Steve Frost | Front-End Engineer

Laying the Foundation for a Website

February 13, 2017

So you’ve been asked to make a website for a friend, family, neighbor, and maybe even a paying client? One of the first questions to answer is what platform or framework is best to use for this particular job. For years, it was between several great options which included anything from drag-and-drop to content management systems. In the past few years, we’ve also seen another options emerge: static site generators. Here we’ll try to breakdown what are the benefits and drawbacks of each style so that you can get started on the right foot.

Drag-and-drop - Wix / Squarespace

Drag-and-drop site builders have been snatching up all the commercials in the past few years and it’s led them to be a really popular option. You’d think they just started the business but believe it or not, the more popular drag-and-drop site builders got their start as early as 2004. I didn’t believe it. Two of the most popular options - Wix & Squarespace - share that users have used their services to create multiple millions of websites.

  • Benefits

    • Easy, quick to setup
    • Abbreviated admin dashboard UI to make updates - user friendly
    • There is usually a free option available
    • No technical maintenance required
  • Drawbacks

    • Free options usually place ads on your site
    • Limited customizability, extensibility
    • High monthly fee when website grows or you want to remove ads

Content Management Systems (CMS) - WordPress / Joomla

Since WordPress makes up almost 60% of this category, we’ll stick to talking about it. WordPress is also 27% of the total web right now which means there is a tremendous community around it. WordPress is most commonly used for a blogging system - hence content management - and I would say it fits that need perfectly. Since 2003, they’ve been iterating on WordPress to make it the most robust website solution around.

  • Benefits

    • Can be self-hosted (you own your content)
    • Full administrator dashboard UI - user friendly
    • Massive community means support forums are filled with answers to common questions
    • Extensibility through 3rd-party plugins
  • Drawbacks

    • If self-hosting, technical maintenance is required
    • Includes a database which can be a source of vulnerability
    • Some knowledge required to do initial setup

Static Website Generators - Jekyll / Middleman

Robust is good if you need it but sometimes WordPress can be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. After making several sites of varying use from WordPress, I found the latest trend of static website generators very liberating. It is almost full circle from how websites were originally created - a group of HTML files, a group of CSS files, and maybe a JS file if the site was gettin’ fancy. These generators take that idea one step further and usually incorporate some type of front-matter, loops, and other intricacies provided by a templating language. As you’ve guessed by the last few sentences, these generators are the hardest of the three options to setup but they also provide a spectacular payoff.

  • Benefits

    • Fastest page loads of all options - really, really fast
    • No database means no vulnerabilities like WordPress
    • Extremely customizable & extendable
    • Jekyll pages can be hosted for free on GitHub pages
  • Drawbacks

    • Intermediate knowledge of programming required to setup
    • If changes are needed, there is no user friendly dashboard like other options have
    • Depending on where it is hosted, there may be server maintenance involved

Wrap-Up

If it isn’t evident, I have grown partial to the static website generator option. It’s true, I am absolutely in love with it right now and this site is actually built with one of those - Jekyll. I’m also working on another site that uses the other static option, Middleman, and will be doing a post about my experiences with it once I’m finished.

All that said, when taking on a job it is always best to think which one of these options is the right tool for the job. Taking time to craft a plan before starting can seem like procrastination or running in place but it almost always pays off in the long run. Travis Neilson said it best in his DevTips YouTube Series when he said, “a large part of this job is thinking, and planning, and organizing.”


Steve Frost

Written by Steve Frost who lives in Minneapolis using technology to make an impact in the community and our environment. Follow on Twitter