While traditional web hosting and the now-popular site builder services have a lot in common, they also have significant differences. We hope that this article will help you see through the shiny ads and make the right choice for your online presence.
Popular cloud-hosted site builder services use a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model (think Wix.com, Squarespace, etc.), and provide a hosting service that is very limited and requires additional payments to unlock features considered standard for web hosting.
If you have no experience building websites and you are on a tight budget and cannot afford to hire a web developer, you may be tempted by the constant ads of the cloud-based website builders. It's no wonder the web is full of their ads - their business model relies on attracting new customers with popular faces, expensive ads and free trials, but the cost and difficulties when using their platform soon add up.
Although cloud-based SaaS web builder companies try to differentiate themselves from the traditional hosting market, this is where their main competition lies. They have a big ace up their sleeve though - once you sign up with them and invest into building a website, moving out of there is nearly impossible. Websites built on their platform cannot be exported and moved to another platform without being rebuilt entirely. That's why they offer tempting free trials - they know that once a person invests some time with them, it will be difficult to move away.
The illusion of choice
Website builder services show an illusion - they offer hundreds of templates, which seems like a lot in the beginning, but you quickly realize that their platforms have significant limitations, and you find yourself inside a walled garden where only a handful of options are allowed.
All of the templates in the site builder offerings are built on top of the same framework. Whatever the layout is, the site functionalities will be the same, so if you need any custom solution, you will not be able to use one. Of course, these services know this limitation, and some have tried to monetize it by adding marketplaces which further increase the bill to the seemingly cheap (or free) service you were sold.
Using a web hosting plan gives you the freedom to choose what site builder to use. Whether it will be an online-based application or one installed on your computer, you can choose any piece of software that will suit your needs. If you use an open-source application, you will be able to customize your website in any way you see fit and add any functionality that you need.
Additionally, due to the heavy competition in the web hosting market, providers have become more open about their plans - we can speak only for ourselves (ICDSoft.com), but it is now common among web hosting providers to differentiate plans only where costs are involved. Here at ICDSoft, we don't place arbitrary limits on our plans with the sole purpose of selling additional services or upgrades to our customers. If a feature isn't available in a lower-priced plan, it is because it costs us more to provide it. When we have a premium feature available (like our new ultra-fast PHP execution system, for example), if it doesn't cost us extra to offer it, we offer it to all plans.
This is in stark contrast to cloud-based builders, where almost all of the differences between the pricing tiers are designed around arbitrary limits with one purpose - upsell.
The advantage site builders have over traditional web hosting
Considering the above, there is one significant advantage cloud-hosted website builders have over traditional web hosting - some hard choices have been made for you, and launching a website can really be done fast and without significant time investment. We understand that traditional web hosting services may seem overwhelming at first - they have a control panel with scores of different options, difficult technical terms to cope with, and a more involved setup process. However, remember that all these options and features are there because people actually need them and use them. The web is humongous and many websites have different needs, people have different tastes, and website owners have their own opinion on how their website should look, function, and operate.
Website builder services have emerged to serve the other end of the market - folks just starting out who don't have the time to get going with traditional web hosting. We understand this market need, and adding a website builder software to our offering has been on our roadmap for some time. We are close to adding a product like that to our offerings, so stay tuned. The difference between web hosting providers offering site builders and website SaaS providers is that with web hosting providers (such as ICDSoft), this is a product that you can use ON your hosting account, which can still be used for any other task. If you find that the site builder software limits you, you can easily install and configure a new website in a subdomain, on a totally different platform (like WordPress or Drupal, for example).
For even more alternatives, you can check our list of site builders and popular applications that you can use to build any type of website – the one you want and should have, not the one that a closed-source site builder allows you to have.
Your site can have a truly unique layout
We mentioned WordPress and Drupal above, and here is why.
These open-source platforms have a huge advantage over cloud site builders – their communities. These popular applications have thousands of templates and plugins that you can use to build a unique website. WordPress, for example, offers almost 8,000 themes only on its official website, and you can easily create a child theme from any of them if you need a custom solution for your site. Any other open-source application you decide to use will also give you the freedom to customize the look of your website as much as you want.
On the other hand, cloud site builders offer a comparably limited set of templates to choose from, and they are closed-source. Once your site takes off, you cannot edit the template files to adjust them to your business processes. You have to adjust your business to the website. Since you cannot modify the template files, it is very likely that your site will end up looking like a number of other websites, maybe with a different background image and with a few different buttons. This matters since having a unique layout can make your website stand out among your competitors’ sites.
You will not need another provider for email
Cloud site builders are often site builders only. Using a tool like that will allow you to create web pages, but if you want to create email addresses with your own domain name, you will have to use another provider. Some site builders partner with email providers to offer their services, but their “integration” is usually a button that sends you to another website where you can purchase email services for an additional monthly fee. You will not be able to manage your website and email accounts in one place, since site builders simply do not offer any email services of their own.
A standard web hosting plan usually includes a fully functional email service, so you do not have to manage your email accounts with a different provider. You can have all your web- and email-related services in one place. This can save you time and effort when it comes to setting up new email addresses or getting customer/technical support. Using a web hosting plan will very likely cost you much less than paying two different companies for web and email services, so you can save some money as well.
You can easily change your hosting provider
It would be great if you could find the best possible service for your website the first time you open a hosting account with some provider, but this may not always be the case. You may need better support or a faster server, for example. Will you be able to migrate your website easily, though? Will you be able to do that at all?
Cloud site builders are closed-source tools. You can use the front end to design your site, but you do not have access to the back end, so you cannot access the site files or change any system settings. As a result, it will be very, very difficult to change your provider if you decide to do so someday. While technically you will be able to move to another provider, in reality very few people want to spend time and effort to copy their content manually. No access to the files means that you will have to start building your site anew with the new provider and copy all texts and images manually. With some cloud site builders, you will have to rebuild the site from scratch even if you only change the template you want to use.
You will not have such worries if you use a standard web hosting package since you will always have access to your files via a web-based file manager and/or FTP. You can also simply get a backup from one provider and use it with another. More or less all hosting companies support popular applications such as WordPress or Drupal and you can easily move a website built with them from one provider to another. This gives you flexibility as you can always move to a better provider if you find one.
You can optimize your site for search engines
Having full access to your files means that you can optimize your site so that it ranks higher on search engines. You can edit file names, image descriptions or the site meta information that search engines pick up. You can speed up your site by using a caching platform that the hosting provider offers, a third-party caching plugin, or a content delivery network. You have full control over the content on the front end and the code on the back end. You can even use separate software with totally different functions for your main website, for your marketing landing pages, for your CRM, and so on. You can also build multilingual websites, targeted at different geographical regions.
In comparison, if you want to do some search engine optimization for a website that was built with a cloud-based site builder, you can do so only through the interface the platform provides. You will be able to change only the meta content they decided you could access and edit, but nothing more than that (and meta tags are largely irrelevant nowadays). If you want to change some server-side setting or optimize the site files, you will not be able to do so. While we won't call names here, if you check some SEO communities you will find that people and experts there dismiss the use of site builders for any website that wants to rank well in search engines. While the SaaS site builder platforms are trying to improve this, this appears to be a limitation of their internal system design which may not be possible to overcome easily.
No limit on the number of pages or products
Cloud site builders often have a limit for the number of pages you can create as part of a single website. While this may not matter for a small personal website, it can have a negative impact on a business website as it can limit the site’s growth. You often have the option to create a larger number of pages if you upgrade your plan to a more expensive one. However, some popular site builders and cloud e-commerce platforms allow you to add a relatively limited number of pages or products even with their most expensive plans that cost up to $300 per month. One of the more popular site builders, for example, has a limit of 100 pages per website, regardless of the plan you use.
This is an example of the arbitrary limits we mentioned above. There is no additional cost for the provider for storing more pages, or at least the relationship doesn't work this way - a single heavy page may very well place more burden on the servers, compared to 100 lightweight ones, but the provider has found that this is the best way to upsell its customers to their higher level plans.
Using a self-hosted website means that it will be up to you how many pages you will create or how many products you will add to your online store. Web hosting plans do not have such limits, so you will be limited only by the disk space quota, which is usually very generous and allows you to create thousands of pages or add thousands of products to your store. Disk sizes have remained one of the differentiating factors between the plans of the web hosting providers, and that's because disk space is a measurable item with a directly related cost in the books. Disk space includes both the cost of the SSD drives and the cost of the drives on which the data is being backed up (all hosting providers should provide a good backup solution integrated with their service)
You will not have to pay extra for basic features
Cloud site builders limit a lot of features on their entry plans so that they can offer them as part of their more expensive packages. Such pricing models usually make sense for standard hosting packages where you pay more to get more. The features you have to pay for with many of the popular cloud site builders on the market are so basic, however, that you would probably never guess they are part of a paid plan. We will not mention specific builders, but you will probably come across these features if you check the plans of the more popular builders out there.
Here are a few examples of the features you have to pay for with cloud site builders - adding a site search box, using custom CSS styles, uploading a video, using a country-code domain extension for your site instead of a generic one, or viewing detailed traffic statistics to see the most popular pages on your site or to find out where your visitors came from. You can get these things with even the most basic web hosting plan, but they are all part of paid packages with site builders, and not necessarily entry-level packages.
Cloud site builders are a great choice if you want to build a simple website quickly, and do just that, but their ads don't mention the last part. Their business model relies on acquiring lots of new clients with free trials, and quickly upselling them onto higher tiered plans. On one of the most popular website builders, you will find that even their paid option doesn't remove their ads from your website! This is unacceptable to us, a paying customer serving as an ad billboard for the service they pay for.
The costs quickly add up
A hosting plan is a multi-purpose service, a site builder is not
One big difference between a standard hosting plan and a site builder package is that the hosting plan is a multi-purpose service. Learn about the various ways of extract the maximum out of your hosting plan:
Of course, if you simply want to build a small website and you don’t need any of the above services, you can go ahead and use a cloud site builder. Should you need any of them at some point, though, you will either have to sign up with one more provider, or you will have to migrate your site to a standard hosting plan. None of these two options will be very convenient.
Having an online presence isn't only the website, and you should remember that. Being online requires lots of additional services which are offered even by some of the cheapest hosting packages (like our Economy plan for example):
- An email service, so that you can show your customers that you are a serious partner.
- Private disk space for your company files.
- Having a personal cloud. Storing your company files and customer records on free public cloud providers may not be a good choice (and can be actually forbidden by some laws), so you can use your hosting account with suitable software, like Nextcloud Hub, to manage your important files.
- A Support Team that can help you with various tasks - from setting up your email, to solving errors with your website, or dealing with bad bots and hacking attacks.
- Powerful site statistics and analytics tools - with web hosting plans you have no limitations on the analytics software; you can use Google Analytics if you wish, or you can ditch Google for some self-hosted alternatives like Matomo for example.
- Running scheduled scripts required by your business - your web hosting account isn't providing only disk space, but computational resources as well. You can run any computational task on your account, at any time you like (for example by setting up cron jobs).
- Sending and managing mailing lists - all hosting accounts include mailing list software, and there are also popular open-source mailing list management tools which you can install.
- Running your CRM system on your hosting account. Having a CRM system is an essential business requirement and you can easily install and use an open-source system (like CiviCRM for example).
If you install an application such as Nextcloud Hub, you can take advantage of a multitude of collaboration tools such as a calendar, file sharing, video and audio chat, shared mailboxes, and much more. This way, you can get a lot more for your money without compromising with the quality of the service.
Beware of bad hosting providers
There are bad apples among hosting providers, unfortunately. They cast a shadow over the entire business, and here at ICDSoft, we try to use every opportunity to fix this. Before choosing a hosting provider, make sure to check their online ratings. We have found that customer reviews are the most honest ones, as many review sites often just post what the providers give them. Be sure to check a company's TrustPilot rating, and make sure that you read their bad reviews as well. ReviewSignal is also a popular review website that has a high authority due to their extensive testing and publishing of all their testing data. With our new server platform, including PHP-FPM with OPcache and server-side caching, we would be a proud entrant into the 2021 benchmarks.