The Difference Between a Website Builder and a CMS

By Cory LaViska on May 2, 2019

These days, there's a fine line between a website builder and a CMS. A lot of folks use the terms interchangeably, but they are very different products.

Drawings of wireframes

I've been involved with content management for over 15 years. Not just as a user, but as a developer. I've worked with a number of well-known systems such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, ExpressionEngine, and a multitude of custom built solutions.

My own product, Surreal CMS, has been in service for over a decade. Before that, I built content management tools as well as an entire CMS for the university I worked for. It's safe to say I know a thing or two about websites and the content management industry.

The terms website builder and CMS are not synonymous. Here's a simple definition from a content management veteran:

A website builder is a tool that lets you build a website from scratch.

A CMS is a tool that lets you manage a website's content.

That makes it pretty clear, but what happens when builders incorporate CMS features and CMSs incorporate builder features? This is where the ambiguity stems from.

Solve one problem well

I believe software should solve one problem and solve it well. If you concentrate on a single objective, you'll be really good at it. If you branch out too far from that objective, you risk polluting the experience and making the software harder to use and less desirable.

A website builder should focus on building websites. The end result should be a set of templates and assets that you can deploy to whatever hosting platform you want.

A CMS should focus on managing content. The end result should be a system that lets you manage content, users, and general website operations.

Of course, to make products more attractive to users, this separation of duties is often blurred. If you're the creator of a CMS, how do you get more people to use your software? One way to encourage adoption is to make it easier for users to build a website on your platform.

Similarly, if you're the creator of a website builder and a common complaint from users is "my clients need a way to edit pages," you're probably going to give them a way to manage content.

This usually results in a hybrid app that, in my opinion, seldom solves both problems well. That's why I chose not to incorporate website builder features into my CMS.

Surreal CMS isn't a website builder

I'll say it again. Surreal CMS isn't a website builder, it's a content management system. The software I built is not intended to create websites from scratch. There are too many great products out there to compete with.

Instead, I focused on giving users the freedom to build the websites they want with the tools they want — be it a text editor or a website builder — and providing the best possible content management experience I can.

As such, making integration as simple as possible has always been high on my list. That's how I ended up with our trademark class="cms-editable" syntax to define content regions. Almost anyone can add a CSS class to an HTML template (either through code or through software) to make a webpage editable.

At the end of the day, my goal with Surreal CMS is to provide a fantastic content management experience, no matter how you choose to build your website.