Web development has significantly evolved over the past ten years. The constraints that have been prevalent back then are no longer the limit. There are many ways, frameworks, tools, and technologies that allow web developers to quickly and effectively build websites. One of these are static site generators (SSG).
Static Site Generators are easy to use, simple, and provide a fast and scalable environment for building websites. They are essential for Jamstack Development – a modern way to build websites. To help you choose the best SSG, we’ve prepared a short guide.
Here’s what you’ll learn in this post:
- What are static site generators and how they work
- Why it’s worth using SSG
- What to think about when choosing a SSG for building your website
- The best Static Site Generators: the most popular ones and the most intriguing contenders
There’s a lot to talk about so let’s get right to it!
What Are Static Site Generators (SSG)?
When it comes to web development, there are a lot of approaches you can take. We’ll stick to the main two ways of creating a website – a traditional monolithic approach and headless, also known as non-monolithic architecture or Jamstack.
A traditional monolithic approach requires a traditional web application stack (web stack) with an operating system, a webserver, a database, and a script interpreter. It’s a unified network of tools with a content management system (CMS) that are required to build a website. One of the best examples of such is WordPress.
On the other hand, headless decouples (removes) the front-end (the head, i.e., the presentation layer), from the back-end (the database) and gives you two separate parts with a flexible environment for building a website.
That’s where static site generators play a crucial role – in contrast to the traditional approach, static site generators don’t require having a database or other external data sources to generate a site. In traditional websites, the servers generate the view on demand every time a page is requested.
SSG makes it all much easier. Static site generator renders the page at the build time. In other words, SSG takes already a built page stored on a CDN (Content Delivery Network) and serves it to the user whenever – and only then – he or she visits a website. Additionally, to generate a site, SSGs can use a database, REST API, Markdown files, or other locations.
In the simplest form, generating a website with SSG follows this scheme:
To sum it up, all the content and data you have goes through SSG and templates to generate the final product – a fully functional website. And you don’t need a database or servers. Static site generators, as the name suggests, make it possible to quickly and effortlessly generate static pages.
The result is a fully-responsive website with fast loading time and high performance. It’s helpful especially in the case of having many fixed elements on the website like the layout, themes, images, a lot of content, navigation menu, or logos.
To Be a Static Site Generator or Not To Be…? [Only for Purists]
It’s more or less clear, right?
Probably right. But it’s not that easy.
The above description is somewhat of a simplification. Static Site Generators is a term that is beginning to be used to describe a variety of web serving tools – including those that do not meet the definition of “classic” Static Site Generators. Some of the tools named this way offer developers the use of Server Side Rendering as an alternative option.
Unlike SSG, SSR needs a server where the page code is rendered and then served to the client in finished form. SSR additionally provides a fairly extensive backend.
Both of these features should basically exclude these tools from the group titled Static Site Generators – as we wrote above, SSGs don’t need servers to generate pages.
However, some popular tools often called SSGs have recently been equipped with additional features. Thus, for example, the popular Gatsby offers SSR (starting October 2021). 11ty provides a plugin to run as a serverless feature for serving via SSR.
If you really want to say you understand the term “Static Site Generators”, you should remember about an important phenomenon that was accurately described by Brian Rinaldi:
Sometimes the technology that a term refers to evolves beyond the literal meaning of the term.
Why Should You Use a Static Site Generator?
Static site generators are… simply good and can effectively be used with Jamstack. That gives a lot of options for web developers. They can choose which frameworks, languages, tools to use, how they want their environment to look and work like. And there are many SSGs to choose from these days – dev teams aren’t limited but can go for static site generators that best suit their needs.
New, advanced tools have emerged allowing for improved and optimized development workflow. There’s automation in updating the website, no need to dig in the code. Also, SSGs are secure as you don’t have to store data on your own servers.
And as with everything in the world of web development, static site generators have their pros and cons. So if you’re building a website, you just need to know what you’re looking for, either as a web developer or a business owner.
Benefits of Using SSG
According to statistics, the adoption of SSG is growing “in general by 2x in year over year. In 2019 it was 0.4% mobile and 0.3% desktop sites. In 2020 the number almost doubled, to 0.6% on mobile and 0.7% on desktop sites. In 2021, they have grown again: 1.1% of mobile and 0.9% of desktop sites.”
No wonder the use of static site generators is steadily growing. It’s a convenient tool for building static websites that at the same time have greatest functionalities of dynamic websites. And if you have precisely determined your needs, you can gain many benefits.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the advantages of using a static site generator.
In Jamstack, the front end is prebuilt into static pages and assets during the build process. That enables delivering the content via CDN. And this can be easily done with static site generators.
Jamstack is just made to build websites with SSGs. Especially, since there are many static site generators fully compatible with Jamstack and the headless approach. So if you’re deciding to go for this architecture, you can be sure you’ll have a great, fast, and reliable website.
Static site generators can deliver the needed content to a website via CDN (Content Delivery Network) which means a short travel distance for the request and fewer systems to interact with. Also, static websites are generally lighter and faster than dynamic ones, so going with Jamstack will positively affect your Core Web Vitals, which are basic indicators regarding performance of the site.
That results in a good page load time and fast response so users can smoothly explore the website or app.
Of course, the SSG alone won’t make your website super fast. The point is in using it with other tools. That’s why you need CDNs, APIs, and Markup – sites are generated in advance, not on demand. Also, the lack of a database makes it much more efficient to deliver the website to the end-user. That’s also why static site generators are so good when used in Jamstack.
Security and Easy Maintenance
Using SSGs simplifies the underlying infrastructure of a website or app and makes it less vulnerable to cyber attacks, unforeseen traffic surges, and crashes.
Instead, all assets are rendered in advance either from a simplified web server or directly from the CDN. And because the site has already been generated, there’s no extra server work for each request. Such an automated build process lowers chances for failures and improves reliability.
Also, with no servers and databases to manage, you don’t have to worry about the whole infrastructure (maintaining it on your own can be a real headache).
Using static site generators gives you fewer elements to work with and fewer resources to manage and maintain. It’s also easier to spot and fix bugs which ensures continuity to your platform and smooth flow of work.
Because SSGs don’t require having a database or other external data sources, you don’t need to spend tons of money on maintaining them. It simply means fewer expenses to your business.
A Few Words On SSG Drawbacks
Although static site generators are overally a great solution for building a website, they have some limitations.
Here are a few main disadvantages worth mentioning:
- Steep learning curve: while developers will find them easy and flexible to use, for marketers and non-tech savvy people it may be challenging, especially with the no-user-friendly interface. That may result in a complicated workflow because each time you’ll want to publish content and elements, the process of change implementation will take a lot of time, people engagement, and use of resources. Or you can simply hire people who know how to set up the static site generators properly, so that you won’t have to do it at all.
- Difficult file management: it may be hard to organize files without a unified content management system; in this case, you’ll need your dev team to organize files into directories and use batch processing scripts. Also, in opposition to traditional CMS, static site generators don’t provide different user roles so your team may be limited in accessing the content. Unless you implement a headless CMS – an alternative to Wordpress – which is a natural addition to static site generators in the Jamstack approach.
In general, the pros outweigh the cons, and using SSG for your website can boost performance and deliver your visitors a better experience. All you need is the right team.
What to Consider When Choosing an SSG for Your Website?
Choosing the right SSG for your website is not obvious. It depends on many factors. Using a static site generator just because they’re popular isn’t exactly a good idea. If you go for SSG, you need to think it through and consider all the pros and cons.
And there are many aspects to study. The main things you need to think about include the following:
- Your site’s primary function – is it delivering only static content, acting more as an application with various functions, or is it a site with many pages?
- Tools and web frameworks your dev team uses (if you have one)
- Complexity – your team will need dedicated tools and templates which may not always be suitable for the type of site you want to create
- Functionalities you want to include
- Industry and niche you’re aiming at
- Your business needs and personal preferences as a business owner, and other business-specific factors
Choosing the wrong approach to web development may bring more harm than good and will result in poor website performance, bad user experience, and reduce your chances of attracting new customers.
And if you’re not sure which option is best for your business, outsource the best web development agency. At Naturaily, we’d be happy to help you with Jamstack development, assist, advise, or even build the whole website for you!
What Are The Best Static Site Generators?
Some are advanced, others offer limited options or aim at different niches. But to help you choose the right SSG, we’ve gathered a list of the best 14 static site generators to use. Let’s check them one by one and see why it’s worth using them.
1. Gatsby (JS)
Best for: Jamstack beginners and developers who want a flexible work environment
Gatsby is one of the most popular SSGs. It’s a React-based open-source framework that lets you create websites and apps. It offers an ecosystem of Plugins, Themes, and Starters to help you quickly and effectively build and deploy a website.
Gatsby is most suitable for new developers and Jamstack beginners. But it can also be helpful for those who need a unified, elastic set of tools to flexibly create websites and improve the developer experience. Gatsby allows you to work with the latest web technologies, provides an environment for easy deployment, and is known for its scalability.
- With Gatsby’s data layer, you can combine data from multiple sources
- Uses GraphQL to manage site data
- Rich Gatsby Plugin Library allows you to add and configure plugins to build new features for your website
- Gatsby Image component lets you create images dynamically from data
- A lot of starter sites with the possibility to customize them
- Works well with Netlify
- Gives you access to many APIs
2. Hugo (Go)
Best for: fast and efficient site generation
Hugo is a static site generator built in an open-source model. It’s written in Go. Hugo is known for its speed and security.
You can use it to build websites with a lot of content such as blogs, company sites, documentation, a single landing page, or a site with lots of pages. Hugo is best for people who prefer to write in a text editor rather than in a browser.
- Fast build times (<1 ms per page)
- Convenient content management
- Cross-platform (you can use it on macOS, Linux, Windows, and more)
- Lets you freely operate with URLs – Hugo supports permalinks, aliases, link canonicalization, and multiple options for handling relative vs absolute URLs, allows you to customize links
- Rich theming
- Integrated Google Analytics support
- You can host your sites on Netlify, GitHub Pages, GitLab Pages, Google Cloud Storage, Amazon S3, and more, and via CDNs
3. Next (JS)
Best for: building hybrid websites and web applications
Next.js is a React-based web framework. It gives a lot of flexibility as it can be used for building web applications that are fully server-side rendered (SSR), statically pre-rendered (SSG), or hybrid SSG/SSR applications.
Next.js provides a great developer experience with its set of tools and functionalities. It’s suitable for building all types of pages for different businesses and industries.
- Image optimization
- Rendering your content in different ways, depending on your application’s use case: SSR, SSG, CSR, dynamic routing, ISR
- Automatic code splitting for faster page loads
- Built-in CSS and Sass support, as well as support for any CSS-in-JS library
- Fully extendable
4. Eleventy / 11ty (JS)
Best for: simple site building and deploying
Eleventy is praised for its performance and scalability, as well as its ease of use. It can help your dev team quickly and conveniently build and deploy websites.
- Pre-rendered templates ensure the high performance of your website
- Eleventy can run in serverless mode
- Easy data migration, adaptation, and configuration within the templates
5. Jekyll (Ruby)
Best for: lightweight and intuitive website building
Jekyll is a Ruby-based SSG that aims at simplifying the developer experience. It’s a fine solution for not so advanced developers as it allows you to quickly build websites and further deepen your knowledge. It’s a good starting point for beginners.
Although you can use Jekyll to build any site, it’s best for websites with static blogs and lots of text.
- Free hosting on GitHub pages
- Jekyll is a lightweight, easy to use static site generator
- A large community that contributes to the constant growth and proper maintenance of Jekyll, and helps to find necessary resources
6. R Markdown (R)
Best for: generating sites for high-quality documents, reports, presentations, and dashboards
R Markdown is a package for R language developers designed to show the results of data analysis. It combines the functionality of writing and executing code and generating output reports, e.g., in HTML format, which enables later presentation of the results of work in the form of a web page.
R Markdown is also a framework integrated with the IDE “Rstudio”, which allows for interactive preparation of data analysis. This SSG lets you turn your data analysis into interactive sites easily accessible to a wide audience.
- Designed for easy reproducibility
- Calculation code and descriptions are contained in the same file
- Results are automatically generated from the source code
- Lets you use multiple languages including R, Python, and SQL
7. Pelican (Python)
Best for: quick development of simple websites
Pelican is a static site generator written in Python. It doesn’t require a database or the use of server-side logic. It’s a simple tool that uses command-line commands to create content from source data.
Pelican offers an easy to use interface with version control systems and web hooks. Additionally, the completely static output is simple to host anywhere.
- Ability to generate web pages for publishing chronological content such as articles, blog posts
- Easy integration with external services such as Twitter, or Google Analytics
- Publication of content in multiple languages
8. Sculpin (PHP)
Best for: users knowing PHP programming language for webmastering
Sculpin is a static site generator written in PHP, which can be an added value for users switching from WordPress, for example. It converts Markdown files to a static HTML file and uses Twig templating engine in the process.
- Sculpin is built on a simple and beginner webmasters friendly PHP language
- The modern Twig templating engine is easy to learn, extensible, concise, flexible, and widely documented
- Built-in ‘Composer’ for automatic version management of dependent libraries
9. Docusaurus (JS)
Best for: building rich-text websites and documentation
Docusaurus is a tool that converts Markdown files (user-prepared content, on which you should focus your full attention, not on technical support of the publishing process) to HTML files ready for publishing. It uses React, which makes it easy to extend and customize the project layout.
- Uses Crowdin to prepare translations into more than 70 languages
- Content versioning synchronized with project versions
- Use of Algolia for dynamic content search
Best for: generating sites dedicated to content and SEO (blogs, landing pages, company sites)
A tool different from the others because it’s prepared as a desktop application with a GUI, not as a tool using command-lines. Publii is an application that you run on your computer and generate a page from your content.
The built-in tool allows you to quickly publish to the hosting of your choice. It’s also possible to convert an existing WordPress site to Publii.
- Ease of use, making the tool intuitive for everyone
- Built-in tools to optimize content for SEO
- Designed for quick operation of generated pages on different devices thanks to Google AMP technology
11. Gridsome (Vue JS)
Best for: creating extremely fast and well-performing websites
Working on the local project allows for instant hot-reloading after every change. You don’t need any external servers or databases to maintain the project as all operations are performed directly on files.
- Easy installation
- Generation of static PWAs
- SEO-friendly: Grindsome generates static HTML which enables search engines to easily find the content
12. Scully (Angular)
Best for: building fast apps and websites with Angular
Scully static site generator is written for the Angular framework. The tool transforms an existing project into statistical HTML and CSS files, each of is a finished, view-ready piece of your application.
That enables a good time optimization of transferring content to the user, due to the multiple reductions of the volume of transferred data and no need for the application to generate in real-time.
- End-to-end content delivery to users, with no back-end support required
- Immediate availability of content to users
- The ability to use the Single Page Application (SPA)
- Scully is SEO-friendly
13. Hexo (JS)
Best for: creating blogs with lightweight tools in a simple environment
Hexo is fast, easy to use, and provides a smooth developer experience with plugins, themes, and easy deployment.
- A wide library of different, ready-to-use themes
- Hexo JS supports Markdown (GitHub Flavored Markdown) and Octopress plugins
- Ability to install additional, external plugins
14. Harp (JS)
Best for: building website with build-in preprocessing and no need to work on configuration
Because of the pre-compilers, Harp is a powerful SSG, simple, and lightweight, and provides a customizable environment for building sites.
- Harp lets you reuse common elements with partials, and maintain a consistent site design with layouts
- It’s fast, lightweight, and scalable
- Easy compilation of a project, such as a GitHub project or application, into HTML and CSS files and the ability to host them freely just the way you like it
Static site generators make it possible to quickly and effortlessly generate static sites. With many SSGs available, you have limitless possibilities and options for creating your perfect website.
And if you’re not sure which static site generator is best for your website and business type, we’ll be happy to help. Reach out to us at Naturaily and our team of professional web developers will help you build Jamstack websites tailored to your needs!