Here’s What They Don’t Want You To Know About WordPress “No-Code”

What is this “No-Code” tool, Tyrus?

“No-code” WordPress website builder plugins have gained popularity in the past decade for their shiny promise of simplicity and ease in creating decent-looking websites without the need for coding knowledge. Most of these tools offer things like drag-and-drop interfaces, pre-built elements, and quick “canned” design options that cater to users with lower-level technical and design knowledge. But the truth is, while tools like WPBakery, Elementor, Beaver Builder, Cornerstone, and even WordPress’s own Block system (to name a few of the most popular) do provide convenience and speed to delivery for the non-technical, there are crucial aspects of these tools that often go unconsidered. What you trade for simplicity and/or upfront cost savings initially can come back to bite you later.

In this edition of Plain Talk, we’ll delve deeper into the world of no-code WordPress builder plugins to reveal the hidden truths, costs, and considerations that businesses and website owners should be aware of before choosing the proverbial “Easy Button.” By understanding their limitations, challenges, and potential drawbacks, we hope you can make more informed decisions about whether these plugins are the right choice for your needs. Although this article has a precautionary skew toward medium and large businesses, it’s not to say that these tools don’t have their place. A person starting a business in their garage on a shoestring budget probably isn’t in a position to afford a custom website, and the benefit of getting something live immediately may outweigh the future ramifications in that scenario.

BuiltWith Data on no-code WordPress Builders Popularity

Behind Door Number 1 | Design

“It’s like trying to buy broccolini at the pork store.” – Tony Soprano*
*That’s not a real quote. I made it up.

So, one of the main selling points of no-code WordPress builder plugins is their promise of design flexibility and customization. There’s probably someone sitting in your office with enough design sense to pick out a template and drag some pre-built things onto a page. Maybe they went to art school, maybe they’re a geek with just enough skills to be dangerous, and you really wanted your website to look like Star Wars. Who knows? But you might make the decision to let them give it a try. While the novice works on the site with its array of pre-built elements and styling options, somewhere along the line, they’ll realize there are limitations to how extensively you can customize your website’s design without employing an expert. They’ll find they need someone who knows how to program for the “front end” in a way that interprets your design just the way you want it to. At first, it will be something annoying, and later it might be something you know just looks wrong. At that point, you’re presented with the choice of staying in the box and settling with what seems possible or finding someone who can program to bend the rules for you with CSS, HTML, JavaScript, or PHP.

Here are a few key points to consider:

1. Template Restriction:

No-code builder plugins often rely on templates to structure the design process. While these templates offer a starting point and often come with fantastic example screenshots, they can present quite a learning curve to create something as polished as the example. They can limit the originality and uniqueness of your website, which is one of the hallmarks of great branding. Your design choices get constrained, which often results in a lack of differentiation from other websites built using the same plugin. If you’ve ever been to a Shopify-powered web store, you’ve probably seen an example. Really unique e-commerce sites built in Shopify take programmers to pull it off.

2. Limited Custom Styling:

While builder plugins provide various customization options for colors, fonts, and basic styling elements, achieving highly specific or complex design requirements can be super challenging. Again, if you have a unique brand identity or specific design vision, you will find yourself limited by the plugin’s built-in styling capabilities.

3. Design Inconsistencies:

As builder plugins offer a wide range of design options and elements, it becomes easy to inadvertently create design inconsistencies throughout your website. Without careful attention to maintaining a cohesive design, you risk ending up with a website that lacks visual harmony and professionalism that creates confidence in today’s consumers. Little details in alignment and responsiveness to screen sizes are important to instilling trust in your brand.

Behind Door Number 2 | Performance

Website performance is a critical factor affecting user experience and search engine rankings. While no-code WordPress builder plugins provide a kitchen sink of options, they can introduce performance challenges.

Here’s why:

1. Code Bloat:

Builder plugins generate additional code to render the drag-and-drop elements and functionality they provide. This extra code can increase the overall size of your website as well as be costly for processing, leading to slower page load speeds. As search engines and web consumers increasingly prioritize fast-loading websites, this kind of performance impact can adversely affect your website’s visibility and conversion rates.

2. Unused Code and Scripts:

When using builder plugins, you likely only utilize a fraction of the available features and functionalities. However, the entire plugin codebase and associated scripts are still loaded on your website. This includes CSS and JavaScript files that may not be necessary for your specific design or functionality needs. Loading unnecessary code and scripts can slow down your website’s performance. Most people think that small files of code shouldn’t take long to transfer across the internet, but stacks of them inevitably do, and in the case of JavaScript, they can actually roadblock the process, thus making your web page not fully visible for some increment of time.

3. Limited Optimization Options:

Builder plugins generally optimize the generated code to a certain extent. However, they may not provide advanced optimization options or allow for fine-tuning to achieve optimal performance. This lack of control over the generated code can limit your ability to implement performance optimization techniques such as minification, caching, or lazy loading. The flip side of this same issue is that the things that do get optimized and minified or obfuscated to the website’s creator may have to be overridden by custom code to achieve a certain design or functionality requirement, creating additional code that has to nullify what the first piece of code did.

Whatever you do, DON’T look behind this door | Proprietary Debt

Data and code portability is a crucial consideration when choosing any website-building platform. I would argue it to be the most important factor for an established business that knows its web presence will be around for years to come. No-code WordPress builder plugins offer convenience, but there is a tradeoff. It’s a lifetime contract. The challenges and limitations when it comes to updating or transferring your website to a different platform, even of the same technology stack, are paramount.

Here are a couple of important things you should know:

1. They store proprietary formats in database cells normally used for universal text and HTML:

Builder plugins almost always store page content and design information in their own proprietary formats. This can make it difficult to extract and transfer your content to another platform or website without manual conversion or loss of data. If you decide to discontinue using the plugin or face compatibility issues in the future, you may find yourself locked into the same platform or facing significant hurdles in migrating your website. WordPress, at its core, offers a brilliantly transferrable set of website data. Information stored in a standard website can be transferred or reused on any other WordPress website and is easily portable to even non-WordPress platforms. Note: This is not entirely true if your site uses the newer WordPress Block tools. While those can certainly be transferred to another WordPress site that also uses the Block format, the data is not truly portable as just text content for use somewhere else.

2. Content Separation:

Builder plugins typically store page content separately from the core WordPress content structure. This separation can really complicate data management and migration. If you later decide to switch to a different theme or disable the builder plugin, restructuring your content to fit within the new framework may require serious additional effort and potentially impact your website’s layout and design. You’ll need someone qualified to fix it.

Door Number 4 | Functionality 

“So, you brought a Swiss Army Knife to a house framing party when all you needed was a hammer?” – Tim the “No-Code” Tool-man Taylor*
*that’s not a real guy, either 

No-code WordPress builder plugins excel in providing easy-to-use interfaces and pre-built elements, but they usually fall short in meeting the customization needs of more complex websites and specific business requirements. This is another example where the devil is in the details. When you employ a tool that has such a long list of functionality points, it’s easy to overlook the need to define what functionality you actually need to operate your business. Taking the time to do technical business analysis and discovery before choosing the toolset you need is very important to building a site that will serve your current needs and be extensible (meaning designed to allow the addition of new capabilities and functionality) to your future needs.

Here are some key challenges to be aware of:

1. Advanced Functionality:

If your website requires advanced functionality beyond what the builder plugin offers, you will quickly find yourself limited by its capabilities. Custom integrations, complex e-commerce systems, workflows, API integrations, or unique interactive elements may require custom development or additional plugins that may not seamlessly integrate with the builder plugin and/or add additional proprietary debt.

2. Code Structure, Quality & Performance:

No-code builder plugins generate code to be output to the browser automatically based on the design choices you make and the options you choose. However, the quality of the generated code may not always meet the highest standards in terms of extensibility, performance, efficiency, or adherence to best practices. The way code is generated is determined by the plugin developer and is essentially out of your control to change. This can affect your website’s long-term scalability, maintainability, and even compatibility with other WordPress plugins, WordPress themes, third-party APIs, browsers, specific compliance and security requirements, and more.

3. Dependency on Plugin Updates:

Builder plugins, like any other software, require regular updates to address bugs, security vulnerabilities, and compatibility issues. However, relying heavily on a specific builder plugin means being dependent on its development team for timely updates and ongoing support. If the plugin becomes unsupported or experiences a decline in updates, your website’s stability and security may be at risk. If your plugin vendor goes out of business, it won’t be long before your website does too. The other thing we’ve seen happen time and again is that a Builder Plugin’s update actually breaks the site in some way until enough people report the issue and they fix the bug. This can be a nightmare if the breaking change causes the plugin’s own proprietary data to become corrupt. This was a big downfall of the initial deployment of the new WordPress Blocks system.

Last but not least, the door behind which all of Google lives. | SEO

I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” – Hal, 2001: A Space Odyssey *
*Finally, a real quote!

Search engine optimization (SEO) is critical for attracting organic traffic and improving your website’s visibility in search engine results. No-code builder plugins often claim to be SEO-friendly, but there are considerations and challenges to be aware of with these as well:

1. Code Efficiency and Markup:

The generated code by builder plugins may not always follow the best practices for clean and efficient code markup or may not allow you to tweak the markup to take advantage of the latest thing to feed the Google algorithm. Search engines, in general, prefer websites with well-structured and lightweight code, and suboptimal code generated by plugins can impact your website’s SEO performance in ways that can’t be fixed by incremental changes to the background formatting.

2. Bloated HTML Output:

No-code builder plugins may generate excessive HTML code, including unnecessary div elements and inline styles. This bloated code can hinder search engine crawlers from efficiently parsing and understanding the content, potentially affecting your website’s ranking and visibility.

3. Limited SEO Customization:

Builder plugins often provide basic SEO settings like meta tags, heading options, and the ability to interject scripts, but they often lack more advanced customization options. SEO professionals require tight control over technical SEO elements, schema markup, or fine-grained control over canonical URLs, which might not be fully available through the plugin’s interface.

So, I heard, “My office assistant can build our website.” Which builder should I use, Tyrus?

I’ll wrap this article up by offering two views.

1. There’s a use case for these plugins, or they wouldn’t exist. I’ve recommended Elementor myself to friends who wanted to create a small website because it’s a decent product, it’s well funded (by everyone who uses it yearly), and although it can require a long learning path in itself to fully understand it and be able to create one of the cool sites shown on the box, it seems to work, and I feel like my aunt won’t have bad things to say about me at the Christmas dinner table.

2. If you are building a corporate website with one of these tools and trying to cut corners, then I promise you will find yourself in a quagmire of technical debt in the future. It may happen soon and will certainly happen in a year or two. Your business requirements will exceed the extensibility of these products, and you will likely find yourself having to recreate the entire site as opposed to extending it or restyling it. We’ve dealt with this exact scenario multiple times!

In conclusion, we hope we’ve given you the information to make the right choice based on your scenario. As always, we’d love to hear from you, your thoughts on this article, and your questions on technology. Feel free to drop us a note or call us at 502-499-4209. Like what you read today? If you’re not already a subscriber to our Plain Talk newsletter, you can subscribe below.

Tyrus Christiana ,Senior Digital Director
Tyrus Christiana Senior Digital Director