All small business owners will realise it is important to create a website so they can be found online. A free website builder seems like a tempting proposition for website creation with their simple drag and drop tools, free web hosting plans and user friendly interface. Although getting a website designed using a free website builder has a few hidden surprises in the free plans available whether it is a free trial or an ad free plan these options can end up costing time, money and lost opportunities for a business & as outlined below, not even really work well with search engines.
1. What is a free website builder?
A free website builder will help you create a simple website for your small business quickly.
Lots of website builder choices
If you search online for free website builders you will find listings for services from the likes of Wix, Google Sites, Weebly, WordPress and others. Even the website hosting companies like GoDaddy, CrazyDomains or Siteground offer free website builder options for those who sign up to one of their plans.
Google provides free tools
The only really free offering is the Google My Business Website builder that can be used when you create a Google My Business profile for your small business. Google provides this free tool to create a simple website and doesn’t even offer any paid options, it is a very simple way to get your business online and have a website connected to updates you make on your Google My Business profile. It is probably the simplest way to get your business online with the least amount of fuss and no hidden catches or extra costs, you even save money on website hosting.
What does free actually mean?
For other companies the use of the term ‘free website builder’ can feel a little ambiguous once you start digging a little deeper and it is important to understand what part is actually free. For quite a few of them the actual online tool that can create the website may be free, but then there are all these other options and upgrades that are offered so many of these are actually ‘Freemium’ models i.e. you receive some basic elements for free, but many of the richer features then need to be paid for.
2. Can you create a website for free?
A small business can create a website for free but there could be indirect, unforeseen, costs.
There’s a difference between getting access & using all the tools
On the surface most of the online free website builder tools will present themselves as being ready and available for use immediately to get your business online. So yes, they are typically free to use, meaning you can sign up, create, customise, and publish a site without paying a thing in many cases. However, most website builders lock certain features from being accessible unless you upgrade to a paid plan. Very soon after launching your site you will get bombarded with the opportunity for upgrade offers with many of them a subscription or monthly charge.
What do you have to pay for?
The example pictured above is the Crazy Domains SEO Website Health Check which you can add to your free website builder and it can help point out issues with your website, although over the course of a year that is hundreds of dollars extra being spent on a site that could have had the correct seo development implemented in the first place.
The extra costs don’t end there. They also offer another monthly option of getting website analytics for around $10 per month, guess what, Google Analytics is a free reporting tool that is normally set up on a website to then provide free reporting forever. So what seemed like a free website builder tool can potentially cost an extra $100-$300 per year to get things that are essentially free. Even a platform like Wix may seem to be free for as long as you want, but if you need extra features like your own domain name or eCommerce you have to move to some of their paid premium plans.
What does it really mean?
Google will let you host a website for free using Google My Business or Google Sites (with its own limitations on functionality) therefore it is possible to create a website for free. It’s important to consider there could be elements that you don’t get access to, can’t control, aren’t able to be added or are restricted via paid additional servicing options. Some of these can limit whether your website even gets found or generates the traffic you want.
3. How does a free website builder make money if nobody pays to use it?
Free website builders make their money from selling additional options and plan upgrades.
Just stop and consider for a second, how can a company offer a free website builder if nobody is paying for a site to be created? It’s really simple, they have implemented what is called a ‘Freemium’ model where they have thousands of users with some paying and others using free plans. The website builder service will do things like make money from advertising on your site, limiting the functions available, providing fixed template designs with paid options or even limiting the speed or bandwidth of your site. If you want to make improvements to your website design you can sometimes do it with an upgraded template creator, moving to a premium plan, paying to have an ad free design or moving to a custom domain name.
What is an example of how they make money?
One of the simplest ways they can make money is to sell the option of a personalised domain name. A lot of free site builders will provide a URL that is the website builder’s own site name and your chosen prefix. This can typically make it harder for search engines like Google to find, crawl and index your web pages. Then from a potential customer’s point of view, they are seeing a brand or business using free tools vs presenting a more professional look and feel.
So for example;
How can you compare the costs?
By doing the proper research you can work out whether a free tool will be useful or not. One of the techniques to do when comparing and researching free website builder tools is to click the ‘See More’ or ‘Full Comparison’ boxes and prompts on the pricing pages. This will uncover more details about the different plans available and help you see the items that will be offered as paid choices. You can also start comparing the cost of free or basic plans to the full offering.
In the example below you can see there are options like Business Directory, Traffic Booster or SSL Certificates being offered. For a custom built website that has a solid online marketing plan built around it, these things are done as part of the seo efforts for that business and don’t have to be monthly subscriptions.
4. Are free website builders good at seo?
SEO can be beneficial for any type of website if it has been done correctly.
Website search engine optimisation is a broad topic that covers both on-page and off-page factors. We offer seo services to small business owners as a stand alone service because it is so complex and takes the right strategy & time to get right. Whether a free website builder can deliver strong seo results really depends on what can be set up on the site, how much you can control page structures and how the search engines are able to index the site to understand what it is all about.
What are the things to look for to understand seo performance
We helped a local business conduct an audit of their current website that was built using Crazy Domains. The owner felt like the site wasn’t receiving a lot of traffic so we provided data analysis to help them see how well their site was performing and it highlighted a number of performance problems they weren’t aware of, this is what we had uncovered;
- 80% of visitors to the site were spending between 0 and 30 seconds on the site. This isn’t really enough time to absorb information & unfortunately the data available couldn’t split this further. In Google Analytics you can actually see per page what the exact average time spent has been & even split this by traffic source or location to get rich insights.
- A large proportion of visitors were from outside Australia which is an issue given the business was Sydney based and providing a local service. The website builder reporting tool couldn’t break it down any further, but Google Analytics can provide information down to City.
- Direct Traffic was being reported as 78% of visitors. This is quite a high % and typically you would prefer to see Organic Search traffic to be a high proportion of visitors.
- The site was only ranking for a handful of keywords related to the brand name and the URL of the site even though the breadth of services & areas the business provides is quite broad. It means there were lots of opportunities being missed to be found online.
- There wasn’t a solid page structure put in place for page hierachy, titles or even things like meta descriptions. These can impact click through rate performance from search engine result pages.
5. Can a free website builder give you a fast website?
Google uses website page loading speed as a ranking factor, so your site must be fast.
Google has made a number of public announcements that speed is now a landing page factor for search and even Ads. This means it is critical that your website can load in around 3 seconds, especially on mobile phone.
How do you know if the site is fast?
You can use the free Google PageSpeed Insights tool to check your website’s performance. In the example above you can see even though this small business used the Crazy Domain’s free website builder tool, the performance being delivered was well below optimal, ranking just 2 out of 100 on mobile. The Google report doesn’t focus solely on loading speed and it provides a list of areas that need to be addressed to improve performance.
Another tool that is quite popular to check website performance is GTmetrix that can scan a website for free and then break down all the key areas into specific line items that can be addressed, it even provides a speed waterfall to show you what is loading when.
Why is website speed so important?
A lot of research has been done that shows the longer it takes for a site to become fully loaded and usable, the greater the probability the bounce rate increases. Google’s Mobile Page Speed Industry Benchmark report highlighted huge bounce rate increases for sites that take longer than 6 seconds to load.
So while the website builder tool you might be using has been provided for free, you could be sacrificing performance compared to paid options. That performance impact might be reducing the amount of people visiting your site & your Google search rankings.
So yet again, taking a free option can cost your business in other ways.
6. Can you upgrade a free website in the future?
Upgrading your free website will depend on where and how it was created.
If you decide to upgrade your free website it might be possible depending on the service provider you are using. Wix, Go Daddy, Crazy Domains and other companies might enable you to upgrade from a free to a paid plan that will have different options and choices to improve your site by unlocking functionality or tools.
The alternative that may also be available is to migrate to either a custom built site or site built using Joomla or WordPress that will give you more control and flexibility.
7. How do you work out if you website is working well?
Every website can provide lots of data and insights to measure its performance.
There are some critical things every business owner should know about their website that can help understand whether it is getting you the right traffic or even creating Customers for you. Just because your website is live and you can see it, that doesn’t mean people are finding it when they search online.
As of 2018 Internet Live Stats estimated there were 1.6 Billion live websites around the world and an AHREFS study uncovered that 90% of content gets no traffic from Google which is due to most people not even looking at the second or third page of general Google searches.
The world is increasingly becoming a competitive space for small businesses as Consumers can press a couple of buttons for services, products and information. Your brand, product or service may not even get found my anyone. Then, even if you do, whether the information that person can see will convert them into a Customer is another question completely.
So it may seem easy to choose a free website builder to get your business online but ultimately it could be a false economy that doesn’t deliver any tangible benefits without the right strategic marketing development.