By DEREK NEUTS, MS
While WordPress isn’t the only website framework available, it’s used to create approximately 30% of all websites on the internet, and it’s in the lead among all content management systems in use by 60%. That’s about 74 million websites that depend on this technology platform, including the integrated WordPress.com services that are preconfigured for the user as a blog-only offering. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that this platform is targeted by hackers and those using brute-force attacks to gain access to your database, especially if you’re using WooCommerce (despite the sub-platform taking up approximately 12% of market share in the e-commerce world). What makes attacks more appealing is the proliferation of visual builders and what I call “Franken-Builds” that are cobbled together by those who shouldn’t be working with WordPress in a development role. These attackers know the common mistakes that are made, repeatedly, and how to rattle the cages of those who don’t have the skills to keep a platform like this running.
When you’re out there looking for web development services as a small business owner, you’ll more than likely come across those who can put together WordPress sites for you quickly, cheaply, and then will engage in a service contract for monthly maintenance, social media, and search engine marketing. While this sounds good, the terms “quick” and “cheap” used together in the same sentence, much less the same service offering, should raise some eyebrows. As I’ve stated in previous articles, there’s currently a cultural proliferation of non-professional developers seeking your business. The current trend is with freelancers and agencies that offer WordPress as nearly the only form of website available to you because they use a visual builder behind the scenes as part of their only strategy. In other words, they are using a tool very similar to Squarespace, Wix, Divi, and others that were really meant for the end-user that (a) had no budget to hire a developers, and (b) had the aspirations and just enough prowess to try and create a website on their own. These tools are great for that, including WordPress.com, if you need a basic site and wish to blog and create awareness surrounding your business objectives.
Before I took on this life path and received updated, formal training, I was also a business owner and did that very same thing, using visual builders to just focus on my business goals, as I wasn’t yet proficient with coding tasks. That works for many people. Honestly, at that point in my life, coding wasn’t on my radar, as those skills were old and needed updating. However, these tools have now been discovered and adopted by those without the necessary training or experience and are quickly becoming the “go-to” WordPress building solution. Why? Visual builders typically require no knowledge of coding (although some do), they are built for non-technical enthusiasts and the DIY community and have just enough functionality and flexibility to integrate some intermediate and limited advanced features, making it a good set of tools to use against you when hiring someone for web work. How you may ask? Let’s go over some scenarios that I’ve personally seen and others have told me about, starting with the demographic that uses these tools the most.
Call it a pet peeve of mine, but clients get hurt when the wrong “developer” is working on their project, and it makes me more upset when these “developers” know they’re not qualified to do it but take the client’s money anyway. For many small business owners and startups, including non-profit and educational missions, having the job done right the first time is crucial, because they may not have the budget for a “fix it” round with a qualified contractor. What is typically seen is the all-in-one service providers and freelancers that don’t have the necessary training or experience to actually complete all the services they advertise (including WordPress), but you’ll never know that unless you ask the right questions or put them in a situation where they have to demonstrate competency (e.g., a test project). This would include those who are operating as a complete newcomer, those who are intern-level that chose to skip over gaining additional experience, those who call themselves digital marketers or social media managers that attempt to build themselves, web designers who lack the development side of their education and build sites, or consultants that try and complete all the work in the same manner under one roof. However, I also need to point out, on a positive note, that there are many good digital marketers, social media managers, designers, and consultants who do stay within their disciplinary boundaries and seek outside contracts (to professionals like me) who can get the job done for their client and act as a part of their team in the client’s best interest. This is the preferred method, and those who claim they can’t do that for budgetary reasons aren’t planning their projects properly with the right clients. In fact, those folks who stick with best practices are actually fun to work with, and when everyone comes together to share their disciplinary talents on a project, the results can be amazing. What tarnishes their profession, as well as my own, are those who attempt to do this work that shouldn’t have left their day job. This makes it harder to have that first discussion with a potential client when you’re the second, third, or even fifth developer to try and rework a failed project. With that disclaimer aside separating concerns between predatory and professional, let’s continue.
Visual builders have a certain curb appeal, and with the recent push by certain online coding schools with a universal message that “everyone can code”, the majority of those who embark on this journey in web development never complete it. I’ve seen it in my own retraining program, and through professional networking, that these individuals have a romanticized view of not only what self-employment looks like, but an idealized perspective of what life would be like as a web developer or “coder”. It’s not easy to budget time for profession and business administration, it takes time to learn the trade (lots of time), and a few classes on Udemy isn’t going to cut it. It’s at least a three to five-year journey to truly be proficient and responsible to clients and employers if they are brand new to the profession, and if they apply themselves on a full-time basis. Those I’ve had the pleasure to network with have really put some time into this profession, and while I have four years of cumulative experience, with two years of focused vocational retraining, you’ll quickly learn the hard way that this is a slow, time-consuming task of being proficient and professional in your field. It’s hard, because best practices and methods could shift daily, and the more I learn, the more I realize I still have left to learn. However, those who don’t want to skill build, those who feel they’ve invented a shortcut to success, will use visual builders for their clients to avoid that hard work, will exaggerate how long they’ve been doing this kind of work, will even create exaggerated profiles on social media, can show very little evidence of having actually worked in this field at all if you press the issue, and will gladly take your money. After all, you don’t know any better, right? They know you can’t tell, but hopefully, after reading this and other articles, you’ll be more informed to ask better questions surrounding the “little details” the next time you hire a “professional” contractor.
Due to the visual nature of the tool, non-developers (such as web designers) will step in from the agency and attempt to finish the work or make project modifications. So let’s make another distinction clear: a web designer is not a web developer.
These types of predatory contractors will end up quickly building anything you want, regardless of whether there’s a sound business strategy in place, and will generally use the old project-pricing model for their work. While this sounds good, you don’t understand that these projects are done as fast as possible, they may have numerous other clients at the same time, and mistakes can and will happen. You’ll be wondering about the status of your project, and they’ll tell you they’ve been working on it, all the while they’ve barely touched it, as they’re using a visual builder to drag and drop the content into place while letting you know how diligently they’ve been “constructing your site”. It may have cost you $1,200 to $1,500 for that basic WordPress site that could have either come from a $60 template online somewhere, or they worked less than a week on your project using a drag-and-drop tool but billed you for a month or two. All the while, it was probably done early on and they were just “spreading out” the work so you’d never know. Does this sound like fun? Conversely, you could have paid a real developer a modest hourly rate, making in this case a week’s worth of cumulative, billable work using a visual builder an exceptionally productive one.
Some agencies also use these tools, but in a different way. For example, they pick a builder platform and typically stick to it, because they may have a high turnover rate for developers and designers. Due to the visual nature of the tool, non-developers (such as web designers) will step in from the agency and attempt to finish the work or make project modifications. So let’s make another distinction clear: a web designer is not a web developer. More specifically, each has a different role in the production process. While web designers are very important to this business, they typically have an art, communications, or marketing background, being generally responsible for the design and partial implementation of layouts, styles, user interface, and user interactivity. They are very important members of a production team. Web developers have the necessary front-end or back-end skillsets, along with a variety of collegiate backgrounds (typically not computer-science), to implement the designs and concepts from the web developers, who also collaborate with both the clients and project managers (I’ll clarify these roles further in a future article). Having a visual builder ensures that almost everyone on the team has access to the website to make the necessary modifications, whether they know the code or not. While this sounds good and makes sense, it can also degrade the production quality of the site build if quality assurance practices aren’t adhered to. Also, all the agency’s sites will start to look the same. For example, what I object to, in the absence of designers or developers, is to have marketing staff without development training or experience simply take over due to cost considerations. In this scenario, the development company will typically tell the client that a developer is working on the site, when in fact it’s more than likely a member of the marketing team who may also be filling a design role, instead.
These tools have their place, even among professional developers, as there are times when there’s a legitimate client business need related to time and budget constraints. While it’s best practice to cleanly code a WordPress website according to standards set forth in the Core Contributor’s Handbook, those who are untrained in development who attempt to build a site using a visual builder can make quite a mess. Visual builders can be complicated, as there are many layers to a WordPress website, and all the elements that make up that type of site must be developed the right way. I’ve seen bizarre combinations of templates purchased online included with visual builder constructions, as well as very poorly implemented sites using a combination of tools that aren’t compatible with one another. It’s always best to have a professional developer build your site, even if a visual builder is involved because there are simply too many things that go wrong. More often than not, the contractor you hired (who may not be an actual developer) will be asking for assistance in Facebook forums, or on websites like Stack Overflow, to complete their work. Let me be clear: your project will be compromised, and its details will be online, perhaps including screenshots, with the contractor asking for assistance from other non-professionals to finish the work you paid them for. I see it almost daily, and it’s never been a good idea.
Professionals can implement these visual builder tools on a case-by-case basis for your projects, but they are not the standard (at least, for many developers that I network with), unless we’re talking about non-professionals disguised as WordPress developers. I have licenses for many of these visual tools as a professional developer, so they are ready in case a client needs them for a project, but if time and budget allow, my preference is to create a WordPress site the traditional way. That is, creating a layout using Bootstrap or Foundation (they are considered front-end frameworks), then converting it to a WordPress theme by structuring the code using PHP (the programming language that WordPress is built on). That way, clients can have a custom user interface in their administration area of the site, only needed scripts and plugins are loaded for each page, and there’s no additional “bloat”, scripting errors, and miscellaneous features that can slow a visual builder site down. However, if you’re using a professional developer, with time, they can eliminate many of these normal pitfalls of using a visual tool by thoroughly customizing the site’s structure and code. I’ve seen some very clean designs using visual builders by other professionals, so yes, it can be done right, and there’s a time and place for them based on client needs.
In the end, I highly recommend hiring a professional for a number of reasons, especially when using visual builders, as they know how to cleanly customize a site for best performance and good search engine optimization (SEO). Another reason to hire a professional to construct with these tools is due to the increasing amount of bloat in some builder packages (we know how to deal with this) because the software developers who created the builders now realize they have a non-professional audience as the buyer, and therefore add a ton of features that you more than likely won’t need. Why? Because those who are now the main users of these tools don’t know how to code, so those features are added for them to use on your projects. Also, if the project isn’t done right the first time, you’ll simply be paying for someone to do it all over again and rip it out (which is oftentimes needed due to the project being a nightmarish mess) and then, you’ll wish you hadn’t gone “cheap” or “quick”.
So, should you be concerned if your developer only uses visual builders? Absolutely, it’s a huge red flag that something isn’t quite right, especially if they can’t justify it to you and they offer no other alternatives.
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