The Strategist

Wordpress was a great choice in 2008. It's not anymore

“I've tried the big three: Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal. They all make me want to kill myself. I've searched high and low for anything remotely pleasant to use and I'm yet to find something."
- Quote from a web developer [1]

There's an undercurrent brewing amongst the technocrats for a step away from the likes of Wordpress. For the non-technical amongst us: what follows is an explanation of why, I too, am part of this growing movement.

But first, I must explain what a CMS is:

“A content management system (CMS) is a computer application that allows publishing, editing and modifying content, organising, deleting as well as maintenance from a central interface.

CMSs are often used to run websites containing blogs, news, and shopping. Many corporate and marketing websites use CMSs. CMSs typically aim to avoid the need for hand coding, but may support it for specific elements or entire pages."
- [Wikipedia]

In a nutshell (grossly simplified version): It's a website powered by a database so content can be edited without the need for coding or technical skills.
CMSs have been around for a long time, but it wasn't until Wordpress came on the scene, that — as far as CMSs were concerned — things got interesting.

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I've been meaning to put this post together for a long time. Every time I mention the mere fact that it's time to "move on", I'm inundated with a long list of objections. The common objections often include "how great Wordpress is" with it's huge eco system, how easy it is to use and setup quickly.

So I want to explain why I am moving away. I should make clear, however: I don't have anything against Wordpress per se (team, company). But, I do have something against the typical CMSs that we've become accustomed to today. It just so happens that Wordpress is the most popular, so it makes sense to discuss from a Wordpress perspective.


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I was an early adopter of Wordpress, as I am with most things. Then people were criticising me for using a CMS. Today people criticise me for moving away from Wordpress.

Before Wordpress and it's vast array of plugins (circa 2008 onwards), building a website was hard work. Designing the website was one thing. Website templates were available, but every page had to be "built" individually. The larger the website, the more monstrous the challenge became. Say, for example: you had a horizontal menu at the top of every page on a 20-page site. Changing a menu item on one page meant duplicating the same effort across all twenty pages. So, every little change was 20 times the work. A complete nightmare.



I remember, back in 2004, I had to work on a website for a client that used to run sports camps for kids in summer. It was a 30-page website. Just one menu change, required the same edit on all 30 pages of the site. One Friday afternoon, the client asked me to change the menu item for “Contact Us" to “Contact". I spent over an hour replicating the change across the other 29 pages. Then; at 6pm he called me back and told me, the team decided it was fine as "Contact Us". I then had to spend another hour changing it all back. It was web development hell. Granted, I should have had a better backup system that enabled me to roll back the edits quicker, but that didn't take from the tediousness of it all. Web Developers went to University for bigger things.

But that was just one problem with not using a CMS. Making a website required coding knowledge. You had to have technical knowledge just to edit text on a website or add an image. Non-technical people had something to say, they had a voice, something to share; and there was nothing they could do. Too much friction that got in the way of their desire to express themselves.

So, Wordpress led the charge i.e. giving people a chance to be masters of their own websites, from design and functionality, through to content. There were other CMSs that sprung up at the same time (Joomla, Drupal et al) but Wordpress seemed to gain popularity quicker than the rest.


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As of August 2013, Wordpress is reported to power just over 2 million websites. That's a fifth of the top 10 million sites in the world.

I don’t know of any Web host that doesn’t have support for Wordpress as standard. Wordpress has become almost synonymous with creating personal or small business websites. Just a few clicks of a button, and 'Hey Presto', you have a Wordpress powered website.

That was great in 2008. It's not any more.


“Yes. Wordpress is crap. It's sort of the poster child for bad PHP projects. It uses outdated versions of PHP because it wants to run everywhere. Internally it's a jumbled mess held together with chewing gum & bailing wire. It's popularity is driven by the massive number of 3rd party additions, but there's no standard of quality. It's frequently used far outside the realm of where it was intended to, by people that only know the system. It's f****** everywhere and everyone uses it. Drupal is only slightly better."
- Quote from a Web Developer [1]

As if the quote above wasn't damning enough, I think it's worth highlighting each argument for Wordpress and then de-constructing them one by one.

What follows below is a list of common reasons people often cite for choosing or sticking with Wordpress and my associated counter responses.



Objection One: “It's Quick to Set-up"

There's no doubt, that most web hosts can have you up and running with WordPress in no time. Most Web hosts now have one-click WordPress installation options available. This means you can have a WordPress website with the default theme in just a few clicks.

But who ever stays with the default theme? We all want to personalise our site by adding a logo and moving things around. We like to add our own colours and images to create an identity, even on the most basic site. This is where the problems start.

Imagine a multi-coloured ball pit, where you have to replace all the orange coloured balls with blue ones. You have to make sure each new, blue ball goes in exactly the same place that each orange one came from. That's kind of what it's like working with WordPress. The quick and simple fast becomes the mundane and tedious.

For a recent job with a client, I hired a freelancer to setup a Wordpress website. The client insisted on Wordpress. They bought a new WordPress theme and wanted to customise the site to create a unique identity with a modern and fresh look. To start with they only wanted customisations on the homepage only. As far as we were all concerned, these were basic and minor changes. Anyone would think it was just a couple of hours of work. In reality it took the freelancer — a self-qualified WordPress expert, I might add — the best part of ten working hours. That too, spread over a couple of days. It's never a “simple job".

Last year my wife asked me to setup a blog for her. All she asked was for a “simple" blog website. Now I've done of hundreds of WordPress installs in the last several years so I know my way around WordPress well. By the time I finished, I had: Setup WordPress, usernames and passwords, changed the theme, installed a security plugin, installed and configured an SEO plugin, setup a contact form, added a logo, added commenting functionality, installed anti-spam for the comments, installed a backup plugin, made the website SEO friendly, installed Google analytics, and setup her posts and menu hierarchy.

These are just the basic things most blogs nowadays need. I still had things left on my todo list but I decided to stop there. It took me over four hours to setup this “simple" blog for her. In contrast, this blog you're reading this article on, was setup by me — with the same level of functionality — in less than one hour.

“I have such a love-hate relationship with Wordpress. Yes, it's a free blog solution that's easy to set up, has a pretty nice admin UI, and is very customizable. But any of that customization requires me to code, I'm ready to claw my own eyes out within ten minutes. And every time the documentation refers to The Loop, it makes me want to strangle someone." - Quote from a Web Developer [1]

The point is: if you’re going to put that much effort into customising your site then you can do that with any other platform in the same amount of time. There is no time advantage in choosing Wordpress over something else. In fact, most other solutions will have you up and running quicker.


Objection Two: “It's Easy to Set-up"

Easy to set up for “whom" is the real question?

You might say WordPress is easy to setup for someone with technical skills and I would agree with you. But for those same people, the alternatives are just as easy. Judging a platform based on technical expertise needed is often irrelevant for such people. Platform features, cost and setup time etc affect their decision making much more.

Now, as for those that lack technical expertise: if they can't setup and customise a blog without the help of an “expert", then WordPress is clearly not that easy to setup.


Objection Three: “It's Cheap to Run"

My current blog comes with scalability built-in. In laymen's terms, this means that when I get a surge of traffic, it's well equipped to handle it. That kind of functionality is not available for Wordpress by default. For one: you need to set it up and configure it, which needs the help of an expert, which, in turn means, more time. (And further debunks the "quick and easy" myth)

By design, websites that use a database are always more resource heavy than their static counterpart. Ultimately, this means you end up paying more for a scalable solution for WordPress. I currently pay $5 a month for a premium account on Postach.io. An equivalent setup with Wordpress would cost approximately four times as much. When you have a resource heavy solution such as Wordpress, you have to compensate for it by spending more on hosting. Just like, bigger cars need bigger engines and thus use more fuel.

Take a look at WP-Engine's pricing ,which has always been my favourite host for a WordPress site. I feel they they have the best infrastructure for WordPress websites that need to deal with high volumes of traffic. Their cheapest plan starts at $29. Compare that with tryghost.org or Postach.io that both have plans starting at $5.

This isn't poor pricing by the WordPress host, it's a constraint due to WordPress. The more "power" needed, the greater the hosting cost.


Objection Four: “It's Free"

Yes Wordpress is free but it's easy to get blind-sided by the hidden costs. Nothing is ever free. If you're someone that needs expert help with WordPress to customise your site then you need to pay for a developer. Those same funds can be allocated to any other platform. Why limit yourself to Wordpress if you're going to spend money anyway? In most cases, and as I've often found when advising clients, the net cost of other platforms is often much cheaper.

Take for example a start-up that enters a new market, that hasn't been validated. Say, for a new ecommerce product. A shopping cart on BigCommerce, or Shopify can be customised in just a couple of days. Not to mention, the default themes have plenty of great features to start with anyhow.

Running the shopping cart on either of these platforms would cost around $100-200 for 3 months. Just enough time to gauge market demand and do the market research.

If at the end of the 3 months, the start-up decides the market isn't worth pursuing further, they're only out of pocket by $200 at worst.

Contrast that with WordPress — though the software is free -- you have to pay for a customised ecommerce site. Once you've bought the plugins and paid the developer, the cost is often more than $1000.

I've lost count of the number of start-ups I know that have lost more than $2500 this way, only to discover there's no market demand. It's financial suicide if you ask me.

Dedicated platforms save you time and money by taking care of the little things you'd have to pay an expert for. Take for example BigCommerce that has Google Shopping listings features readily available. Or Shopify that creates SEO friendly ecommerce sites out of the box. You often have to pay extra to someone to build or customise that functionality on WordPress.

If you're going to pay an expert for a custom solution anyway, why not choose a platform that is built specifically for your purpose?

Objection Five: “It's easy to use"

I guess the best thing about Wordpress, and what attracted so many to it. The admin interface. The ease with which people could add new content was unmatched at the time. But that was then. Today, there are many other services that are just as easy to use, if not easier.

Wordpress definitely set the standard for ease of use at the time, but has been matched and surpassed since.


Objection Six: “It has a huge ecosystem"

This always seems to be the greatest objection people I know have, to abandoning Wordpress.

Wordpress has hundreds of thousands of plugins available that can do just about anything. That's what makes the ecosystem so powerful and keeps people coming back. But I've come to realise this reasoning is often irrational: driven by loss aversion. You see, the reasoning stems from the idea, that moving away from Wordpress means a move away from great website features. This is a myth.

Wordpress plugins are essentially just code libraries with Wordpress wrapping paper. All the "wrapping paper" does is enable people like you and me to add features to a site using a simple click-based install system. The actual functionality comes from the code library, not from the plugin. The plugin is just WordPress specific packaging. That's all.

It's like getting a bowl of fruit, slicing it up and sticking it in a juicer to make it easier to drink. It's easier to drink. That's it. What delivers the nutrients is the actual fruit (code library), not the way it's delivered to make it easier for you to consume.

This process makes it easier for you to work with Wordpress to add new features, but it limits your website potential. Most developers create the code library first, and then package it up for Wordpress. Every function they add in the code library, then has to be made available in the Wordpress plugin. It's double the work. This is where the problems begin.

Unless there's a huge incentive, plugin developers rarely create a plugin that's as good as the original code library.

It's like spending a whole day baking a cake just the way you like it, and then at the end of the afternoon your dad asks you to do the same for him. You'd love to do it, but the reality is, you'll do it when you have time and energy. And let's be honest: it won't be as good as the first cake you made in the day no matter how much you love your dad.

Which means, moving away from the Wordpress ecosystem, increases your options, not limit them.

Recently, a client required a specific type of web analytics functionality for their website. They signed up for an account with the analytics service, and then downloaded the Wordpress plugin.

Now, I've used this analytics service on other websites, and always used the raw code library. It's a little bit of more manual work but I prefer it. My client installed the Wordpress plugin and after a few days discovered there was data missing from the reports. I insisted that the analytics service we had chosen was the right one. After much deliberation we discovered the reason the additional data was missing. It was because the Wordpress plugin was designed to collect only some data segments. It had a limited feature set compared to the original code library.

My client's developer had a choice between the original code library or the WordPress plugin. The 30 mins saved from installing the plugin would have compensated for the 3 hours lost in determining why the data was missing. This is an all too often common scenario for most plugins and is not just anecdotal evidence on my part.

Often, when new website features become popular, end-users have to wait for the code library to be converted to a Wordpress plugin.

If you want to be ahead of the game, using Wordpress plugins isn't your best bet.





My Own Gripes

The objections above are the common objections from other people but I have my own gripes too.

Maintenance

“Looks like wordpress broke again. Great software."
- James Urquhart [2]

I don't feel the issue of maintenance is ever given enough attention.

First, it's hackable. More than half of the websites I've worked on - and believe me, I've worked on plenty — have had security breaches of one sort or another. The reason this occurs, is usually two-fold.

One: WordPress's underlying architecture. Think about visitors coming to your house. You only permit your visitors to use one room, but there's always a risk that they will enter other rooms as well. That's somewhat how Wordpress works. When we attract visitors to our website we're allowing them into a 'room 'on our website. We always run the risk they can forge their way into other parts of the house (database).

Most security breaches with WordPress have been related to the database. Often for the malicious purpose and intent to deface or de-purpose the website.

Security patches are released all the time, but it's just a band-aid solution to a fundamental design choice. The possibility of a vulnerability being exploited and exposed will always exist. Where there's a database, there's always a security risk.

Two: Programming code for plugins is not managed or vetted by the makers of Wordpress. Which means as you install more plugins, the more your surface area of security risk, increases. Who's to say, the new plugin you just installed isn't linked to some botnet, or has been so poorly coded it compromises your whole site? These aren't far fetched ideas. I've seen it happen all too often.

The poor coding can cause other problems too. I've lost count of the number of times I've installed a plugin I thought to be “battle tested" only for it to crash the whole site. When that happens on a production site that serves more than 20,000 paying visitors a month, the amount of terror it induces in the hearts of developers and managers is enough to break the world record for the number of simultaneous cardiac arrests in the shortest space of time.

HTML isn't plagued by security and maintenance issues to this extent. It's akin to meeting your visitors outside of your doorstep rather than letting them in.

I'm not saying a html site would be bullet-proof, but the security risk is always far less.


Your poor visitors

My second biggest gripe. The poor visitors that have to put up with your super slow and jittery website. There's not a single Wordpress website I know — that when it's ready to serve the public — takes less than 1 second to load the page. One website I once worked on took almost 20 seconds. That's the equivalent of 82 in Web Visitor years.

There's nothing worse than when it seems the page has fully loaded; only for some other widget to start and jank the whole screen. That's tantamount to commercial suicide on a mobile device. Granted, even HTML websites are guilty of this, but the potential for getting this wrong on a WordPress website is greater. Again, because it's harder to control the behaviour of the plugins you install.

As you install more and more plugins: your web visitor's user experience is likely to degrade further. And not just the load time, but also the perception of speed. It's like packing shopping bags into a car (shopping bags = plugins). When there's just one bag; the effect on the car's performance is negligible. When there's 30 — the effect is more than noticeable, especially in a small car. Most WordPress sites I know have at least 20 plugins.

HTML isn't bereft of this problem either, but the effect is far more pronounced in Wordpress. This is because when it comes to page load time — the connection to the database is the greatest bottleneck. Each plugin makes it's own set of calls (request for data) to the database. The more plugins, the more calls, meaning more page load time. Not only that, but each call can only be made one at a time. Imagine at the grocery store, you checkout and take home only one item off your list at a time. I.e if you had 30 items on your list, you'd make 30 trips to the grocery store. Yes, that sounds rather tedious but that's how WordPress works.

There's many that often make a counter argument to this point though, which is, this problem can be mitigated by caching.

Caching, in terms of grocery shopping analogy: shopping baskets for people's grocery lists are pre-prepared. When they arrive at the grocery store, they take one large shop home rather than making multiple trips. It's all good in theory, but the problem is, it doesn't work all the time. If there's one item on your shopping list that cannot be pre-fetched ahead of time then the process becomes less effective. There's no knowing which plugin will play ball with your caching solution and which won't. It often only takes one to break the whole process.

In an age where attention spans are shrinking, attention capacity is near full and more people are competing for it. A difference of just 300ms in page load time can mean the difference between sale and no sale on your website. Every millisecond of load time counts.

SEO

I often hear people say the primary reason they install Wordpress is because it's great for SEO. So the question is: when the rest of world is also running Wordpress, do you really have a major advantage over the competition?

Besides, WordPress's great ranking ability came from good site structure. I.e. the underlying html code. That's easily replicated on other platforms; it's not the sole preserve of WordPress, and nor is it a guarantee with WordPress anyhow, since — if you get a poor coded theme — the advantage is lost.

If you choose WordPress solely because of it's SEO merits, you're going to have a hard time.


So what's the alternative?

There's no truer adage that applies here other than: WordPress is a "jack of all trades, master of none". Wordpress's greatest strength is also it's Achilles heel. Thus, what needs to guide your choice for an alternative platform is this key principle of purpose. Use the platform that is specific to your target purpose and is exceptionally good it.

Have a new retail product and want to try shifting a few boxes of it before you ramp up inventory? Or maybe you want to start a new Kickstarter project? Why not use ShopLocket or Spaces.pe to gauge demand?

Then, if the demand is as good or better than you expected, perhaps build a shopping cart using a dedicated eCommerce platform. This way, you won't lose £1000+ on a site, wait 3 weeks for it to be ready, only to discover you don't have a viable business. If you're marketing budget was only £1500 in the first place, then two-thirds of your marketing budget is depleted before you've even started. Not to mention the time and energy in pulling your hair out with getting your site ready. With ShopLocket or Spaces.pe, you could be up and running in a couple of hours and for free at that.


Want to setup a blog for a fashion magazine? How about Ghost? Or how about Postach.io? You'll be up and running in less than 2 hours on both.

Need a website for your photography or art porftolio? How about Koken? I had my photography website up and running in less than 2 hours.

Need a general brochure-website for a not-for-profit project, or for your small business? How about a Gandi BaseKit site? Or maybe Weebly, or Wix?

The point is: it's not 2008 anymore, and we now have much better "building blocks" at our disposal. Most of the solutions above have come about in the last two years and the pace for specialised solutions like these is increasing.

In fact I've compiled a full list of alternative platforms below, specific to each target purpose.

Provided you are clear about your purpose, the alternatives will make you wonder why you ever considered WordPress as a serious contender. I guarantee they will save you time, money and headache in the long run.

List of alternative platforms

This list is by no means complete or extensive. Note: I've personally used most of these solutions but not all.

Blogs/Magazines

Ecommerce

Ebook Sites

General brochureware sites

Photography/Art/Portfolios

Personal Branding Site

Start-up / Launch Pages

Content APIs

Non-Profits

For everything else






Finally, there's one category that I'd like to discuss further. The "everything else" category. These are based on a concept known as static site generation. For those of you that don't know what a static site generator is, let me explain it by way of an analogy.

Imagine asking for a Fish-o-Filet at Mcdonalds and then waiting while all the ingredients are sourced and cooked individually. Imagine how long this would take. Well, the process of collecting all the ingredients and then preparing the meal is similar to how Wordpress works. I.e the sourcing and preparation takes place in real time.

The database sources the content (ingredients) and Wordpress renders the website (prepares the meal) for each visitor (order). In contrast, a static site generator pre-prepares the meals and has them ready to serve as each order is placed. (And yes, the food remains warm and tastes just as good.)

That's how static site generators work. They grab all the content from the database and pre-process it into standard html so it's ready for serving. When a web visitors, visits your site, there's no database connection made as the content is ready. This mitigates the speed and security issues associated with databases.

I wanted to give this category special attention as I really feel this is ultimately where the web is heading. However, the solutions currently available aren't designed with the non-programmer in mind — but we're getting there. At least not if you want to build the site yourself. I have no doubt it's just a matter of time before they appear, and in fact, I am currently considering developing a solution myself. (Though my attempts to learn how to code well, fizzle out after a few days, so don't count on it with me).


If your requirements for a website are indeed custom and can't be solved with the list above. Then you might have a candid discussion with your developer and ask them to consider a static site generator that connects to a content API instead of choosing WordPress. Or even using a full-fledged solution such as Webhook CMS. In plain english, what this means is, that the content management is separate from the website. So you can focus on adding and editing content while your developer focuses on building the site. The site then connects to the Content API and retrieves the content you added and renders it on the site. All the convenience of Wordpress, and none of the drawbacks. (See the video on the homepage at Prismic.io). The Web Developer has to do technical work for you anyway, so why not make their life easier? He or she will thank you for it. Having your developer on your “side" is always a good thing. Make your own life easier by making your developer's life easier.

From what I see so far though; Webhook CMS has some serious potential to unseat Wordpress from it's throne. This is because it attempts to do all of the above — I.e content API and static-site generation — as a one-stop solution while being mindful of the "jack of all trades" approach.


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Ultimately, there's no longer any valid reason to choose WordPress. If you still decide to choose Wordpress, even after reading the arguments above. Then expect me to be super-enthusiastic about saying "I told you so" when you run into trouble.



[1] All developer quotes from: http://www.reddit.com/r/programming/comments/2estux/in_2008_i_bought_a_book_titled_php_6_six_years/

[2] https://twitter.com/sjamesu/status/514791090759958531

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Khuram Malik

Hi, my name is Khuram Malik. I am the Founder and Chief Strategist at Stratagem.io . I help Businesses and Start-Ups figure out how to get from 'here' to 'there' regards their business goals. If you'd like strategy help with your business, why not book a discovery session with us at Stratagem.io and let us help you figure out where your growth opportunities are?

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