SquareSpace vs WordPress : A Second Look

A review of SquareSpace vs WordPress in the WPMUDev blog raises the question of whether web development reviews are becoming as partisan as politics. Jenni McKinnon in writing 27 Reasons Why WordPress Crushes Squarespace Every Time has committed to print a yuge number of Trumpian fallacies which knocks the review way off balance.

WordPress.com vs WordPress.org Distinction

The imbalance starts with Jenni not clarifying which version of WordPress is being compared to SquareSpace. WordPress.com, the “free hosting” version of WordPress has in the past 5 years become quite different from the WordPress.org [user hosted version of WordPress]. WordPress.com has about 300 themes and a much smaller set of perhaps 50 plugins and 50 embeds – far from the 4000 free and 3000 premium themes available for WordPress.org. And the 45,000 WordPress.org plugins truly eclipses the 100 or so plugins and embeds available on WordPress.com.

More important is the fact that codebase for WordPress.com on the client side is migrating from a PHP driven HTML+CSS core to JavaScript dominated in the form of Calypso. This will have a profound effect on WordPress.org users in the future because Calypso driven  is designed to offer features and performance that will be highly desirable for WordPress.org users. So a big transition will be upcoming to the WordPress.org world as it follows the WordPress.com lead as in the past [or forks like MySQL to MariaDB as WordPress.org is GPL Open Source]. There is  no mention of this in Jenni’s  review.

But the most important point is that WordPress.com matches much more closely and competes in the same small-to-medium size business marketplace as SquareSpace. And if you examine these two competitors then SquareSpace is doing very well.

I just completed a survey of 740 organizations at CSI-Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto. 311 of those organizations have actively used websites which use CMS systems as their core technology. Of those, 26 are SquareSpace and  6 are WordPress.com.

Now what makes these results most interesting is that roughly half of WordPress usage worldwide is made up of WordPress.com sites. So then you would expect 58.9%  / 2 * 311 = 91 CSI websites to be  on WordPress.com but there are only 6.

Likewise on the SquareSpace side of the equation you would expect 1.2%  * 311 = 4 CSI websites to be on SquareSpace but there are much more, 26.

Yes, this is a relatively small sample. Yes, one can still get free websites on WordPress.com without having to pay any fees, and I do so with JavaScriptures being one of about 8 blog and web test sites on WordPress.com. All I can get on SquareSpace is a 14day free trial. Yet despite these shortcomings there about 2 million active  SquareSpace websites up from 1.4 million in mid 2012. SquareSpace must be doing some things right.

Jenni’s 27 Reasons SquareSpace Does Not Measure UP

Reason #1: Free to Download

The WordPress.org software is open source and free to download for use on the web host or server of your choosing. On the other hand, Squarespace isn’t flexible – you’re stuck with their hosting, which is strictly on Squarespace’s servers. But in the case of WordPress.com you areon the same boat, dependent on the quality of WordPress.com servers.

Reason #2: Build Upon the Software

WordPress has a GPL 2.0 license, which means you’re free to poke around the code and make changes that suit your needs, so long as you’re willing to share your changes with others as open source.Squarespace has no such license and even goes so far as forbidding you from trying to reverse engineer their code or platform, in general, to make any kind of derivative work in statements 5.1 of the Terms of Service and 1.5 of the Acceptable Use Policy.

Reason #3: Edit with Code as Much as You Want

As previously mentioned, you can edit WordPress core to create your own offshoot content management system (CMS) thanks to the GPL, but you can also edit WordPress plugins and themes to extend the capabilities of your website. You aren’t limited to how many changes you can make. There are also many, many plugins you can use to add custom code to your site on the fly such as WP Add Custom CSSSimple Custom CSS, and Simple Custom CSS and JS to name only a few. You can add as much or as little code as you want. This customization is true of free WordPress.org plugins which are not premium; but not true for WordPress.com’s limited set of plugins. And for premium WordPress.org plugins some of  their terms of service also limit what changes/customizations that can be made.

In short, you can edit whatever you want when it comes to WordPress. You can also create your own themes and plugins. Squarespace isn’t as flexible. Not even close. This is where Jenni concludes much too harshly. First, read the SquareSpace Developer Mode tools here. And SquareSpace Developers I know are modifying templates, plugins, and extensions in major ways to meet their clients need and getting strong support from SquareSpace.

Yes, the SquareSpace Developer Tools Terms of Service are very restrictive about how much support you will get for 3rdparty customizations and actively discourage a third party extensions marketplace unlike competitors like Wix and Weebly. But  the bottom line is that editing of SquareSpace themes, templates, and extensions by their developers is actively supported.

Reason #4: Extensive Features with Plugins

WordPress has a vast repository of over 49,000 plugins to extend the capabilities of the core software. You can find practically any feature you could possibly need or want for your site with plugins, including anything from contact forms and SEO to security and eCommerce. Like their visual editor, what you see is what you get with Squarespace. If a certain feature you need isn’t available, you’re out of luck.

But being out of luck applies to WordPress.com users who also have a limited set of themes and plugins. And unlike SquareSpace, WordPress.com still does not have a interactive PageBuilder like SquareSpace, Weebly and Wix.  But this limited plugins capability is a crucial weakness for SquareSpace as its plugin feature set is limited to what SquareSpace supplies and has limited encouragement for 3rd party extensions/plugins.

Reason #5: Unlimited Sites and Networks

The WordPress platform itself doesn’t have any limit to how many times it can be installed, which means you can create as many sites or networks of sites as the resources your hosting plan allows – for free. When you sign up for a Squarespace plan, you’re limited to only one site. If you want to create another site, you need to sign up for another premium subscription. This is Trumpian scare mongering. With SquareSpace you can have unlimited websites and distributed worldwide with roughly  the same overall cost as WordPress.org. However, WordPress.org gives you many more location options and with the new REST API a broader range of connection options among sites.

Reason #6: Multisite

One word: Multisite. Yes a distinct advantage for WordPress.org but not for WordPress.com.

Reason #7: Your Copyrighted Content Can’t Be Used for Free

WordPress has no claim to publish any part of your site for free. Squarespace, on the other hand, according to its Terms of Service, statements 2.2 and 2.3, can use any part of your site for uses such as advertising, even if the content they take is copyrighted…. Again, this is Jenni doing the Scare-Antic. The bottomline is that SquareSpace users can opt out of copyrighted material use.

Reason #8: Features Aren’t Pulled without Notice

The WordPress core gets updated regularly with new features and security updates and there’s a system in place to ensure transparency with what goes in, gets fixed and what’s omitted. Changes are suggested, reviewed and approved before they’re worked on, then later released. Any amendments or omissions are well documented and announced beforehand. In the event that a feature you need is discontinued, you have time to search for or create a plugin to cover the capabilities you want.

In the transition from SquareSpace  5 to 6 and then 7 some features were changed and/or dropped but SquareSpace users were given advisories on how to make the transitions. But this is also a  harsh reality for WordPress,org  users. Changing vital WordPress.org themes and plugins also incur significant transition costs. For example ask any Visual Composer user who has switched to say Beaver Builder or Divi 3 about how easy the changeover  was; but be careful when you ask.

Reason #9: If You Have Grounds to Sue, You Aren’t Limited

Given extensive Google searches  turning up very few  lawsuits against either WordPress or  SquareSpace, this looks like a red herring,  However, WordPress does acknowledge a fair amount of behind the scenes legal action here

Reason #10: No eCommerce Transaction Fees

Another red-herring. Squarespace eCommerce plans also  have no transaction fees. The extra cost of SquareSpace eCommerce plan  is seen on the WordPress side in  additional hosting and/or plugin fees. Both SquareSpace and WordPress offer many of the same payment  services like Stripe and PayPal at the same costs. See here for a discussion of online shopping costs and fees.

Reason #11: WordPress Online Stores Aren’t Limited to Certain Currencies

True with Squarespace, you are limited to US dollars (USD), Australian dollars (AUD), Canadian dollars (CAD), Swiss franc (CHF), Czech koruna (CZK),
Danish krone (DKK), Euro (EUR), British pound (GBP), Hong Kong dollar (HKD), Israeli shekel (ILS), Malaysian ringgit (MYR), Mexican peso (MXN),
Norwegian krone (NOK), New Zealand dollar (NZD), Philippine peso (PHP), Polish zloty (PLN), Russian ruble (RUB), Swedish krona (SEK),
Singapore dollar (SGD), Thai baht (THB). Important missing currencies are China, India, Japan, Korea, plus all of Africa, the Mideast[with the exception of Israel] and South America.

But with WordPress+WooCommerce you are limited to one base currency though you can show prices in the native currency. But the payment is automatically converted to the base currency for a fee by the payment system. In short currency and lingual transparency is a major task for those who want to engage in multi-country eCommerce.

Reason #12: Thousands of Free Themes

In the WordPress.org theme repository, there are over 3,000 free themes available for you to download This number doesn’t even include all the premium themes that are also available. There’s certainly no shortage of theme and design options when it comes to WordPress. Squarespace has a grand total of 59 themes to choose from. If you need an eCommerce theme, then your choices are further limited to just eight.

The availability of thousands of themes in WodPress is both a blessing and a curse. Searching through the thousand’s of themes for the one pixel perfect and feature complete theme can be a thankless task. So its no surprise that WordPress is moving to Multipurpose, responsive  themes that when combined with any of the top 10 WordPress Pagebuilders can build just about any website design you need. Hmmm, this sounds like what SquareSpace has been delivering for the past 5 years or more. Templated themes that users [or developers] can customize and style  while adding the PageBuilding UI design elemnts to exactly suit their needs. In this case less is indeed more.

Reason #13: No High-Resolution Images? No problem!

Speaking of all those WordPress themes, it’s easier to find a layout that suits your needs and content. You also have the option to adjust the theme to better fit your images, videos, posts and other content. You’re by no means bound to use a limited number of themes that call for huge, high-resolution images. Unfortunately, this is exactly the case with SquareSpace.

This “reason” bespeaks of nearly total ignorance of the media compression space – surprising because SmushPro is a WPMU product. Suffice it to say there are image compression routines that can readily save 30-70% of the image load cost. Likewise there are audio and video techniques when combined with compression software can also reduce

 

Reason #14: Top Companies Trust WordPress

There are many popular, high-profile companies that trust WordPress to power their sites including The New York Times, CNN, PlayStation, LinkedIn, Flickr, Walt Disney, NGINX, Time Inc, cPanel and hundreds more. Many celebrities also have their sites built on WordPress including Beyoncé, Snoop Dogg, Katy Perry, Jane Fonda, Kim Kardashian, The Rolling Stones, Sylvester Stallone, and William Shatner.

When you visit the main page for Squarespace and scroll down, logos are displayed of the companies that use Squarespace. Most of them are small businesses that aren’t nearly as high-profile as those that are built on WordPress.

The reason  that SquareSpace’s active websites are small businesses is because that is the market SquareSpace is marketing successfully to. Also in our CSI survey the 26 SquareSpace websites averaged an Overall WebsiteGrader rating of  86.8, the 144 WordPress.org websites had an average Overall rating of  66.6. Again the sample is only 311 website most small business – but the results are revealing on who small business can trust.

Reason #15: Full Control Over SSL and HTTPS

Bottom line here is that every SquareSpace website comes with the greater security afforded by SSL and HTTP. In the case of WordPress.com that is also true. But for WordPress.org you must arrange and possibly pay for the SSL service. Yes, you can customize the WordPress.org SSL support but likely for extra cost.

Reason #16: Choose Your Domain Registrar and Price

Both WordPress and Squarespace let you choose which Registrar you use to get your domain for your site, but WordPress doesn’t force you to choose a specific Registrar at any point. If you create a site with Squarespace and sign up for annual billing for any one of their plans to get a discount, you get a free domain, but you’re forced to get that domain from Squarespace. While the first year is free, every year thereafter is priced higher than most other Registrars and starts at $20 for a .com domain. Most other Registrars offer a .com domain for about $10-$15 and sometimes less.

Red Herring no 3. Before you signup for SquareSpace, just buy your domain name from Hover or Godaddy and avoid this problem completely.

Reason #17: You Can Own Your Domain

Some Domain Registrars state in their Terms of Service that the main contact listed in the WHOIS database for a domain is the owner, which means if you opt-in for domain privacy, your Registrar is listed as the main contact and, therefore, owns the domain you purchased. You have the option to choose the Registrar where you get your domain for your WordPress site. This means you can shop around for one that offers WHOIS privacy and also lets you own your domain simultaneously. While it’s possible to buy your domain elsewhere, the free domain you get from Squarespace, as mentioned above, automatically includes WHOIS privacy. In the Terms of Service, it’s started in section 11.1 that Squarespace domains are registered using Tucows Inc. and their Terms of Service applies for all domains registered there.

Red Herring no 4. Before you signup for SquareSpace, just buy your domain name from Hover or Godaddy and also avoid this problem completely.

Reason #18: Accessibility Is an Option

Accessibility is an option on both SquareSpace and WordPress themes. A limited set of  WordPress themes out of the box  provide more accessibility than SquareSpace. In Ontario Canada the government is ratcheting up the accessibility requirements for all websites. With this government action  expect accessibility to become a more prominent issue. But consider how long it took for major websites to become fully mobile ready – only when mobile usage on smartphones and tablets exceeded that on the desktop in 2016.

Reason #19: Unlimited Pages and Contributors

With WordPress, you can set up as many pages and contributors as you want. WordPress doesn’t limit how many you can have in either case. Your only limitation is what you can manage to fit into your current hosting plan. Squarespace offers up to 20 pages and two contributors on their Personal plan and you need to upgrade to add more.

Just upgrade. Or if that is too costly, DIY with Drupal, Joomla, Weebly, Wix or WordPress.

Reason #20: More User Role Flexibility

Squarespace has set of user roles called Contributors  with limited customization in comparison with WordPress.

Reason #21: Choose How to Edit Your Site and Reason #22: A Choice in Page Builders

There are so many themes to choose from for WordPress that you can edit with code and adding content to your site is pretty easy, but you have other options when it comes to editing your theme, design, layout and content such as starter themes, page builders and theme frameworks like Upfront.

With Upfront, you can easily and intuitively drag and drop page parts and content to create an unlimited number of completely different layouts and designs. You can also use Builder in tandem to drag and drop your way to creating an unlimited number of new themes. While it’s only optional, you can also add your own custom code. Whether you want to code or drag and drop your way to a new theme, it’s up to you if you have a WordPress site.

Squarespace has its own platform and interface for creating sites. You can click through sections of the menu or page to add page parts and you can arrange them where you want. While you can drag and drop some elements of the page, not everything is that flexible.

This is an ad for WPMU’s Upfront UI tool. SquareSpace UI tool is just as capable. However, WordPress has moved into a superior position for overall user interface design with  WPIDE-WordPress Iteractive Design+development Environs. These environs combine Theme Builder, PageBuilding, and CSS Stylers to make “no coding required” layout of any  website design not just feasible but also easy to do and cost effective. See this reviewfor more details. But remember, WordPress.com still does not have a PageBuilder even close to SquareSpace’s UI tools.

Reason #23: The Theme Customizer is Better

If you decide to use a free WordPress theme for your site, many support the Customizer, which you can use to make quick design changes. It’s a lot easier and more intuitive to use than Squarespace’s site editor.

I find this assessment way-off base because dealing with hundreds of WordPress themes I have found the Customizer implementations to be extremely variable in number of features/options offered and how closely the theme  followed the underlying Customizer design.

Reason #24: A Vast Community

WordPress has a unique community that’s also humongous. There are volunteers that help contribute to the WordPress core and also many that answer questions posted by other users in the WordPress Support Forum. While Squarespace has a community, it’s not nearly as vast as with WordPress. There also aren’t Squarespace conferences like there is with WordPress. WordCamps happen all over the world every year and are attended by hundreds and thousands of people.

Hard to argue against this distinct competitive advantage of WordPress.org. Googling for help on either WordPress.com or WordPress.org will be much more likely to turn up lots of useful articles than for SquareSpace

Reason #25: WordPress Can Be Used by Anyone

Anyone can create a WordPress site as long as they have access to hosting. Squarespace is limited to people aged 13 or older and more specifically, Squarespace’s target audience is people wanting to publish media and photographers.

And here Jenni unleashes a deeply-biased generalization. Makes one wonder what does Jenni have against photographers??

Reason #26: Better Analytics

There are many WordPress plugins out there that can add analytics straight into your site’s back end. Often times, you can get incredibly comprehensive analytics.

Yes indeed, you can go further with the many analytics plugins available for WordPress.org

Summary

I think of Squarespace as a byte-sized clone of WordPress on WPEngine hosting. WPEngine  has a limited set of themes and plugins that it supports in order to deliver a secure, reliable and performant operational WordPress environ. In effect, SquareSpace is doing the same for small business sites – offering a distinctive set of design, layout and styling tools to build attractive, professional business and  shopping for about 1/5th the monthly cost of WPEngine WordPress. So SquareSpace targets  a distinctive 80-20 niche – i.e. 80% of websites need its selection of the key 20% of  possible features.
SquareSpace features and multiple landing page designs have certainly influenced WordPress PageBuiilders and MultiPurpose themes like Xtheme, Divi 3 and The 7 Theme among others. Will SquareSpace deliver new”active operational”  functionality beyond eCommerce – say Event Management or Rental Scheduling? Only SquareSpace management can say. But currently their targetted design tools with superior operation Website performance is really outperforming WordPress.com who stand exposed in the small business marketplace with no ease of design PageBuilder or CSS Styler  to match SquareSpace or Wix or Weebly.

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