What's the best hosted website builder for independent publishers in 2016? Here's a comprehensive list of candidates with feature comparisons and realistic scenarios where one might be more beneficial than the other.
First off, it's important to emphasize that this blog post is for prosumers (otherwise known as power-users); either experienced Internet marketers or individuals ready to move past the newbie phase. Also, our recommendations encompass general-usage software as a service, therefore, self-hosted (i.e. on-premise) or specific-purpose (eg: online store only) solutions will not be covered here. It's all about all-in-one for taking your solopreneurship to another level... so without further ado, let's get started.
We should mention that the following are all good options. For this reason, it was extremely difficult to classify them in any sort of performance-based order. Similarly, although they're all-inclusive, each one finds its strength in a particular feature or with regards to a niche market given the types of tools it offers. All of that said, here are our top 5 (with number 1 being our favorite). While reading, please remain open-minded as you might not have heard of one, some, or any of them before.
This is only a guide. You must conduct your own research to determine whether or not it's time to change platforms or start your next project on a product we've suggested. Likewise, we did not cover customer service or billing practices in detail for the following companies.
While this is an unbiased, unsponsored post, there are affiliate links within the article.
We really didn't want to say it, but we had to. Nobody, not even a Web developer, can deny that Weebly is packed chock-full with useful features. It's also extremely easy to use, especially for those already well-versed in the art of website publishing. Combine this with the fact that they now offer fully-responsive templates and an email marketing app, and you've got a nice solution.
Although Weebly boasts a video and audio player, membership functionality, built-in e-commerce for selling both physical and digital products, and several additional features (eg: email marketing as we already mentioned)... the few shortcomings it does have lowers its value significantly in our opinion.
Blogging on Weebly is very basic. In fact, you get a sense that the platform in general is not made for big business. For beginners, this is fine, but with users being increasingly Web-savvy, the need for a refined and powerful tool-set becomes more relevant than ever.
Something worth noting about their templates is that they've improved dramatically over the years. The caveat is that they were and continue to be clearly inspired by those of a competing platform (it's actually the following in our list). This can be perceived as a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, their customers can enjoy a better aesthetic presentation of their site (making content consumption pleasant for their visitors), while on the other, it kind of sends the message that Weebly is following in the footsteps of greater giants.
Overall, we think that Weebly is a good platform for small businesses, freelancers, and consultants. They're continually stepping up their Web publishing game and have made countless improvements over the years (which, in our opinion, is a sign that they listen to their users). Although not their bread and butter, Weebly does have a white/private label option for designers, developers, and digital marketing agencies to create client sites off of and profit for their hosting as well (as they can rebrand the website builder as their own).
We wanted to love you, and still kind of do. Squarespace is a refined, powerful platform. Minus some cool features not yet present (i.e. membership functionality, video player, etc), Squarespace makes up for the areas where Weebly falls short. It's simply better in almost every way. Weebly is easier, but this is because it's more turn-key and less customizable (in terms of design, layout, etc). Sqsp (an acronym often used by Squarespace, the company, itself) is intuitive but has a slightly higher learning curve.
Sqsp is all-in-one and, until recently, was our primary recommendation for solopreneurs, freelancers, and consultants wanting to launch, manage, and market their own websites. It has podcasting tools which are second to none (approximately on par with our number 1 recommendation), online store functionality for selling physical and digital products (albeit without recurring billing as of yet), advanced analytics (which are a great alternative to Google Analytics), and much more. The interface is beautiful, following their underlying vision of creating a more beautiful Web. But therein, strangely, lies the problem with Squarespace.
Every platform has its strong points as we already mentioned; Squarespace's is design. Everything about it is eye-candy. This is a really good thing. So why are we complaining? Because what's nice to look at is not enough. Their obsession with aesthetic (driven by their obsession with Apple, Inc., which follows a similar methodology in their marketing practices and product delivery) potentially locks out Internet marketers, and is essentially why most (many of which have not even heard of them) have not considered transitioning over.
To quote a fellow marketer who used to be a huge proponent of Squarespace, "Squarespace hates the prosumer, I honestly believe that". Sqsp doesn't want you to ask too many questions related to pushing the platform to its limits. It is a powerful tool, especially with regards to blogging (rivaled only by WordPress[.org] and Ghost[.org] in our opinion), but it doesn't embrace those who use their website as anything beyond delivering a message. To clarify, you can sell through it and communicate through it, and very effectively... but advanced traffic-generating and lead-nurturing features just aren't there. Not listening to power-users, and being secretive about upcoming features leaves many of us in the dark... which is why we can no longer recommend Squarespace to experienced users.
Virtually unknown in the website builder space, Airsquare can be perceived as a hidden gem. Created and run by a husband-and-wife team, everything about it screams personable... making it a very smart choice for individuals or teams that value strong support. In fact, it's nearly perfect for existing companies looking for a solution that offers a healthy balance between form and function.
Airsquare is not concerned with other builders or what's flashy, and we appreciate that. They've paved their own way, and when using their platform, you get the feeling that there's nothing like it on the market. They regularly refine their user interface, improve/expand their feature set, and listen to their customers (which can't be said about others in the industry with such certainty). Clearly, they're passionate about what they do.
The weak points we've found with Airsquare should be taken with a grain of salt as it's a powerful solution overall and especially useful for individuals who don't want to tinker with website design. With that said, Airsquare's templates (although offering a fairly wide array of them) are a little rigid. It should, however, be noted that someone with knowledge of CSS can certainly move past the standard styling editor for creating a more custom look.
A minor detail we'd like to see changed is the mandatory link to Airsquare's website from the one you create on their system (which is placed subtly in the footer). It can be removed with the use of CSS (in their CSS editor), and when we contacted Airsquare confirming that it was within their guidelines to do so, they very respectfully requested that we leave it in place. This is obviously not a major flaw, but as your website grows and branding becomes more important, you'll find benefits to limiting the number of outbound links to external sites (whether or not they compete in any way with yours).
Some modules we'd like to see in Airsquare are missing. Podcasting, for example, is non-existant. Today, Internet publishers need to offer some form of media to connect with their users beyond written (i.e. textual) content. Video is probably the most effective for converting visitors into buyers, but the fact that audio can be listened to anywhere (eg: in your car, within headsets while walking, etc) and created fairly seamlessly (as opposed to the extensive labor required in video editing)... we feel that including such features should be standard practice.
We understand that a video player (and associated hosting) is its own beast in terms of Web development, but it's another feature we'd like to see in Airsquare nonetheless.
As a final note, pricing with Airsquare is fair and on par with other website builders offering similar features. We find it super-neat that they even have CRM (i.e. customer relationship management) built into the platform; likewise, they were among the first companies to integrate an email broadcasting system for sending out newsletter messages (at 2 cents per message) to an entire subscriber base. This definitely drives up the product's value, and they're only a few of the many reasons for Airsquare being both a top choice of ours and a recommended platform for small-to-medium-sized businesses and non-profits along with consultants.
SetSeed is not a website builder per se (being closer to a content management system [i.e. CMS]), but for an advanced website publisher, it can prove to be the ultimate solution. Almost everything you'd want out of a builder is included, with a few additional and very useful applications not usually present on other systems as well; email broadcasting solution, multilingual capabilities, video player, live chat function, booking engine, nested folders for creating multi-tiered pages going down 4 levels (with breadcrumbs), a file manager, separation of content from design (reducing your chances of "breaking" your site's look), etc.
Although an online store function is included, we wouldn't be able to recommend it for e-commerce websites as it doesn't offer a branded solution (given it's powered by the third-party application, PayPal, to process payments) plus it hasn't been optimized for selling digital goods and services as of yet (only physical products). But for individuals and brands that rely on PayPal for selling physical goods on a daily basis, it's heaven.
SetSeed comes standard with basic audio capabilities, and also includes a modern and mobile-optimized HTML5 video player. A publisher can go well beyond a single, promotional video to optionally host an entire library of video content to display to their audience - all within the same user-interface.
SetSeed would probably be our first choice for the best general website builder and marketing platform if not for the difficulty in setting it up. This is to be expected, as CMSs are typically used by digital marketing agencies with an extensive Web design and programming background to lead project development. That said, SetSeed is so all-in-one, we had to include it as a possible solution for anyone interested in creating a strong online presence.
Ben Vallack, the founder of SetSeed, seems to be a developer at heart, and so, his current business model and focus is not necessarily geared towards the end-user (given the end-user would be a Web agency's customer [independently managing their own site]). It should be noted, however, that he is an extremely helpful individual and always willing to go the extra mile with customer support, whether or not he's dealing with a Web professional.
To make things simpler, SetSeed does offer a hosted version including automatic software updates as well as a univeral template creator offering quite a few design, layout, and re-usable block options. SMTP server information (necessary for sending out newsletters to your audience) must be manually added, but we're certain that the team behind the product would be open to configuring it for individuals who aren't tech-savvy (or would at the least refer you to someone who could at a low rate); a third-party SMTP hosting provider like SendGrid (with their associated fees) is required for this.
In the end, we recommend SetSeed as a strong option worth considering for nearly any type of business, non-profit, or consultant. Be prepared to spend a little more relative to its competition at start-up, but you'll definitely have something affordable (with low monthly maintenance costs [including Web hosting, optional SMTP hosting, and a one-time SetSeed licensing fee per site]), unique and powerful moving foward. SetSeed is also really fun to use, offering a beautiful, intuitive, and simple back-office area.
The premier choice for countless marketers, brands, and major enterprises, WordPress is a force to be reckoned with. WordPress, however, in the wrongs hands (meaning those of an inexperienced user) can lead to website security vulnerabilities and other issues (eg: accidentally deleting your own site, forgetting to update important plugins [which WordPress relies heavily on], etc). Similar to SetSeed, and being a CMS as well, there are also specific technical challenges that many can't surpass without the help of a developer. Enter Rainmaker Platform.
Rainmaker Platform (or simply Rainmaker) has solved many of the difficulties of using WordPress without compensating on power. Flexibility is a bit of an issue since the plugin marketplace has been replaced by their proprietary feature set... but it's so vast and polished that the great majority of website publishers won't likely miss it.
Speaking of features, Rainmaker carries a lot of them. So many that we're reluctant to begin listing them. For the sake of saving you some time, we'll just highlight what Rainmaker is missing (because no website builder will ever be 100% complete) keeping in mind that the platform is primarily geared towards content marketers. These are individuals who would either like to profit directly from the sales of their content, or who use advanced content strategies (eg: regular article publishing, blogging, podcasting, etc) for attracting targeted visitors to their site.
While Rainmaker's podcasting application is very strong, their video functionality is basically WordPress' stock player with a custom skin on it; in sum, it's okay. Video should look alright on nearly all devices (desktop, laptops, tablets, and smartphones), but we're not certain if it's optimized for every operating system and/or browser. We will mention that the fact that Rainmaker Digital (formerly Copyblogger Media), the company behind Rainmaker Platform, rarely ever emphasizes this feature tells us that (A) it's nothing special and/or (B) they don't want customers to drive up costs associated with their product (which includes one-size-fits-all hosting).
On a similar note, if there is another downside to going with Rainmaker Platform, it's their pricing. A single bundle (which isn't cheap) supposedly covers everything you need, but it's not clear what will happen when a significant number of visitors start flocking to your site consistently. It is, however, mentioned in their terms of service that the price of Rainmaker Platform has soft limits attached to it; and so, they'll contact you when they're no longer (or next to no longer) profiting from you as a customer (i.e. the product will cost more).
Something that is certain is pricing for their email marketing application, titled RainMail. 1000 broadcast emails per month are included with the standard Rainmaker Platform package, and it naturally goes up from there as your subscriber base grows.
E-commerce for selling digital goods (including monthly recurring courses, services or membership area access [for offering downloads, etc]) is fantastic. Various merchant payment gateways can be hooked up to the system, and you can even acquire a team of affiliates to compensate for referrals to your products and/or services. What's inconvenient about their online store function is that it doesn't allow for the sale of physical goods... therefore, Rainmaker can't be regarded as a good solution for online retailers. Of all the website builders we've covered, Squarespace is probably the best for that.
Website builders have bridged the gap between Web professionals and end-users, but this doesn't mean it's easy to build an engaging, traffic-generating, high-converting website. In fact, every single one of the builders above compensates for specific weak points that customers are faced with. Weebly users are all about simplicity and ease of use. Squarespace users are attracted to the design capabilities and intuitive interface. Airsquare users appreciate the practicality and efficiency. SetSeed users enjoy the flexibility. And, finally, Rainmaker users are all about the marketing power. There are definitely contrasting features, but each has its strengths. As always, which one you select should depend mostly on what you need it for.