WordPress or Squarespace? How to pick which platform is best for you
A question that comes up regularly in my world of digital marketing and design is: WordPress or Squarespace—What's the difference and which one is right for me and my project?
This is a great question to ask. I’ve seen people chose the wrong platform for the wrong reasons or more often because they didn’t understand what they were getting into. Writing, designing, building, and managing a website can be challenging enough as it is, but doubly so if you’re trying to do those things on a platform that’s not matched to your goals and workstyle.
I spent many years developing on WordPress (and basic HTML and Dreamweaver before that). Now, for the past four years, I’ve been almost exclusively on Squarespace. I’ve been deep in the trenches on both sides, and I’m not going to pit one against the other because I think WordPress and Squarespace are equally great. But it’s important to understand the distinctions between them so you can make an informed decision about which platform to go with and feel confident it’s the right choice.
There are a number of aspects of the two platforms that I could go into, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on three:
the business model
security, back-ups, and maintenance
(Side note: Squarespace is one of several all-in-one, or drag-and-drop, website builders. Others in this category include Weebly and Wix. This article focuses on Squarespace because that’s the one I know and, in my opinion, best in class of website builders. However, most everything I cover in this article as it pertains to Squarespace is applicable to other similar all-in-one solutions.)
Built by many vs. few
The business models for WordPress and Squarespace are fundamentally different. This is important to understand because their models affect everything about how they work and your experience working on them.
How it works in WordPress
WordPress is built by an open-source community of developers from around the world. Some developers have built a specific theme or plugin for a client project after which they contribute to the open-source community for anyone to use or they’ll their work through a WordPress marketplace. Other developers and companies focus exclusively on creating premium themes and plugins for which they’ll offer continual updates and support. These you have to pay for.
The key word to remember is “open source” which means anybody can contribute to the WordPress ecosystem.
How it works in Squarespace
Squarespace, on the other hand, is a private company using a software-as-a-service (SAAS) model which means you pay a subscription fee which includes hosting your website, security maintenance, backups, and ongoing software and feature updates. Whereas, WordPress is open source, Squarespace is proprietary, a closed environment. Everything that’s offered through the Squarespace platform has been created by developers employed by Squarespace.
How it works in WordPress
Now let’s talk about themes and plugins, the interface and functionality of the two platforms. Because of WordPress’s open source nature, anybody can develop anything for WordPress. There are tens of thousands of themes and more than 50,000 plugins available to you. (And if among all that you can’t find the ones you want, you can hire a developer to create an entirely new theme for you and your own custom plugins.)
Given the sheer number of options, you can imagine the quality of themes and plugins range from really awesome with good documentation and ongoing support to really awful chunks of junk.
The trick is to know how to sort the good from the bad. To know what you’re looking for, to know which one of the hundreds of plugins that allow you to put an events calendar on your website will work the best with the theme you’ve selected. And because the theme and plugins you select may be created by different developers, there’s no guarantee they’ll all play nicely together. Because of these challenges, I highly recommend you invest in a premium theme and plugins offered by the same company or developer. To find the best of the best of what’s out there, simply google “best WordPress themes (current year)” and among all the listicles, you’ll see the same few mentioned frequently.
How it works in Squarespace
In Squarespace lingo, themes and plugins are called templates and content blocks. Because of Squarespace’s proprietary nature, there are far fewer templates, roughly 20-ish template families (a template family means there are some variations but they all share the same underlying structure). There are around 40-50 content blocks that come pre-installed with all the templates.
Even though it can still be a bit of a rabbit hole selecting a template in Squarespace, you are guaranteed whichever one you choose, your template and content blocks are of the same quality and compatible with each other.
Security, backups and maintenance
One of the most important and most overlooked aspects of a website project is what happens after launch. How will you ensure the site is protected from hacks and breaches? Are all the content and files being regularly backed up? Who’s in charge of making sure that the site’s underlying software is being updated so as to remain secure and compatible with ever-evolving browsers and devices? This is the less glamorous side of websites yet critical to its viability and usefulness over time.
How it works in WordPress
Let’s start with security. What often happens with WordPress sites, is people keep installing plugins—all built by different developers—and the site ends up with a lot of bloat and vulnerability. It’s like a 10-person company operating from the ground floor of a 50-story building. Who’s checking there are no squatters on the other 49 floors? Do you have guards stationed around the perimeter? If you have a breach, who’s going to fix it? If you’re unable to fix it yourself, you’ll need to hire someone who can.
How it works in Squarespace
For Squarespace, the company is responsible for ensuring the platform is secure and there are no points of potential breaches. Because the templates and content blocks are designed as a cohesive system, the risk of errant code that creates security holes is minimized. Even so, if there happens to be a security breach, it’s on Squarespace to fix the problem.
Now let’s talk updates. For both WordPress and Squarespace, the underlying programming language that runs both systems is constantly being updated. It has to because browsers and devices and major third-party applications that integrate with websites are ever evolving.
With WordPress unless your web host runs automatic updates (many don’t but the good ones will) you’ll have to manually ensure that the updates to your specific installation happen. Then you’ll also need to make sure your theme and plugins still work properly with the updated software. These may require updates as well if the developers who created them are still maintaining them. Or it may mean you’ll need to fix errors that crop up because of incompatibility between the WordPress software and any themes or plugins you’re using. This is why I strongly recommend you purchase premium themes and plugins from reputable providers because, with every new WordPress version release, they’ll provide any related necessary updates to the themes or plugins they’ve created.
For Squarespace, all the updates happen automatically across the infrastructure. There’s really nothing you need to do.
Ultimately between security and updates, it comes down to who’s responsible. With WordPress, you are. With Squarespace, they are.
The costs of upkeep
Security and updates lead us to consider the cost over time for website maintenance. Ongoing support of your site will require some level of attention and investment. For WordPress, this investment is generally higher because so often tasks like bug fixes, updates, and feature upgrades require professional technical expertise that you may need to hire out or make time to do them yourself.
Outside of professional assistance with content, maintenance costs for a Squarespace site are relatively low and predictable, normally no more than the monthly subscription fee, because Squarespace handles the majority of maintenance tasks.
Convenience vs. Control
Ultimately the distinctions between WordPress and Squarespace comes down to convenience and control. With WordPress, you have far more control over everything. This is great if you have ready access to the expertise and resources that will prevent the responsibility of having a viable WordPress site from feeling burdensome. If you don’t, then this level of responsibility may feel inconvenient. On the flipside, Squarespace gives you lots of convenience but in exchange, you give up some of the control (and responsibility).
Think of it like this: Wordpress is like buying a mobile home. You can park it anywhere; the location is up to you. As with any house, it can be clean or it can be cluttered. You may not need to hire an architect and build the whole thing from scratch, but you’ll be responsible for the setup, the infrastructure, and the long-term maintenance of the property.
Think of Squarespace like renting a townhome or owning a townhouse as part of a homeowners association. You have full control over interior design, furnishings and exterior style. You even get nice options for the appliances, but you leave the plumbing, wiring, building structure, and security to the property owner.
If you have specific functional requirements like managing an online member community or dynamically presenting data and you have the budget for technical and design assistance (or those skills in-house), then WordPress will be a good fit for you.
If you simply want to present information and do standard things like having a blog, have a way for people to sign up to your email list or book a call, host a calendar of events or sell things online, and you prefer convenience and ease more than you care about having total control, Squarespace will be a great fit for you.
Once you understand the distinctions between WordPress and Squarespace, you’ll be able to match your needs to the platform that can best meet them. When your objectives and resources are aligned to the technology you’re using, publishing content to your website or making other necessary website changes will feel less arduous and frustrating. You’ll feel confident knowing how things work and you’ll experience a greater degree of success with your website creation and management.