Open Source vs Closed Source Websites

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By Josh Brodleit on November 22, 2017

Deciding between an open source or closed source website is like buying or renting a house.

With open source you own it all. You can rip out the carpet, knock down walls or add new bathrooms. Some modular homes you can even move! Like owning a home, open source websites are distributed code (free or sometimes paid) that you download from the web. From there you are free to do what you like with the files. Some popular open source platforms include Wordpress (wordpress.org), Magento, ExpressionEngine, Craft CMS, Joomla, and Drupal.

With closed source platforms, it is like renting, you still get to choose your house, but you may not have the flexibility in tearing down walls or remodeling to get your dream kitchen. Your landlord may allow you to paint the walls or even replace an old ceiling fan, but you can probably forget about converting the garage into that man-cave you always wanted. Like renting, closed source websites are owned by a software company (your landlord), that they host, upgrade and maintain. Some popular closed source products include Shopify, Weebly, Wix, and Squarespace.

Both open source and closed source each come with their own advantages and disadvantages, much like owning a home or renting. Here are the pros and cons of each:

Open Source

Pros

  • Extend Functionality
    You have access to all the source code and you are free to add custom functionality when you want and where you want it.
  • Add plugins or integrations to enhance functionality
    Most open source platforms have the ability to add a variety of functionality through the use of 3rd party plugins.
  • No Contracts
    Open source products typically don’t require a contract, although some open source software companies may charge for a single-use license.
  • Modify Structure and/or Styling
    Developers have the ability to edit code, make design changes, and also have greater flexibility in fine-tuning how search engines read your page.

Cons

  • Extending Functionality Costs Money
    If you’re looking for custom functionality outside of what is offered in a 3rd party plugin market, you most likely will need to pay a developer to build that customization and that could get expensive.
  • Manual Site Updates or Server Maintenance
    You will have to make sure your site is secure and getting the latest updates. This typically requires a skilled developer which could also be an added expense.
  • Too Much Functionality
    Be cautious of buying a huge house -- it may be more than you need. The appeal of getting everything you’ve ever wanted can be nice in theory, but sometimes open source products (like Magento) have so much functionality that you can actually spend more time paying a developer configuring settings than actually selling products.

Closed Source

Pros

  • Cost Effective
    Typically closed source products are more cost effective. You won’t need to pay a developer to run site updates and security improvements because that is most likely rolled into your contract and administered by the software company.
  • Extend Functionality
    Both open source and closed source usually both offer a wide range of 3rd party plugins. With closed source products these plugins are typically a one-click install and don’t require a developer.

Cons

  • Functionality Limitations
    Because you don’t own the source files, there may limitations in what kind of functionality you may have.
  • Monthly Contracts
    With products like Shopify, many of the 3rd party plugins charge a monthly fee. Add that to your already monthly fee and this too can add up fast.
  • No Ownership
    Since you don’t own your site, you are at the mercy of the software company and their changes and fees.
  • Limitations in Modifying Code and Design
    There may be limited access to code that allows you to make code modifications that could affect your SEO strategies and ADA compliance standards.

Summary

Ultimately, buying a house (open source) is likely going to be more expensive in long-run, but will give you greater ability to more easily extend your site’s functionality and grow. Having access to code will give you more control of your code which will likely help increase your site’s on-page SEO, if you’re partnered with the right marketing agency.

Renting a house (closed source) can help cut costs while providing a tremendous amount of functionality. If a product like Shopify meets your feature requirements and it’s capable of meeting your wish list of potential future features, then it may be worth considering a closed source product. Just because you don’t own, doesn’t mean you can’t still have an amazing product.

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Josh Brodleit
Josh Brodleit
Josh has extensive knowledge in SEO, UI/ UX and project management. His wide skill set range allows him to be an extremely effective solutions-based developer. Josh utilizes this experience to help our partners imagine and discover the best outcomes for their branded site.

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