Design and Branding

Web design - Local agency vs online builder

Online website builders are quick, cheap and easy. They can also tie you in knots that are hard to untangle as you grow.
Michael Holman
Created by
Michael Holman

Before we start…

What is a local digital agency?

A small, local business that helps its clients to grow their brand online. That includes design and branding (how they look), digital, website and web hosting ( doing more online) and SEO and marketing (getting found by search engines).

People you can physically meet, talk to and get to know. A potential partner with local knowledge to help you grow in the way you want to. An example would be us, hdcreate.uk.

Using a local digital agency will probably be more expensive at the start, but much better value in the medium to long term.

What is an online website builder?

An online tool (usually American) that enables a small business to build a simple website. They use drag and drop tools inside predefined templates. No knowledge of web servers or coding is required. Examples are Wix, Weebly, Squarespace, and GoDaddy.

They use an interface that makes it very easy to build a small business website without help. They also restrict and limit your growth.

They’re cheap or even free at the start. But they are also something you will almost certainly outgrow and then probably have to leave to start all over again. From scratch (you can’t take the site with you if you leave them). Ouch!

A quick leg up at the start yes, but poor value in the medium to long term.

Note that I left out Wordpress – here’s why

Wordpress is different. Wordpress can be used as an online builder yes. But it can also be used on it's own. It can do both.

So what is Wordpress?

Wordpress is a free, open source code base that anyone (who knows how) can download, install on a web server and then use to build a world class website.

That website will have a ready made login, content management system and database built into it. With no one else controlling it.

You can download Wordpress from wordpress.org and then use it as a complete, stand alone tool. You just need a web server running php to put it on (and that's most of them). You can't download Wix, Weebly, Squarespace or any of the other major builders as a complete tool. Just management apps and files. Not the whole thing like you can with Wordpress.

That makes Wordpress very different.

You can also use Wordpress as an online site builder and hosting service if you wish at wordpress.com. You can build drag and drop websites just like the others. But as you grow you can also export your site and then install on any server running Wordpress. That makes it very flexible.

It’s also very scaleable, with plugins that can help it grow to enterprise level if needed. To do that with the online builders you need to move to their enterprise services. They don't publish price lists for those.

Wordpress is a CMS (Content Management System) that acts like it's own self contained framework. That’s very cool. It’s also why 43% of all websites worldwide are built on it (November 2023).

Canterbury Wordpress design agency

Most local digital agencies are experienced practitioners when it comes to Wordpress. The big online builders fear it's superiority. They pretend it's the same thing as their offering but a bit old fashioned.

It's not the same. It's much better.

Right, back to keeping you in control.

1. Autonomy –

A local digital agency is a partner to help you plan your strategy, not a set of plans that you have to fit into.

There is no free lunch

It’s an old expression but still holds true. The small local agency wants you to succeed. In fact we would actually buy you lunch, or at least coffee and a sandwich :).

Obviously we’re hoping to connect and do business at the same time. But business that is a win win. We help you grow. You spend more with us. That's a good partnership.

The online site builders want monthly payment with a decreasing commitment to your bespoke needs as you grow. Remember you sign up to live in their world. They’re not going to change that world much to suit you as you get bigger. They host many thousands of websites. Each one might look different but they all have to fit into one of a few packages. Under the hood they’re all pretty similar.

A contract free, local agency partnership helps you to build your own world. Monthly with no commitments and no limitations. A good agency will ensure you are free to leave whenever you want, taking everything with you. In fact most of us will even help you with the move. It's not in our interest to alienate clients, even if they are leaving.

Your business website - What’s your budget and who can you trust?

A bit like an all inclusive holiday, the online builders sound tempting. “Just click here and we’ll have you online in 10 minutes”. And they will. But what if you change your mind at a later date? What if you’ve put in a ton of time and effort but you need to move your site somewhere else a few months or years down the line?

What did you agree to when you clicked “I accept these terms and conditions”? (all 13,000 plus words of them for Wix). Did you read it? Does anyone?

No1 piece of advice - All website builds start with a domain name (eg: mybusiness.co.uk). Always register and manage your own domain name and NEVER give control of it to someone else. A good local agency will help you register and manage it, without asking for control.

Registering a domain with a good UK registrar takes a few minutes. In terms of cost it's a similar to buying a few bits in your local convenience store. Once you’ve got it it’s yours forever for a modest annual renewal fee. And please remember that you need nothing more from the registrar. It's like your car. You register it with DVLA but that doesn't mean you need to park it there and let them service it. Just ignore the ads and prompts telling you that you need to spend more, you don't.

Try to set up a system that lets you grow and develop online as you need without constraining your choices. And always with the option to take your whole brand (including your website) elsewhere if you wish to at some point in the future.

Control your own domain and partner with a local web agency. We won’t bind you to a ridiculous contract and let you spend months building something that’s ultimately not yours.

2. Freedom -

To grow as you want, not as they allow.

No2 piece of advice - Don’t be seduced by a shiny template. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not condemning templates. They’re often a great starting point for building a suitable html structure. We all use them (to a degree).

Wix offers 900 plus templates which sounds impressive. But anyone who can host a Wordpress site has access to 10,000 plus templates so again it’s not about how it looks at the moment. It’s still about control at this point.

Before a website can be properly designed you need a strategy

What do you want your website to achieve? Who should it appeal to? Will it need development in the future and will that affect how people use it? Can it really stand out from the crowd as something different? How are you going make sure it’s seen by the target audience? How are you going to promote it and make sure it get's the visitors you are targeting? Web traffic that doesn’t help you to achieve your goals online is little more than vanity.

A good digital agency will partner with you to address and then find answers to all of these questions. The online builder will offer a more limited range of options. They’ll make it sound like a lot but in the final analysis you don’t choose how far you can develop your website in the future, they do.

3. Development and change -

No3 piece of advice - AI in web design has only just begun, ignore it at your peril!

With AI disrupting every part of the business world, how can you know that the solution you choose today will be still be right one in a year, or maybe just a few months time? Obviously you can't.

You're going to need flexibility, agility and the ability to turn on a sixpence, if required. Your customer's needs will change quickly and there won't be much time to adapt. That's all we can know for certain in late 2023. A small, nimble team of local professionals can help you quickly realign your service(s) to meet changing aspirations. A lumbering giant with enormous systems and many thousands of hosted sites can't.

Days and weeks instead of many months may be the difference between online success and death during 2024 and beyond. A local agency can meet you in a coffee shop, discuss the situation and be on the case next day. All you've got with a giant online builder is a suggestion via email. And then a very long wait that may well come to nothing.

4. Building your brand -

How much does it cost? Everything you've got.

An online website builder doesn’t know or care about your brand or your vision. You’re just one of thousands of sites plugged into the same huge server, without much scope for growth or change. They play a big numbers game. So long as they're collecting their monthly fee all is good for them. The rest is simply PR.

Which brings us to the final point here.

Local digital agency vs online website builder - the final battle - money

Online website builders appeal to the fact that most small businesses have small budgets. They offer a website at a very cheap price. In fact why pay anything at all they say. Have it for free.

But is that freedom?

They say it's your website but put ads for their brand all over it. They say it's your website but you don't even have your own domain.

You have something called a subdomain.

Instead of a website called yourbrand.co.uk you might end up with www.yourbrand.wixsite.co.uk/yourwebsite or similar.

Do you value your business so little that you are happy to have it act as a banner add for the landlord? How can you expect your clients to be impressed by a business that is simply an ad for another one?

What if your budget really is zero?

If your budget is zero you still have options in partnering with a local agency. Many agencies have spare space on their servers. They may be willing to create a simple holding page for you using your domain name and develop it later, when you do have some money to invest. You don't know until you ask.

It might only be a holding page but it's yourbrand.co.uk instead of the online builder's subdomain and without their ads plastered all over it. At least it's yours.

You can gradually add some words about your business to the placeholder. Well we'd let you. You can create a free Google account and add analytics tracking code. Again we'd do it for free if we think we could be a good fit for your business in the future.

It might just be a placeholder page but it can can still be indexed by Google and begin it's online journey. All, still free of charge. I guess I can't speak for the other local agencies but we'd consider doing it. We've done it before.

We've done this for clients who started with nothing. It doesn't take a great deal of our time. It might all come to nothing. But it could also sow the seeds of a great future partnership. It happened with more than one of our clients.

Isn't that a better type of free?

Let's say your initial budget for arguements sake is £1000

The amount isn't what's important here, it's the value you can gain from it. What's the best way to spend it?

Option 1 - Search for the cheapest online website builder deal you can find and feel smug that you still have hundreds or maybe the the whole £1000. You've signed up and committed to their service.

Option 2 - Contact a local digital agency. Tell them about your business ideas and then ask them what they could do for you for £1000?

With option 1 you've made a commitment. You might only spend a couple of hundred, or even nothing, but you've already clicked and accepted their terms. You've agreed that your brand does things on the cheap. You've joined thousands of other monthly subscribers. You've plugged yourself into their big machine and given up some of your control.

With option 2 you still have your full £1000 pounds. You haven't spent anything yet. You've simply asked a local expert what they could do for £1000. You still have full control. You also have choice.

You have a second perspective on how best to get your brand online and heading in the right direction.

So both might be free, but which one is more valuable when planning your business website?

1. A website template with the blanks filled in and stuffed with ads for another business.

2. An informed, expert opinion with no obligation.

As a local digital agency, we only offer option 2.

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