7 Reasons NOT to Use a Static Site Generator

Craig Buckler
Craig Buckler
Static site generators (SSGs) are popular and offer many benefits, but this article discusses reasons why they may not be a suitable replacement for your content management system (CMS).
In my previous article, we discussed how your site could benefit from using a static site generator:
  • A static site is a collection of pages contained in basic HTML files. You could hand-write these in a text editor, but managing assets and repeated elements such as navigation can become problematic.
  • A content management system stores page content in a database and provides facilities to edit and apply themes. Management becomes easier at the expense of flexibility, performance, server requirements, security, and backups.
  • A static site generator is a compromise between using a hand-coded static site and a full CMS. You generate the full site once using raw data (such as Markdown files) and templates. The resulting set of files is transferred to your live server.
  • The term “Jamstack” (JavaScript, APIs, and Markup) is used in relation to static sites. It refers to the rise in frameworks, serverless functions, and associated tools which generate static files but allow complex interactivity to be added.
Popular static site generators include Jekyll, Eleventy, Gatsby
, Hugo, and Metalsmith. SSGs are available for most languages; see StaticGen for many more. SSGs appear to offer the benefits of both CMS and static worlds, but they may not be suitable for every project …

1. You’re On Your Own

You won’t get far using a static site generator without some development expertise. The process is more difficult than using a CMS, there are fewer resources, and you could struggle to find pre-built plugins and templates. Contrast that with WordPress. A non-technical user may require installation assistance but, once that’s complete, they can edit a site and install one of the many thousands of themes and plugins available. They may not have the best bespoke website, but they’re running with minimal intervention.

2. Choice Paralysis

There are many static site generators, but even the most popular tools are used by a tiny proportion of the web community. You’ll need time to research, investigate, and evaluate the options. One of the first SSGs was the Ruby-based Jekyll but, while you don’t necessarily require Ruby expertise, it will help if you’ve used the language before. There are many CMSs, but there’s one obvious choice: WordPress. It powers more than 40% of the Web, so help is abundant. Again, it will help if you have some PHP experience, but even a non-developer can create a reasonable website using off-the-shelf themes and plugins.

3. The Initial Setup Time

Creating your first static site will take time. You’ll need to learn the build process, and much of the template code will need to be developed. Deployment scripts may also be necessary. Developing a custom CMS theme can also be complicated, but pre-built templates are available and assistance is easier to find. Further development may not be required following the initial installation.

4. No Administration Interface

Clients may be cautious when faced with a complex CMS interface. Asking them to create and edit a set of Markdown files may terrify many. You can make the process easier by perhaps:
  • using their existing CMS as an SSG data source, or
  • providing simpler workflows, such as editing Git-based files in StackEdit or Hackmd.io.
But this will further impact your initial development time.

5. Website Consistency

Static sites are flexible: anything contained within source content can be rendered on a web page. Users may be able to include scripts, widgets, or numerous undesired items. A CMS can be configured to constrain the user. Content is normally bound to a database with specific fields, so administration panels prompt the user to enter a title, body content, excerpts, featured images, and so on. Even if the user enters something in an unexpected field, it won’t appear on the website unless it’s implemented within the theme template.

6. Managing Large Sites

Consider a website with thousands of pages, daily content publications, real-time breaking news, and dozens of authors in multiple locations. It’s possible to manage content using a static site generator, but:
  • Content editing and publishing can be more awkward. Editors may require access to the Git repository or shared folders rather than a simple web or app interface.
  • Real-time updates are delayed because the site must be rebuilt, tested, and deployed.
  • Build times can increase rapidly and deployment could become cumbersome.
Static site generators are perhaps best suited to sites containing no more than a few hundred pages with a couple of new posts every week. Automated build and deploy processes will be required, and you may reach a point where a CMS becomes a more practical option.

7. Server-side Functionality

Static sites are perfect for content pages, but the situation becomes more challenging when you require user logins, form filling, search facilities, discussion forums, or other server and database interactivity. Options include:
  1. Adding a third-party, client-side component such as Algolia search or Disqus comments.
  2. Creating your own server (or serverless) APIs which can be consumed by client-side JavaScript to add required features.
  3. Generating pages containing <?php ... ?> or similar server-side code blocks.
  4. Switching to a framework such as Next.js, which renders static content where possible but also allows server-side processing.
However, the development time, build complexity, security implications, testing effort, and expense will increase. Contrast that to installing a suitable WordPress plugin which can implement client or server-side functionality within a few minutes.

Is a Static Site Right for You?

Before making any decision, examine:
  • your project requirements, size, complexity, update frequency, etc.
  • your users, their location, expectations, etc.
  • your team’s development skills, and
  • any hosting and/or deployment factors.
The vast majority of websites rarely exceed a few dozen pages, receive infrequent updates, and depend on a developer to make those changes. A CMS is often overkill, so a static site generator could simplify development and reduce costs. Persuading your client to abandon their content administration panels may be a tougher task! For practical demonstrations of building sites with a static site generator, see:

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Static Site Generators

What are the main differences between a static site generator and a traditional CMS like WordPress?

A static site generator (SSG) creates a website with static HTML files, which are served to the user exactly as stored. On the other hand, a traditional CMS like WordPress dynamically generates the website content each time a user requests it. This fundamental difference leads to several pros and cons. SSGs are generally faster, more secure, and cheaper to host, but they lack the user-friendly interface and extensive plugin ecosystem of WordPress.

Why might a static site generator not be the best choice for my website?

While static site generators have their advantages, they may not be the best choice for every website. If your site requires dynamic content, user interaction, or frequent updates, a traditional CMS like WordPress might be a better fit. Additionally, SSGs often require more technical knowledge to set up and maintain, which can be a barrier for some users.

Can I use a static site generator if I’m not a developer?

Yes, but it might be more challenging. Static site generators often require a certain level of technical knowledge to set up and maintain. However, there are tools and platforms available that aim to make the process more user-friendly. If you’re willing to learn and experiment, using a static site generator can be a rewarding experience.

What are the security implications of using a static site generator?

Static site generators are generally more secure than traditional CMSs. This is because they don’t have a database or server-side processing, which are common targets for hackers. However, this doesn’t mean they’re completely immune to security threats. It’s still important to follow best practices for web security, such as keeping your software up to date and using strong passwords.

How does the performance of a static site generator compare to a traditional CMS?

Static site generators typically offer better performance than traditional CMSs. This is because they serve pre-generated HTML files, which can be delivered to the user more quickly than dynamically generated content. However, the performance difference may not be noticeable for smaller sites or sites with low traffic.

What are some popular static site generators?

There are many static site generators available, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Some popular choices include Jekyll, Hugo, and Gatsby. Jekyll is known for its simplicity and integration with GitHub Pages, while Hugo is praised for its speed and flexibility. Gatsby, on the other hand, is a modern framework that leverages React and GraphQL.

Can I use a static site generator for a large, complex website?

Yes, but it might be more challenging. Static site generators are best suited for simple, static websites. For large, complex sites with dynamic content or user interaction, a traditional CMS might be a better fit. However, with the right tools and setup, it’s possible to use a static site generator for a larger site.

How does the cost of using a static site generator compare to a traditional CMS?

Static site generators are typically cheaper to host than traditional CMSs. This is because they don’t require a database or server-side processing, which can be expensive. However, the cost can vary depending on your specific needs and the hosting provider you choose.

Can I migrate my existing WordPress site to a static site generator?

Yes, it’s possible to migrate a WordPress site to a static site generator. However, the process can be complex and time-consuming, especially for larger sites. It’s important to carefully plan your migration and test your new site thoroughly before making the switch.

What are the SEO implications of using a static site generator?

Static site generators can be very SEO-friendly. They produce fast, lightweight pages that are easy for search engines to crawl and index. However, they lack some of the SEO features and plugins available in traditional CMSs like WordPress. It’s important to follow best practices for SEO, regardless of the platform you choose.