As you may know, creating an attractive and functional website can now be an effortless process. However, when you dig into the history of website builders, you’ll quickly see that this was not always the case.
The process of website building has gone through significant transformation over the years. During the early days of the internet, web design was the sole domain of programmers and coders. However, today almost anyone can build a website – no coding required.
📚 Table of contents:
The early history of website builders (mid-1990s to early 2000s)
In 1991, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee launched the world’s first website. This was a very basic page, with a white background and black text, that contained information about the World Wide Web (WWW) Project.
The first websites were coded manually, using HTML. In fact, they were created primarily by professional programmers. Sites were built on computers and uploaded to servers using File Transfer Protocol (FTP) clients.
However, the introduction of website builders soon opened up new possibilities. Let’s look at some of the first tools to hit the market.
Launched in 1994, GeoCities enabled users to build their sites online. It provided a limited amount of server resources for free:
This server space was organized into “neighborhoods,” each one dedicated to a particular niche, like technology or entertainment. Users could create websites on their preferred topics without being fluent in programming.
In 1999, GeoCities was acquired by Yahoo!, which introduced a premium hosting service. Ten years later, the company terminated its United States GeoCities service. By that point, it had hosted over 38 million pages .
Released in 1996, FrontPage was a Microsoft product that enabled users to create and manage websites with an HTML code editor:
It was one of the first website builders with a “What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG)” interface. This format meant users could view the website’s appearance on the front end as they coded their pages.
In 2006, Microsoft decided to discontinue FrontPage. It was replaced by two other products: Microsoft SharePoint Designer, which enabled users to design SharePoint-based applications, and Microsoft Expression Web, which helped web designers create sophisticated sites. These two HTML editors were also later discontinued.
Another HTML editor that emerged in the nineties was Dreamweaver. Released in 1997, this website builder enabled developers to edit their sites’ files on their computers, and then upload them to web servers via FTP:
The rise of no-code website builders (mid-2000s to early 2010s)
As the internet became more accessible, more individuals wanted to create sites for their businesses or personal projects. This led to a growing demand for accessible and user-friendly solutions, which marked a big shift in the history of website builders.
Here are some of the website builders that dominated the 2000s:
Released in 2004, Squarespace was one of the first drag-and-drop builders to enter the market. By 2007, it achieved an annual revenue of $1 million :
Using Squarespace, you could now create a website by dragging elements like images and text onto the page, then arranging and customizing them. Plus, the websites were hosted on Squarespace’s servers, so there was no need to transfer the content to the web.
Squarespace is still popular today. It’s used by approximately 2.0% of websites with known content management systems (CMS) .
Wix launched soon after in 2006 and is another product that revolutionized the web development industry:
Its user-friendly, drag-and-drop interface helped it rise to fame quickly. By 2010, Wix had 3.5 million users . Today, it remains one of the most popular page builders, accounting for roughly 44% of the global market share .
From the start, Wix offered an all-in-one solution, enabling users to create a website and host it on the company’s servers. Its paid plan comes with a custom domain and an ad-free website.
Shopify was founded in 2006 as well, and quickly became the leading website builder for ecommerce stores:
It used (and still uses) an open-source template language called Liquid, written in Ruby. In 2009, Shopify launched an Application Programming Interface (API) platform and an app store. These new features enabled developers to create applications for online stores and sell them on the app.
By 2012, Shopify had over 40,000 active stores . In 2013, it launched its own payment processor, Shopify Payments, which lets store owners accept credit cards.
In 2013, Webflow was created specifically for web designers and agencies. It enabled them to create fully-customized sites with a drag-and-drop editor:
The Webflow UI was different from most other website builders at the time because it offered advanced customization capabilities beyond simple tweaks to font and color.
With Webflow, users were able to customize page layouts and components using a vast selection of settings. They could also add effects like outlines, box shadows, transitions, and backdrop filters.
Plus, you were able to make site-wide changes directly within the visual editor without installing add-ons or widgets. For example, you could create a fully-functional shop, generate discount codes, and sell subscriptions – no coding or third-party apps required.
Of course, no history of website builders would be complete without a look at WordPress.com. Launched by Automattic in 2006, WordPress.com was one of the earliest blogging platforms:
Users could set up a blog for free and interact with others through comments. Since then, WordPress.com has evolved into a powerful hosting solution for all types of websites, not just blogs.
From its inception, WordPress.com enabled users to select themes for their sites and customize their appearance. However, it would take more than a decade before WordPress.com users were able to take advantage of the WordPress plugin ecosystem.
Moving towards a more user-friendly interface (history of website builders in the mid to late 2010s)
During the 2010s, website builders underwent a significant transformation. While they had always provided an easy way to create websites, they now offered a more intuitive interface that further simplified the process.
For example, here’s what Squarespace looked like in 2014, ten years after it was launched:
This version streamlined the website-building process. While users were once required to create accounts first, they could now get started by choosing templates:
Likewise, Wix had a massive makeover, replacing its old flash technology with HTML. It also enabled users to start designing their sites straight away, giving them a selection of website templates to choose from:
Most website builders started to focus on responsiveness, enabling users to customize their sites for different devices, including mobile phones. Some, like Shopify, even introduced mobile apps, so users could manage their websites on the go:
Meanwhile, WordPress.com added the ability to install custom plugins (on higher-tier plans). This allowed for page-building tools like Elementor to bring more customization options to their users. Like Shopify, WordPress.com launched an app that enabled users to design and update their sites from their phones:
This flexibility has made WordPress.com one of the most popular website builders of all time. It now hosts sites in over 120 languages, and its users publish more than 70 million new posts per month .
Website builders today
So far, we’ve looked at the history of website builders from the 90s to the late 2010s. Today, drag-and-drop builders still dominate the market. As of 2023, Wix and Squarespace are the leading website builders worldwide .
Some digital marketing companies are even creating their own website builders. For example, Constant Contact now enables subscribers to build sites for small businesses in just a few simple steps:
Meanwhile, some website builders, such as Wix, have evolved beyond simple building tools. In 2020, Wix launched Editor X, an interface created specifically for web designers and agencies. It comes with advanced capabilities, including custom breakpoints and a CSS grid, that enable users to design more complex websites:
Wix has also introduced a full-stack development platform called Velo, which lets developers build and launch their own applications. These tools present a new world of possibilities, enabling users with advanced knowledge to create unique apps via a combination of drag-and-drop and code editors.
Squarespace has also maintained its popularity through various evolutions. The addition of ecommerce integrations (such as multiple payment gateways) and developer-friendly, template-creation features has expanded its appeal to different types of users, including artists and creatives. Additionally, Squarespace sells its own domain names, enabling it to compete with domain registrars such as GoDaddy. We can help you decide whether GoDaddy or Squarespace is the right choice for you.
As we have seen in this post, website builders have come a long way since the days of code-based editors. Drag-and-drop interfaces have made website building far more accessible. Plus, a user can typically manage all aspects of their site from one account, including web hosting and email marketing.
That wraps up our brief guide to the history of website builders!
Web development has undergone tremendous changes since its inception in the early 90s. The earliest tools were primarily HTML editors, like FrontPage and Dreamweaver. They required coding knowledge, while drag-and-drop builders, such as Squarespace and Wix, later simplified the process and expanded users’ options.
All-in-one solutions like Wix and WordPress.com remain popular among individuals and businesses. These website builders are now more flexible than ever and come with advanced functionality, including ecommerce features and email marketing integration. They also offer advanced tools for web developers and designers, enabling them to create their own designs and apps.
Learning about the history of website builders is both fascinating and entertaining, and we hope you enjoyed reading about it as much as we enjoyed writing about it. If it happened to spark your interest in creating a website 👨💻 then you’re going to need a modern day website builder to get the job done. For that you definitely want to check out 👉 our detailed comparison of the best website builders.
Do you have any questions about the history of website builders? Let us know in the comments section below!
Don’t forget to join our crash course on speeding up your WordPress site. Learn more below: