Top Ten Static Website Generators

These days, speed and security is the name of the game.

Website visitors abandon sites after just a second or two of delay, and database hacks have become commonplace. Just look at the news to see the latest scandal laid bare by hackers who gained access to sensitive information due to poorly maintained WordPress or Drupal installs.

That’s why developers, agencies and producers of web content are turning to static website generators. With modern browsers, sites built with JavaScript, APIs and Markup offer the ability to serve highly dynamic content without the shackles of the standard, painfully slow (and expensive) backend database and a server building a site each time a visitor makes a request. Flat files can be served from CDNs around the world, increasing both speed and uptime, and managing static sites with version control systems like Git means the process of creating and updating sites is highly efficient.

Of course, if you are looking to make the switch, the myriad choices can seem daunting. That’s why we’re here. We’ll take a look at a lineup of the most popular static website generators and what they’re best suited for.

To decide what to cover, we are using, a leaderboard of the top open-source static site generators (full disclosure: Netlify runs We’re letting the community decide by covering the tools with the greatest number of stars on GitHub.

Before we start, you’ll probably notice that ReactJS isn’t on this list. You can’t talk about front end development in 2016 without talking about React, but React is more rightly a set of tools that can be used for many things, including static site and single page app development. React has been used to create some of the SSBs on this list, and will undoubtedly continue to have a hand in the future of the modern web, but for the purposes of this article, we’re looking at tools that can build entire sites and apps, not just components.


1. Jekyll

Jekyll is far and away the most popular static site generator. That’s no surprise, considering it underpins GitHub Pages and was created by GitHub co-founder Tom Preston-Werner.

Jekyll is built with Ruby, and is most often used for blogs and personal projects, due to its close integration with GitHub. Jekyll takes a directory filled with text files, renders that content with Markdown and Liquid templates, and generates a publish-ready static website. Its large community and wide array of plugins makes it a great jumping off place for bloggers coming from the world of WordPress and Drupal, making it easy to import content from those formats and more.


2. Hexo

Hexo is a build tool created with nodeJS, which allows for super speedy rendering, even with extremely large sites. Hexo focuses on being a blog framework that is highly extensible, with full support for Octopress plugins out of the box, and many Jekyll plugins with a minimum of tweaking.


3. Hugo

Hugo is a consistently namechecked static site generator built around Google’s Go programming language. It is optimized for speed (Hugo sites can be built in milliseconds) and easy to use. With no dependencies, Hugo is easy to install and update…all you need is the binary.

Hugo takes a directory with content and templates and renders them into a full html website. It’s a great choice for blogs and documentation. Content can be written in Markdown, oganized however you want with any URL structure, and metadata can be definied in YAML, TOML or JSON. All this is done with almost no configuration, meaning with Hugo, you can just get straight to work.


4. Octopress

Octopress began its life as a modified version of Jekyll, but it has taken on a life and a community of its own. Octopress’ theme is written in Semantic HTML5 and is easy to read on mobile devices. Users of Jekyll will find themselves right at home, as many Octopress plugins can be used with minimal modification, and its out of the box framework means users can get up and running in seconds.

Octopress self-identifies as a blogging framework for hackers. It allows users to easily embed code into their posts from gists, jsFiddle or their own file systems, all with Solarized styling. It features built-in third-party integration, supporting Twitter, Pinboard, Google Analytics, Disqus comments and more.


5. Pelican

Pelican is a static site generator written in Python. Content can be written in Markdown or reStructuredText formats, and can be published in multiple languages.

Jinja2 templates allow users to customize the them, and Pelican supports code syntax highlighting. Pelican can also support Atom and RSS feeds, integrates social media accounts, external commenting tools like Disqus and Google Analytics. Content that lives elsewhere can be imported from WordPress, Dotclear or RSS feeds.


6. Brunch

Brunch is an ultra-fast HTML5 assembler and build pipeline. Brunch compiles scripts, templates and style sheets, lints them, wraps them in Common.js or AMD modules, and concatenates the result.

Brunch uses skeletons to get users up and running. Brunch is better suited for users planning on building something closer to an app on the app/blog static site spectrum.

Brunch is actually better compared to Grunt or Gulp than to a blogging framework like Jekyll or Hugo. It doesn’t care about programming languages, frameworks or libraries. It just builds stuff.


7. Middleman

Middleman was built as a framework for advanced marketing and documentation websites, instead of a static blogging engine. It’s grown to become one of the most widely used static build tools for enterprise sites, with companies like MailChimp, Sequoia Capital and Vox Media creating their sites in Middleman.

Middleman is a command-line tool that uses Ruby and Ruby Gems to build web applications with CoffeeScript, asset management solutions like Sprockets, and uses ERB and HAML for dynamic pages and simplified HTML syntax. Additionally, Middleman’s powerful API allows extension authors to hook in to the toolchain at different points.


8. Metalsmith

With Metalsmith, the sky’s the limit. That’s because Metalsmith is extremely simple – it’s a collection of user-defined plugins. Because of that, Metalsmith can build just about anything, from blogs to documentation to webapps and just about anything in between.

It’s worth noting that Metalsmith’s structure means that users should have a fairly high level of technical proficiency before trying to tackle a project. Beginners would be better served by one of the other tools on this list. But if you want something infinitely flexible, Metalsmith could be the tool of choice for you.


9. Harp

Harp is a static web server that also serves Jade, Markdown, EJS, Less, Stylus, Sass, and CoffeeScript as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript without any configuration. Harp allows you to reuse partials and common elements, so that you can preserve consistency across design and layouts. It compiles assets on an as-needed basis, so changes can be displayed with just a simple save and refresh.


10. Exposé

Exposé is quite a bit different than the other offerings on this list. It’s actually just a Bash script that turns images and videos into beautiful photoessays. It’s best experienced, rather than explained, so do yourself a favor and look at the personal blogs of Expose’s creator, located at and

Honorable Mentions:

There’s always a few favorites that get left out of any top ten list, and this one is no different. We decided to add a few of our personal favorites to the list, just because we like ‘em.



Gatsby takes Markdown and other static data sources and turns them into dynamic blogs and websites using ReactJS. By supporting the component-driven development model of React, Gatsby is able to re-use components across a site, adding consistency and speed. Blogs developed in Gatsby function as a single-page app, with JS bundles preloaded, so page transitions are instantaneous.



Roots is a static site compiler built in NodeJS, that generates static HTML, CSS and JavaScript files. A product of digital agency Carrot Creative, Roots is streamlined for use by freelancers and agencies to make highly variable builds quicker and easier. Roots comes in the form of a static site build tool by default, but also includes templates and plugins for Express and Rails. Roots comes with out of the box support for Jade, CoffeeScript and Stylus, with an easily extensible asset pipeline.



GitBook is quite a bit different than your standard static web tool, but follows one of the cardinal rules of the static site toolchain: Do one thing and do it well. In the case of GitBook, that one thing is eBooks.

With GitBook, you can write your book in Markdown or AsciiDoc format, and publish by pushing to GitHub. If you aren’t comfortable working in the command line, you also have the option of using a web UI or a desktop editor. And once you are done, you can output your book as a website or an eBook in pdf, epub or mobi format.



Cactus sets itself apart from the crowd by being a little more beginner-friendly than some of the other options listed above, due to the existence of the Cactus Mac app. The application allows for simple setup of frameworks for blogs, portfolios and profiles, with built in deploy for Amazon S3. Underpinning all that is a modern build tool that runs on Python and uses Django’s templating language.

Once you’ve chosen a static site generator, you can use Netlify to host and deploy your static site or app. Although there are many static site hosting services, only Netlify gives you built-in performance, security, and flexibility. And of course, it supports every generator listed here and many more.

An Introduction to Static Site Generators

What you need to Know

Static site generators seem to have been becoming more and more popular recently, but they’re not one of those ephemeral novelty things that grow in popularity as quickly as they fall into oblivion shortly after. For over a decade, many different projects – 394 of them, to be more precise – have been maintained by lots of varied people in the community and built with a diverse range of programming languages and technologies.

I often read on articles about this subject that “static sites are not for everyone”, partially due to the lack of a UI to manage content and to the sometimes unfriendly installation process. But actually I think they can be for everyone, just not for everything.

The aim of this article is to help people of all skill levels understand exactly what static site generators are, acknowledge their advantages, and understand if their limitations are a deal-breaker or if, on the contrary, they can be overcome. With that, you’ll hopefully be able to make an informed decision on whether or not a static site can be the solution for your next project.

The concepts described throughout the article are valid for all static site generators, since they all share the same philosophy, although I’ll have Jekyll in mind when I write purely because that’s the one I use and have most experience with. It’s quite a mature product, has a huge community and the big bonus of being natively supported by GitHub pages. However, alternatives such as Docpad, Hugo and Wintersmith are also widely used and definitely worth investigating.

How dynamic sites work
Try to imagine for a second that the only way for people to know what’s happening in the world is to go to the nearby news kiosk and ask to read the latest news. Yes, I know it’s silly but it will all make sense in a bit, please bear with me.

The attendant has no way to know what the latest news are, so he passes the request on to a back room full of telephone operators — picture a big telephone switchboard room in the 1950s. When an operator becomes available, they will take the request and phone a long list of news agencies, ask for the latest news and then write the results as bullet points on a piece of paper.

The operator will then pass his rough notes on to a scribbler who will write the final copy to a nice sheet of paper, arrange them in a certain layout and add a few bits and pieces such as the kiosk branding and contact information. Finally, the attendant takes the finished paper and serves it to the happy customer. The entire process will then be repeated for every person that arrives at the kiosk.

That is essentially how a dynamic website works. When a visitor gets to a website (the kiosk) expecting the latest content (the news), a server-side script (the operators) will query one or multiple databases (news agencies) to get the content, pass the results to a templating engine (the scribble) who will format and arrange everything properly and generate an HTML file (the finished newspaper) for the user to consume.

How static sites work
The proposition of a static site is to shift the heavy load from the moment visitors request the content to the moment content actually changes. Going back to our news kiosk metaphor, think of a scenario where it’s the news agencies who call the kiosk whenever something newsworthy happens.

The kiosk operators and scribbles will then compile, format and style the stories and produce a finished newspaper right away, even though nobody ordered one yet. They will print out a huge number of copies (infinite, actually) and pile them up by the store front.

When customers arrive, there’s no need to wait for an operator to become available, place the phone call, pass the results to the scribble and wait for the final product. The newspaper is already there, waiting in a pile, so the customer can be served instantly.

And that is how static site generators work. They take the content, typically stored in flat files rather than databases, apply it against layouts or templates and generate a structure of purely static HTML files that are ready to be delivered to the users.

Advantages of static
1) Speed
Perhaps the most immediately noticeable characteristic of a static site is how fast it is. As mentioned above, there are no database queries to run, no templating and no processing whatsoever on every request.

Web servers are really good at delivering static pages quickly, and the entire site consists of static HTML files that are sitting on the server, waiting to be served, so a request is served back to the user pretty much instantly.

2) Version control for content
You can’t even imagine working on a project without version control anymore, can you? Having a repository where people can collaboratively work on files, control exactly who does what and rollback changes when something goes wrong is essential in any software project, no matter how small.

But what about the content? That’s the keystone of any site and yet it usually sits in a database somewhere else, completely separated from the codebase and its version control system. In a static site, the content is typically stored in flat files and treated as any other component of the codebase. In a blog, for example, that means being able to have the actual posts stored in a GitHub repository and allowing your readers to file an issue when something is wrong or to add a correction with a pull request — how cool is that?

3) Security
Platforms like WordPress are used by millions of people around the world, meaning they’re common targets for hackers and malicious attacks — no way around it. Wherever there’s user input/authentication or multiple processes running code on every request, there’s a potential security hole to exploit. To be on top of the situation, site administrators need to keep patching their systems with security updates, constantly playing cat and mouse with attackers, a routine that may be overlooked by less experienced users.

Static sites keep it simple, since there’s not much to mess up when there’s only a web server serving plain HTML pages.

4) Less hassle with the server
Installing and maintaining the infrastructure required to run a dynamic site can be quite challenging, especially when multiple servers are involved or when something needs to be migrated. There’s packages, libraries, modules and frameworks with different versions and dependencies, there’s different web servers and database engines in different operating systems.

Sure, a static site generator is a software package with its dependencies as well, but that’s only relevant at build time, when the site is generated. Ultimately, the end result is a collection of HTML files that can be served anywhere, scaled and migrated as needed regardless of the server-side technologies. As for the site generation process, that can be done from an environment that you control locally and not necessarily on the web server that will run the site — heck, you can build an entire site on your laptop and push the result to the web when it’s done.

5) Traffic surges
Unexpected traffic peaks on a website can be a problem, especially when it relies intensively on database calls or heavy processing. Introducing caching layers such as Varnish or Memcached surely helps, but that ends up introducing more possible points of failure in the system.

A static site is generally better prepared for those situations, as serving static HTML pages consumes a very small amount of server resources.

Disadvantages of static (and potential solutions)
1) No real-time content
With a static site you lose the ability to have real-time data, such as indication about which stories have been trending for the past hour, or content that dynamically changes for each visitor, like a “recommended articles for you” kind of thing. Static is static and will be the same for everyone.

There’s not really a solution for this, I’m afraid. It’s the ultimate price to pay for using a static site, so it’s important that you ask yourself the question “how real-time does my site need to be?” — if its concept is based around delivering real-time information then perhaps a static site isn’t the right choice.

A dangerous solution: There’s an easy exit for whenever you’re faced with the challenge of dynamically updating content on a static site: “I can do it with JavaScript”. Doing processing on the client-side and appending the results to the page after it’s been served can be the right approach for some cases, but must not be seen as the magic solution that turns your static site into a full dynamic one. It can prevent some users from seeing the injected content, hurt your SEO and introduce other problems, potentially taking away the ease of mind and sense of control that comes with using a static site.

2) No user input
Adding user generated content to a static site is a bit of a challenge. Take a commenting system for a blog, for example — how do you process user comments and append them to a post using just plain HTML pages? You don’t.

You can’t get around this limitation per se and start processing data in your static pages, but you can find alternative solutions for individual cases. If you need to create a contact form, there are a lot of third-party services that will handle POST requests and email you the data, or export it to a format of your choice.

A commenting system is a slightly different animal though, since it involves not only processing user data but also appending it to a certain page. Platforms like Disqus are often used as a workaround for this and they do the job, but I’m personally not a big fan.

First of all, there’s what we discussed in point 1 — Disqus will append the comments to the page with JavaScript after it’s been served, so technically the comments don’t exist on your site until the JavaScript kicks in. Secondly, with this approach you contradict the premise of keeping the content together and versioned within a repository.

I’ve written about taking a different approach at a commenting system for Jekyll, which basically uses a server-side handler to process comments, add them to the repository and push to GitHub, keeping comments together with the rest of the site.

3) No admin UI
It’s incredibly easy to publish a blog post to WordPress or Medium. It can be done from anywhere, even from a phone, without having to install any additional software. That’s not really the case with a static site.

Typically, posts are composed in a text editor and formatted with a language like Markdown or Textile. To publish them, you’d need to regenerate the site (most engines have a watch functionality to detect file changes and regenerate the site automatically) and deploy the files to a server. It’s a bit hard to do all that on a phone sitting on the beach, isn’t it?

There are platforms that provide a web interface for creating, editing and deleting files directly on a GitHub repository, offering a WYSIWYG editor for Markdown to create a friendly composition interface. Examples are prose, a free and open source solution, or the more advanced CloudCannon, a commercial product that allows users to edit entire sections of a static site and see a live preview of the changes.

There are also mobile apps, available for both iOS and Android, that are a viable option for people interested in writing and publishing content on the move. The apps connect with GitHub and the changes are instantly pushed to the repository.

Another option is to set up a service that allows users to post to a static blog by email, which can be a viable solution for those that need to constantly write on the move. It works by listening for emails on a certain address and picking up the post meta data from the subject line, the images from the attachments and the post body from the message itself.

Switching to a static site can potentially save you time and money, as it requires less maintenance and less server resources. They’re reliable, scalable and can handle high volumes of traffic quite well.

In 2012, Obama’s presidential campaign raised $250M through a Jekyll website. In 2013, switched to a CMS-free approach using Jekyll as well. Static sites are powering huge projects and are definitely not limited to blogging. There’s also a strong open source community maintaining and pushing forward a wide range of engines with different flavours and features.

However, a static site is not some magical solution that will solve all the problems — they’re perfect for some cases, but terrible for others. It’s vital to understand how they work and what they can do in order to assess, on a per-project basis, whether or not they’re the right tool for the job.