Page builders - the good, the bad and the ugly

Lots of web designers out there use page builders, particularly at the budget end of the market. So what is a page builder and why do we at RB7 avoid them like the plague?

The backstory

In the early days of the worldwide web there were huge technical limits on what could be achieved - web browsers (remember Netscape Navigator?) just weren’t sophisticated enough to go beyond the bare essentials. To make a website look pretty took a good working knowledge of the dark arts and truly beautiful websites were a rarity.

Having said that, learning basic web design wasn’t that difficult. There were only two languages to learn (HTML and, a bit later, CSS) and so a quick course at your local village hall might have been enough to get you designing a functional (if basic) website.

In the last 30 years or so, websites have changed dramatically. Most of the technical limits have been lifted and you can know build pretty much any sort of web design you can dream up. The flipside to this newfound flexibility is that to build anything beyond a basic website from scratch takes a lot of time and technical knowhow. Because of these new complexities, it’s now almost unheard of for anyone to go back completely to first prinicples; instead, we rely on off-the-shelf starter packs of computer code to stop us having to reinvent the wheel and to accelerate the development process. Starting with these building blocks, we then add our own design elements and code to tailor the website for the individual project.

Mostly, these off-the-shelf tools are a very good thing. They not only save time and effort but also usually produce higher quality code - after all, code used and scrutinised by hundreds if not thousands of developers is much more likely to be robust and secure.

WordPress is perhaps the best known example of a great tool to simplify web design and make it more accessible. We use it ourselves on the majority of our client websites. Getting the most of out WordPress still requires a great deal of skill, experience and technical knowhow but, if you have an eye for design, it is possible once again to build yourself a simple, serviceable website with time and motivation.

So what’s a page builder?

WordPress in its purest form already allows you to do simple things such as aligning text on the page, centering images, adding columns and so on. Page builders take things a step further by adding a “drag and drop” style interface to the design of your website, with much more complex design elements. You want a rotating group of images on your page? Just find the Carousel widget and drag it into place. How about a wavy line to separate two sections? Again, find the wavy line widget and drag that where you want it.

Sounds like a good thing, right? Well, yes and no.

Firstly, there are so many options that it can be bewildering. Every choice is met with another set of subchoices and every little parameter can be tweaked. How curvy should that wavy line be? How thick? What colour? What gradient? Sometimes finding the setting you’re after can prove more frustrating than assembling flat pack furniture.

Secondly - and this is a big one for us - there is very little control over what someone with editing rights can do to your site. When we design a website for you, we spend a lot of time working out which fonts to use, how things should be spaced, which colours match your corporate brand identity, how to make sure that every news article has consistent presentation, and so on. We then bake those decisions into the design of your website so you can be sure that, when you’re adding a new article, it will blend perfectly with the look and feel of the site as a whole and your brand. With a page builder, that goes out of the window. If your office manager wants to exercise their, ahem, “creative talent” by using Comic Sans in a pink flashing box, there’s nothing to stop them. Without some serious discipline and oversight, you could quickly find that your carefully curated website starts to look like a child has been let loose on it with a box of crayons.

Thirdly, sometimes the way that page builders present your content when editing it can be wilfully obstructive. One popular page builder presents your content as Russian dolls of boxes: a text box within a column box within a columns box within a section box… and so on. To see what’s in that text box you have to click on it to open it. It’s just so much more clunky than the pure WordPress way.

Fourthly, page builder sites take more maintenance. Most websites use maybe a tenth of the available featuers of the page builder, meaning that the computer code behind the scenes runs to hundreds if not thousands of files. Inevitably, that means more security updates and more major changes as the months roll by. With every change comes the risk that your website will break in some way and will need fixing. And let’s not forget the annual fees that are due to keep your page builder licensed and eligible for those updates.

We could keep going but here’s one final downside for consideration: page builders slow your site down. The extra code that’s generated by a page builder means that web pages take longer to load. Waiting for a page to load is not only bad for your customers, it’s also particularly bad news for search engines. Google is very open about the fact that faster websites get higher priority when showing search results.

If that’s the case, why does anyone use page builders?

It all comes down to convenience and speed. There’s no doubt that building a brand new website with a page builder is quicker for your web designer. This speed translates into less work for them and, hopefully, lower initial cost for you. It may also enable them to introduce features that they wouldn’t otherwise have the time or skill to create themselves.

There is probably a place in some cases for knocking out a quick website with a page builder, but that’s not really the space we operate in at RB7 Design. We believe in building a carefully constructed website that delights clients and their customers without adding unnecessary complexity or bloat.

If you’re looking for a website with craftsmanship at its core, please get in touch.