Many website pages are dynamic. That means a page’s content can change from session to session depending on who’s loading it, whether they’re logged in or out, and several other factors.
If your website doesn’t do that, then you’re dealing with static pages.
Static sites don’t have any dynamic content. In a lot of cases, that can translate to faster loading times and better overall site performance. Understanding the pros and cons of dynamic sites and pages will help you decide when it makes sense to use them.
This article will cover what static site generators are and when you should use them. We’ll also discuss the pros and cons of static sites, and we’ll introduce you to five of the top generators you can use today.
Let’s get to it!
What Is a Static Site Generator?
Technically, you don’t need to use a “generator” or any content management system (CMS) to create a static page. If you know your way around HTML and CSS, you can create a page without too much fuss using your favorite text editor:
Static site generators offer a third, more streamlined option. They often include various tools that make it easy to launch a website, style it, create content, publish it, and update pages as needed.
If you’re not familiar with website development, then you’ll probably want tools like static site generators in your arsenal to help bring your vision to life.
By and large, most popular generators offer a broad range of features that make your work easier, including:
- Support for Markdown language: Most generators don’t include full-blown text editors. Instead, they use Markdown language, sometimes even including additional custom Markdown syntaxes.
- Built-in layout and templating options: Designing and styling a website is often the most challenging building process. That’s why generators tend to include built-in templating and layout options.
- Support for multiple types of content: Depending on which generator you use, it should support various types of content, such as blog posts, pages, galleries, and more.
- Built-in SEO functionality: No modern website is ready without proper search engine optimization (SEO). If you’re considering — or already using — a generator that doesn’t offer SEO features or add-ons, you’re better off moving to a new tool.
It’s important to note that most static site generators assume that you already have an essential website development background. Some options are relatively beginner-friendly, but they still require you to be familiar with concepts such as the command line, Markdown language, and more.
Why Use a Static Site Generator (Pros and Cons)
You might be wondering why anyone would use a complex static site generator when there are tools like WordPress available.
It all comes down to case-by-case uses, personal preference, and performance.
In the vast majority of cases, static websites will load much faster than their dynamic counterparts. That’s because your servers have to deal with far fewer requests, and there’s no database involved. Every visitor will see the same pages, and all that data is baked into the code that your static site generator puts out.
Some developers also prefer to deal with static site generators instead of complex CMSs that pack too many features. Site generators tend to be lean, and in some cases, they are highly modular. That means less bloat to deal with and fewer features to master, especially if you’re only interested in creating specific pages.
Static Sites vs Dynamic Sites
Of course, not all sites should be static. So how do you know when this is the right approach for your needs?
Here are some examples of sites that don’t necessarily need to be dynamic:
- Personal blog posts
- Documentation pages
- Landing pages
- Portfolio pages
- Brochure sites
Although the idea of a static website might sound limiting, there’s a lot that you can do without introducing any dynamic elements onto a page.
However, any website that requires a database is out of the question. That means that you can’t use static website generators to create online shops, blog posts with comments sections, websites with user registration, and so on.
If you don’t need dynamic functionality, using a static website generator will grant you far better site performance than most CMS’s will out of the box.
We say “out of the box” because there’s a lot you can do to optimize a CMS such as WordPress. In our experience, a well-optimized WordPress website can be just as fast as a static one (provided that you also have fantastic hosting).
If you’re choosing to use a static site generator simply due to performance concerns, it might be worth your while to consider some CMS options instead.
On the other hand, if you’re confident that you won’t need dynamic functionality for your website, all that’s left is to find the right tool.
5 Best Static Site Generators
Before we discuss specific static site generators, it’s worth mentioning that all of these tools are self-hosted. To use them, you’ll need to find a hosting provider that can either set them up for you or give you access to the command line.
With that in mind, let’s go over some of our top picks for static site generators in 2023.
Jekyll is one of the most popular open-source static website generators — and with good reason. It’s the software that powers GitHub Pages, which offers free hosting for static sites.
At its core, Jekyll is a blogging-friendly generator. This static software supports Markdown, ships with a comprehensive taxonomy system, and supports the Liquid templating language.
Some of the most popular websites that use Jekyll include Ruby on Rails, Sketch, and Spotify for Developers.
If you’re looking to launch a free static website, Jekyll and Github Pages might be a fantastic combination for you.
Hugo is an open-source static website generator that bills itself as a “general-purpose” framework. That’s an elegant way of saying that you can use Hugo to build a broad range of websites, going well beyond simple blogs and brochure pages.
With Hugo, you can generate pages at a blazing pace, with build times often under one second. The software enables you to preview changes to your pages as you make them using LiveReload, and it offers powerful theming functionality.
Hugo uses a modular system to help you build static websites. You have several modules to choose from, including content, layouts, and data.
Some popular websites that use Hugo include 1Password’s documentation pages, Linode’s docs section, and KeyCDN.
With Hugo, you can combine multiple modules on any page to get the exact features you need.
Gridsome is a powerful static site generator. You can use it to create pages with modern tools such as Vue.js and GraphQL.
You can also use Gridsome to set up a “head” for a CMS. For example, you could use Gridsome to generate static pages using data pulled from WordPress, which is a “headless” CMS setup.
The advantage of a headless setup is that you get all the best parts of using static pages while also taking advantage of the full range of CMS functionality. In other words, you get access to databases, advanced taxonomies, and even full-blown text editors.
It’s also worth noting that Gridsome offers a broad collection of plugins that you can use to extend the generator’s functionality. If there’s a feature that the framework doesn’t provide out of the box, the chances are that there’s a plugin for it.
Gridsome is still a relatively new static website generator. However, two great examples of sites that already use this software are Smart City Expo Atlanta and Format.
As you might imagine, Gridsome is not as beginner-friendly as other tools in this list. You’ll need some web development experience to get the most out of this software.
If you already know your way around Vue.js, Gridsome is one of the best static site generators that you can use.
What’s more, with websites like Chrome Developers and Netlify using Eleventy, it’s grown in popularity.
In our experience, getting started with Eleventy can be a bit challenging as its documentation is still in progress. However, the effort is well worth it if you’re looking for a lean static site generator.
Pelican is a little-known static website generator that’s all about Python. If you’re familiar with Python, you can use the software to create static pages using Markdown and reStructuredText.
This software comes with a set of themes that you can customize, and it includes multilingual support. Moreover, Pelican enables you to import data from WordPress, RSS feeds, and several other third-party sources, making it an excellent option for a headless setup.
Pelican offers a robust set of plugins that you can set up to extend the generator’s functionality. Overall, it’s one of the leanest static site generators on our list, but it’s a terrific option if you already know or want to learn Python.
What to Consider When Choosing a Static Site Generator
Your choice of static site generator will primarily come down to three factors. Let’s break down what they are:
- Ease of use: If you’re an experienced web developer, you should be able to pick up any static site generator with relative ease. However, if you’re working on one of your first projects, you’ll want to opt for a beginner-friendly generator.
- Type of content it supports: Most popular static site generators will enable you to create all kinds of pages. However, others focus on specific types of content, such as blog posts.
- Existing software community: By and large, we recommend that you use tools with well-established user communities. That way, you’ll have easier time troubleshooting problems and getting answers to questions.
Most of the static site generators we’ve looked at here require you to be at least somewhat comfortable with web development fundamentals. If that sounds like too much, you might be better off with a user-friendly CMS such as WordPress.
A managed WordPress website can be just as fast as a static site. Plus, the CMS is straightforward to use (even if you’re working on your first project).
A lot of people think about static websites as remnants of the old internet. However, static pages can be a boon to any website, since they often deliver much better performance than their dynamic counterparts. Depending on what generator you choose, you might even be able to set up a headless WordPress website with static page outputs.
If you’re considering using a static site generator, these are our top five recommendations:
- Jekyll: A blog-friendly static site generator that you can use with Github Pages.
- Hugo: A module-based static site generator with blazing fast performance.
- Gridsome: This scalable generator uses Vue.js to help you create static pages.
- Pelican: A lean, Python-based static site generator.
Are you thinking of trying a static site generator for your next web project? Tell us all about it in the comments section below!
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