Why you should trust us
I've written a number of Wirecutter guides to software, including tax software, budget apps, and picks in our home-office guide. Before joining Wirecutter, I wrote about the Web and apps for years, both as an editor at the productivity and software site Lifehacker and as a freelancer for publications including Fast Company, Fortune, and ITworld. I have some experience building websites, with very basic tools (Notepad and HTML), ridiculously convoluted tools (Jekyll, which powers my personal site), and some of the modern building tools reviewed here, including WordPress and Squarespace.
In addition to using my own experience, I enlisted the help of a dozen Wirecutter writers and editors to help test site-building apps. Some were experienced with building and maintaining websites, whether through all-in-one tools like those we considered or through manual setup and coding, while others were making a site for the first time.
I also spoke with several experienced designers about their processes for building websites for clients, both with template-based building apps and through a traditional design-and-build process. Brandon Davis is the co-founder and creative director of Block Club, a branding and strategy agency that has built websites for clients with Squarespace, through Brandcast, and from scratch. Paige Brunton is a Squarespace design specialist who has built sites previously in WordPress and works with a variety of individual, nonprofit, and business clients. Idelle Fisher, proprietor of Pickle-Wix Web Design, has over 15 years of professional Web-design experience (and, as you might guess, works to set up Wix sites for clients).
Who this is for
These services are for small-business owners, because a small business needs to have its own website. A business can (and usually should) be active on social media, sell in multiple stores, and find customers wherever they may be. But lacking a stand-alone site on the greater Web means losing out on potential business and brand recognition.
A proper website lends legitimacy and trustworthiness to a business, as compared with businesses that exist only on review sites such as Yelp or in Google Maps. A well-made website lets people find your business when they're searching for what you offer, not just your business name. You can also tell your business's whole and honest story on its website, rather than competing for attention on (and trying to discern the unknowable sorting system of) a search engine. If nothing else, a website lets you publish your phone number, address, and business hours in a place where people will know that info is accurate—most people have been burned a few times by relying on the hours listed for a business in a mapping app.
"Small business" is a big concept, so we researched and wrote this guide with three types of businesses in mind:
- A retail business that wants people to find it and visit it: a restaurant, a shop, an indie movie theater.
- A business that wants to sell goods online, at a volume that its existing employees can handle.
- A service-oriented business that wants to exude professionalism: a law firm, a consultant, a contractor.
If your business already has a website, either a site on another build-it-yourself platform or one you paid a developer to make, switching to one of our all-in-one picks will likely mean starting over. Most site-building apps cannot import site data, or the look and feel of a site, beyond whatever you can copy and paste. At the same time, you may find that one of our picks can create a site that looks and functions better than what you currently have, and websites built with a good site-building app can be much easier to update and improve.
How we picked
First, we researched 17 of the most prominent website building and hosting services, looking at pricing, features, and templates or example client sets.
There's no easy way to say which building platform offers the "best" tools for making a business website that is easy to navigate, gives people the information they need, reaches the audience searching for it, and has professional polish. Someone with a clear plan and good design instincts, and maybe a little code knowledge, can turn out a decent site using a cheap, underpowered Web-template tool, while the most sophisticated website-building app can only nudge a site owner into making good decisions about what to put up and where to put it. And you can't fully tell whether a particular service will work for your needs until you've gotten deeper into building a site.
However, speaking with Wirecutter staffers and our experts gave us a sense of what we should look for in a good build-it-yourself platform:
- An interface that requires no code knowledge whatsoever to put a site together, and is also easy for other people to update (even if they didn't make the site originally).
- Site templates that do not demand a wealth of high-quality images just to get a page up. Where possible, a site platform should offer built-in, tasteful stock-art options for business owners who don't have a library of photos or illustrations.
- Basic analytics and search engine optimization, or at least guidance on building search-friendly sites, without requiring payment for a premium package.
- Storage and bandwidth that would not restrict a typical small-business website (preferably unlimited).
- Timely, friendly, effective customer support for standard-tier customers. Live chat and phone calls during business hours are best, but fast email response is okay.
- A functional contact form that works on any browser.
- Pricing that is in line with most of the competition. Most of the extra features offered in the higher-price tiers of site-building apps are marketing or SEO tools that a business could likely buy separately. A website builder shouldn't cost significantly more than mainstream competitors, roughly $20 to $40 per month.
- Social integration that can be customized and made to look not awful.
- A free trial of some kind. Websites, and especially online stores, are complex endeavors, and finding out that a platform lacks a feature you need shouldn't happen after you've paid.
- No intrusive or distracting "Built by" or "Made with" branding or logos. (Minimalist branding is acceptable.)
- Integrated email and domain management.
For any business-related website, reliability (it doesn't go down, or it comes as close to "5 nines" as possible) is crucial. We could not test this aspect directly, and most website providers don't offer reliability guarantees, but our picks are companies that are large enough that outages are not common—or at least only as common as most large-scale server outages that affect the Web from time to time.
For businesses looking to sell goods online, we sought a few more qualities:
- Support for multiple products and identifying information, with as seamless a setup process as possible.
- A clear fee structure.
- A store that looks authentic, loads quickly, and is easy to step through, so potential customers don't simply open a new tab and go to Amazon instead.
- For businesses that mostly sell expertise and appointments, a functional appointment-booking system.
Using those criteria, we settled on seven apps we wanted to test further: Squarespace, Weebly, Wix, WordPress for Business, GoDaddy GoCentral Website Builder, Simvoly, and Strikingly. Some of these were broadly popular and obvious contenders (Squarespace, Weebly, Wix, and WordPress), while others had an interesting feature set, price, or templates (GoDaddy, Simvoly, and Strikingly).
How we tested
You can't tell whether a website-building app will work for you until you try it, so I tested each of our seven finalists, using each one to try to improve the website of my favorite lunchtime deli. In doing so, I noted how much time it took until I felt my site had at least one good page ready to present to the world, and how versatile the tool was in letting me change my mind as I went along. I also asked questions of each app's support staff, to test their speed and helpfulness of response. Some of the apps had built-in help tools, and sometimes detailed help forums or FAQ sections, but every app we tested had one or two quirks that left us wanting to ask "How do you ..." questions, so a good support response was crucial.
A dozen Wirecutter staffers also built websites using the seven finalists. Some testers built personal sites, but most tried to remake the website of a favorite small business they thought could use a better one. I asked each tester to spend a maximum of about an hour on each site. We didn't publish our sites, because we didn't want to impact the search results for those businesses or confuse people by presenting an unofficial, incomplete version of that business's identity. But each staffer shared their site with me and answered questions about the building process.
Our pick: Wix
If you're going to build your website yourself, Wix presents the fewest obstacles to putting an informative, attractive, and useful website online. In our testing, Wix's site generator and template-editing tools were faster at getting a working site up than those of the competition. Wix's editing interface also made adding, adjusting, and removing page elements easier to accomplish than with other site-building apps.
Wix offers a good mix of templates that are different, but not overwhelming in number, and most don't require you to have a wealth of high-resolution images available to make them work. Getting a contact form, online food menus, reservations, or other plug-ins working is simple. The built-in SEO tools are easy to set up. Customer support, even for free plans, was helpful in our testing. Wix's free trial is the most useful of any professional site-building tool we tested, giving you unlimited time with a basic plan to try out the tools and templates. And the company's pricing and plans, while not the cheapest, should fit the needs of most small businesses; they're also clear about what you get at each level.
Jenni Gritters, outdoors editor for Wirecutter, has built sites using Squarespace, WordPress, and Wix, and after our testing, she said she recommended Wix for anyone looking to get a small-business site off the ground. "It's the easiest to use of the three, with pre-built templates that look original and literally no space to mess things up," Jenni wrote in her testing notes. "If people want a pretty website with little to no effort, Wix is a great place to land."
Before you start looking over templates and obsessing over headlines, Wix can take a shot at building a site for your business using its ADI, or Artificial Design Intelligence, script. It sounds hokey, but by asking you what kind of business you have, where it's located, and what you do and don't need on your site, and then quickly generating a site (usually a single page), Wix's ADI can get you going a lot faster than other website-building tools, most of which still require you to pick and choose templates and design items. Other services, if they ask you any questions about your business at all, ask only the category of your business (as WordPress and Squarespace do) or if you have a Facebook page (as Jimdo does). Wix's ADI works even better if your address is in Google Maps, or if your social media pages contain your logo.
Wix's interface didn't leave us guessing about how to change things, remove things, or move things around on the page. Wix offers hundreds of templates (more on that just below), so chances are, you'll be able to find one that won't require you to change the layout or page elements significantly.
Having this freedom to move, resize, and customize each element of the page could lead to overenthusiastic mistakes. Wix offers simple undo and redo buttons, and saves a new version of your page every time you save. This is definitely not the case with perhaps the most heavily advertised site builder, Squarespace, where tapping Control+Z or Command+Z to undo sometimes works but sometimes doesn't, and cleaning up mistakes can lead you to wipe out other page elements accidentally or leave you wandering through the settings menus. WordPress's templates offer draft versions and preview links, but not the same kind of undo/redo/history convenience.
When asked to rate (on a scale of one to five, with five being the best) how difficult they would find it to come back and update their Wix sites regularly, two staff testers gave Wix the highest average scores of any app, a four and a five. My own testing led me to agree with them. Updating a site through Wix is similar to designing the site itself: It feels like editing a document, rather than building through code. You can either edit the text of a block or section on the page directly or create a News section on a page and edit the items inside that. Wix doesn't give you a wealth of options, but it does offer more than what most tested site-building apps provide.
Wix offers a variety of templates, organized into specific business or use categories. For example, Wix's "Fashion & Beauty" section has "Hair & Beauty" and "Fashion & Accessories" subsections, and then themes titled "Beauty Salon," "The Makeup Artist," "Hairdresser Site," and such. These specialized options are more useful than some other services' overly broad categories, and they make it easier to get started than Squarespace's vague names like "Montauk" and "Foster."
Modern Web design (and the approach of most website-building services) tends toward large, high-quality images, sometimes animated, often laid out on top of one another, as a visitor scrolls down a long page. But not every business owner has a wealth of images available. Wix provides a few options to get good images on your site, besides uploading yourself: importing from social media accounts, using a free Wix-provided image, or buying images from Shutterstock for about $3 each. Other sites (such as Strikingly) offer free images, and some (such as Squarespace) offer paid art, but having both, plus easy import from Facebook or Instagram or the like, leaves you unlikely to hit a wall because you don't have the right image for a template.
Getting the functional parts of your site working—contact forms, menus, interactive maps, social integration, or even online ordering—is easy with Wix, especially given that most relevant templates will have those sections set up. Contact forms need only your email address to work. Wix launches a small wizard when you assemble an online food menu, and you can fill it out with images (stock or your own). Squarespace, in contrast, has you edit the text of your menu on the page; some other website-building apps provide just an upload spot for a PDF menu (which is fine for some cases, but not particularly mobile-friendly). You have options to accept online reservations and orders through Wix's own services, but you can also integrate OpenTable, any of a number of appointment and booking tools, and many other apps.
Wix provides some basic SEO tools that, while not anything magical, do coax you into making your site describe itself in search-friendly ways. Most site-building apps claim that SEO is baked into their pages and design. Wix exposes you to a bit of the behind-the-scenes work, such as picking out the strongest keywords, updating a site's meta (search-friendly) description, being mobile-friendly, and more. We liked that Wix didn't pretend there was a secret sauce that only it could provide; the company spells out its SEO advice on the open Web. Upgrading to any paid plan allows you to hook in Google Analytics, Facebook ad tracking, and other analytics tools that are par for the course for a small-business site.
I posed a written question to Wix's support center at nearly 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night and received a detailed response by about 10 a.m. the next day. I asked about the best way to create a menu for a restaurant website that would allow me to frequently change out the daily specials. The company's response seemed considered and written by a human. The suggestion was only a partial solution (creating menu items that appeared only on certain days), but the person responding noted that they had added my suggestion to "the relevant inbox" and "hope to see easier options for daily menus in the future." A fast, affirmative response, and a note that things could be better, is a pretty good result from a late-night support post.
Wix's lengthy, essentially unlimited free trial period is also appealing. With a free account, you can build your site in private, put up a preview (at a Wix.com address) for anyone to check out, and invite collaborators to work on your site, for as long as you like. The features that pull you into paid plans include the ability to remove Wix.com ads and branding from the bottom of your site, to use your own .com domain, and to get more storage. Most small businesses won't bump up against the bandwidth or storage limits of the Combo plan ($12 per month), and we don't think most businesses need the added features of the Unlimited and VIP plans, such as accepting online payments and launching email campaigns, which are likely things a fast-growing business would want handled by a specialized service like Shopify (another pick) or MailChimp.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
An inherent flaw of Wix's more detailed, open-ended design capabilities is that if you change a lot of the elements of a template, you can end up making bad style choices with the type, images, layout, sizing, organization, or any other element of Web design. Judging from our testing, Wix won't interfere if you really want to use Comic Sans and a low-res image of a greasy sandwich to poorly advertise your diner. None of the other site-building apps did much advising either, but their editing tools did not offer as many ways to change each element of a page design. Wix's finer-grained controls provide more opportunities for missteps, if someone uses too many of them.
Once you pick a template on Wix, you can't switch to another template—you have to rebuild the site with that new look. Template-switching doesn't work wonderfully on other website builders, as it usually produces a number of errors and odd leftovers, but swapping between templates is at least possible with Weebly and works fairly well on Squarespace.
Wix's Combo package contains most of what we think small businesses will need but imposes monthly limits on file storage (3 GB) and bandwidth (2 GB). While those limits shouldn't affect most small businesses' sites, Wix's competitors, including Weebly and Squarespace, offer unlimited storage and bandwidth at or below that price level.
Testers complained of having difficulty removing page features (sidebar text boxes, large images, contact forms) from certain templates without messing up the page's general layout. Unless you use a single-page layout (or a "strip," in Wix terms), template elements are not modular, and wiping out an entire container means having to smoosh together the elements that were around it to make up for the empty space.
Wix does not allow for editing a website's style sheet (CSS files), and doesn't provide deeper access to the HTML behind the page, or FTP access to the files. This restriction is intentional, but it means that experienced Web designers can't easily fix up your site or introduce custom bits of code or design choices to your site. Both Weebly and Squarespace offer more robust design and code tools in their settings.
A simpler option: Weebly
If you're willing to give up stylish template options and work with a smaller set of boxier, more-modular editing tools, Weebly is worth considering. It doesn't offer as wide a range of attractive templates, as many ways to alter those templates, an interview-style site setup, or as many plug-in apps as Wix. But Weebly's simpler tools are easier to use, and it provides the same contact forms, maps, and other website basics. It also costs less: Weebly's Starter plan is roughly two-thirds the cost of Wix's comparable Combo plan, has the same essentially infinite free trial, and puts no limits on bandwidth or storage, unlike Wix.
Weebly is drag-and-drop in the truest sense, as you grab page elements from a left-side bank and then bring them into your page. You don't get as many editing tools and plug-in apps as with Wix, but the ones that most small businesses need should be there. An example: One Wirecutter tester was irked that Weebly had no tools to create a link to a different section of the same page (an anchor link in Web terms); Weebly's support section says you can make an anchor link, but only manually with HTML code.
Weebly allows for more access than Wix does to the CSS and HTML code underneath your site, in case you want to try a font or style that Weebly doesn't offer or bring in outside help. You can also enter, in the page's settings section, your own site description and keywords, and install the tracking code for any tool (such as Google Analytics) you might use. That's handy, but you need to dig into Weebly's "Ultimate SEO Guide" to go further.
Weebly costs $8 per month for the Starter plan, which removes Weebly advertising, lets you use your own domain, provides unlimited storage, and adds site stats and a few other tools. That's just two-thirds of the price of the most similar Wix plan, with no storage or bandwidth restrictions, making Weebly worth considering if you don't mind choosing from plainer templates and doing more of the design work yourself.
An add-on for selling goods online: Shopify
Shopify is the online-sales service that each designer we spoke to—even those who specialized in site-building apps with built-in ecommerce tools, like Wix and Squarespace—specifically recommended. We didn't test Shopify in the same way that we tested website-building apps because it wasn't feasible to create an entire fake workflow of products, store, sales, shipping, tracking, customer service, inventory, payments, and return-customer marketing. But going by recommendations, research, and, most of all, the fact that Shopify can work with all of our site-building picks, we think Shopify is the first place to look if you need a system to handle the stuff you sell online.
Shopify's $9-per-month Lite plan allows you to sell items through an embeddable buy button that works in Wix, Weebly, and most any other website-building service. This plan also gives you the ability to sell through your business's Facebook page, take support questions through Facebook Messenger, and (after you buy a $50 hardware setup) sell through a phone or tablet with a mobile card reader. The plan should cover a business that is mostly focused on brick-and-mortar sales but sells online occasionally. If you want to scale up, Shopify's other plans give you an unlimited number of items and infinite image storage, shipping discounts, scaling transaction fees, and the like.
Shopify powers a lot of online stores, though you often don't see the company's custom-built interfaces and branding because it's hidden or tightly integrated. It's a large enough vendor and focused on one aspect of business, so your store should remain reliably online and offer a quick-and-easy checkout experience. On top of that, Shopify's fees and rates are usually lower than those of our picks' built-in e-commerce tools. Paige Brunton, the Squarespace design specialist we interviewed, told us she recommended Shopify to any client who was "selling more than a few secondary things," and specifically 20 or more items.
What about Squarespace?
Squarespace creates websites that are heavy on big, high-resolution images, prominent type (often overlaid on images), long pages with multiple sections, and a lot of neutral space around everything. Squarespace bakes good design sense into all its templates, and if your business fits Squarespace's young, ultramodern sensibility, your site will look great. But judging from our testing, and according to the experts we interviewed, people who jump into a Squarespace template without a lot of big, impressive images, or who start moving things around to get the site they want, will end up fighting the app.
"Unless you have a very critical eye, it's too easy to make a template site look not so great," said Brandon Davis of brand and strategy firm Block Club. In our tests, Wirecutter staffers hit frustrating roadblocks when trying to make images link to different internal pages, moving images or text blocks around without rearranging other parts of the template, figuring out how to change the front-page background image (confusingly dubbed the "banner"), and setting up the pages and menus (you have to clone or delete the Demo pages first).
If your business does fit one of Squarespace's templates without requiring notable changes, the result can be impressive. Wirecutter staffers described their Squarespace sites as "looking clean and very pretty," "uber-fancy," and "not bad for less than an hour's work."
We recommend looking through Squarespace's templates and seeing if your idea for a site and all its pages map over to an example site, and considering whether you have the right images to replace those in the example. If so, Squarespace's support is responsive and helpful, and its pricing is simple, with no storage or bandwidth limits. Small businesses can likely use the Personal plan, unless they need Google-based email or plan to sell online—though we recommend a different tool for online sales.
Services we tested
WordPress powers close to 25 percent of all websites, including Wirecutter. But that's the self-hosted technology; WordPress's own hosted site builder for businesses is a different thing, though it felt similar to our testers—and not in a good way. It seemed to encourage a blog-style setup, with a stream of posts running down the page. Our testers needed to take a while to figure out how to set up some basic things such as menus and navigation, and although the sites looked okay when they were done, the experience made our testers unlikely to recommend WordPress to anyone without a lot of website-making experience. Nobody was sure of the best practices or settings for ensuring SEO-friendly descriptions. Generally, it didn't seem like it was much easier to build a site on WordPress's business-focused platform than it was to build out a WordPress installation with the help of a designer.
Strikingly focuses on creating one-page (maybe two-page) sites for businesses that want to tell customers about themselves and maybe link somewhere else. We liked Strikingly's especially simple page tools and small set of options for changing layouts and styles, but the service charges $16 per month to get rid of a persistent purple Strikingly banner at the bottom of your site (both desktop and mobile), making it more expensive than our picks, with less flexibility.
Jimdo also provides single-page sites for businesses, using interview-style page creation, with the added convenience of importing information and pictures from your business's Facebook and Google Maps pages (if they exist). Still, most brand-new businesses won't have those set up yet. And Jimdo's templates are more rigid than Strikingly's, often lacking style or color options for a page's content blocks. Regardless, we nearly named Jimdo as a pick for creating very, very simple pages that, while not as refined as our picks' templates, still managed to convey a respectable presence, for an ad-free Pro price lower than most.
Simvoly offers no built-in photo editing or cropping features—or, at least, our tester couldn't find them. It also lacks an undo function, and our tester described the page/menu setup as "mind-boggling." And it doesn't cost less than our runner-up pick.
GoDaddy's GoCentral Website Builder did not provide our tester with many template options or design choices, and left our tester feeling they had created a site that was only "fine, if you don't need much [and] don't ever update it."
Services we considered but did not test
Yola received unimpressive reviews from other publications, and it keeps its Yola branding on sites that pay for its Bronze tier. Yola's templates didn't catch our eye at first glance. The main Yola site was also down twice while we were researching this guide, which didn't inspire confidence.
BigCommerce is indeed big, and its cheapest plan starts at $30 per month, with just a 15-day free trial. For a small business looking to set up its own site, that's a big price to pay.
The templates from Duda seemed intriguing, but its cheapest plan for businesses costs more than those of our picks, which have much broader support and plug-in compatibility and more users. The company also places an emphasis on reselling (white-labeling) its site builder through third-party designers.
SiteBuilder, uKit, and Site123 offer no templates or example client sites on their pages. uKit and Site123 provide scant detail on their pricing, and SiteBuilder uses prominent introductory prices to obscure the real cost of its services.
Cargo (aka Cargo Collective) seems dedicated to sites for publications, with a tight focus on artistic and abstract expression.
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