Creating a new website is both thrilling and nerve racking, especially if this is your first rodeo. Before you can get serious about creating content, outlining your brand and style guide, or even setting up social media accounts, the first step is to begin building the website on the back end.
But wait, what is “the back end”? What does that even mean?
Most websites are built using a CMS (Content Management System) like Squarespace or WordPress, and in today’s article, we’re going to break down the differences between the two.
Squarespace and WordPress are both wonderful platforms on which you can build a website, each with their own pros and cons. Deciding which platform to use is a personal matter, and it’s important to understand how they differ so that you can make the choice that works best for you and your business.
The Smartphone Analogy
People often make the analogy of a smartphone to help beginners understand how Squarespace compares to WordPress, and I think it’s a wonderful way to illustrate the difference between the two.
Imagine WordPress is a brand new smartphone that comes completely blank. This means you’ll add apps as you need/want them and you can completely customize the phone to your liking. It can be as complex or as simple as you like, although you might need to ask your techie friend for help if you want it to do something in particular. Full functionality is there if you know how to leverage it but there are so many parts to build up from scratch that some people find it overwhelming.
Squarespace, on the other hand, is more like an iPhone that comes with all the apps and everything pre-loaded. You can pick and choose which ones you want to use as the need comes up, and the “look and feel” is very simple to customize on your own. You’ll pick and choose from a few set designs and all it takes to make it your own is a little bit of tweaking.
As you can see, both platforms are excellent and depending on your needs, one might be a better fit for you and your business. If you’re going the DYI route, I recommend testing both options out before you decide how you want to set up your site. Squarespace offers a 14-day free trial so if you’ve already played around with WordPress in the past, this is an awesome way to give Squarespace a shot.
I’ve used both platforms over the years and see the benefits of both, so I am confident that this overview is balanced and will give you a better understanding of your options.
Themes and Templates
One of the really cool things about WordPress is that there are literally thousand of themes to chose from so you can get your site to look and function exactly how you want it to. WordPress is an open-source platform, meaning you can really drill in and customize (or even build) themes to make your website unique. WordPress allows you to have a huge amount of control over the aesthetic and functionality of your website. However, not all themes are coded to the same high standard so some are definitely better than others. It’s not uncommon for themes to be extremely out of date or written in code that is just brutal (if you know how to read, write and edit code, sometimes you’ll look at it and be like whaaaaaaaaaat?!). Along those lines, some theme companies will plunk their product online and then you’re left to your own devices after purchasing; customer service and support standards vary enormously depending on the theme purchased. If you opt for WordPress, be sure to read theme reviews and look at how often/recently the theme is updated.
Squarespace, by comparison, offers a limited number of templates. You can browse through the library of templates available directly in the platform, see examples of live sites using the template, and play around with how it would look with your content before you publish/switch templates. Having a limited number of templates available isn’t a bad thing, however, because they are regularly updated, coded very well, and are focused in how they perform and how they can be used or customized. Another consideration is that Squarespace is not open source, which can be a major turn-off for many people who want full control over their site. Although Squarespace gives you a ton of customization opportunities, you will still have to “play in their sandbox”. A workaround is to sign up for the Professional Package so that you can access the developer's package - this will give you access to the developers platform to really make changes to the template’s code.
Some parts of WordPress (e.g., blogging) are very easy and intuitive to use, even for beginners. However, there is a lot about WordPress (e.g., plugins, widgets, child theme, security, etc.) that leaves people scratching their heads when they’re new to the platform. If you aren’t working with a developer to create and maintain your website, there is a pretty steep learning curve with WordPress.
Squarespace, by contrast, is designed to be much simpler for people to use since they are working within the confines of the Squarespace platform and templates. There is very little tweaking or coding required (if any!) and the drag & drop feature is arguably the easiest feature and the platform’s biggest selling point.
Everyone wants a website they can be proud of and with WordPress, there really is no limit to what you can do with the platform. Since WordPress is open-source, you are only limited by your own skills, or those of your developer. If you’re able to research and leverage what others have already done, you can get your website to look and function exactly how you want.
Choosing Squarespace means that you’re working within the parameters of the platform, but it’s important to remember that there are so many customizations available. By using CSS, you can tweak the Squarespace template to make it your own. Some people feel limited by Squarespace since the platform is ultimately in control of what can and cannot be done on it, however many users appreciate the robust list of features and how easy it is to leverage them.
Pricing is a little hard to compare directly since there are a lot of variables to consider.
Self-hosted WordPress has many individual parts that make up the total cost. You’ll have to purchase a domain, hosting, a theme, premium plugins, and unless you can do the tech stuff yourself, you’ll usually have to pay a developer to set everything up and stay on retainer as well.
Squarespace is different since pricing is more of a package deal. A domain can either be included as part of your Squarespace package, or you can purchase/bring over a domain from a third party vendor (e.g., GoDaddy). There are different plans that you can chose from and pricing will differ here, but all plans include unlimited customer support as well as the templates. Also, because the platform is much simpler to use and learn, you probably won’t have to work with (and pay for) a developer long term.
Support and Customer Service
As we’ve touched on above, WordPress offers a huge amount of control and autonomy but it also kind of says “here’s our platform, do you what you want with it!”. This means there isn’t one central place to turn if you have questions or need help. You can find just about anything through Google (eventually), there are forums you can visit, and someone has probably made a YouTube video solving your problem, or at least something similar. There are also a ton of books written about WordPress, however they can be out of date. Any question related to your theme can be directed to the theme creators, however this can be notoriously frustrating since they are not always quick to reply or responsive at all, and there’s often a lot of emailing back and forth. As such, many people rely on a developer to make even basic changes.
Squarespace is a limited platform (meaning you work within the confines of the platform on one of the pre-existing templates that you’ve selected), but the awesome thing about this is that everything is extremely well documented. Squarespace has an entire knowledgbase of articles and there are video tutorials included with nearly every one. The articles also prompt you with related subjects and remind/notify you of functionality. This is great because you might not have known something was possible before but now you can get it up and running on your own!. Squarespace really holds your hand every step of the way, and they are famous for their helpful live chat support.
The WordPress platform is constantly being updated to improve security, fix bugs, etc., which means that it requires a lot of ongoing maintenance. Within the WordPress dashboard, alerts will be given when updates are available and it’s usually very easy to do this - simply click the update button manually. That being said, with WordPress you’ll also be responsible for updating your theme and plugins, among other things. It’s not uncommon for creators of the free (or inexpensive) themes/plugins to disregard WordPress’ latest updates, which can be dangerous since you’ll potentially be exposing your site to a variety of user, performance and security issues.
Squarespace is a “closed” system so all performance and security updates are taken care of for you. Everything is automatically tested and deployed on Squarespace so there is little required from you. This means that you won’t have to do any updates to templates, plugins, buttons, etc. There’s also no risk of plugins conflicting, which can be a common problem with WordPress, since Squarespace takes care of that.
In theory, WordPress is quick to get up and running but in practice, it often takes a lot longer than expected - especially true for the DIY beginner. Not only is the initial site launch time consuming, but WordPress also requires ongoing maintenance (as mentioned above) and time spent upgrading and updating. This “hidden cost” of WordPress is something not everyone considers their first time around.
Squarespace is comparably quick to get up and running since you’re selecting a template and customizing it as you see fit, usually through the drag and drop feature.
Which platform is best for you?
As you can see, it’s impossible to declare one platform the winner in The Great Debate.
Depending on the goals you have for your site or the stage of business you’re in, one platform might be a better option.
WordPress is usually favoured by medium-large businesses who require complex and integrated functionality and have serious online marketing strategies. Squarespace works perfectly for small-medium businesses and bloggers who favour a clean look and easy to use platform.
There are pros and cons for both platforms so it’s important to understand the two before setting up a new website. I build all my clients’ websites on Squarespace and am a huge advocate for the platform, after having worked with WordPress for many years. That being said, it’s impossible to ignore that WordPress is incredibly powerful and there’s almost nothing you can’t do on it….if that’s what you need.
What are your thoughts on WordPress and Squarespace? Have you built a website on either platform before? What were some of the pros/cons you noticed? I’d love to hear your thoughts so leave me a note in the comments!
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