Hiring a Web Design Agency vs. Free Website Builders: Differences and Misconceptions

You’ve most likely seen the flashy adverts for free website builders on TV, on the web, or heard about them on the radio.

But can they directly compete with bespoke web design courtesy of a web design agency? And is a “free” website courtesy of an online builder the right choice for your business?

Website builders can be an attractive prospect for many businesses, offering a website for (what appears to be) not much of an outlay. However, the websites these builders can produce are often a shadow of what a dedicated web design agency can achieve, but many businesses out there don’t understand the differences. Web design agencies and website builders cater to very different audiences, but that’s not always clear.

Web design as a practice is often relatively underappreciated, with website builders convincing many businesses that it’s a simple task that doesn’t take too long to produce. This simply isn’t the case; especially when you consider ecommerce giants like B&Q spent upwards of £60 million on their website. Whilst it’s unlikely you’ll spend even a fraction of that, it is still important to remember that businesses out there recognise a top quality website is a good investment.

For that reason, we’ve put together a post detailing why it is that your website is so important, and weighing up the differences between free website builders and web design agencies.

What a website can achieve

Before we go into the details of what exactly is different between an agency-built website and a template-based builder website, it’s important to remember what having a website is all about. Your website acts similarly to a shop window in reality. Would you want your customers to peer into your showroom to see a highly professional and inviting shopping experience? Or would you want them to see a basic and unfurnished showroom, and perhaps can’t even find the door to enter in the first place?

You may have the best products or services known to mankind, but if a customer struggles to navigate the site, or is simply dissuaded by the cheap and ugly website design, then you’re less likely to do business regardless. A website deserves respect and consideration, as it can be a huge benefactor into how your business performs both in reality, and on the web. An agency can help ensure the best possible customer navigation and attractive design. A website builder can only provide a template for you to enter details into.

Of course, as we are a digital marketing and web design agency, you would think we would want to steer you away from free website builders. But that’s not really the case. Time and time, we hear stories of businesses opting to save a few pennies by trying out a cheap build-your-own website, and coming across the many pitfalls.

On the contrary, these cheap or free drag-and-drop websites aren’t all bad; there’s just a big misconception around what these websites can achieve. Free websites have a purpose, and serve many people very well. But because of the huge advertising campaigns on TV and everywhere else, everyone thinks they can have a website for nothing, and it really isn’t the case. There are a number of disadvantages to these free websites that people simply do not realise until they are too deep into the process. There’s a reason successful businesses invest money into a professionally designed and developed website that meets specific requirements.

Web Design Agencies vs Website Builders

A good website is a marketing tool in itself. The aim of a website is to attract visitors, and convert them into happy customers. That’s why an investment into a good web design is a good idea. Website builders aren’t there for that function – they simply exist for people to upload a few details and options, and have some way form of presence online.

Investing in your own business is a good idea. Nowadays, a digital presence can be considered more important than a physical one. Just because the online world isn’t “real”, doesn’t mean the first impressions and opinions the customers hold of your website and brand aren’t.

So what are the biggest differences between these website builders, and a bespoke web design from a dedicated agency?

First impressions are important

Nowadays, people have shorter attention spans than ever. This means that as soon as they land on your website, not only will they make a judgement about your company, but they will also decide within seconds whether they will continue to browse the website, or hit the back button and find a competitor on Google with a more usable and attractive site.

Nowadays, there’s plenty of alternatives online. A quality website is a great way to stand out from the crowd, and can really help in promoting conversions or generating leads. People will judge a website by the cover, and many other aspects too; whether it’s the navigation, the website copy, the design, or anything else. An agency can help you craft the best possible site to fit your brand; whereas with a builder, you will be picking a template that may not reflect your brand at all.

Free doesn’t always mean free

The free option of a website builder will often get you the most basic package, and you will end up being charged for stuff you may have thought was an essential part of a website for any business. Without these paid parts, you could end up looking incredibly unprofessional, and damage your reputation.

For instance, when you search for Wix, the first result states “create a free website with Wix”. However, they offer a wide range of paid options, and a total of four “premium” subscription plans; of which some still display “Wix Brand Ads” when you’re paying for the website. That’s not something you will find with an agency.

Of course, if you’re a small business, or just getting started in launching your own, then perhaps getting your business onto the map with one of these free website builders may be worth a shot. Then down the road, once you’ve established your brand a bit more, you can consider launching a new website that it more professional, and is tailored to your requirements. This is where an agency web design can come into play.

If you’re paying a monthly fee, then this adds up. How long will you pay this for? And over time, how many additional features will you want, that will more than likely add to your monthly bill?

Say you pay £50 a month. Not a big investment. But over a year, that’s £600. Over 5 years, that’s £3000. Any additional features or services you choose, and it will be beyond that. And you still don’t own the website. Besides, agencies will often allow you to pay for the website over a period of time anyhow. It’s not like you will have to pay a sum of money upfront without any feasible product on show.

You get what you pay for

At the end of the day, you get what you pay for. And think about it; why would these companies offer free websites? How are they making money if they aren’t charging for the websites they produce?

As these cheap websites are so cheap, you can expect a cheap-looking result. This can often give the impression that you’re unprofessional, and working from a back room somewhere. Customers don’t care about your budget or your resources; they want to find and use a website that has a great user experience, and allows them to find what they want as quickly and as easily as possible. This likely isn’t the case through a website builder, and they know that.

Using a website builder may be the cheaper option; but it could cost you in other ways. It could be costing you lost sales, reputation, and time. It’s also essentially the difference between renting a house, and buying a home. Sure, that rented property could be fine for a while, but you don’t have the rights to do whatever you want with it.

Who owns the content?

Essentially, with a website builder, you often don’t own the website you would create. Many website builders will have a lot of conditions in the fine print that render you powerless in a number of ways, which is why it’s essential you read it beforehand.

But really, why would you want to pay for content that isn’t yours to keep? You are responsible for the content and the management, but you don’t own it. In most cases, paying for the website and owning it forever seems like the logical answer. With a web design agency, they provide the product, and you own it. Simple as that.

Relationships

Agencies work by forming relationships with clients, and finding solutions that will benefit the client in question. Whether this is by suggesting ideas for the website, or general advice in how to promote your brand online.

A website dedicated to providing website templates won’t do that. Whilst this isn’t expected of them, you are still left to do the work with no support or help, which is something many companies find useful when dealing with an agency.

What happens when something goes wrong?

With a website builder, there’s no “human” face which you can contact. They may have a support line or chat service, but this doesn’t have quite the same effect.

With an agency, you have a dedicated team of human beings who care about your brand and your website, and will not rest until they have solved any issues you may have with your website.

Many website builders have over-loaded servers, due to the sheer scale of their site. It may not damage a painter or decorator who uses the site to have a small website to help them online; but if you’re an established brand, long-standing downtime of a website can really be damaging, whether through lost sales or customer frustration.

Content Management System

Website builders will provide you with a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG), but can often be quite poor compared to the more popular frameworks that exist out there. With a web design agency, you can pick and choose the content management system and WYSIWYG editor that is right for your company, and your requirements.

Website builders will often provide a framework that is difficult to use, and offers little customisation. Here at Xanthos, we use the Kentico CMS for simple and stress-free content management for clients, and also use WordPress to create company blogs for use with content marketing. AspDotNetStorefront is also our chosen ecommerce software to create a high-quality ecommerce store.

Domain name

A big negative for the website builders is that they will often provide you with a poor domain name; especially if you are opting for the free option.

It doesn’t sound great, it doesn’t look great, and is enough to discourage customers from doing business with you. It’s also, again, not yours to keep. You will need to stay with the company in order to keep it, in most cases.

Before the customer has even visited your site, they have seen that ungodly URL, and made a snap judgement. How much better does a (theoretical) URL of “yourbrand.co.uk” look compared to “yourbrand.buildafreewebsitetoday.co.uk”. It really says a lot about a company.

This is also not good at all for SEO. Google thinks that if you are serious about doing business online and providing quality content, you’ll have a good URL. Your URL and domain authority can have a big impact on where you appear within search results. Which leads on to…

Poor SEO

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is becoming increasingly important for any modern business. If you haven’t considered the cost of not ranking well on Google, or other search engines, then it’s worth thinking about before you take the plunge with a free website builder.

If your competitors have made the investment into a professional website with a properly constructed strategy around SEO and digital marketing, then you don’t stand a chance in the digital sphere. A builder simply cannot take into account all the factors which add into SEO, including:

  • Website speed
  • Title tags
  • Mobile-friendliness
  • Length and quality of content
  • URLs

A web design agency with knowledge of SEO can help you optimise your website fully, to ensure the best rankings online.

Some website builders also use flash in order to render the websites; and Google is famous for not liking flash. It’s being phased out, with HTML 5 being the preferred option, and does not work on most mobile devices.

Can you design a website?

Sure, free website builders will allow you to alter certain aspects of your site, so you can make it look a little bit like how you want it. But not everyone knows what goes into great design, let alone what works when it comes to web design, and how customers interact with websites on a daily basis.

At the end of the day, web designers and digital agencies know a great deal about what goes into a good website, and how people interact with them. Agencies handle this everyday, by building new websites and polishing their techniques as new technologies and strategies emerge; whilst also monitoring and analysing traffic on a daily basis, with first-hand experience on what people want from a website. This experience is not something to take lightly, as it can really help in gaining the performance, look, and feel you desire from your website.

Bespoke web design

The big benefit of an agency web design is that they can offer bespoke design and coding which specifically caters to your business, and works how you want it to. There’s no system of drag and drop items with no customisation; it’s all build by web designers who know what they are doing. At the end of the day, if web design software is of a high software, companies would not be giving it away for free. Free websites builders may sound promising, but often they fall short once people begin.

They must get their money from somewhere. If they can afford the big television advertising campaigns and host thousands of websites, they aren’t doing it all for pennies. Much of this will come from hidden costs or extra functionalities that people will pay for. However, if you aren’t paying much for it, then they may be placing advertisements you can’t control onto your website.

Web design isn’t easy

There’s a reason web design agencies are needed. Web design isn’t something everyone or anyone can do. In fact, these website builders have essentially damaged the reputation of web designers and web design as a concept; as many people and even businesses consider web design to be a simple and quick process. This is not the case, and it takes experienced professionals to put together a decent looking site that performs to expectations of large businesses.

As far as complexities go, it’s not simple to design a front-end that ensures a great customer journey, or to account for interactions between different platforms, to ensure programming languages are compatible, to ensure databases are secure, and to create a general design that encourages a customer to do business with you. There’s a heap of work to be done behind the scenes of any high-calibre website.

Free website builders still take time

It may be free and relatively fast, but you’re still going to have to commit time to customise and maintain the website yourself.

If you’re looking for a return on investment, including your own time, then a free website is less likely to do so. It shows your brand in a bad light, and generally doesn’t tend to generate the interest or the sales that a professional site would.

Good web design agencies exist for a reason

Reputation is important, and so you can expect a web design agency to put a lot of effort into creating a website that not only looks good, but meets all of your requirements and provides a top experience for the customer.

Despite the cost of building a website, the value of having a good quality website can be much higher. Agencies provide competitive pricing for a professional product, and will not be attempting to overcharge for something people perceive they can get “for free”. A website by an agency is a very different product to what can be produced through a website builder.

Mobile web design is essential

Nowadays, more people are using mobile devices to browse and shop than ever. That means that having a mobile-friendly website is key to online success, and many website builders do not provide this compatibility.

Not only could you be alienating customers and sending them to competitor websites if you use a website builder that doesn’t create mobile-friendly sites, but Google now uses mobile-friendliness as a ranking factor. This means, if you get a mobile website from a web design, agency, then you are more likely to receive a ranking bonus, and be displayed higher in the search results.

If a free website builder does offer a mobile-friendly version, this is something that they may be charging for.

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Website speed

Here at Xanthos, we always ensure websites are as fast and efficient as possible. However, website builders do not. If the code is bulky and not streamlined, it can provide a slow and frustrating experience.

An agency can alter and change the code to ensure the website is as fast as it can be. Google uses website speed as a ranking factor too; which means that the faster your website is, the higher you will be seen in search engine results. This is especially noticeable when on a mobile internet connection, or using an older device.


Decisions, decisions

Now you’ve had a chance to weigh up the options, you may have a better idea of which route to take. Of course, hiring a web design agency is the best choice (and I’m not just saying that), but it simply comes down to a matter of budget.

If you have a small budget, then go for the website builder. If you are thinking of spending a few hundred pounds on a website, then there’s no way you can get a professional web designer to provide your dream website at that cost. If you “know a guy” that can build you your dream site for £500, then it’s likely they’re also an amateur, as for that pricetag you can’t expect decent results.

If you want a professional website that can propel your business forwards online, with all the benefits of SEO, mobile-friendliness, top user experience, conversion rate optimisation, easy content management, and analytical reporting, opt for an agency built website.

All in all, as we have demonstrated, there are a wide range of differences between agency web design and the free website builders out there. These services and products serve different audiences, but it’s essential to know the details when you make a decision for your business.

When free website builders work

Of course, despite the negativity surrounding free website builders in many of these posts, it’s not to say there isn’t an audience. If you don’t need a high calibre website, and don’t need the services or advice of a web design agency, then a website builder may be able to meet your standards.

Website builders are great for conventional websites. Restaurants, cafés, or pubs don’t necessarily need to sway from traditional conventions, such as menus, contact information, and locations. Even in this case, such a business may want to set themselves aside from the crowd, and that’s much more difficult when using a builder; and that’s when a web design agency comes into play. If your business doesn’t need to do anything out of the ordinary, or differentiate your brand online, then the builder may just make the grade.

In many cases, a free, simple website can do wonders for the one-man-band business, who simply needs to get his/her name on the web, perhaps with a telephone number or email address to generate business. However, for any established businesses who can afford to invest in a professional website, a free website should really not be considered.

Alternatives for the small budget

If you are a small business, then perhaps a well-optimised and maintained Facebook page or blog may be enough to make a name on the web. If all you want to do is simple, this could be a good choice.

But if you want to drive people to discover your brand, and get found on Google, then really you need to pay for a decent website.

If you are looking to sell a variety of products online, then there’s simply no decent option to do this for free. Ecommerce web design has a host of complications, and adds another layer of user interaction and design that cannot be ignored. If you want customers to spend money with you online, then you’re going to have to convince them to; and that takes a lot more than a simple free template.

There’s always someone promising the same for less

If an agency quotes a certain amount for your vision of a website, then there’s a reason that price tag comes with it. It isn’t plucked out of thin air, but the man hours, licences, and other factors are all taken into account. That’s why these websites that promise “professional” websites for free are often too good to be true.

When finding quotes for a website, it’s understandable to opt for those offering the same for less. But you have to wonder, why would they offer the same end product for less? Well, that’s because it will most likely be of lower quality, or not work the way you expect it to. There are many different breeds of web designers; it’s not like hiring a mechanic, who either fixes your car or doesn’t. Web design is an art, and there are varying qualities of artwork out there; the difference is that the quality of this art directly impacts the performance and ROI of your website. So it may be worthwhile to spend the extra to get your perfect site, and reap the rewards in the long run.

If you want your ultimate website for close to free, then you have to come to some form of compromise either on your requirements, or the cost. With an agency, you are paying for the experience, knowledge, and equipment it takes for an agency to put together a website that your brand deserves. And that is almost always worth it, when you consider that a website is most likely the first impression a customer will have of your brand.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you want to be found online?
  • Do you want to have a unique website that doesn’t look generic, and the same as thousands of others?
  • Do you have competitors who are online?
  • Is your business established, and have the money to invest in a professional web design?

If you answered yes to these, then hiring a web design agency to develop your website is the better option. A website builder can provide a basic website framework, and that’s about it. 

On the contrary, a web design agency can provide:

  • A website tailored to specific business requirements
  • A content management system to allow for easy and fast editing and updating of the site
  • Website analytics reporting to monitor and improve the website
  • Search engine optimisation to improve rankings and ensure it is found online
  • Marketing advice and integration to ensure an online presence
  • Any extra functionalities you may need for your business
  • A bespoke and unique design to stand out from the crowd

Besides, businesses outsource to web design agencies so they can get on with what they do best; and that’s handle the business they are experts on, rather than fiddle around building their own site. Web design isn’t something anyone can lend a hand to, and it’s best left to those who know what they are doing. Your time is precious, so it’s best to spend it doing what you do best.

At the end of the day, the decision is yours to make. But any established brand should be looking to invest in a website courtesy of a web design agency that can help increase ROI and brand awareness.  

A template-based website from a builder can be a great starting point for small businesses getting started online; but there really is no substitute for a thoroughly thought-out and well-designed website from an experienced web design agency.

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