Why you might want to reconsider using a page builder for your next website
I get it. To the layman, the lure of the page builder seems impossible to ignore.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed below are that of an individual web designer / developer who has been on the front line of the industry for nearly 23 years, the past 12 of which have been exclusively developing custom solutions for WordPress.
I get it. To the layman, the lure of the page builder seems impossible to ignore. The promise of fast, easy drag and drop web development seems like a dream come true when compared to the often expensive alternative of contracting an agency or – gasp – learning to code! It does look compelling and those celebrity endorsements from the likes of John Malkovich, Jeff Bridges and Keanu Reeves don’t do any harm.
With that in mind I don’t begrudge anyone for using these platforms, least of all start-ups or mah and pah stores who want to save a few bucks to get their online business off the ground. And learning to write code isn’t something you do casually, let alone the fact that code is only a single part of the entire web development equation anyway.
The rise of page-builders can’t be denied. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realise that the now permanently baked-in Gutenberg editor (introduced to WordPress in version 5) is a direct response to this uprising, even if it’s never been officially announced as such.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking only about platforms such as Wix, Weebly, Squarespace and alike, because WordPress also has it’s fair share of page builders, Elementor, Divi and Visual Composer to name a few. Regardless of the platform, they all suffer from the same shortcomings.
Before I go directly into said shortcomings, here’s some personal anecdotes for you to consider.
I’ve had several page builder users (referred to me by friends, family, colleagues, clients) asking what it would take/cost to build them a new website because they were greatly disappointed with the system they were trying to use (in those cases, specifically Wix and Weebly). I’ve had some who wanted to pay me to help them build out their website using the existing service they are paying for. I’ve even had some who wanted specific functionality (relative to their business requirements) that simply can’t be accomplished with a page builder. I said no to all of them, because I’ve got better things to do than fight the limitations these services offer, only to eventually get blamed (probably) when the product falls short of expectation.
I even have a friend (also a web developer) who said in one particular year he did practically nothing but build new custom websites for “disillusioned ex Wix and Weebly” customers.
Side note: I’ve noticed an increase in agencies claiming web development expertise who actually don’t have and design or code talent on board, but instead just build out their clients web presences with the services of Wix, Weebly or SquareSpace. I take great issue with this misleading practice, but that’s a topic for another day.
Taking all this into account and how it appears to be creating work for the ‘legitimate’ web industry, I’m very happy for page builder platforms to keep offering the same ‘quality’ of product they always have. Please don’t change a thing.
Is there anything good about them?
Sure. If the priority is to simply get something up and running with minimal cost, and you don’t care that it’ll probably look like almost every other website with the same outdated design tropes and clichés, you’re probably going to be reasonably happy.
Where things start to get tricky is when you need specific customisation for your business needs. Right now, for example, I am working on a custom WordPress plugin that I know for a fact would be impossible to build on any page builder platform, past present or future, unless it was severely crippled and had some functionality reduced. This is a recurring theme with page-builders when things start to get a bit complex. They can persevere long enough but often arrive at the “I need to accomplish something that this system can’t do” stage.
Reasons to not use a page builder
Curiously, all the ‘clever’ marketing claiming the virtues of the respective page builder platforms forget to mention a lot of important things. Here’s a few that come to mind.
You won’t get a product specifically aligned with your business needs
Page builders give the impression that they can fit your specific needs, and that might be the case if your requirements aren’t too niche, but ultimately these services are the complete opposite of how real website development is and should be approached.
You need to know your business first, then engineer a solution to fit the business. Professional agencies won’t write a single line of code or design anything until your business model online requirements have been discussed and fully understood.
Page builders oppositely work on the Bizarro Jerry principal: “We don’t really know anything about your business, so here’s a bunch of pre-made themes you can trial and error your business model into. Good luck with that”.
You won’t ever ever ever ever have the fastest possible loading times
Not all web pages are created equal, and page builders are notorious for spitting out the most horrendously bloated code you’ll find anywhere on the internet. Even the developers of said platforms will reluctantly admit it.
Why does this matter? Because speed matters. Google absolutely does (and other search engines probably) include page load times in its’ search ranking algorithm for both mobile and desktop. If you’re slow, you’re not ranking. If you’re slower than your competitor, you’re potentially losing business to them. You’ve only got about three seconds (only two on an ecommerce site) to capture the attention of a potential customer before they leave and look elsewhere. Does your page builder site load that fast?
This excessive code bloat is just a necessary by-product of a platform that attempts to solve every problem for every business while simultaneously giving the user enough power to be dangerous.
Just to demonstrate one actual example, here’s how any developer would write the code for a heading in a professionally developed solution…
…and here is the code I’ve seen (or variations of it) for the same heading in a page builder…
<div class="heading-wrapper no-sidebar no-top no-padding no-margin"> <div clas="row double-padding triple-margin single-h limit-width limit row-parent"></div> <div clas="row double-padding triple-margin single-h limit-width limit row-parent"></div> <div class="row-inner wp"> <div class="the-wrap"> <div class="heading-wrap"> <div class="col col-01"> <div class="col count"> <div class="col position"> <div class="col font"> <div class="col uppercase"> <h1 class="weight weight-600"> <span>Heading</span> </h1> </div> </div> </div> </div> </div> </div> </div> </div> </div>
When you consider there can be hundreds of elements on any given page, it’s easy to understand how this mess can bring any website to a crawl.
You’re locked in
Because there’s no standardisation between page builder services, you’ve got almost zero chance of migrating all your page layouts from one service to another. This is even the case with many WordPress page builders, where going back to the native editor experience while retaining all the layout work you’ve done is impossible.
And even if you decided to jump ship and start fresh with a different page builder service, you’ll then be faced with the task of learning a different system.
The sunk cost fallacy
Make no mistake, page builder services fully understand (and count on to an extent) that a lot of their customers reach a point where they become victims of the sunk cost fallacy. At this point they’ve already spent so much time, money and effort that they continue with the service even when the ongoing costs outweigh the benefits.
You can’t leverage decades of real-world expertise
When you hire a professional agency you’re not just getting any old product. You’re getting a product thoughtfully designed and engineered from a team of people with expertise in a variety of disciplines working together to produce something specifically for your business requirements. Designing a custom product fit for purpose requires the input of user researchers, product managers, user experience designers, content producers, user interface designers, back-end developers, front-end developers, quality testers, support personnel and others.
Are you aware of how these roles work towards creating a user experience and more importantly – why they exist – when using a page builder?
Your website will fail all credible performance metrics
Because of the aforementioned issues and more, literally every single page builder website I’ve seen completely fails every common performance metric, including Google PageSpeed Insights, GTmetrix and Yellow Lab Tools. Do not underestimate how important performance is.
Your website will immediately look outdated
Even if you take the time to change colours, fonts etc, you’re still going to end up with a product full of common antiquated design tropes and clichés, because these “safe” experiences that don’t push any boundaries are just what page builder platforms do best. And everyone else using the service has access to the same themes as you.
Humorously, as these companies brag about the increased number of users they’ve onboarded, this simultaneously increases your chances of having a final product that looks the same as other companies (possibly even a competitor).
Side note: I’m completely aware of the irony in pointing out design clichés while presenting this page to you on a website with it’s own. The difference is it was my lazy choice to do it this way when I built it several years ago.
It would be easy to dismiss the opinions above as a desperate attack on page builder platforms that are allegedly eating into the livelihood of real web site developers. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
At the time of writing WordPress commands 43% of the entire global website market. That’s astonishing. Even though I’m personally loathed at the direction WordPress is taking with Gutenberg, I also totally understand Automattics’ motives. If you’re not reacting to your competition you can quickly stagnate into obsolescence. Look no further for evidence than the hard lesson learned by Microsoft with the Internet Explorer debacle.
In my experience the demand for custom solutions built for WordPress has not slowed down. I’ve been working with WordPress exclusively for more than 12 years, and can honestly say the demand for my services has only ever increased every year, even while page builder platforms continue to rise. As far as I can tell this isn’t going to change any time soon.
It’s your choice
Ultimately if you choose to go down the page builder route, more power to you and I wish you the best for your business. I just hope this post lets you know what to possibly expect, or at the very least gives you something to think about going forward.