Decades ago, if you wanted to have a website, the process was complex and arcane. You had to find one of the few companies that offered web hosting, buy a domain name from a registrar, and code up a website all on your own. You might use raw HTML in a bunch of text files, or you might have a tool like Netscape Composer or Macromedia Dreamweaver to help you out, but it was still often a tedious and complex process.
These days, you can have a website set up and running in under an hour and never have to touch a single line of HTML. All you need is WordPress and the ability to follow some well-documented tutorials online.
Is that better, though? When you’re building a website for your business, you have to decide between a proprietary website you develop yourself, a website you design using WordPress, or one of the other similar options out there. What are the pros and cons of each?
The Benefits of a Proprietary Website
Designing a website from the ground up (that is, not using something like WordPress or a website builder like Squarespace or any other platform) has a few benefits.
Your design will be entirely unique. Whatever decisions you make will be yours alone, even if you choose to base them off of another existing site. Everything from your code base to your design to the functionality of your site in the back end will be unique to you. No one will be able to say you’re copying another site since you’ll be designing your own site from scratch. Of course, your aesthetics might not be in line with what users want, and that can lead to problems.
You can create custom elements to your exact specifications. Want to have a lightbox for images with a specific delay between slideshow elements? Want to have a customized video player? Want to have a specific kind of related posts plugin, an in-post table of contents, a custom arrangement of elements when you browse on mobile, or fancy animations? All of this can be done completely custom just for you, giving your site a personalized and unique look and feel.
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Every aspect of your workflow can be customized. Different people have different preferences for how they want to do their work. Maybe you prefer to write your blog content in a text file and upload it with the formatting later. Maybe you want to have images that are pre-sized to fit before you upload them and don’t need processing after the fact. Maybe you want code that auto-generates metadata based on your content. When you use a system like WordPress, you’re beholden to how other people have designed the workflow; when you design a custom CMS, you’re able to adapt it to your workflow rather than the other way around.
You’re still able to take advantage of API access. Many of the popular plugins and service providers you might want to use have APIs you can access, either directly or through a service like Zapier, so you can still use those services without needing to go through a WordPress plugin. That email service provider, the form builder, the analytics app; whatever it is you want, as long as it has an API you can use, you can still make use of the service on a custom-designed CMS and website. You just need to have a developer who can make proper use of that API.
The Drawbacks of a Proprietary Website
Designing your own website from scratch isn’t a perfect solution, as customizations rarely are. There are a few drawbacks, which you likely have already guessed if you’ve ever looked into this kind of decision elsewhere before.
All code maintenance must be done in-house. When you use a platform like WordPress, the people who develop WordPress update WordPress as a framework. The people who develop your theme update your theme. The people who develop your plugins update those plugins. All of them work to ensure compatibility with WordPress and each other to the extent that they need to. You don’t have to do much more than keep regular backups and press the update button every few days. The burden is entirely relieved from your shoulders.
You’re solely responsible for the security and proper best practices. Many people claim that a proprietary website is more secure than something like WordPress, but the truth of the situation is nuanced. WordPress is immensely popular, which means thousands of malicious actors are constantly working to find ways to breach it and exploit the code base in some way. Your custom code doesn’t have nearly the depth of attack levied against it. On the other hand, unless you’re well-experienced with web security, you could miss something obvious and leave a glaring hole in your security that you wouldn’t even notice until it’s too late.
Migration later might be difficult or impossible. While you might be satisfied with a proprietary website today, what about a month or a year, or five years from now? You may grow tired of the constant burden and want something that takes care of itself, and that means migrating to a common platform like WordPress. That migration can be an extremely tedious process if you don’t have your data stored in a way that can be easily exported, converted, and imported. You may even need to code a special tool to handle it for you.
It can be quite expensive to develop. Numbers vary, but custom, bespoke code is almost always going to be more expensive than a WordPress site. WordPress is free, themes are relatively cheap, and many plugins are free or cheap, but replicating all of those features with a custom CMS can be costly and time-consuming.
The Benefits of WordPress
WordPress is the most popular CMS in the world, and for good reason. It single-handedly made “having a website” dramatically more accessible than ever before, and it’s a platform invested in constant improvements. What are some of the benefits of using it?
It’s extremely popular and well-supported. When you use WordPress, you aren’t working alone. Any possible issue you could have likely has a documented solution somewhere. Any feature you could want can be found in a plugin. There are millions of themes available to pick something you like and customize it from there. You can also get custom service with unique development by paying to have a custom theme or custom plugin designed for you.
Updates tend to be thoroughly tested for compatibility and functionality. WordPress tests their updates as thoroughly as possible. Most popular theme developers make sure their themes are compatible with the latest versions of WordPress when they release. Likewise, most popular plugins test their plugins not just with WordPress but with other popular plugins and work to resolve conflicts whenever they occur. Unless you’re using custom code or old plugins, chances are everything will work nicely together without much issue.
A lot of attention is paid to modern best practices and guidelines. The developers at WordPress pay attention to things like web design trends, best practices, and the guidelines for SEO and design set forth by companies like Google. That helps ensure that any website you build, unless you’re deliberately avoiding those best practices, will be at least 80% of the way toward something acceptable to modern audiences.
It’s generally easy and user-friendly to build, maintain, and use. As mentioned above, with a little know-how and some tutorials to follow, you can have a website set up on WordPress in under an hour. Custom design can take a bit more time, but practiced developers can have you up and running with a great design in short order.
The Drawbacks of WordPress
WordPress isn’t perfect, as much as its proponents might have you believe. There are a few drawbacks to it that might be relevant to you, particularly if you have unique needs or concerns with how your website is designed or functions.
Massive interest means more attention is turned to security breaches. As mentioned above, legions of malicious actors, from individual hackers to state-level agencies, are pretty much constantly trying to breach WordPress. Now, the chances of your site being compromised are relatively low unless you’re one of the top thousand or so websites out there, in which case you’re probably using your own security team anyway, but it’s still a consideration. It also means that you have to keep everything up to date, so lingering security holes can be closed as soon as possible before bots start to weaponize them.
You have to trust numerous third-party developers for feature plugins. When you have a custom website designed for you, you only really have to trust one entity to make and maintain the code. The average business WordPress site, meanwhile, has 20-30 plugins, at least. That means you’re putting your trust in anywhere from five to 30 different developers to make code that functions, is free from security issues, and is free from conflicts with other code made by other developers. Sometimes, it can be asking a lot!
Common templates can make a site feel less unique. Web design has collapsed in the last decade, and a lot of websites feel more or less interchangeable these days. It can be a lot harder to use basic WordPress templates and still feel unique. Color, branding, and arrangement of elements can go a long way, but it’s still a hurdle you may have to overcome.
You can end up with a bloated site with code you don’t need or use. WordPress has a lot of code in it that isn’t really used by everyone. Some of it is specific to configurations you might not use. Some is hooks or features you don’t care about. Plugins, too, can add a bunch of code and features you don’t need in exchange for the ones you do. All this means that your site can get pretty bloated with code you don’t use but can’t really remove without risking breaking things, violating IP rights, or creating an undue maintenance burden.
Which Option Should You Choose?
When you’re choosing between a custom CMS, custom design, and custom functionality for your website, or a WordPress site, the final decision is entirely up to you.
Custom designs can be more flexible, faster, more agile, and more suited to you. Like a well-tailored suit or a custom home design, they suit your needs and can be adapted to anything you want along the way. But they’re often more expensive than just using the freely-available tools and plugins out there.
Conversely, using WordPress is fast, easy, and cheap, but less efficient and less customized for you. It’s more like buying a home based on a pre-existing plan and adapting it; the framework is standardized, but the trim is more unique to you.
To be honest, though, our recommendation is somewhere in the middle. Don’t go whole-hog into a custom CMS, as it’s a lot of work to reinvent the wheel. At the same time, don’t just put up a WordPress site with a common free template and call it good, because you won’t feel good about it, and it won’t adequately reflect your brand.
Instead, pick something halfway between the extremes: a custom design for a WordPress site. Using WordPress as a framework and back-end CMS is great, and buying a custom website design to go on top of it gives you something that matches your brand and feels utterly unique to you.
As an award-winning marketing and design agency in Reno, we’re very experienced in creating unique, customized designs that are still powered by the flexibility and expandability of WordPress. Whatever your needs or desires may be, why not drop us a line? We’d love to chat about your project. Don’t worry; it’s a completely free, no-obligations consult to talk about your needs and whether or not we might be able to help you out. We can’t wait to hear from you!
Tim Woda is the CEO and founder of White Peak Marketing. He has been on the founding team of five successful start-ups and his digital marketing campaigns have acquired more than 800 million customers for his start-ups and White Peak’s client companies. Tim has been featured by The New York Times, Fox News, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and more. Under Tim’s direction, White Peak was selected as one of America’s Top Digital Marketing Agencies for 2021 by MarTech Outlook magazine.