Texas-based HostGator is a hugely popular web host with plans for every possible requirement, from simple shared products to speedy cloud hosting and powerful dedicated servers.
HostGator Website Builder bundles the company's excellent hosting with a user-friendly WebsiteBuillder.com-powered site designer which makes it easy to create a quality online presence.
The Basic plan includes HostGator links in your web page footers and supports a maximum number of six pages per site. There are no web space or bandwidth limits, though, and a library of a hundred responsive templates gets you up-to-speed quickly. There's access to a free image library, and easy PayPal integration enables building very simple web stores.
The headline price for the Basic plan is $3.95 (£2.82) a month, but it's not quite as simple as that. Website Builder Basic comes as a free add-on to HostGator's hosting, so the $3.95 (£2.82) represents the cost of the HostGator Hatchling plan. This gives you a lot more hosting features than you'll get with many other website builder packages, including cPanel access and unlimited email accounts.
You can choose a more capable hosting plan if you need it, such as opting for the $5.95 (£4.25) Business plan to get an SSL certificate, a dedicated IP and a free VoIP phone service. And because these are add-on plans, if you decide you don't need the store after all, you can scrap it at any time and use the web space for something else.
HostGator's pricing has a hidden catch in that these rates only apply if you sign up for three years, and they jump on renewal – the baseline $3.95 (£2.82) hosting leaps up to $6.95 (£4.96). Weebly's Starter plan is priced at a similar $7 (£5) with no initial discount, but you only have to sign up for a year, it has no ads or page limits, and gives you a free SSL certificate.
HostGator's Website Builder Pro plan supports unlimited pages and removes the HostGator advertising. There's support for embedding HD videos from YouTube and other video sharing sites (lower resolution videos are supported in the Basic plan). A valuable Revision History feature maintains copies of versions of your website, allowing you to revert to an older version whenever you like.
A custom favicon enables using your own website icon in the address bar and browser tab, and simple Google Analytics integration helps track your latest visitors. It's a more capable and interesting package, but it's also much more expensive at $16.90 (£12.07) a month. Competitors like Wix and Weebly give you weaker hosting but more e-commerce features for around $10 (£7.14) a month.
HostGator's Website Builder Business plan is all about online selling, and offers a shopping cart, inventory management, a choice of payment gateways, Facebook integration and support for coupon codes.
The headline price of $28.94 (£20.67) a month is far more expensive than Wix and Weebly, who provide capable e-commerce plans for around £15 ($21). But, bizarrely, this seems to be based on a one-month billing cycle. If you're willing to pay three years upfront, which you have to do anyway to get the quoted hosting price, the total drops to a monthly $19.94 (£14.24).
HostGator offers a basic comparison table listing its Website Builder plans and their features, but this is distinctly short on detail and gives you no information at all on the hosting package. There's no easy way to tell exactly what you're going to get.
Pricing is far from clear. There's a headline monthly figure and a warning that this might include a discount, but nothing on contract lengths, total or renewal prices.
The picture doesn't get clearer when you click Buy. We chose the $28.94 (£20.67) a month Website Builder Business plan, for instance, and the billing page only asked us to pay $3.95 (£2.82) for hosting. What was going on? The website doesn't say.
The reason for this confusion is that HostGator requires you to buy hosting first. The Website Builder Basic plan is included with your hosting plan, but if you want Website Builder Pro or Business, you have to purchase them afterwards as an add-on from your hosting panel. It's not difficult, once you've figured it out, but HostGator should do a better job of explaining the product structure on its website.
There are some small plus points for the signup process. You can opt for monthly billing, if you don't mind paying a huge price premium – it jumps to $10.95 (£7.82) a month. You can choose your own support PIN and username, and there are options to pay by credit card or PayPal.
HostGator offers a decent set of optional add-ons, too. SiteLock checks your site daily for malware, and is priced at $2.99 (£2.13) a month. CodeGuard-based automated daily backups are available for $2.99 (£2.13) a month, and Google-based email hosting gives you a firstname.lastname@example.org email address and 30GB of storage for $5 (£3.57) a month.
The core hosting and Website Builder packages come with a 45-day money-back guarantee, although that does have the usual exclusions. If you ask HostGator to register a domain during the signup process, for instance, you won't be able to claim the registration fee back later.
We signed up from HostGator's Website Builder Business page, paid for our hosting and received an acknowledgement email. This gave us basic details of our hosting account but didn't mention the Website Builder, so we had to log in and find the purchase details ourselves
Once we had finally signed up, HostGator allowed us to begin by choosing a template from more than a hundred responsive designs. HostGator's template browser enables filtering its offerings by industry and type, but it's more awkward to use than we expected. Not only did the browser display its templates in a fixed-size box which showed only nine thumbnails at a time, but some thumbnails were repeated two, three, or four times, so we were forever hitting Next and Previous to scan through the full list.
The browser did at least allow us to preview the templates full-screen before we made our decision. The designs aren't outstanding in any way, but they cover the basics reasonably well and most people will find something they can use.
HostGator's editor has a familiar and straightforward interface. Your website is displayed in the body of the page. A left-hand sidebar displays a menu of items you can add (Elements, Pages, Sections, Blog, Store, more). And an always-visible toolbar displays site-wide options such as Undo, Preview, a desktop/mobile view, Save and Publish.
Your website isn't displayed 'live', so for example clicking a link in the navigation menu won't change pages. Instead, when you click any object or area – a text block, an image, the page header or footer – the editor automatically shows you whatever actions you can perform with it.
Click in a text box, for instance, and you can immediately start editing its text, while a toolbar allows you to change its style (font, size, bold/italic/underlined, color, shadow) and alignment. You can also add lists, configure links, set a background image and more.
Image handling is impressive, too. It starts very simply – click an image, resize it, drag and drop it on the page, click Change Image to replace it with something else – but you can also crop and edit the image, set opacity, configure the image border, add a link, and more.
Most page objects can have one of 11 animations attached (bounces, fades, flips, fly-ins and more). These aren't completely configurable – you can't choose whether a heading will fly in from the left or the right, for instance – but they're easy to use, especially as the editor previews the animation for you. Just scroll down the menu to the Flip option, for instance, and the editor will display the flip effect on your selected object, allowing you to see how it's going to work.
The editor allows you to construct new pages, or extend existing ones, by dragging in preformatted chunks of content called Sections. Choose to add a Text section from the sidebar, for instance, and the editor displays thumbnails of 15 very different text layouts (1 to 6 blocks of text, single or multiple columns, varying numbers of titles, and all positioned separately).
There are lots of sections here – Front Page, Schedule, Facebook Timeline, Images and Text, Video and Text – and each one includes plenty of alternative designs. If you're not quite happy with the template, this makes it easy to customize it to suit your needs. And even if a section doesn't completely suit your needs, you can still tweak it just like any other page.
You're also able to customize pages by dragging in elements, individual controls for displaying particular content types, or carrying out specific actions. There aren't quite as many of these as you'll get with some services – the Image section includes only Image, Image Gallery and Icon, for example – but they cover the basics well enough and there are some less common extras. You're able to add documents, embed HTML or entire web pages, display Twitter feeds or Facebook comments, add a SoundCloud music player, and make use of several PayPal options (Buy Now, Add to Cart, Donate, Check Out).
Most individual controls can be freely resized, and there's vast control over how they can be placed. You can drag and drop them with pixel-level precision, align them with other controls, dock them to edges of the page in various ways, even decide whether they'll scroll on the page or always be visible.
You can switch from a desktop to mobile view at any time, and the editor will display the mobile view of the page. Your site isn't responsive in the usual sense – it doesn't reformat if you resize your browser window – so the mobile view is actually a separate version of the website which is served to visitors on mobile devices.
This works well enough for real-world use, though, and it does make it easy to customize the mobile site to suit your needs. If you decide you don't need a particular image or text block on the mobile version, for instance, all you have to do is delete them within the mobile editor; simple.
Put it all together and this is a very likeable editor. Beginners should find it reasonably easy-to-use, as clicking on any object immediately displays toolbars showing you what you can do. But experts will also find there's lots of functionality here, and plenty of fine-tuned control over content and the page.
HostGator Website Builder includes Adobe's Aviary image editor, which immediately gives you plenty of picture options and potential tweaks. Basic tools include Crop, Resize and Orientation; you're able to fix problems by adjusting lighting, color and sharpness, removing red-eye or fixing skin blemishes; you can get arty by applying vignette, color splash or other effects, and there are other tools to add text captions, draw freehand, use stickers and more.
The Change Image option gives you access to a free stock image library. The results aren't always of the highest quality, and sometimes don't match your search text at all (we searched for ‘dolphin’ and found pictures of a hamster and a woman with a horse, as well as actual dolphins), but there are plenty of images to choose from and overall it's worth having.
You're also able to upload your own pictures into a cloud-based My Images library. This allows you to keep key images organized, and means you can use the same pictures in different places on the site without having to upload them each time.
A simple Video control enables embedding YouTube and Vimeo videos just by pasting their URLs. HD support isn't included in the most basic plan, however.
Image and video gallery controls allow you to group and organize related media. These look basic, at least initially, but there's more functionality than you might expect. The image gallery can import images from Facebook and Instagram, for instance, as well as selected local pictures. You can customize its layout to be a grid, row or column. Images can have titles, descriptions and linked URLs, and they're displayed with an appealing lightbox effect.
There's audio support via a basic SoundCloud control. You can't do much with it beyond defining a track URL and deciding whether you'd like it to autoplay or not, but it's better than nothing.
HostGator Website Builder doesn't have nearly as many controls and integrations as competitors like Wix and Weebly, then, but you may be able to use content from other sites via its Embed HTML object. HostGator's video control only supports YouTube and Vimeo, for instance, but we were able to use the Embed HTML control to display a Metacafe clip.
HostGator Website Builder enables adding a blog as one of the options on its left-hand sidebar. Unusually, the editor gives you multiple blog layouts to choose from. While that sounds good in theory, the blog templates didn't match the colors, fonts or layout of our main site, which left our chosen blog style looking a little out of place.
New blog posts are created using a subset of the standard page editor. There are all the usual text formatting commands, but you don't get access to the main editing widgets, and the Add Element box only allows for the insertion of images, videos, lines, headings and paragraphs. If you want to add a map, or an image gallery, or any of the other components available in the main editor, you're out of luck.
There are plenty of ways to customize how your post looks and behaves on the blog page. You're able to set a title, a cover image and a summary, as well as assigning tags to help users find related posts, and pin a post to the top of the blog.
There's no option to schedule posts, unfortunately. Blog comments are supported by the Facebook comments system only, which can't be controlled or configured in any way. The blog has one advanced feature in its optional RSS support, but otherwise it's very much about the basics only.
Building a web store can be a complicated process, but HostGator Website Builder does its best to keep life simple. Click the Create a Store button, choose from a very short list of store types (Health and Beauty, Home and Design, Arts and Music, Food and Drink, Other), enter your address and the service adds a store page to your website with some sample products.
The service also provides a working shopping cart you can test right away. We chose a product, added it to our cart and clicked Check Out. We were able to provide our details, select a dummy 'Test Payment' provider as a payment method, and watch as we were sent an acknowledgement email and our order was added to the system. This is an excellent way to see and better understand both the purchase process and what you'll get when orders arrive, especially as it doesn't require you to do any system setup work first.
Unfortunately, the good news stops almost immediately, as you look past this initial demonstration and start to figure out how the service works.
The store layout and design presents an immediate visual issue, as it doesn't in any way match the rest of the site. You can manually tweak the store to try to address the problem, but that's a hassle you don't normally have with other website builders.
There's no way to import a product catalog from another web store, as you'll see with specialist e-commerce platforms like BigCommerce. You must enter all product details manually.
The store doesn't support digital products, services, subscriptions or anything else beyond standard physical goods. Again, any good dedicated e-commerce platform will give you far more flexibility.
Shipping functionality is horribly basic. Products don't have shipping-related attributes (weight, dimensions) which you can use to calculate the final costs. The store doesn't allow you to create shipping zones (your country, your continent, rest of the world) with their own rules. All you get are flat rates for the first and subsequent items, and an optional threshold for free shipping.
Our UK-based website was offered a grand choice of just two payment processors, Stripe and PayPal; far more limited than you'll get with the specialist competition. Transaction fees are also high at 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction.
A service like Shopify can be extended by plugging in a host of apps and extensions, but there's none of that here. What you see, which is barely anything, is what you get.
These are just a fraction of the issues with the store. We'd go on, but this isn't an e-commerce-specific review and we just don't have the space.
There is still some value here. The store is easy to set up, and it does allow you to sell on Facebook. But it's not a good choice for selling anything more than a very small catalog of physical goods to buyers in your own country, and even then, it's vastly overpriced for what you get. Shopify's Basic plan costs almost exactly the same, yet gives you one of the market-leading web stores, and with lower transaction fees it'll probably be even cheaper over the long term.
A good website builder will get you online quickly, but that's just the start. It's also important that you can find and fix any issues as they crop up, and that means support is important.
The HostGator Website Builder editor has a Help link in the usual position, top-right on the toolbar, which reassured us that assistance would be available when we needed it. But that turned out not to be the case. Clicking Help took us to a broken sitebuilder-kb.com link which only displayed a 404 'not found' error, and trying a few variations on that link didn't help.
We browsed the interface further, and found a Help Center link in another menu. That would work, right? Wrong: it pointed to the same broken URL, and displayed the same useless 404 error.
We persevered, falling back to HostGator's general support pages. These have a few articles on Website Builder, but they're basic, indeed little more than beginner-oriented 'getting started' guides. They're not going to help you solve problems or do anything complex.
The website is feeble, then, but fortunately HostGator's support team saves the day. If you do have any problems you can contact them 24/7 via chat, phone or email, and in our experience response times are good and the agents are knowledgeable. We would prefer to have some decent web-based guidance as a first line of assistance, but the support team should get most issues resolved speedily, and that's the most important thing.
HostGator Website Builder's most basic plan could be a smart way to create small sites, but the premium plans don't give you anything like enough features or functionality to justify the price.
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