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We’re often asked, “What website platform should I choose for my small business?” The answer is…it depends! It depends on 3 main things:
- What do you need your website to be able to do? Not just today, but what might you need it to do in the far-off future?
- What’s your level of comfort with technology?
- How much time do you want to spend maintaining your website?
Many website platform options exist, but the five leading contenders are Wix, Squarespace, Shopify, WordPress, and Square.
Here’s our run-down on those five options. Have a question about how one of these platforms ranks when it comes to a particular feature or ability that you’ll need for your small business? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop us a comment on this Instagram post–we’re happy to help!
Wix & Squarespace
We’ve lumped these together for now because they are both do-it-yourself website builders where you build your website in a drag-and-drop style. Overall, they mainly offer identical features…but outshine each other in different ways.
Both Wix and Squarespace…
- Are easy to use, no technical skill required
- Require no ongoing system updates or maintenance (unlike WordPress)
- Support basic e-commerce for retail, restaurants & services
- Are expensive compared to using WordPress on a third-party host (explained further below)
- Offer very rudimentary point-of-sale systems (unlikely to suit your needs)
- Require you to pay for a new “mailbox” for every email address you want to have with your URL (e.g., email@example.com)
- Have limited functionality & are not as customizable (e.g., not a good option for businesses with complex website needs)
Summary: Great for a basic website that anyone on your team can edit, no matter their level of technical expertise. But you’ll be very limited in what you can do, particularly regarding e-commerce and website forms.
So what’s the difference between Wix & Squarespace? Here are a few differences that stand out to us:
|Is it easy to edit your website?
|Yes. And Wix autosaves as you go along.
|Yes. But weirdly, Squarespace does not autosave as you edit. We’ve lost our progress on more than one occasion because of this.
|Can you customize the mobile view of your website?
|Yes, you can re-arrange or hide the elements on the page, change the number of columns for image galleries, and more.
|The ability to do this is limited or non-existent, depending on your chosen template. Squarespace says all of its templates are mobile responsive, and therefore, it does not believe they need any further tweaks. We don’t agree.
|It has basic e-commerce functionality once you buy the business plan. You can sell physical items, virtual items, and services like subscriptions, appointments, memberships, packages, classes, and more. It has built-in options for restaurants, hotels, events, tickets, and fitness businesses. Downside: its members-only areas are a bit clunky. And also, inventory management is a pain in the behind, requiring one million clicks for every little update you need to make.
|It has basic e-commerce functionality but will make you pay extra for things like built-in appointment booking. It does not offer online ordering for food service restaurants (you’ll have to pay for and integrate their other service, Tock, for that). It also isn’t great for ticket sales, subscriptions, or memberships. It does excel at members-only areas and content, though.
|How are the templates?
|Hit or miss. Some of the templates are fantastic, and others are downright terrible.
|All of the Squarespace templates are beautiful.
|What about blogging?
|Yes, it has built-in blogging with decent features. However, it doesn’t look that great on the front-end.
|Yes, it has built-in blogging with decent features…and it looks elegant on the front-end.
|To what extent can you customize your website’s design?
|Wix offers a lot of flexibility in customizing your design, even though it’s a drag-and-drop style editor.
|Unless you know HTML and CSS, your ability to customize your design is going to be very restricted.
|Can you have a rewards and/or loyalty program?
|Yes! Wix offers a built-in ability ot create a referral program and/or loyalty program. You can customize how your customers earn reward points and what they can redeem them for.
|Sort of. It doesn’t come built-in, but there are third-party options that you can integrate.
|Does it offer a point-of-sale system?
|It does! It even offers hardware, a mobile solution, and an events solution for selling and scanning tickets at the door. However, the point-of-sale system for brick-and-mortars is very limited compared to, for example, Clover or Square.
|Sort of? You can use the Squarespace app combined with a Square reader.
|Can you create multilingual sites?
|Yep! Wix also makes it fairly easy to do this.
|Yes, but only if you use a third-party integration (Weglot), which you’ll have to pay for.
|How much ongoing system maintenance will it require?
Shopify was designed with one thing in mind: e-commerce. It has pretty robust e-commerce abilities, including great inventory management (and multi-location support), customer management, and customer profiles. Order fulfillment is easy and the shipping process is very smooth.
That being said, we’ve often been surprised by its limitations in the e-commerce area. Want to offer a subscription service that only fulfills in pre-determined months (like January, April, October, and December)? It can’t do that; the apps available will only let you do subscription fulfillment on a rolling basis relative to the date the person subscribed. In general, if you want really specific, complex features…even if you use one million apps, you probably won’t be able to accomplish it. You might be able to by paying a developer (a bunch of money) to custom develop something, but even then it still may not be possible because they are limited by Shopify’s API in what they can do.
It does have a point-of-sale system (including hardware and the whole nine yards). However, one key thing we’ve discovered is that it is really not intended for food service businesses (no matter how they try to advertise it). For one thing, you can’t easily do substitutions or add-ons like you can with Clover or Square (for example: sub soy milk in a coffee), which seems like a must-have feature for a system that claims to be the best solution for brick-and-mortar businesses of all types. We’ve heard several businesses that have both retail merchandise and food/bev say that they use Square at point-of-sale and Shopify for inventory/retail, and then have an integration set up to help the two speak to each other. But from what we’ve discovered, the integration is not very seamless.
Getting your Shopify set up is a headache, and you’ll likely either need or want to hire someone to do it for you.
In terms of ease of use once your site is set up, Shopify’s latest layouts are very easy to edit, no matter your level of technical expertise. However, you’ll be restricted in how much you can customize them unless you know HTML and CSS. There are also drag-and-drop editor apps you can pay for, which will give you more freedom with your website’s design without needing to know HTML or CSS.
- Robust e-commerce abilities, including inventory management, the ability to easily sell on multiple platforms (e.g., online store, Facebook, etc), & customer management
- Templates are very easy to edit and there are also drag-and-drop builders available
- Point-of-sale system does not have a lot of flexibility. It’s NOT a good option for food service businesses.
- Shopify has many features (primarily via apps), but to get them to work you’ll likely need a Shopify expert to set everything up.
- Limited functionality compared to WordPress.
Summary: Robust e-commerce features (particularly inventory management) and great for businesses with multiple locations who need to transfer inventory back/forth. As far as web design goes, it’s pretty easy to edit your actual website. However, if you need any complex functionality you’ll likely have a bunch of different apps installed—and then things can get really confusing and complicated to manage. The point-of-sale system is not so bad for retail, but we absolutely do not recommend it for food service restaurants.
WordPress is technically software, not a built-in platform, which means you’ll need to buy a hosting plan with a web host and then install WordPress. There are tons of hosts out there, though we recommend SiteGround because we’ve had great experiences with them (very little downtime, great speed, and good security—we use them ourselves). We do NOT recommend GoDaddy (more on that below).
The short version with WordPress is this: If you can dream it, WordPress can do it, no matter how complex. The website design is also completely customizable with no limitations.
In our experience, the e-commerce functionality (through WooCommerce and its add-ons) is far superior to anything Shopify offers, particularly if you are a business that blends multiple types of revenue streams (retail, subscriptions, food service, online experiences, events, etc).
WooCommerce also fully integrates with Square, syncing your online and in-person stores and inventory.
Unless you’re very comfortable with technology and know HTML/CSS, you’ll likely need to pay someone to set everything up for you. However, your website can be built in a way that makes it very easy for you to edit in the future.
Similar to Shopify, you will need extras (called plug-ins, rather than apps) to get all of the functionality you need. Unlike Shopify, however, there are more free options and the ones that do cost money are much more reasonably priced than the apps on Shopify. And, as you can guess, the WordPress plug-ins are all far more customizable.
The biggest downside to WordPress is that it requires a lot of ongoing maintenance. Your plug-ins, theme, and even the core system itself will need to be updated regularly. If you do not update it, things will break and you’ll be at high risk of a security breach. But, when you DO install the updates, it’s also very possible that things on your site will break. You’ll either need to have a web developer on retainer to help you perform the updates and troubleshoot when things go awry or learn to do it yourself.
Summary: If you have complex technical needs (or anticipate having them in the future), WordPress is your best bet. But make sure you have a web developer to help you set it up and to help you with maintaining it.
Square was initially built as a processor and point-of-sale system, not a website platform. That means its website builder is lacking when it comes to the ability to customize. You can’t edit the source HTML, which essentially means that even a web developer will be very limited in how they can make your site look.
That being said, Square’s website service combined with Square point-of-sale is usually going to be cheaper than Shopify and does come with a whole suite of features suitable for brick-and-mortar businesses of all types while also making it easy to sell products and services online. It’s easy to do curbside pick-up, store pick-up, and local delivery without needing an app or a plug-in (unlike Shopify), and like Shopify, it will create a unified customer profile that gives you a full picture of your customer’s journey with your business. The loyalty and rewards program also integrates with Apple and Google Wallets. It also offers a built-in self-serve open tab feature, where customers can leave their tabs open and pay via a QR code at the end—which is pretty cool.
Before we end, a quick word on GoDaddy: don’t use them. They spend around $100 million dollars on digital marketing each year to make sure they are the first company you think of when it comes to building a website, but we have never had a positive experience with their services. Over the years, we’ve had many clients use their various services—whether it’s their drag-and-drop website builder (super limited in what it can) or their custom website services where they build you a WordPress website—and not once has it been a good result for the client. Avoid at all costs.
Before you pull the trigger on getting a website, we recommend also watching this short course on Access Point—an online learning platform for small businesses. The course is entirely free and takes less than 30 minutes. A website is a big investment; make certain you know what you need before you invest.
Feeling more confused than you were before about which platform to choose? We get it—it’s complicated! Our team has experience setting up and managing websites for dozens of businesses on various platforms. Give us a shout—we’d be happy to learn more about your business and its technical needs in order to recommend a website platform for it.