WordPress or Squarespace: the pros & cons of each

Updated in 2016 Recently clients & enquirers have been asking about which platform is better - WordPress or Squarespace - so I thought it might be helpful to post a comparison here. This is based on my own experience in using, designing for and administering websites and blogs on both platforms: your mileage may vary. But here's how I see it...

NOTE: All comparisons and info below relate to Wordpress.org, which is the installed version that you download and install on your own hosting. I am not including Wordpress.com in this comparison, which is the hosted version of WordPress that you sign up / subscribe to. This comparison is for professionals and small businesses, and I don't feel that WordPress.com is the right choice for this purpose.

Similarities between WordPress & Squarespace

There are a number of similar characteristics and functions of the two products; here's a few of the most relevant ones. Both:

  • Can be used for creating and managing blogs or a variety of different types of website
  • Are cost-effective, starting at a few pounds per month for hosting/subscription
  • Allow you to use your own domain name (instead of something like http://yourdomain.wordpress.com )
  • Allow non-technical people to update the website text/content without much training
  • Offer a lot of visual design flexibility, in which an experienced designer/developer (like me) can create polished, professional websites quickly ; however, there are some design limitations with both systems
  • Use template-based designs that can be easily changed, customised or tweaked in future without affecting the content
  • Have a number of search-engine-friendly elements built into the way the pages/sites are structured
  • Offer the ability to have multiple authors/editors with different levels of editing permission
  • Have the capability to use/embed video or other media within the site
  • Have their own quirks - things that don't quite make sense - but are easily worked around once you figure it out

So what are the main differences?

About Squarespace

Squarespace is a full-featured hosted content management system (CMS) designed for websites and blogs.  Users pay a monthly subscription fee to Squarespace in return for hosting the site and access to the content management system. You don't download anything and you don't need to find hosting: as soon as you sign up online, you can get started working on your site.

Squarespace Pros:

  • The subscription fee includes full technical support from Squarespace. Response times have been quick in the past: anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
  • Cost effective: the lower level subscription rates are comparable to the cost of standard web hosting, with a lot more included.
  • Very intuitive content management system: much more user-friendly than WordPress or most others (at least for non-technical people). It is clear that Squarespace developers focus a lot on usability.
  • Offers scope for additional functionality (eg e-commerce, custom forms, private client pages) through built-in features & modules that are easy to set up, usually even by non-technical people. These modules are supported by Squarespace’s tech support in case of any problems.
  • Basic website statistics are built-in, and conveniently accessed through the same login used for editing the site.
  • You get a free domain name with an annual subscription, and you can connect this to Google Apps (directly through Squarespace) to easily get branded email, too.
  • Squarespace is integrated with Getty Images, so you can easily and cheaply license professional stock photos to use on your website, without ever needing to leave your website management interface.
  • Squarespace has fully integrated e-commerce, so you can set up your website to sell products/services or take donations all in the same place as where you manage your website content.
  • All the infrastructure is managed by Squarespace. This means future product upgrades are applied automatically by Squarespace, so you don’t need to install anything or worry about whether you are using the latest version (you always are).
  • Everything's in one place: if something goes wrong, you know it's Squarespace. With WordPress, you sometimes can't easily tell whether it's a WordPress problem or a problem with your hosting provider, making troubleshooting take longer.
  • Because the code is privately controlled by Squarespace, and because your site is running on their servers, you don't have to worry about hacking or security threats like you would with WordPress.

Squarespace Cons:

  • As a fully-hosted solution, you cannot shop around for better hosting deals: you are tied in to Squarespace’s hosting and prices.
  • Some added features are only available through higher monthly fee subscription packages.
  • Some features cannot be easily customised without a designer/developer’s help (custom coding).
  • Squarespace templates take a 'blank canvas' approach, which means you may need a designer or a good design eye & some online tutorials (or my Squarespace book) to make the site look the way you want it to look.
  • The statistics that come built into Squarespace are not as detailed as those from Google Analytics or other web analytics tools (note: you can install Google Analytics or other on Squarespace).
  • Squarespace is not a huge company with thousands of developers (though it is growing fast!), so product improvements and enhancements are not released as often as with certain bigger CMS products, nor as often as new plugins for WordPress become available.
  • Some of the newer Squarespace functions such as the e-Commerce element are not as mature or flexible as some of the other players in the market (such as the WordPress Woo Commerce plugin, or the Shopify platform).

About WordPress

WordPress is an open source blogging platform that can be adapted for use as both a standard website CMS and/or blog.  You need a suitable hosting provider and a downloaded version of WordPress to get started. Once this is installed, you login to your WordPress admin panel to work on the site.

WordPress Pros:

  • WordPress is available free of charge, without having to pay a license fee or subscription, so the only cost related to purchase is the cost of web hosting. This means you can shop around for the best hosting deal, or move hosts in future should you choose to.
  • WordPress is one of the world’s most-used and well-supported blog CMS platforms; it has an active support community and a development roadmap, with frequent upgrades that constantly improve functionality and security. Out of all the open source blog CMS platforms, it's the one I recommend most.
  • A huge range of 3rd party plugins is available to expand the functionality of WordPress. The variety of plugins available is far greater than the variety of modules available for expanding Squarespace. Plugins are available for nearly anything you could want to do on a standard website.
  • A huge range of 3rd party design templates (called 'themes') is available, with colours and other graphical elements baked right in. The cost of themes ranges from free to $100. Some premium themes also include bundled plugins for added functionality.
  • The fact that WordPress is open source (rather than commercial) appeals to some clients from an ethical perspective. This means that you are free to use the product without many restrictions of commercial software, and are supporting the open source ideology.

WordPress Cons:

  • The fact that it is open source (rather than commercial) is a barrier/turn-off to some clients. They want the assurances that come with a commercial organisation developing and taking responsibility for the product. They want to be able to hold someone accountable, and be able to contact someone whose job it is to respond, in case of any problem.
  • Because it is open source, anyone can have access to the code... and because it's also one of the world's most popular platforms, there are lots of unscrupulous hackers out there wreaking havoc on WordPress websites. You'll definitely have to take security measures if you choose Wordpress. Some of these can cost money - and even the free ones can take time to configure.
  • Although WordPress is a popular platform, it is reliant on the pool of open-source developers for product improvements and bug-fixes, many of whom who do this primarily in their free time. Therefore, it can sometimes take a while for bugs to be fixed.
  • The user interface for administering and editing is a bit less intuitive than Squarespace, and not as user-friendly. It definitely feels more technical. And, you'll need third-party plugins to be able to make fancy layouts.
  • Most added features are only available as 3rd-party plugins or widgets: this means they are not supported by WordPress, and can sometimes cause compatibility issues when the WordPress platform is upgraded. If this happens (and it happens a lot), you'll have to wait until the 3rd party upgrades the plugin or theme to be compatible with the new version of WordPress - and in the meantime, you might see errors on your site or have to turn off certain functions.
  • Because anyone can develop and release a plugin/widget, so there's a high chaff-to-wheat ratio. You may have to play trial and error with a bunch of different plugins before you find a good, stable, currently supported plugin. And even then, you won't know when/if the person who made that plugin will decide to stop supporting it. And when they do, you might have to start all over again.
  • You'll need to interact with multiple suppliers: at minimum, you'll need hosting, domain name, email (these 3 could be the same), plus the software from WordPress (and possibly someone to help you install/configure it), and a theme developer or provider. You'll also most likely be interacting with multiple 3rd party plugin providers, too.
  • If something goes wrong, the culprit could be Wordpress, your host, a plugin, a theme - so it can be difficult to find which is at fault, and you may need a tech expert to step in to troubleshoot. This can be costly and/or mean downtime for your website.
  • Because WordPress is an installed application, someone must manually upgrade the product whenever a new version is released. Failure to upgrade can cause security risks, but upgrading can create compatibility issues (see above). Update: the latest versions of Wordpress can be set to have automatic upgrades.

So which is better?

There is no right or wrong answer: the best tool will depend on your own preference, and whether you have someone you can trust to help design/develop/administer/train on that particular platform. Because as easy as they both are to use, it can really help to have someone who knows what they are doing to work with you, at least in the beginning.

You may also find my other Squarespace vs WordPress comparison post useful - it focuses on the design side of things.