraid to update their site plugins and break it. In the process of getting estimates for a site makeover they tend to get:
- Inaccurate estimates from new developers
- High estimates from experienced developers
- Advice to start from scratch with a new setup.
Static Site Generators?
Static Site Generators manage content as simple text files and appearance through text-based templates. The generator converts them to html files for presentation when the content is updated.
They are fast, secure, and have fewer dependencies on databases or servers than an SQL based system like WordPress. They are great for content that is not dynamically altered for the site visitor.
You can track the popularity of different generators at Staticgen . The 2 most popular ones are Jekyll and Hugo at roughly 20,000 websites each.
Programming Skills Needed
For small businesses the downside is that programming skills are really required to run a static site generator. Instead of managing plugins compatibility you have to maintain a stable build pipeline. If you go this route, it's recommended to outsource content updates to an experienced developer who's committed to maintaining your build pipeline.
The SaaS Approach
Wix, Squarespace, Shopify and other SaaS providers market themselves heavily in the English-speaking world as DIY solutions. If you believe the ads, you don't need a designer or a developer.
I'll try to separate the facts from the fluff. I'm a designer and developer. I like technology that won't keep me up at night. I'm interested in technology that gets the job done with a minimum of fuss.
There are several limitations with the SaaS approach that might make it a poor choice for you:
No Staging Environment: At the lower price points you are making changes on a live site. There are workarounds but staging and archiving sites are not commonly the default SaaS website builder workflow.
Lack of Portability: It's not trivial to move data out of a setup if you wish to change templates or move to another service. The workaround is to keep a content archive in a separate place.
Requires a Broadband Internet Connection: It can be unproductive to work on a website without a broadband connection i.e. 25MBps.
Restricted Products: Bigger SaaS companies operate in many jurisdictions with different restrictions on commerce. Read the terms of services about Adult Products, Tobacco, Liquor, Pharmaceuticals if your site sells or promotes this kind of content. A self-hosted open-source project will offer more options.
As a group, SaaS solutions offer fast setup and reliable sites without minimal maintenance on your end. Their advertised features will include:
- Modern Templates
- Built in Mobile Websites
- Flexible Block based Content Layouts
- Free Fonts
- Some Technical SEO Controls
- Basic Analytics
A walled garden approach ensures that their upgrades, features, and plugins go through more rigorous testing before being installed by the service.
The expenses I described earlier are minimums for a brochure or e-commerce site.
With the SaaS approach, you basically get what you pay for. Higher priced tiers or services offer more refined features, more controls for customization, and more integrations with other services.
Picking the Right Technology
I hope this article gives you some guidance on how your choice of technology will impact your website expenses.
Most SaaS providers let you test these features for free on limited trial basis or with restrictions on access, bandwidth, pages, and domain name. It's a good way to learn which features matter for you and whether the service or the technology is a good fit.
The Right SaaS provider?
If the SaaS approach feels right the next step is picking the right one out of a crowded field. Selecting the service for your website should be driven by your business goals not the appearance of a template. I will present a framework for selecting one SaaS provider in my next post.