Originally published July 2012; updated January 2023.
Small business owners have multiple options when creating an effective website. From do-it-yourself website software-as-a-service to custom website design, there is a wide range of functionality, price and effort. After a brief summary of major options, we list some pros and cons of the hosted CMS option, which is appealing to business owners and non-profits with limited resources and skills.
Effective websites can be created using a variety of methods
A rich custom design, unique to your company, with a focus on aesthetics is the big draw here. Although simple custom designs can be within the reach of a modest website budget, this is generally the most expensive option in terms of upfront costs. If you have the budget and need a totally custom design for your business, this can be a great solution.
Customized Template Design Website
If the design doesn’t need to take center stage, then starting with a template design, customized to be uniquely yours, can free up resources for online marketing planning, content creation, email marketing or social media. This solution puts the focus on effective content, getting found by search engines, and accomplishing goals.
Do-It-Yourself Website Using a Hosted CMS
Sign up with a few clicks and a credit card, choose a template, enter your content, and you can have a website in a day. If you have a very limited budget and no web development or coding skills, this can be the fastest and least expensive way to get a website published. This option assumes you understand what should go on your website and how to organize and label content for your potential customers and search engines. You will need some computer skills and the ability to write content and optimize images for the web. This option is explored in more detail below.
Do-It-Yourself Website Using a WYSIWYG Development Tool
With some of the same advantages of a hosted CMS, this option requires you to choose, purchase, install and learn a development tool and then install the resulting website on your own hosting. The learning curve can be relatively small or very large, depending on the software you choose and your website requirements.
“Free” Website as Part of an Advertising Package
You may be offered a website as part of your other marketing efforts such as print directories, newspaper advertising or other media. Content is frequently taken from existing print advertising or even boilerplate based on industry, and as a result it can be generic, minimal, difficult to read online, and not optimized for search engines. “Your” domain may not belong to you, making it difficult to move the website or extend it as you grow. Functionality may be especially limited with this option, sometimes to only one page of content, and updates may be slow or non-existent.
Content Management System Advantages (CMS)
A CMS allows you to add, edit and delete website content yourself instead of paying (and possibly waiting for) a website company to make updates you provide. The ability to maintain your own website using a Content Management Systems (CMS) has many benefits, especially if your company is small to mid-sized and doesn’t have a large budget. These benefits can include speedier updates, more flexibility for the timing of updates, and less cost over time.
About Hosted Content Management Systems
Hosted CMS services bundle website hosting and the administration website pages into one easy-to-learn website. Preexisting site templates can be customized with your own company’s logo and colors, giving your site a more individual look and feel. Systems such as Weebly, Wix or WordPress.com offer drop-and-drag editing, interfaces that just about anyone can learn to use, and the ability to quickly add or edit content.
Some CMS services offer options to add interactive content such as shopping pages, blogs, customer feedback forms, video, or Google maps.
Hosted CMS Pros:
- Depending on your ability to learn, your available time, and the user-friendliness of the CMS, you could create your site quickly.
- Can be the least costly option, at least initially.
- Usually provide a variety of off-the-shelf design templates, but design aesthetics may vary in quality and the degree to which they look “modern”.
- The customizable framework… the very thing that makes a CMS so easy to use… can only be customized to an extent. There are limits to what you can do.
- Design templates (also called themes) can often be changed easily without altering the content itself and therefore not effecting page ranking or search engine optimization.
- Plugins or additional features may be offered (Paypal, maps, image galleries) to extend website functionality without a great degree of technical knowledge.
- Interfacing with social networks is generally fast and easy, with most of the reputable CMS systems allowing seamless integration with Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and other social sites.
- Administrators with limited technical experience can generally manage the system if they are diligent about keeping the site updated and willing to learn new things.
- Security is controlled by restricting editing access to those individuals or groups responsible for content management, depending on the particular CMS selected.
- Server and software upgrades are handled automatically by the host.
Hosted CMS Cons:
- A unique domain name may not be part of the package or you may not own your domain name. This may result in a lack of search engine ranking or make it difficult or impossible to move your website domain.
- Lack of planning and advice about best practices and content priorities can result in a site that is disorganized, hard to use, difficult to navigate or ineffective.
- There can be a sharp learning curve required to update some parts of a hosted CMS website. Generally, the easy things are really easy, but some updates may be difficult or impossible for even a professional website developer to accomplish, due to the limitations of the CMS.
- Any template-based site can appear cookie-cutter or generic, depending on the aesthetic sense and skills of the person customizing it, the level of customization allowed by the specific CMS, and the time and resources available to make customizations.
- Your website can appear inconsistent and unprofessional if you don’t have a good aesthetic sense and the discipline to use consistent formatting as you make updates.
- Server and software upgrades can result in needing to relearn parts of the interface.
- Moving your website or converting to a more custom design – or creating a site with more features may be impossible or time consuming if the service goes away or if you grow and need additional functionality.
- All hosted CMS are different from one another. Even if you know how to use one, those skills don’t necessarily translate to another.
- A hosted CMS may serve pages slowly, negatively affecting the user experience and your search engine ranking.
- Free sites usually include the logo of the CMS provider displayed near the footer content.
Ultimately, your decision should be based on the goals of your site, your skills, the time you can devote to the website, and your budget.
Questions to Ask when Deciding on Using a Hosted CMS
- What are my website goals? Is a unique design important to my target customers or is a clean professional template design acceptable, with the focus on effective content?
- Do I have time to create a good website? Creating a simple 5-page website can take several weeks of work, including setting up the system, customizing a template, writing content, adding keywords, reviewing, tweaking and launching.
- Do I have the patience and persistence to learn a new system, create the content, insert the content and maintain the site over time?
- Do I have a good aesthetic sense so the site doesn’t do more harm than good in branding my business?
- What is my budget for online marketing?
- What is the likelihood that my site will need to be expanded over time to include more functionality or a higher level of design?
A cost-effective solution can be to combine two options. You can hire a pro to help you plan, customize and get initial content into the CMS, and then maintain text content yourself using the CMS. You will still have some of the pros and cons, but with expert help, you can be sure to optimize your investment, whether large or small.
For a comprehensive overview of specific hosted CMS pros & cons, you may be interested in reading Syed Balkhi‘s excellent article on WP Beginner, https://www.wpbeginner.com/beginners-guide/how-to-choose-the-best-website-builder/. His recommendation: a self-hosted WordPress website.