I Built a Site with Squarespace, and I Liked It
In my work as a WordPress developer, Squarespace feels a bit like a gathering storm: something I’m dimly aware of, that may become a serious problem eventually—but hopefully not for a while.
I remember that feeling anytime I see an ad for Squarespace, which is anytime I turn my browser’s ad blocker off or stay near the TV for a commercial break. And I’ve felt most directly aware of Squarespace’s growing power during the past six months: it’s more and more common that I stumble across a gorgeously designed website, flip to the source, and see
<!-- This is Squarespace. --> near the top. I first experienced this with the website of my favorite musician, Brad Mehldau, about two years ago, and at an accelerating pace ever since.
At what Squarespace does (which is fairly narrow), it’s very, very good. Better than WordPress.
So I decided to see what all the fuss is about. I built a site in Squarespace, and guess what? At what it does (which is fairly narrow—more on that later), it’s very, very good. Better than WordPress.
In this article, I’ll walk you through my experience with Squarespace, give my own two cents on “WordPress vs. Squarespace” (tl:dr; both, for different things), and sketch out what I think the rise of Squarespace could mean for WordPress developers and the broader community.
As a note, I’m only talking about Squarespace here, not Wix or Weebly. Why? Well, I find both their names annoying, and I’ve also never seen a Wix or Weebly site I respected—whereas I’ve been seeing more and more beautiful Squarespace sites in the past few months. If you love either of those services way better than Squarespace, feel free to tell me in the comments below why my judgments are way off.
The Test Case: WordPress or Squarespace for My Meditation Business?
The video above is a screencast of my first 90 minutes building this Squarespace site. (Total time spent on the site is 3 hours.)
My passion in life is meditation, and I’ve wanted for a very long time to start a meditation coaching business. I have brand assets (badly built, by me), and I even started the raw beginnings of a WordPress site way back when. I thought I’d test Squarespace on this idea.
I wrote out a simple requirements document that captures what I think I’ll need this site to be able to do on launch. It reads as follows:
- Uses “ThriVe” logo
- Uses “ThriVe” colors and fonts?
- Explains ThriVe system
- PDF e-book for free, in exchange for MailChimp signup
- Appointment bookings
- Blog section
What I Got Done
Getting through the above list in Squarespace took me a total of 3 hours: the 90 minutes in the video, and another 90 minutes shortly after. The resulting test site (which is now expired) is at: https://fred-meyer-77mx.squarespace.com.
Since Squarespace free trials expire after 14 days, I’ve also taken a screenshot of the Squarespace site’s homepage, side-by-side with the WordPress site that I put perhaps three hours into as well:
The rest of this article will reflect on the experience of building a Squarespace site, and what I see as the implications for WordPress developers and the WordPress community.
Squarespace Vs. WordPress: The K’Nex Set and the Coloring Book
As a lapsed English major, I thought I’d first describe, in general terms, the experience of building a website in Squarespace—and how it compares to my day job building sites with WordPress.
Here goes: WordPress is like a K’Nex set, and Squarespace is like a coloring book.
WordPress: The K’Nex Set
A K’Nex set has hundreds of helpfully shaped pieces in a box, and you get to do whatever you want with them. You can do anything with K’Nex, but you have to know what you’re doing. This is the default for any web development framework, and it’s how WordPress feels to a developer.
WordPress has some very good pieces, such as the template hierarchy. These make simple sites very easy to create very quickly, just like it’s easy to create a simple K’Nex car if you’ve got a good set of those round cogs.
But there’s a very steep learning curve. Want to make a roller coaster that fills up your whole living room? You can, but you’ll have to plan it out yourself, bit by bit, and you’ll probably need to learn a fair amount of basic structural engineering. With K’Nex, you can do anything you want, but after the thrill of snapping together your first few pieces there’s nothing to really hold your hand.
So where K’Nex really shines is in an expert’s hands—someone who’s invested enough time to learn how to take that bag of building blocks and build it into, say, a working catapult that really can fling a potato through your kitchen window.
This is generally how WordPress development feels to a developer, and it’s quite different from how Squarespace feels.
Squarespace: The Coloring Book
Coloring books are really cool, and there’s even been a recent craze for adult coloring books. Part of their coolness is that they give you two things:
- Control, in the ways you want it.
- Enough structure that it feels like you have design superpowers.
With a coloring book, you get to decide what color the woman’s shirt on the Paris street will be, and whether it’s a blue or a gray day in Paris—so you feel in control, and the project feels like an expression of your creativity.
And at the end of the project, you also get to sit back and… good lord, you just drew a Paris street scene and it looks great! You could never do that on your own.
That’s exactly how Squarespace feels. It imposes very, very good design: a sensible 12-column responsive grid, gorgeous typography choices, and spacious layouts. There’s no one thing I don’t know how to do myself (“I could’ve drawn that skirt”), but the net effect is that you’re cradled in a beautifully and robustly designed environment that wants you to make good choices. All the lines are there, and it looks like Paris. If you want to mess that up by coloring the Eiffel Tower hot pink and scribbling over the man’s face with gold Crayon, you can—but if you take a bit of care and stay in the lines, your final product should end up looking nice.
More and more, I felt myself relinquishing control to the decisions Squarespace had made for me.
Just like a coloring book, working with Squarespace is relaxing. More and more, I felt myself relinquishing control to the decisions Squarespace had made for me—even things I wouldn’t be willing to let go on a WordPress site. Do I wish there was a duck on the pond rather than a swan? Whatever, the swan is probably prettier than a duck would be, and it’s definitely prettier than any duck I’d know how to draw. Let’s color the pond blue and the swan’s bill orange and move on. Am I a bit weirded out that most of my homepage content is actually in
h3 tags? Yes, but I don’t think it’s that big a deal for SEO, and it’s so fun building a website by hand on the front end that I don’t even feel like bothering to go into the style editor and fixing it. Do I want to use my own carefully sourced creative-commons images, or the gorgeous stock images I can get through Squarespace’s seamless integration with Getty’s image library? Whatever, the Getty ones are pretty. I guess I’ll figure out how much they cost later.
So if you’re looking for something simple and conventional (like a drawing of a city), and can find a “close-enough-to-that” page in the coloring book, then all that’s left is the coloring: a delightful mixture of using your own creativity, within the comforting structure of a lot of good decisions that are entirely out of your hands. This is the promise of Squarespace, and it’s how I felt when I was building my test site. I didn’t want to stop.
Some Specifics on Using Squarespace
Here are a few less impressionistic reflections on what Squarespace was like to use in this project.
Using Squarespace: Cheaper than WordPress.org
Almost any way you slice it, building and maintaining a Squarespace site is cheaper than building and maintaining a WordPress.org install.
Even if all you pay for is hosting, Squarespace’s lowest $12 and $18 monthly prices are only a bit more expensive than what you pay for decent shared hosting. Add in a premium theme and a few premium plugins, and WordPress is probably more expensive. Start adding in hours of a WordPress developer’s time, and WordPress is vastly more expensive.
Using Squarespace: Slick User Experience
Overall, Squarespace is a marvel of intuitive UI/UX design. The video shows me being very frustrated in several places—which I was—but those frustrations are nothing when you zoom out and see that I created a site that I think is gorgeous, with no prior formal training in Squarespace, in around 3 hours. I found workarounds to a lot of the frustrations in the video immediately after stopping the recording—because I wanted to keep playing around with the software, which is definitely not a given.
I love the way that dragging elements to resize them doesn’t let them take on arbitrary widths, but snaps them to different sizes within Squarespace’s 12-column grid. This does away with hideous draggable widths like “701.4px” and creates a beautiful mobile experience without the user even really having to think about it. I love the very good layout decisions my template makes: taking up the full width of the page if there are multiple elements side-by-side, or creating a narrower central column if there’s only one.
I love the front-end editing experience for page and post content. I’ve been yearning for front-end editing in WordPress for a good long while now: to me, “writing onto a webpage” and “writing in an MCE window” feel hugely different, the difference between exciting and subtly depressing. I drafted this article as a Squarespace blog post just to use the Squarespace front-end editor, even though it doesn’t have
h4 tags and its
code tagging system is more or less broken.
I love the image editor, too, which has beautiful rule-of-thirds cropping—although I am puzzled at what seems to be the lack of a media library. (Why? You’re storing the images anyway. Am I not looking where I should be?) And everything feels just a bit faster than the WordPress admin usually feels, which I guess is the nice thing about having a closed-source codebase that you can optimize—or maybe the nice thing about having the jillion-dollar company also be the host, or both things.
The integrations (contact forms, Google Maps, MailChimp, and even a booking service called Acuity Scheduling) are probably not very feature-rich—more on that below—but work beautifully and intuitively for simple cases like the site I worked on. I could start to see myself rubbing against their limitations, though: I can’t make Acuity Scheduling display in a font besides Arial (I despise Arial), nor can I style it because it’s an iframe embed; and I don’t think the MailChimp integration lets me do the “Give me your email and I’ll give you a PDF” thing I intended to do on the site; I’d probably have to send a link to the PDF on the MailChimp side, in a confirmation email. However, I still felt willing to make these small sacrifices for the overall convenience of a small suite of integrations that worked beautifully.
Working with a front-end page builder did at times have a familiar “hacky” feel.
As a developer who’s used to using code to say exactly what I mean, working with a front-end page builder did at times have a familiar “hacky” feel: putting spacer elements where I’d normally have coded a top margin, letting most of my text be
h3s because I like that a lot better than the default text styling, and so on. None of these concessions, though, really felt like they rose to the level of “fragile pile of garbage,” and my antennae for that are pretty sensitive.
Using Squarespace: Not Without Bugs
Squarespace’s drag-and-drop interface has some serious bugs.
Squarespace is not a completely polished experience. The most serious bugs all seem to be with its drag-and-drop interface:
- The most critical bug is that clicking and holding a draggable element, and then attempting to scroll up or down, leads to infinite scrolling. You can see this issue at 1:20:14 in the video. This bug is incredibly annoying and almost interface-breaking. The workaround is to ratchet up any element you want to move piece-by-piece, like climbing a mountain one handhold at a time.
- As with many drag-and-drop solutions (such as WordPress’s Customizer Menu view), it can take catlike reflexes to place elements where you want them, especially next to or below each other.
- There’s no undo for layout changes. Let’s say you’ve got a nicely formatted combination of text and images, and you accidentally drag-and-drop one image above the page title, causing it to balloon to 1500px wide and breaking every other layout on the page. You can’t undo that. I’ve never worked on a page builder before, but this seems like an enormous unforced error.
There are other quirks throughout. From time to time, I’d save changes (such as to the menu structure) that didn’t show up until one or two page loads later, creating a fair amount of confusion. And there’s an annoying issue where, say,
h2 elements seem to want to either become regular text or to turn the lines below them into
h2 elements in ways that I found difficult to predict.
Overall, using Squarespace was fun like few other experiences of creating on the web have been. I didn’t want to stop.
However, I never found a problem that stopped me permanently in my tracks. And overall, building with Squarespace was fun like few other experiences I’ve had creating on the web have been. I found myself investing more time into the sample site than I had actually intended to, just to see what else Squarespace was capable of.
Using Squarespace: The Bottom Line
If I ever do launch the business that the test site is based on, I’ll launch the first version of the site on Squarespace.
For me, the bottom line of using Squarespace is that I built an informational site for myself in 3 hours with no prior training that works great and looks much better than the site I would have built in 8 to 15 hours with WordPress—which, in turn, looks much better than any site I could ever design on my own.
I feel happy and comfortable to change layout and design, to manage content, and to continue to build the site from here. If I ever do launch the business that the test site is based on, I’ll launch the first version of the site on Squarespace without a shadow of a doubt.
WordPress and Squarespace: General Conclusions and Implications
Building a site with Squarespace was very thought-provoking. I came away with a lot of ideas about the likely future of website builders and CMSes, and how we in the WordPress community can best position ourselves for that future. Here are the main tracks I think are helpful to explore.
The People Want Good, Compatible Theme/Plugin/Page-Builder Combinations
I think my initial WordPress site didn’t get off the ground because I didn’t have a good front-end page builder.
Why didn’t my WordPress site get off the ground? Looking back on it, I think the main reason is because I didn’t have a good front-end page builder to speed up the process of creating the layouts I wanted.
Like many WordPress developers, I’ve hated page builders since they became a thing—mainly because the two market leaders, Visual Composer and Divi (which ships with a proprietary page builder), are probably at the root of more bad WordPress projects than any two other pieces of software.
But more recently, I’ve started to realize that I don’t hate page builders, I hate bad page builders. In fact, probably the biggest and most frequent place I get stuck in WordPress is: “Hmm, I want a specific layout for this page, but I don’t want to hardcode a bunch of complex layout elements”—which is the exact problem that page builders exist to solve. When I work with a good page builder, I can see just how much I’ve been missing. A few recent WordPress client projects (in which I made light use of Beaver Builder) helped me realize this, and working with Squarespace’s page builder has felt like a bolt of truth.
So why are so many WordPress page builders so bad? Well, let’s compare Squarespace and WordPress in terms of their software ecosystems.
Comparing the Squarespace and WordPress Ecosystems
- A small, carefully curated and maintained collection of beautifully designed templates.
- A small, carefully curated and maintained collection of third-party integrations, all of which are compatible with every theme and with each other.
- A feature-rich, carefully designed page builder that is the main UI for every Squarespace site, which has a small number of carefully designed layout modules (such as “image” and “quote”), and which is fully compatible with every Squarespace template and every integration.
- A vast landscape of free and commercial themes that vary enormously in quality.
- A vast landscape of free and paid plugins that vary enormously in quality. Many are redundant (there are dozens of form plugins, three or four of which are better than all the others for virtually any use case), and a given plugin may be incompatible both with a given theme and with other plugins.
- A vast landscape of free and paid page builders that vary enormously in quality. Page builders may be handled either as theme features or as independent plugins. Many were built in a spirit of commercial expediency and reflect no serious thought about code quality or compatibility. A given page builder (even a well-built one) might be incompatible both with a site’s theme and with many of its plugins.
For the most part, as a result, page builders just work on Squarespace, and they just might work on WordPress. And “work” is relative: the Squarespace page builder is precisely at home in every one of its templates, working seamlessly to help you make smart layout decisions. A WordPress page builder plugin, because it doesn’t know anything about the theme it’s inside (including even the most basic things about the structure of its templates) or the other plugins that are running, can “drop in” and help create nice layouts, but the level of integration simply isn’t there.
What can WordPress do about this? I think I know the answer (or an answer), but I don’t know if it’s realistic.
What Bringing the Advantages of Squarespace into WordPress Would Require
To stay relevant for small informational sites, I believe WordPress needs a tight ecosystem of compatible themes and plugins, all of which are also compatible with a single page builder.
If WordPress wants to stay relevant for small (less than $2,000) websites, I think it will need a very aggressive effort to create a body of inter-compatible themes and plugins that WordPress users can choose among, all of which are also compatible with a single, fully-featured page builder.
Because of the high demand for a page builder plugin that actually integrates well with your WordPress theme, the free market keeps churning up versions of this solution: hundreds of ThemeForest themes that bundle with Visual Composer; Divi, which is basically a theme framework with its own integrated page builder; and so on. Again, because of the high demand, these solutions are generally the largest economic entities in WordPress software—but they’re also the worst entities in WordPress software, because they were built by organizations who put the immediate wants of the marketplace ahead of any longer-term concerns about quality, compatibility, or coherence.
What is needed instead is a thoughtful, organized project to create a theme/plugin/page-builder ecosystem. The project would include steps like:
- Curating a body of WordPress themes that are compatibly coded using sensible conventions. For example, each theme’s page titles would be
h1s with class
post_title, each theme’s footer section would be a
footerelement with class
site_footer, all themes would use the same 12-column grid, and so on.
- Articulating a “We use this” version for the handful of most common plugin needs: MailChimp for WordPress (for mailing lists), Gravity Forms (for contact forms and surveys), WP Google Maps (for Google Maps integrations), Modern Tribe (for events listings), WooCommerce (for e-commerce), and so on. All themes in the project—and the project’s page builder—would be deeply and specifically compatible with each of these plugins. For example, each theme would have a beautiful default layout, marked up similarly, for a Gravity Forms contact form plus a Google Maps map. Other WordPress plugins (either for these functions or other ones) could be brought into the system, but no special guarantee of compatibility would be made.
- All themes would use a single front-end page builder, which would be (as on Squarespace) the primary way of making content and layout changes. The page builder would be purpose-built to “expect” the conventions that all in-ecosystem themes abide by, such as the
site_footerclass names, as well as to integrate deeply and specifically with all in-ecosystem plugins.
I’m aware of the community dynamics that make this difficult. Automattic caught some heat recently for making WordPress.com themes available to WordPress.org users, which is the type of consolidating move that would be needed for Automattic itself to create the centralized theme/plugin/page builder environment I’m imagining. I do understand the reason for the controversy, as well, which is (broadly) the concern that Jetpack is using its market position to slowly crowd out other participants in the theme and plugin marketplaces.
If those dynamics prove impossible to navigate, then maybe a community can grow up around one of the more thoughtful page builders: Beaver Builder in particular seems to be attracting an enthusiastic community of WordPress developers who care about quality. It would take an amazing amount of vision and focus for a community like this to succeed in creating a mini-ecosystem whose user experience could rival a hosted solution like Squarespace, but the rewards would be astronomical.
There’s also always the status quo, which is that Squarespace and hosted website builders like it continue to loom larger and larger over WordPress. That seems like the most likely outcome to me, so I’ll briefly reflect on what I think that means for my own career.
On Being a WordPress Developer in a Squarespace-is-Pretty-Good World
Squarespace should be largely good news for WordPress developers, who can add it to our toolkit without being replaced by it.
If you’re a professional WordPress developer who focuses on small-and-medium-sized projects for individuals and small businesses, then Squarespace’s rapid improvement shouldn’t scare you any more than internet-capable computers scared travel agencies and phone book companies.
Ha! That’s a little joke at my own expense.
In all seriousness, there’s plenty of scope left to be a WordPress developer, but you have to do two things:
- Be willing to recommend Squarespace when it’s the best solution.
- Be a WordPress developer.
I’ll take these one at a time.
Be Willing to Use the Right Tool for the Job
When isn’t Squarespace the right solution? Very often, because so many projects require custom development.
If you work as a WordPress developer and are dimly aware that Squarespace is better for some client needs—but you continue to offer WordPress to all comers—you’re putting out an inferior product. That sounds shaky and not fun, and it’s not the kind of work I want to do. So I’m committed to offering my clients Squarespace when it’s the right solution, and WordPress when it isn’t.
When isn’t Squarespace the right solution? A whole lot of the time—in fact, probably most of the time—because so many projects require custom development.
Here are some client needs from my most recent few WordPress projects, all of which I’m pretty sure are impossible in Squarespace, and probably always will be:
- Create a custom donation form for adoptable animals, with the resulting list of donors and their donation amounts outputted into the sidebar of that animal’s page.
- Create a five-part custom product submission form for a multivendor marketplace.
- Create a “Produce Calendar” that lists—based on comparing the current month and date with product metadata—which specific fruits and vegetables are in season at a farmer’s market.
- Extend an “issue” (as in “the March Issue”) plugin for an online journal, so that the site owners could choose custom layouts per category for each issue they published.
In other words, anything that’s slightly out-of-the-ordinary gets into WordPress territory very quickly. Squarespace itself owns the servers the code is on, so it’s hard to imagine the “go ahead and break literally anything” attitude of WordPress.org taking hold there. In other words, it’s hard to imagine Squarespace ever hosting unconstrained, freewheeling development like all four clients above needed.
Squarespace is Likely to Squeeze WordPress Implementers Hard in the Coming Years
Squarespace is much more threatening to WordPress professionals who can’t touch code.
A key word in the preceding paragraph is development. For each of the client needs I described above, I had to think hard about the client’s need and map out a path to a solution—and in each case, I had to touch quite a bit of code to get there.
The ability to touch and produce code is one major distinction between “WordPress developer” and “WordPress implementer”: between people who can, and who can’t, make WordPress do new things. In my opinion, the foreseeable future holds plenty of work, relatively speaking, for WordPress developers; the real squeeze in the next five years will be on people who are professional WordPress implementers.
In other words, if you create WordPress sites using technologies that help you avoid learning how to code, two things are becoming true very quickly:
- Squarespace is better than WordPress for that.
- Site owners don’t need to hire anyone for that.
As a cheerful plug, everything we do on WPShout is to help people transition from implementer to developer in WordPress—and we’ve also created a very thorough guide to WordPress development called Up and Running that lots of people have found really helpful, and that is now in its second edition. Please have a look if you’re thinking about making the switch.
Does the World Need Professional Squarespace Implementers?
For clients who are best-suited for Squarespace, I intend to start offering my own services as a Squarespace implementer.
So the best solution for some people’s needs is a Squarespace site. Can we, and should we, get paid for creating those sites—in other words, for working as Squarespace implementers? I think the answer is a qualified “Sure!”
In fact, for clients who are best-suited for Squarespace—who have a budget of $1,000 or $2,000 and need an informational site with no unusual functionality—I intend to start immediately offering my own services as a Squarespace implementer.
You don’t need to hire anyone to build your own Squarespace site, but a knowledgeable developer can surely save you time and get you a better result. Even on the test site I just created, I made good use of my CSS knowledge, and my background as a web developer came in handy in numerous places throughout the project. For example, I finally realized (although probably too late for people who get frustrated watching my confusion in the video), that an even five-column layout is impossible because the Squarespace site is using a twelve-column grid. I’d still be confused about that if I didn’t know how to use Chrome’s Inspect Element, and also understand the premise of twelve-column grids.
You don’t need paid help with a Squarespace site, but a good implementer can save you time and get you a better result, and that’s worth money.
So for a developer, offering to handle the implementation of a Squarespace site can still be the kind of thing that saves busy non-technical people 10, 20, or 30 hours, and there’s an awful lot of value in that.
To be able to tell a customer: “Other people have told you this project will be WordPress and $2,000, but I can do it for $1,500 in Squarespace, finish by the end of the week, and it will be beautiful and easy to manage”—while making sure that the client knows that any future additional features will probably necessitate moving from Squarespace to WordPress (which you can also help with!)—feels like a very easy and very honest value proposition, and should leave you with a grateful client at the end of the day.
Remember: clients don’t care at all about the technology choises you make. If you can get them a gorgeous site for no fuss, many people will be happy to pay, until such time as there’s no value in hiring an implementer because the tools are so easy to use that expertise doesn’t count for anything. Fortunately or unfortunately, that day is a while off.
Make Sure to Stay Expensive
As the simplest projects move to Squarespace from WordPress, the usual warnings about very-small-budget sites and clients apply.
My only hesitation here is to avoid racing to the bottom. Many people who wish to create very small sites are also fairly confused strategically, have unrealistic expectations, are extremely budget-constrained, and have other issues. So as more of the smallest projects move to Squarespace from WordPress in the next few years, the same warnings about very-small-budget sites and clients will apply.
As a related point, make sure you keep your hourly rate up. If I were a busy lawyer, I’d gladly pay $750 or even $1,500 for a beautiful (Squarespace) website if paying the money meant that I didn’t have to sacrifice four straight weekends to learn the system myself. Even if that ends up only taking five hours of a Squarespace implementer’s time, I’m still happy—meaning, in sum, that I’m happy paying $150 or even $300 per hour as long as the work is good. If you want to work as a Squarespace implementer, bill accordingly.
I, for one, welcome Squarespace. It does a fairly tightly defined thing, but at the moment, in my opinion, it does that thing quite a bit better than WordPress.
More generally, it’s hard to be mad at a solution whose smart UI decisions, gorgeous design, and overall ease of use got me genuinely excited to build websites—despite that being my day job—and rarely left me feeling frustrated for long despite my strong acquired habit to get into the code and tell page builders exactly what I mean.
I really hope WordPress can create an experience on par with Squarespace for simple informational sites, but that would require quite a bit of will within the community to carve out a “Zone of Compatibility” in which a defined set of themes, plugins, and a page builder could flourish. In the meanwhile, if you’re a WordPress implementer, I’d suggest taking a hard look either at WordPress development, or at Squarespace implementorship. WordPress implementorship surely still has a place (since even if you don’t know code, there are so many things WordPress can do that Squarespace can’t), but I believe that that place will dwindle pretty quickly for small informational sites with no unique feature needs.
Thanks for reading!
Image credit: Chris Barnes, Maxime De Ruyck