Once upon a time, a new bit of software called WordPress arrived on the scene with the goal of making websites more accessible to everyone. Before then, creating a website required a great deal of technical and coding knowledge. WordPress aimed to create a system that the average person could install on their own web server and use to create websites without having to be an expert coder. It turned out to be a pretty good idea. As of this writing, WordPress accounts for about 43% of all websites on the internet.
Today, the landscape looks a bit different. WordPress proved that the future of website building relied on simplifying the process and making it more accessible to the general population. Even though WordPress moved first, soon other competing platforms and technologies arrived and took that core concept of accessibility even further in an attempt to overthrow the reigning champion.
However, the new push towards accessibility came with a tradeoff; making things simpler to use often meant limiting what was possible, or outsourcing more complicated aspects of building and hosting websites and replacing them with service fees.
While these new website building platforms do open doors to more people, the limitations they impose make WordPress and other self-hosted, open-source platforms into viable alternatives, rather than ancient relics. Here are some of the reasons why:
1. Proprietary website building platforms want to keep all your eggs in one basket.
One of the main value propositions of newer website platforms like Wix and Squarespace is that they are all-in-one solutions. Whereas before you had to register a domain with a registrar, pay for and set up a web server with a hosting provider, and then install and configure your CMS software, now you could handle everything in one convenient location.
This seems like a great idea at first, but one of the big problems (that most users don’t find out until down the line when it becomes an issue) is that it requires you to give up a lot of control over your own website. These all-in-one solutions make it very difficult to regain control over different aspects of your own website once you’ve taken the time to set everything up within the proprietary platform.
Self-hosted solutions like WordPress or Magento don’t have this problem. They are designed to run in many different hosting environments, which means that you can upgrade (or downgrade) your hosting package, or switch hosting providers entirely. Web hosts are incentivized to compete for your business, keeping costs lower and standards higher.
You can host your WordPress or Magento website pretty much anywhere. You can only host your Wix site with Wix, your Squarespace site with Squarespace, or your Shopify site with Shopify.
2. Open-source gives you complete creative control and freedom.
Open-source software means that the underlying code is visible to everyone. This means that anyone with the desire to can add onto the existing software, creating new features and extending what’s possible.
This is perhaps the main reason that WordPress took over the internet. WordPress started out as blogging software, but the plugin system allowed individuals to create additional features that extended the possibilities of the CMS. Some of these plugins, such as WooCommerce, completely change the way that WordPress works and have taken on lives of their own.
Oftentimes, businesses will create their first website with a proprietary builder like Wix or Squarespace, only to find out that their website cannot grow alongside their business. Your website really becomes an effective business tool once it is able to replace aspects of your business that were previously done manually. More often than not, this involves adding new functionality to your site that goes beyond the generic features of a website.
By the time the average person bumps into the limitations of proprietary website builders, they’ve already spent a good deal of time and money on their website. They then find themselves in a situation where their website’s capabilities cannot match the needs of their business, and their options for moving their existing website to a different platform are severely limited.
3. Open-source technology lets you keep ownership over your data.
When the internet first started, websites were essentially directories of static HTML files. All of the content on a web page was baked into the actual code, which meant that it was always the same, regardless of who was viewing it or how.
The idea to store the content of a website in a database was such a revolutionary idea, that the websites that started using this method were classified as “Web 2.0” sites. Databases made it so that you could separate the content from the design, and made things like themes and templates possible.
The database is the true heart of a website. Themes, styles, and designs are all just aesthetic fluff which can be switched out as needed. The real value of a website comes from the written content and the data that is collected and stored in the database.
When you self-host your website with open-source technology, you set up your own database that lives on your web server. You can download that database any time you want, move it, duplicate it, and ultimately retain complete control over everything inside of it.
As you can imagine by now, this isn’t always the case with proprietary website building platforms. These platforms won’t literally hold your data hostage; that would provoke serious backlash. However, they can limit your access to your own data by charging fees or requiring special migration services before you can access it.
4. Open-source technology leads to a larger, stronger developer talent pool.
Many business owners who build their site on a proprietary platform are wearing multiple hats. They might be the owner, and the head of marketing, and the head of sales – really just doing it all in an attempt to get their business off the ground. That’s great, as it gives them the opportunity to learn every aspect of their business. However, it’s probably not a position they’ll want to stay in forever.
In the end, a business needs to grow to be successful. One person cannot do everything. Once revenues pick up, that owner is going to want to spend less time editing their website, and more time strategizing and looking at the bigger picture.
We discussed how open-source software makes it so that anyone can add new features to the core platform. In order to do that, those developers have to first become familiar with the original codebase. The result is that every person who creates a new feature also gains some expertise on working with the original software. As the plugins they develop gain popularity, the same thing happens; other developers will work on that code, extending it and becoming familiar with how it all works.
The end result is that open-source software builds a community of talented developers around itself. WordPress alone has its own ecosystem of coders and developers who work almost exclusively with the platform. By building your website with widely-adopted open-source software, you are opening yourself up to a huge pool of talent that you can recruit into your own business, rather than having to do it all yourself.
WordPress rocked the internet by making websites accessible to everyone. Proprietary platforms took that to the next level by making it convenient to manage every aspect of your site in one location. But there’s a tradeoff you make for convenience, and often taking the time to learn how to do things yourself can save you the trouble of having to pay more to have those simple things done for you.
After all, while they’re great places for a little snack or a quick drink, you probably wouldn’t do your grocery shopping at the convenience store.