The WordPress myth

By all reports WordPress is the most widely used content management system (CMS) in the world today. This has led to a fairly widespread belief that it is the only logical option when choosing a CMS. The blogosphere is littered with posts proclaiming its virtues. In this article I look at these virtues more closely. This is not a critique of WordPress. Rather it is an examination of the myth behind the CMS. But first, to set things in context, I first want to consider the characteristics of different types of CMS.

CMS characteristics

Most content management systems in use today are considered ‘coupled’. That is, the same system is used to both manage the content, and to make the web site available for access by site visitors. Some of these systems are close-coupled—meaning the back end (ie the CMS) and the front end (ie the website) are closely dependent. Others are loose-coupled—with less dependence between the front and back ends.

There is also the concept of a decoupled CMS.

Let’s take a closer look at these.

The close-coupled CMS

A defining characteristic of the close-coupled CMS is that it not only manages content, but also the appearance of the website. To control the appearance of the site you download, or create, a theme.  Themes often have configuration options that can be accessed through the CMS interface, and which give some control over customising the look of your site within the context of that theme.

The high degree of dependence between the front and back ends means that to extend the capabilities of a website you have to extend the capabilities of the CMS. This is achieved by downloading or creating plugins.

WordPress is a close-coupled CMS.

The loose-coupled CMS

By contrast, a typical loose-coupled CMS does not manage the appearance of your website. The presentation of the site is handled by one or more templates, which are managed outside of the CMS. Sometimes these are packaged up as themes, but one of the attractions of loose-coupled systems is the ability to easily implement your own designs without the need to use a theme.

The capabilities of the website can generally be extended without the need to install a plugin. Plugins may be available, but often they focus on extending the capabilities of the backend CMS, not the front end website. 

The decoupled CMS

In the decoupled CMS the front end (the web site) and the back end (the CMS) are completely separate, often being managed by different software, and being located on different servers. Decoupled systems overcome some of the short-comings shared by coupled systems, however they are more complicated to implement, have their own challenges, and are relatively uncommon.

Back to WordPress

So what are these virtues of WordPress that make it the only logical CMS choice? The ones I often see mentioned are:

  • It’s free
  • It’s quick and easy to install
  • It has an easy-to-use interface
  • There’s lots of plugins
  • There’s lots of themes
  • There are regular security updates
  • It is good for SEO
  • It is good for accessibility

Let’s look at them one by one. 

It’s free

WordPress is free in the sense that you don’t have to pay a license fee to download and use it. 

Many other highly reputable CMSs are also free to download and use (see CMS Critic’s list of free CMSs). 

It’s quick and easy to install

Wordpress is quick and easy to install, taking around 5 minutes. However many other systems take no more than 5-10 minutes to install, and they install without a hitch provided the hosting environment is compatible. 

If you are setting up a website that has a life span of months, or years, saving a couple of minutes in the installation of the CMS is of no significance.

It’s easy to use

WordPress is designed primarily as a blogging platform, and it’s default out-of-the-box interface is slick when it comes to making blog posts. However, when you extend its capabilities with plugins to take on some other common website tasks and functions that ease of use starts to erode. Some other CMSs are designed with a broader range of user interface tasks in mind, and maintain their ease of use over a greater range of tasks.

There’s lots of plugins

At the time of writing there were over 26 000 plugins available from the WordPress site. For many, plugin availability has become a de facto measure of a system’s worth. Those with only a few thousand are dismissed as second-rate, and those that count their plugins in the hundreds, or (gasp!) the dozens, are dismissed as a joke.

But, as we’ve seen, not all systems are as dependent on plugins as WordPress is. While plugin-dependent close-coupled systems have their advantages, there are also disadvantages:

  • With 26 000 plugins to choose from finding the right plugin can be time consuming.
  • If you can’t find the right plugin writing your own, is onerous, and requires considerable technical skill.
  • Most plugins add a performance overhead to websites. The more plugins you use the more sluggish the website becomes.
  • Plugins can be contributed by pretty much anyone, so you have to carefully assess their quality, especially in relation to reliability, security, performance, SEO and accessibility. You also have to assess how committed the plugin creator is to maintaining the plugin.
  • More plugins lead to a greater maintenance overhead when it comes to keeping your website bug-free and secure.
With a loose-coupled CMS, adding the same capability as provided by a particular plugin may requires more technical skill than downloading a plugin, but it can be quicker than finding and configuring the right plugin—and much quicker than writing your own.

There’s lots of themes

The number of visually appealing WordPress themes and the ease with which they can be implemented, is undoubtedly one of its strong points.

But, as we’ve seen, the availability of themes is more relevant to close-coupled systems, than loose-coupled systems. While being able to control the appearance of your site by simply installing a theme has it’s obvious advantages, there are also disadvantages:

  • Choosing the right them is not just a matter of deciding what “look” you want for your website. You also have to make sure the theme will cater for the presentation of the different types of content your website will contain. Choosing a theme for a blog site may be relatively straight-forward, but for a more complex site it can be difficult.
  • If you already have a design that you want to use on your website, or want to create your own design, implementing it as a theme can be a complex task.
  • As with plugins, themes can be contributed by pretty much anyone, and vary greatly in quality. As well as considering reliability, security, performance, SEO and accessibility, you also need to consider cross-platform browser support and mobile-friendliness, along with whether the theme will be maintained.

Controlling the appearance of your site without using a theme generally requires more technical skill, but tailoring a design that not only meets the look you want, but caters for the presentation of your content, can be more straightforward. The availability of HTML frameworks that address issues such as cross-platform browser support, SEO, accessibility and mobile-friendliness makes designing from scratch a far quicker process than it used to be.

There are regular security updates

Security is an important issue for all content management systems. Like any software system, there is no CMS that is immune to security breaches, although some are more susceptible than others.

Some argue that WordPress has inherent security flaws in it’s design. Others dismiss this claim. Regardless, it is generally accepted that WordPress is more vulnerable to security breaches simply because it is so popular. If a hacker can identify a security exploit in a particular version of WordPress then they potentially have a large number of websites that they can target. This of course is not the fault of WordPress and it is to their credit that they take security concerns seriously.

Some other systems seem less vulnerable to security breaches, either because they are inherently more secure, or because their lower popularity makes them less of a target. 

Security issues not only affect the core CMS, but also any plugins and themes that are being used. The plugin or theme maintainer may do a very good job of making their product secure, or they may not. 

Of course, any code you write to add capabilities to a loose-coupled CMS can also make it potentially vulnerable. But if you are writing the code, at least it is under your control.

It is good for SEO

A number of factors contribute to how well a site is optimised for search engines. These include (but aren’t limited to):

  • the structure of the presentation code (eg HTML and Javascript)
  • the content itself (eg use of keywords, and structure within the content)
  • the structure of the site (eg navigation components).

The structure of the presentation code is controlled by the theme (in close-coupled systems), or the template (in loose-coupled systems). In either case, whether these are optimised will depend on the technical skills of the creator.

The extent of optimisation of the content rests largely with the content creator and, apart from providing some built-in guidance, there is little that any CMS can do to influence this.

Whether or not the structure of the site is optimised is determined largely by the effectiveness of navigation systems. This is influenced by the themes, templates or plugins used, as well as by how the site owner decides to implement the navigation systems.

On the one hand, WordPress has any number of modules to help improve SEO. On the other, proponents of loose-coupled systems claim that it is easier to create optimised templates.

It is good for accessibility

SEO and accessibility (how accessible your site is to a range of users over a range of devices) often go hand in hand. As with SEO, there is nothing that makes a WordPress site inherently more accessible as compared to other CMS sites. It depends on the theme and plugins used.

There are plugins that seek to improve the accessibility of WordPress sites. Proponents of loose-coupled sysems claim that they have greater flexibility when it comes to making a site accessible. (But they can, of course deliver  inaccessible sites too—it’s really up to the designer).

The conclusion?

Examining the virtues behind the myth it is apparent the WordPress is not the only logical choice for a CMS. Yet WordPress is popular and there are good reasons for that. Based on the considerations in this article WordPress maybe a good choice for you if:

  • You want to set up a blog 
  • You want to build a website but have little or no technical skill
  • You’re a web developer and happy with the convenience (and constraints) of a close-coupled CMS.

If instead you prefer the freedom to make your website look and behave exactly how you want check out some of the fine loose-coupled alternatives such as ProcessWire or MODX

Published: Thursday, 29 August 2013