WordPress is inescapable. As of 2017, the world’s most recognizable content management system powered over a quarter of all websites. All of them, on the entire internet. WordPress is to content what Xerox is to copying, Jell-O is to gelatin dessert, Disney is to animated musicals…you get the idea.
Nor are they slowing down. Right now, WordPress is rolling out Gutenberg, a new editor based around multimedia content experiences. With the editor about to evolve in a big way, we thought this would be a good time to step back and take stock. What can the world’s most popular CMS do for you, and does it do those things better than anyone else does?
Where is WordPress Today?
The best place to start a thorough evaluation of WordPress and its value is by figuring out what it aims to provide today. Since its inception as a blogging platform in 2003, WordPress has proven hard to pin down, and is now available in two versions: WordPress.com, a fully-hosted platform for people who want to get their content online without having to build a website from scratch, and WordPress.org, for people who want to, well, build a website from scratch.
We’ll mostly be discussing WordPress.org here (so assume that’s what I mean every time I write “WordPress”), but as a quick primer, WordPress.com trades versatility for simplicity. More on this later, but WordPress.org is all about having total design control, which is a key factor in its world-dominating popularity. But lots of users don’t need total control. For them, WordPress.com is an easy way to get a quick, functional website out the door.
A popular metaphor for WordPress.org, introduced by the Up and Running WordPress course in 2015, likens it to a factory. Simply put, content is the raw material, themes are assembly lines, plugins are outside contractors, and the finished product is a working, hopefully, good-looking web page.
The likelihood of an attractive final product is increased by the library of themes, which are PHP libraries with theoretically infinite customization potential. In other words, if the “factory” gets some lumber, the assembly line is set up to build a square box–but with the right tools, the same facility could just as easily build a rectangular box, or a chair, or a wooden figurine, if the foreman knows what they’re doing.
About those tools: no discussion of WordPress is complete without talking about plugins. The WordPress platform offers literally tens of thousands of extra tools to cover functions that can’t be directly built out of its themes. These range from performance upgrades and two-factor authentication security to social media cross-sharing, photo sharing, and search engine optimization.
All in all, WordPress is designed–and continually redesigned, as the Gutenberg launch shows–to offer the top tier of content management, from small to large scale. But it’s got its share of competitors. WYSIWYG web builders like Wix and Weebly are increasing their market share, while Squarespace remains a strong, popular alternative.
So let’s dive into the nitty-gritty and ask the real question: what are the pros and cons of using WordPress?
1. Free and Open Source
The first benefit of using WordPress is obvious from the start–you plunk down none of your own money to get started. WordPress is an open source platform, which not only means that it doesn’t cost anything to use…it also means that an army of users of all levels of coding knowledge and experience are probably working right now on whatever problem you’re having with your site.
Since WordPress is used by such a large community, this means that you need not despair if you don’t have any coding skill yourself. It’s almost inevitable that somebody has already written the exact code you need. And on the off-chance you have a problem nobody’s encountered before–always a possibility in the tech world–you can connect easily with someone who might be excited to work on the solution.
We’ve already seen the staggering range of plugins that have been developed for WordPress, but just in case you don’t yet grasp just how staggering, here are the most recent two I’ve researched.
WooCommerce is a well-known, customizable plugin that adds full e-commerce functionality to a WordPress-powered site. WooCommerce scales with businesses, can be paired with any payment gateway you care to name and has been used to sell everything from cookies to legal services.
Meanwhile, Asteroids is a widget that lets users fly a spaceship around your site and blow up your content. There is also a plugin that displays random quotes from Darth Vader on your admin dashboard.
And everything in between. If you can’t find a WordPress plugin to do what you need, come back in ten minutes.
3. Easy Content Management
This is the heart of things. All the fancy plugins in the world can’t save a CMS that’s hard to use, but fortunately, WordPress doesn’t need rescuing. Content can easily be made active or stored for later, media can be added without hassle, and pages can be nested several levels deep without things getting noticeably harder to understand.
The secret of WordPress’s simple content system is its database. In the metaphor of the factory, this can be thought of as taking a product off the assembly line and putting it in a warehouse until it’s ready to ship to the customer. In practice, this means your posts, photos, links, etc. are never hard to find when you need them, and if you can get around easily, your users can too.
4. Wide Range of Themes & Styling Options
In 2017, there were over 3,000 themes available free and direct from WordPress’s library. Of course, this hasn’t stopped enterprising services from offering subscription-based themes, but you don’t in any way need those to be successful.
Themes are important on a couple of different levels. If you’re just on WordPress to create a good-looking site to promote your brand, you’ll naturally be concerned with picking one that looks nice. But if your goal is to leverage your coding abilities for absolute control, you’ll need to do some research and find a pliable design to start bending to your will. Point is, though, the WordPress galaxy is so large you’re bound to find a theme to fill whatever need you have.
5. Complete Control for Advanced Users
WordPress is the prime choice for advanced users who’d inevitably feel boxed in by Squarespace or Wix. Knowledge of CSS, HTML, and database management gives you an unprecedented degree of control from the basic panel, and plugins can introduce other accustomed coding environments like Java.
Given WordPress’s vaunted database storage, web pages it powers can hold a ridiculous amount of information, all of which can be changed site-wide with the right grasp of the controls. So, if you need to implement a new way of captioning photos site-wide, that can be done with decent speed.
The inventors of the “factory” metaphor have likened this to the way Microsoft Excel comes up with a beautiful chart from your hard numbers. Excel has a learning curve as well, but nobody denies its potential.
6. Frequent Updates
WordPress is a lively, active net space whose developers remain devoted to improving it. The whole list of updates since launch is available on WordPress.org, showing the development from basic open-source blogging in 2003 to the new block-based editor discussed above.
These don’t just roll out new content–they’re also keeping security up to date, for anybody who is concerned about that, which should be everybody. This is the internet, after all.
Almost all of WordPress’s themes are designed to use a minimum of PHP code. While it’s not always exactly this simple, slimmer, cleaner code usually means a faster-loading page, and this means site visitors will rarely get stuck in traffic on the way to your content. Given the variety of themes, some will load faster than others, but the general family of WordPress themes is built to be a fast lane to your web presence.
If your chosen theme is giving you response issues, you can always go back to the plugin ecosystem. Add-ons like WP Rocket make small tweaks throughout your website’s code that add up to faster loading speeds. This bears repeating: if WordPress hasn’t solved a problem yet, it’s about to. Your task is less about fixing things and more about finding the tools.
“Responsive” is just a big word for pages that are able to sense when they’re being read on a phone and reformat accordingly. Some of WordPress’s themes are responsive, and some only become so with the right plugin, but mobile-friendliness is fully integrated into the platform. Never again will a visitor on the go have to scroll around a massive page to find your content while they try to navigate the subway.
9. SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
As this link vigorously points out, there’s no such thing as content stored on a CMS being immediately optimized for searching. You still need to tag your work, make it visible to Google, find an SEO plugin that fits your needs, and navigate a number of other pitfalls, such as code changes on the other side of the site accidentally borking your delicate SEO setup. But again, this can be done with WordPress, and with relatively little cost or headache.
1. Additional Expenses
WordPress is a free, open source platform, but once you’ve built your website, you do still need to find somewhere to put it. Unfortunately, that means shelling out for a domain to call your own. Not a huge count against WordPress–after all, they’re not a hosting service, except in a limited capacity through WordPress.com–but can still be a stumbling block.
2. Steep Learning Curve
We’ve already compared WordPress to a factory and an Excel spreadsheet in this article. What’s the other thing those two have in common? They’re not things you can just walk onto off the street and expect to start swinging your weight around right away.
There’s a reason so many of WordPress’s competitors go for the easy-to-use, drag-and-drop WYSIWYG model: it’s to siphon users away. Some other competitors give up chasing WordPress’s broad functionality and instead go for being better at one thing, like Shopify with e-commerce. WordPress stands out from them all by having the most potential, but it only gets there by having the steepest learning curve.
Don’t fret. WordPress is not completely arcane for anybody who can’t code in PHP. All this means is that having a background in web design will help you going in, and if you lack that background, you’d better be prepared to hit the books or you won’t be able to leverage WordPress to its full potential.
3. Excess of Possibilities
Similar to above, the sheer amount of plugins and themes and code libraries that make up WordPress’s vaunted potential can be dizzying even to users several degrees beyond casual. You get to look through a library 56,000 plugins, but you also have to look through 56,000 plugins. Fortunately, the size of the WordPress community works in your favor here: the best WordPress options are routinely rated on major websites, so finding out which ones work (and work safely) is usually just a matter of Googling.
Like WordPress’s customization potential, its commitment to remaining open source is a double-bladed sword. WordPress’s code being freely available gives hackers more information than anyone’s comfortable with, and while security updates are usually able to stay ahead of them, miscreants can still slip through the cracks.
What does this mean for you? Hackers likely aren’t hanging around waiting to steal your content…but they will take the chance to if you let them. Be very careful about what you let interact with your site, and take the time to vet all plugins thoroughly before you install them.
WordPress – The Final Verdict
Why pretend? The only open source project I can think of that’s close to WordPress in global impact is Firefox, and even Firefox hasn’t become the default web browser the way WordPress is the official default CMS. It’s unique, impactful, and indispensible.
But after having spent this much time thinking and writing about the dizzying heights and sobering shortcomings of WordPress, I have this wisdom to share: it would be a grave mistake to choose WordPress just because it’s the only CMS you’ve heard of. WordPress is for the user who both wants and needs to design a site to personal specs in order to make available a large amount of data, or organize it several levels deep.
Do you have a favorite WordPress alternative? Or a WordPress experience to describe? Share it with us in the comments below!
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