Why You Should Consider a Fully Hosted Website

I recently wrote about the importance of choosing the right web designer for your project, and today’s topic is the flipside of that coin: making sure you choose the best website platform for your needs. A lot of clients tend to get overwhelmed with all the options out there and tend to simply go with what they are most familiar with – which can be an enormously expensive mistake. Since your website is the heart of your online business, choosing the wrong platform is going to affect almost all of your day to day operations: from how long it takes you to make small changes like adding a blogpost or updating product information, to the bigger stuff like how expensive it is to integrate a new marketing feature to your website or give it a design refresh. For creative entrepreneurs and small businesses, many of whom can’t afford a dedicated website manager, the wrong platform can cost them thousands of dollars in wasted time alone.

With hundreds of options out there, I’m not even going to try to go into the pros and cons of each one individually. Instead, we’re going to focus on two key categories of website builders: self- and fully-hosted.

What's the difference between self and fully hosted websites?

Fully-hosted sites are usually built using a website building interface that does not require any coding knowledge. You generally choose a template for the design of your site, add your text and images, and then all your website information is stored on the website builder's servers (i.e. they "host" your content for you). There are many options out there but two of my preferred options for client websites include Squarespace and Shopify.

Self-hosted websites on the other hand will also have their own website building interfaces, however before you even start on this you will first need to purchase a domain name and website hosting from a hosting company like Dreamhost. You then install your chosen CMS (Content Management System; i.e. the website builder) and after that you will likely need a developer to build your site exactly the way you want it (most developers will also assist with the hosting setup if needed, so don’t worry if that part already sounds like too much to handle).

Self-hosted CMSs include website builders like Wordpress (although to make matter confusing they also offer a fully-hosted option as well!), as well as dedicated ecommerce solutions like Magento and Prestashop.

The differences between the two may not seem that important but they have a huge impact on the building and maintenance costs of your website, as we will soon see.

Self Hosting: Pros and Cons

Self-hosted solutions are regularly recommended by web developers to many of their clients. In fact, within the larger web design community there is still some snobbery towards fully-hosted options – this is due to the fact that self-hosting is often perceived as the more ‘professional’ route to take. Although you can go DIY and use a template for your self-hosted website, you can also create a fully customized website that is unique to you – there are basically zero limits when it comes to the design and functionality of your site.

However, if you're not familiar with code, the changes you can make to the site are generally limited to adding text and images. This is the caveat of self-hosted sites: unless you have the skills and knowledge to code on screen everything you wish to have on your website, you will probably have to hire a web developer. This can be a significant cost, especially for smaller businesses and those just starting out. Not only this, but for future edits and changes to your site, you will need to have someone versed in coding on hand; the ever-evolving nature of the web means that updates will be needed at least once a year to keep your site functioning properly.

Full Hosting: Pros and Cons

When it comes to creating or editing your fully-hosted website, this is where we can see the biggest advantages over self-hosted options. With fully-hosted websites, you can usually be signed up and setting up your website within an hour, all by yourself. There is no need for a web developer as most fully-hosted website builders utilise the ‘drag and drop’ school of design – you choose a template which has dummy content pre-installed when you begin, so you can just replace the content with your own, add and delete pages, and customise your colors and fonts. However there are limits to the functionality your website can have; so you always need to research thoroughly before deciding which service you use for fully-hosting your site.

Fully-hosted sites also have many advantages when it comes to upkeep and maintenance. If any problems begin to develop on your site, there is generally an easily accessible and on demand technical support or helpdesk (this is part of the reason there is a monthly fee for most fully-hosted options) which can help you with any questions you may need answered. Fully-hosted sites are generally kept updated when newer versions of themes are released, meaning the user has no need or responsibility to keep everything up to date and compatible with the latest browser standards – this is already done for them.

Still not sure which option is right for you? I’ve set up both options for clients in the past, so can share examples of how both sides this decision can work out in real life.

Case Study: Self vs. Fully Hosted Website

A case study which comes straight from my own client list can highlight the real cost difference between the two options. A couple of years ago, two of my clients needed to create online stores; one decided upon a self-hosted option (we'll call them Client A) so they could avoid the higher fixed monthly fees of fully-hosted options, and have more control over the design of the store and site. The other (Client B) decided on a fully-hosted store to minimize their website maintenance time and for the assurance of a 24-hour helpline.

Client B was set up with a fully-hosted Shopify store, costing $29 / month or approximately $350 for their website for a year. Because all the functionality was pre-built for us, all I had to do was customize their theme slightly to give their store a professional, unique appearance. This meant that the time needed to setup their website was significantly less than with a fully-hosted option so Client B could start selling faster and did not need to pay as much for their website to begin with. Although they never had to make use of Shopify's 24-hour support team in the end, they were reassured by the sense of security that came with the fully-hosted option.

Client A decided on a different path, however. They wanted full control over every aspect of the design and implementation of their shop and site and were not on such a limited budget. Because of the larger size of Client A's business and more complex website needs I agreed that self-hosting was probably the better option for them. The breakdown of costs works out differently with self-hosting, since there is no ‘package’ as with fully-hosted options. There are annual fees, such as an SSL (internet security) certificate, which costs approximately $50, and faster than average hosting (recommended for a larger online store) which costs around $200.

Although we are not including setup costs in our comparison of self vs. fully hosted websites, it should be noted that Client A paid almost three times more for their website upfront, since I had to do a lot more work to setup and code their website. But what we really want to examine is the difference in costs over the first year, after setup. Currently it seems obvious: Client A may have paid more upfront, but when you compare their hosting and SSL fees ($200) with Client B's ($350) it's clear that long term, Client B is paying more, right?

Wrong. You see while Client B had all their updates managed by Shopify's system, Client A required developer assistance each time an update or design change to the site was required. Because the store was so complex, these were extremely time consuming tasks, requiring a few hours of store downtime each time; and their developer costs over the first year easily came to $800. So, although fully-hosted sites seem more expensive in theory, in practice the hidden extra costs of developing and maintaining a self-hosted site can far outweigh the benefits for a small business. For larger businesses with complex web design needs I would still recommend self-hosting, as it is frequently the only option if a specific type of functionality is required that is not available in a fully-hosted option.

However, for a lot of my small business customers, like Client B, I would recommend fully-hosted websites and online stores. My own experience has shown that these clients save both time and money with this option, allowing them to focus on growing their businesses instead of managing their websites. And I believe that a website is that is actually going to serve my clients needs is far more important than selling a $10,000 dollar custom website to them.