The differences between website builders and CMSs aren't evident as in the past. On the contrary, the developments have made them better and more complete.
The reason you might prefer one over the other will depend more on your needs than on its features.
The differences lay in the technical knowledge required, ease of use, pricing, and SEO.
Some excel at some parts, some are more versatile. That's the beauty: there are plenty of choices available.
Let's see how they compare.
What is the difference between a CMS and a website builder?
Let start with the Wikipedia definition of the two.
"Website builders are tools that typically allow the construction of websites without manual code editing."
"A content management system (CMS) is a computer software used to manage the creation and modification of digital content."
While a website builder is a no-code tool, a CMS can also become one with the help of plugins like Elementor for WordPress.
So, I define a website builder as a package of tools to manage a website that cannot be unbundled. This makes it easier for small businesses to run a website.
A CMS is software to manage the content of a website. Usually, they need more work, code to customize, and plugins to extend functionalities. However, CMS is more flexible and loved by professionals.
Ease of use
Website builders are easier to use than CMSs.
By using a website builder, you'll have the experience that someone is holding your hand. This will make you feel helped or trapped.
Helped if you don't know much or want help getting stuff done. And trapped if you're going to do something not allowed by the platform.
A CMS will separate the experience of managing the content from the visual customization of the site.
So, you manage the content in the backend with a text editor. And the theme by changing the code. There are simple customizations available without requiring to change the code.
Website builders rely on drag & drop editors. This means you manage the content as it appears on the website. Thus, giving the feeling of a live preview.
With a CMS, you get more customization possibilities at the expense of requiring more work upfront.
A Website builder requires less work because it's already set up. Also, making changes is faster and easier.
This is one of the most significant differences between them.
Website builders include hosting. So, you don't have to worry about it. This is part of the bundle you pay for.
Most CMSs don't include hosting by default. However, if the CMS is open source, there are 2 possibilities: self-hosting and managed hosting.
With self-hosting, you are responsible for installing and maintaining it. Alternatively, use a managed host that will install, make updates, and backups.
So, it's up to each person to pick a hosting company for their CMS and pay for it.
Generally, a website builder will end up being cheaper than a CMS. Let's see the differences in the costs for each.
The typical costs of a website are the domain name and development expenses.
The domain name is the URL of your website (yourdomain.com). If you want a custom domain, you have to pay for this no matter which platform you use.
Yet, the cost will depend on the extension used (.com, .io, .blog, etc.) and the company you buy from.
Development costs are optional. You can opt to customize the website yourself or pay for someone to do it. Prices will vary a lot depending on the experience of the developer and the platform used. It's up to you which route is better.
As for the differences, website builders have more structured prices and features. With plans including hosting, templates, and content management.
On the other hand, the most popular CMSs are open-source. This means that you don't have to pay to use it.
Yet, you will pay for the rest of the stuff, like hosting, themes, and plugins.
With a website builder, you pay a fee for everything required to run a website. However, when you use a CMS, you pay separately for each item.
So, if you opt for an open-source CMS, cheap hosting, a free theme, and plugins, it will be more affordable. Some website builders have free or cheap plans with strict limits.
The bottom line, you have many combinations available to pick.
Website builders usually have SEO features built-in that cannot be extended. This means that if a feature is missing, you cannot use a plugin to add it.
The best part of built-in features is that you don't need to install or buy anything to optimize the website.
SEO on website builders will rely more on the company adding features than you installing plugins. So pay attention if you can customize things like the sitemap or robots.txt.
Historically, CMSs didn't have robust SEO features. Unfortunately, this means you have to install and buy plugins to optimize them.
Recently, the best CMSs have made improvements and added more features. You can use plugins and customize things, but they need to have them have decreased a bit.
There is not a general rule of one being better than the other.
Website builders tend to include e-commerce functionality. Shopify, Wix, and Squarespace being the more popular options.
They allow selling physical, digital products and memberships. While making it easier to start selling online.
Shopify is by far the market leader in this category and arguably the better platform for creating an online store.
There are CMSs dedicated to creating online stores. And the most used are Magento, OpenCart, and PrestaShop. They aren't so easy to use, nor focused on individuals and small businesses. They need more work and technical skills, but their tools are viable.
WordPress, the most popular CMS in the world, is also used for online stores with the help of the WooCommerce plugin. As of August 2021, more than 5M websites are using it.
When comparing a CMS and a website builder, one thing stands out: If a feature is missing on a CMS, you can use a plugin or add custom code to create it.
On a website builder, that's not always the case. This is the most significant difference between them.
Still, there are some exceptions to this rule.
Shopify is one of them. They have a marketplace with thousands of apps. Most, created by 3rd-party companies.
Squarespace, Wix, and Webflow also allow integrations from 3rd-party tools.
A marketplace with apps, extensions, or plugins is a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
Plus, this takes the burden of developing every little feature from the company and attracts more clients.
WordPress would not be the same if it wasn't for the plethora of plugins available. It wouldn't be so popular either.
Also, website builders have been playing catch-up with CMSs. And they are allowing 3rd-party developers to create extra features for their platforms.
This gives the feeling that the difference between them is getting smaller. Thus, making website builders more attractive.
Most popular CMS and website builders
Top 10 platforms by market share
- WordPress 64.5%
- Shopify 6.6%
- Wix 3.3%
- Squarespace 2.9%
- Joomla 2.5%
- Drupal 1.9%
- Adobe Systems 1.6%
- Google Systems 1.5%
- Bitrix 1.2%
- OpenCart 0.8%
As of April 2022, they account for 86.8% of all the known websites on the internet, according to W3Techs.
In the last 3 years, website builders have gained a lot of market share to CMSs.
In July 2018, Joomla had a 6% market share, and Shopify had a 2.2%. Today Shopify has more than double the market share and is the 2nd most popular platform.
Webflow has registered tremendous growth in the last few years is knocking on the door of the top 10.
WordPress is still the most popular CMS by a large margin. And has been cementing it for quite some time, but hit a plateau in the Q4 of 2021.
This list is missing around 33% of all the websites on the internet. Still, allow us to have a good picture of the used technologies.
Are website builders worth it?
Yes, website builders are worth it. Their existence helped lower the technical barrier to create a website.
Website builders allowed millions of people to create a website, even without knowing how to code.
Website builders are becoming more popular for a good reason. They allow faster iterations, which lowers the cost of development.
Consequently, there are website builders that turn Google Sheets, Notion, and Airtable into a website. How cool is that?
These website builders are helping individuals creators to make cool stuff online every day.
How to pick a website builder or CMS with good SEO?
You should look for the following features to have a good SEO game:
- Security certificate (SSL).
- URL manipulation.
- Custom meta descriptions.
- Ability to create redirects.
- Content Delivery Network (CDN).
- Existence of Robots.txt file.
- Ability to add alternative text (alt text) to images.
- Schema Markup.
You must have a security certificate (SSL) to encrypt and secure information transmission. This is a ranking factor, and browsers mark the website as insecure if this is missing.
How can you add this? Most website builders have this enabled by default. That's nice, and you don't need to do anything.
As for CMSs, this will depend on your hosting. Some hosting companies install SSLs for all domains, but some don't. You need to have a look into this or ask them for help.
The ability to change URLs is also essential. Having a descriptive URL helps search engines understand what the page is about.
So, having www.yourwebsite.com/keyword will be much better than www.yourwebsite.com/3t6gf1 for your rankings.
This is expected in almost every CMS and website builder.
Do you know the text that appears on Google below each result? That's the meta description.
This text is also an opportunity for optimizing your website. Again, most common website builders and CMS you to change this text.
A sitemap is an index file with the existing links of your website.
This file helps search engines crawl your website faster and understand the structure. Thus, benefiting your rankings.
What do you need to do? In the majority of cases, nothing.
Most website builders have this enabled, and you cannot customize it (and you don't need it either).
Some CMSs come with a sitemap, some don't. Yet, you can customize/ improve sitemaps with plugins.
Redirects are helpful when you delete, move or change the URL of a page. Especially if the page was ranking for some keywords.
By creating a redirect, you signal to search engines your page moved. This gives a better probability of keeping the rankings instead of starting from scratch.
A platform with this feature will be much better for SEO. Make sure you pick one that can create and manage redirects.
A Content Delivery Network (CDN) will improve the speed that your website loads.
A CDN pre-loads the content of your website across various servers around the world.
This is better than having everyone reach your host's server to load content from there. By reducing the distance to the server, the website loads faster.
This is why it's recommended to use them. The best website builders have CDNs included.
As for CMSs, if you opt for managed hosting, you might get a CDN. While self-hosting, you configure one yourself.
Another feature important for crawlers is the robots.txt file. According to Google, this "file tells search engine crawlers which pages or files the crawler can or can't request from your site".
The majority of the website builders don't allow customization of this file. Helps in the simplicity of running a website because they are deciding upfront that some pages won't be helpful to be crawled.
Contrary, CMSs allow more customization and, in some cases, need a plugin. I'm looking to you WordPress.
Website optimization is much more than what we see at the surface. So, you should have accessibility in mind. Especially because it is a ranking factor.
By adding alt text (alternative text) to the website, you help search engines understand images.
People that cannot see images and are using a screen-reader benefit from these image descriptions. So, it's essential to fill the alt text in all of your pictures.
Customizing or adding alt text on CMSs is a feature already included or achieved with the help of plugins. As for website builders, again, the best ones allow the addition of this.
Schema markup importance has risen in the last years. And it's another way to optimize search results. I recommend you to read this ahrefs article to learn more about schema markup.
This feature is becoming more common on all CMSs and website builders in their pursuit to allow their users to achieve better results. Still, not all platforms allow customization to the same extent. Therefore, I recommend you investigate how each one deals with this schema.
That's it. I've taught you the majority of stuff you should look for when determining if a platform has good SEO. Now, you are armed with the knowledge to make a better decision.
Can I switch website builder without losing content?
No. Most website builders are closed-source, which means that exporting content and design isn't an easy process.
You must customize everything from scratch and paste the content by hand by changing from one website builder to another.
No matter the tools used, website technology got a lot better in the last couple of years.
The market feels more competitive. And new ones are being developed that keep raising the bar.
Some CMSs have a track record of managing content easier than in the early days of the internet. This is because they have plugins that enhance functionality and can be customized to specific needs with code.
Website builders are the disruptors. They have allowed people with lower technical knowledge to thrive and make things easier in many ways.
The development of these platforms has been positive, and the differences between them are getting less visible. Thus, they are eliminating most of their weakness while pushing forward.
The tech is in a good spot, and website creation is exciting in 2021!