Let me guess, you are probably looking for an optimal solution that:
- can be delivered on time and within a budget
- something you won’t hate yourself for in the future?!
We all do, but the options are endless and it is extremely difficult to navigate for non-tech professionals.
On top of that, most of the advice on the topic is so contradicting that it makes you even more confused.
We will do our best to shine the light on the situation and help you make the right choice by reviewing custom-built website vs off-the-shelf CMS.
So we’ll relieve some of this decision making burden, by dissecting and comparing the main types of solutions available. We will start by looking at the types of off-the-shelf CMS solutions, continue with custom CMS systems and finish with a summary of advantages and disadvantages. Let’s dive in.
What Does Off-the-Shelf CMS Mean? And What Types Are There?
An off-the-shelf CMS is a content management system that has already been built by a company or an individual and now it is offered for mass use. These kinds of systems can be commercial that you have to purchase or pay by subscription and open source, that anyone can download and use for free.
The CMS market is very diverse: the solutions differ by form, functionality, and cost. For the purposes of this article we’ve divided canned solutions into three types:
- Website builders
- CMS platforms
- Enterprise-level CMS Solutions.
This division is a bit oversimplified, as there are solutions that will fall in between these categories (niche products). However, we think that these are the major types of solutions you need to be aware of when thinking of how to approach the development of your website.
1. Website Builders
‘Can I build a website with no design and coding skills?’
This is a typical question of website builder user.
Website builders allow users to create websites without having to code or design. Vendors offer selections of themes with built-in functionality. You can choose one of them and start editing it right away. By editing, I mean filling in your text and uploading your pictures and videos. You can also move certain blocks around with ‘drag and drop’ function.
These systems operate on ‘What You See Is What You Get’ (WYSIWYG) principle, which means that what you see in the editor you will see on your web page after publishing. More or less so.
Website builders are designed for simple websites and cover most of the needs of small businesses, like restaurants, photo studios, music bands, event organizing agencies etc.
Examples of Website Builders
Shopify and Wix remain the TOP website builders followed by Squarespace, Weebly, Jimdo, and others. These solutions also offer eCommerce functionality to varying extent.
Obviously, the biggest advantage of website builders is their ease of use. Your website will be up and running in a couple of hours, without having to write a line of code.
If in the debate over template vs custom website design, you give into the simplicity of ready-to-use templates, this is a good choice for you. With site builder, you obtain a library of ready-to-use design templates, while with custom development you will have to order web design separately and it isn’t cheap.
The biggest disadvantage of this type of solutions is their lack of flexibility. The customization options go only as far as choosing colors from a preset color scheme and moving around ‘movable’ blocks.
So you won’t be able to add any custom functionality or styles, which are not included in the theme you’ve chosen. Unless, you want to mess with the code, which is not the idea of a website builder.
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2. CMS Platforms
By a CMS platform, we mean systems like WordPress. Content Management Systems are different from website builders, in that they give basic functionality and a lot of add-ons, so you have to choose what you need and configure your website manually.
It is like building a house, you can either build it yourself with a set of elements (CMS platform) or buy a pre-built house and change only certain parts of it (website builder).
These platforms can be open source, which you can use for free and change them as much as you want, or proprietary, which you have to purchase or pay by subscription (SaaS).
To set up a website on a CMS platform you do need some coding skills or you can hire experts in a platform of your choice.
In the example with WordPress, you’d need to download and configure it to your needs. You can get any additional functionality that is not initially provided in WordPress, with third-party plug-ins.
As for the design, there are various online theme markets, where you can choose a theme (free or paid). You can also use a custom design theme with WordPress and most of the other CMS platforms.
All of the mentioned platforms are open source.
Compared to website builders, systems like WordPress are very flexible. You have thousands of more themes to choose from. Moreover, with HTML skills you can customize a chosen theme in any way you want.
And back to the ‘custom website design vs template’ debate, with a CMS platform you can have both. There is a huge variety (compared to website builders) of ready-to-us templates for acceptable prices. Moreover, with HTML skills you can customize a chosen theme in any way you want.
The biggest disadvantage of open source CMS solutions is that they are not secure enough.
Systems like WordPress have multiple sources of vulnerabilities.
You can encounter bugs within the CMS system, as well as from third-party plugins or themes. All of this leaves a lot of room for abuse.
In addition to that, it is easier and more lucrative for hackers to attack a popular open-source system, than a custom-built website, as in such a way they can ‘commit fraud in bulk’ (not just hacking one custom website).
Another disadvantage has to do with a diverse quality of third-party plugins on which users rely on upgrading and customizing their websites. These plugins can be provided by anyone with little to no control of their quality, so one of them can put your website in danger of falling apart or being attacked.
3. Enterprise-Level CMS Solutions
Enterprise-level CMS solutions are complex proprietary systems designed for large organizations. According to Forrester research, organizations go for enterprise-class solutions in the following conditions:
- Complex cross-channel, contextual, interactive customer experience needs for robust, large sites that also support digital marketing goals
- Complex integrations with other systems
- Need to support multiple sites with many languages
- Have a sizeable budget.
In other words, these systems are created for big companies with complex user interactions and complex back-end operations. Therefore, enterprise-level CMS solutions are also robust and feature-rich to cater to those needs.
One of the biggest challenges these solutions can help with is providing personalized and consistent user experiences across all channels: partner websites, own websites, landing pages, mobile apps, call centers, as well as offline interactions.
Great examples of enterprise-level CMS systems are:
- Adobe Experience Manager
- Microsoft Sharepoint
- Oracle WebCenter.
As I’ve already mentioned, these systems are very advanced and rich in functionality. Since these are commercial products, enterprise systems are also very well supported. This goes for both system updates, which should be regular, as well as 24/7 tech support for users.
The biggest disadvantage of such solutions is their price. The enterprise-level solution can easily have a six-figure price tag, which doesn’t include the costs of integrating this solution with other systems the company is using, employee training and other expenses related to implementing a new system.
Another disadvantage is that of all canned solutions - even enterprise-level CMS cannot be as flexible as a custom one.
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Custom CMS Solutions
By custom CMS we mean the kind of systems that a web development team builds from scratch, using a programming language and framework of their choice.
Custom made websites are by their definition designed to the exact needs of clients. So they can be as simple or as complex as you need them to be.
Here is an example of a completely custom CMS we’ve built from scratch for an educational portal.
As you can see this system has a unique functionality set, 100% attuned to our client’s requirements.
The best part about custom solutions is that they are tailored to your needs, so you don’t need to compromise and try to fit your business into an existing solution. In addition to that, you also don’t need to pay for something you don’t use, as it often happens with canned solutions.
Another great advantage of a custom CMS is security. When done properly, custom software is almost always more secure than a commercial or open source one. And by ‘properly’ we mean adhering to all industry standards by default, and when needed going an extra mile to provide extra protection.
As I’ve mentioned before, hacking any canned software, open source or proprietary, is, in general, more attractive than hacking a custom one, because with mass solutions a hacker can abuse many sites at once.
In addition to that, only you and your team will have access to your code, while with open source solutions anyone can download and study their vulnerabilities.
Website template vs custom design is only up to you as both options are possible to implement.
The disadvantage of such solutions is quite self-evident too - you have to code it yourself or hire a web development team.
As a result, a custom solution will require more time and money in the beginning, as opposed to using an off-the-shelf system.
Although, the situation may change after your website launch, when a custom website can be way easier to maintain and upgrade, than the one built with an off-the-shelf CMS. This can happen in case you’ll make a lot of customizations to a canned solution, so it will become harder and harder to update your website without breaking it.
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Custom Built Website vs Off-the-Shelf CMS Comparison
|Solution Types||Flexibility||Security||Cost||Time to Launch||Who uses it|
|Website builders||low||medium||low/medium||fast||Freelancers, small businesses|
|CMS platforms||medium||low||low||medium||Small to medium-sized businesses|
|Enterprise-level systems||medium||high||high||long||Large organizations|
|Custom CMS||high||high||medium||long||Small to medium-sized businesses.|
Hopefully, the difference of custom vs template website development became more clear now.
Let’s sum up. We went over 3 types of canned CMS solutions: website builders, CMS platforms, and enterprise-level solutions. Then we compared those to custom-built CMS.
Overall the biggest advantage of using off-the-shelf CMS is in how much time it can save you in the launch phase of the project. While the biggest disadvantage comes from the limited flexibility, as well as the poor security intrinsic to some canned solutions.
In a nutshell, website builders (like Wix) are the easiest to use and fastest to get your website up and running. But you’d have to be content with the functionality and styles they provide, as you won’t be able to change much.
CMS platforms (like WordPress) give more room for customization, but you’d have to learn some coding or hire a platform expert. As for the development time, you should be able to launch your website pretty fast compared to developing a custom CMS from scratch, but not as fast as with a builder. In addition to that, you’d still have to make compromises in terms of customization and take extra precautions against hacker attacks.
As for the enterprise-level systems (like Adobe Experience Manager), most of them provide advanced functionality to manage multiple websites, channels, and complex organizational processes. They are very pricey and still not as flexible as custom CMS systems.
Lastly, custom-built CMS systems provide the best flexibility and security. However, building a custom website will take more time compared to using a ready-made solution.
So which one seems more appropriate for you: custom website OR template?
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