Clutch spoke with Jonah Bailey, one of the Managing Partners at Atomic Object, about the comparison between Wix, WordPress, and SquareSpace – three popular options to take into account when building a website.
Introduce your business and what you do there.
I am a Managing Partner of Atomic Object in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We make custom software products for the consumer and enterprise markets, from beginning to end. We work either collaboratively, with our clients, or standing in as product owners if they don’t have the availability to do so. We’ve been in business for 17 years and have been in Ann Arbor for almost five.
In my past life, before becoming managing partner, I was a software and web designer for 16 years.
What should clients consider beforehand when coming to Atomic object to build either a website or web application?
Usually, if they understand their problem and what needs to be solved, we will be a great fit. If the client is unsure what the solution to their problem is, it can be even better.
Otherwise, if they just need a set of hands to do the work, we’re usually a bad fit. They will be paying a high price for work that could be taken care of by providers with a lot less experience, but for a much lower cost. One of the things that fall into this camp is marketing websites. As a firm, we don’t really engage in this type of development because they represent a known problem with known solutions. A lot of different people can build a marketing website for a lot cheaper than us.
We will be focusing on Wix, Squarespace and WordPress. Could you give a brief introduction into each, detailing what makes them different from each other?
I have the most experience with WordPress, which is an open source CMS that has been around for a long time. It uses the LAMP tech stack—Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP—and it represents the standard for free CMS's. There are a lot of different ways in which someone can engage with the platform, including simply going to WordPress.com, setting up a username, registering a subdomain and starting a free blog or website right there. This is what a lot of people need, especially if they’re just looking to publish some content.
In terms of functionality, WordPress has an ecosystem of free and paid plug-ins that can be used without really having technical skills. Users don’t really need to know how to code—they can look up the kinds of functionalities they need using a directory, plug those in automatically in the WordPress installation and be done.
You can also grab WordPress and put it on your own servers. There are different hosting providers that can set it up for the client, giving them their own custom domains.
Squarespace is different in that it’s not open-source. It works as a CMS- or Software-as-a-Service solution with a minimal monthly cost. It gives a more seamless experience on the CMS side, along with some nice, professionally-designed templates that govern what the website will look and feel like, as well as how it behaves.
There is an added bonus of a large company standing behind the platform, making bugfixes round-the-clock. We can get someone on the phone 24 hours a day, if there’s a problem or if we have a question. I’ve been impressed with their customer service. For the monthly cost, it was very good value.
The downside to Squarespace is that, if they don’t support a custom need, the client will be out of luck. There are no plug-ins, so engaging an agency like ours to make modifications within the Squarespace ecosystem can be difficult and expensive. If what we really need is a brochure website with five or six pages and a contact form, it is a fantastic option. The templates and design used on the frontend are quite pretty.
I don’t have a lot of direct experience with Wix, but my impression is that, being free, the service is monetized by advertising on users’ websites. This is fine and it works for a lot of people, but it does cheapen the feeling and brand of the person using it. There are paid tiers that can get rid of the advertising, but it still remains the main way for them to get money.
What’s nice about them is that Wix also doesn’t require technical know-how. They were the first ones to let clients edit their websites on the frontend. After logging in, someone could actually click on the site’s visible items and actually change the content, eliminating the need for an admin system.
Who is the ideal user for each platform, and who should avoid using them?
For a small business or an entrepreneur in need of an impressive marketing website, Squarespace is the easiest option. They may have a lot of branding done already, along with custom or stock photography. The platform can deliver fantastic value in a short amount of time for people whose main business is not web design. The main need for a hairdresser, a restaurant owner or a dog-walking business is to let people know where they’re located and what services they offer. Squarespace eliminates the need to spend time and money on security updates and custom templates. It can get someone’s site on the internet so that it can start generating leads.
If a business is putting content on the internet, WordPress is a great solution. We run the Atomic Object blog on WordPress, using a custom template and plug-ins for different functionalities. That blog is visited by hundreds of thousands of users every month. It has performed well, and we’ve never had a problem with it. We also have a highly collaborative authorship base—60 plus employees in the company are using the blog all the time. Again, our use for WordPress is putting content on the internet in a simple way.
What amount of technical knowledge is required for each platform, and where does it become necessary to consult an agency?
Wix and Squarespace will handle maintenance for the user. They are proprietary systems with teams of developers and designers maintaining and writing the code, and keeping the servers running. The good thing is that there will be very little downtime, and you won’t need a lot of tech support. The providers will maintain website security and make sure that the software is always up-to-date. If someone can deal with the absence of custom modules, these are fine options.
Businesses that require some pieces of custom functionality not offered by Squarespace or Wix need to turn to something like WordPress. It has a rich, vibrant open source technical community behind it. There have been few times when I’ve worked on a WordPress site and actually had to write custom code for a piece of functionality. Many people are already developing custom plug-ins that do pretty much anything under the sun. If someone wants a contact form with certain user inputs, there are tons of options that will allow them to build that form with no HTML, PHP or CSS knowledge. The plug-ins can send emails to the user and the owner of the site and do much more.
Because WordPress is probably the world’s most popular CMS, it is constantly being probed by people who make money by coopting the security of particular installs. WordPress has a company behind it called Automattic, which is working to stay ahead of the people who would seek to compromise the security of sites. This means that private entrepreneurs have to make sure that their installs stay up-to-date, and that the plug-ins they’ve deployed will not affect the security of a website.
I’ve had numerous clients come to me in the past and complain about their sites being down. After some amount of digging, I would discover obscure plug-ins that had given unauthorized access to all of the site’s users and content by injecting nefarious code. The person using a WordPress installation needs to be careful about what they’re putting into the codebase.
The nice thing about Wix and Squarespace is that they will take care of this for the user. There are large teams of professionals behind those websites. On the WordPress side, the user is in the driver’s seat, and they will have the added ability to do things that couldn’t normally be done on the former two platforms. This comes with added responsibilities.
There are companies that, for a fixed fee, will take care of a WordPress install. In all of my research, I haven’t found a WordPress hosting provider who could take care of security to the point that Squarespace and Wix would, for the same price. For $15 to $20 per month, we can have security services on WordPress, but this is still more expensive than the other two platforms.
Are there any special or unique offerings within the three platforms?
Squarespace has some very nice templates in terms of graphic design, which adjust to different devices really well. The advantage of going with a company like theirs is that they’ve already invested in testing on different devices—either Android and iOS phones and tablets or Windows PCs. This is a huge value that everyone should take advantage of. The internet is everywhere, so people aren’t just looking at a website on their desktop or laptop computers—they’re increasingly using tablets and smartphones. People are pleasantly surprised to see partners open their website on a phone and having it look fantastic. The website owner may not have even considered that possibility.
The huge amount of open source development and design that goes into different WordPress templates, themes and plug-ins means that people can get a website to do pretty much anything is required of it. We can direct people to it, in cases when they want to work with Atomic Object but don’t have the budget, or they simply need a marginally complex website. It’s an off-the-shelf open source product that can solve their problems at a very low cost.
Are there limitations or improvement points for any of the three platforms?
After having worked in web design for a while, we can look at the frontend of Squarespace-, Wix- or WordPress-powered websites, and immediately know which platform they are using. The cookie-cutter nature of these solutions is a downside. WordPress sites have similar layouts due to the constraints of the system. My first reaction to a Squarespace site is that it looks really nice, followed by thinking it was made using Squarespace.
Wix doesn’t put a high emphasis on design, and the fact that they put ads on websites doesn’t help them look professional. It has the feel of 90s GeoCities websites. Those were also free, and they were also plastered with banners and blinking images.
What is the cost of building a basic website, versus a more enterprise-level, feature-rich one?
As a small business owner, the more someone can do on their own, the better. If all they need is a marketing website, there are tools available that have been simplified and made to be very intuitive, specifically because there are many small businesses that don’t need a lot of functionality and a full-featured content management system.
For large organizations that need more robust solutions, Squarespace, Wix, and WordPress are completely out of the question. There may be a cross-channel implementation in place, with both a website and native mobile apps, each with its content. These require enterprise-grade solutions like Contentful, which is a headless CMS working as a cloud-based system. It’s focused on delivering content to web or native mobile clients via communication channels like APIs. The solution is divorced from the presentation layer—the place where the end-user will see the content.
Building something like this requires a lot of money—probably in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range—and a significant return on investment. It’s a large endeavor for any small business, so the annual revenue needs to be in the lines of $10 million or more. The business will likely save up for this kind of project in order to take care of the full cost in a way that won’t have a significant impact.
For a small company with $2 million in annual revenue or less, this kind of project represents a huge risk, especially if they’re not sure about the return on investment. Someone can put themselves out of business by doing this. Custom-designed WordPress sites should cost between $10,000 and $15,000 with a professional firm. A designer can provide branding and visual work for probably the same amount. The difference is that the results can be deployed on Wix or Squarespace, eliminating the large reoccurring costs and with the advantage of not having to worry about the security of passive marketing channels.
There are a number of agencies on the market that target small businesses. They offer services for $1,000 to $5,000 to people who simply need a good marketing website that can help them grow their business. Typically, if the client has gone beyond the “I can do this myself” stage, they will want to engage with a professional, look at their portfolio and history on the market. It’s important to find a company that will not simply disappear.
Do you have any final comments?
I simply encourage everyone to build a website. Given all the great options out there, there is no reason not to have a web presence. There is a famous saying—if you’re not on the internet, you don’t exist.
We have five additional questions. For each of these, we ask that you rate WordPress, Wix and Squarespace on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best score.
How would you rate each platform for its functionality and available features?
WordPress – 5
Squarespace – 4
Wix – 3
How would you rate them for ease of use and ease of implementation?
WordPress – 3
Squarespace – 5
Wix – 4
How would you rate the platforms for support, as in the response of their team, and the helpfulness of available resources online?
WordPress – 2
Squarespace – 5
Wix – 3
How likely are you to recommend them to a friend or colleague?
WordPress – 3
Squarespace – 5
Wix – 1
As always, it depends on what the person needs, but I would probably push people towards Squarespace, and try to talk them out of thinking that they need some custom functionality provided by WordPress.
How would you rate the platforms for overall satisfaction?
WordPress – 4
Squarespace – 5
Wix – 2