To WordPress Or Not To WordPress

Mar 3, 2009   //   by Hackadelic   //   Featured, WordPress  //  12 Comments

Representin´This article is sort-of an antithesis to a post called “Why developers should pick WordPress?“. While that post does make some good points pro WordPress, I’d like to show why it is not the whole story.

The Main Arguments Dissected

The mentioned article summarizes the most common pro WordPress arguments:

  • It has prominent users (even governmental).
  • It is more popular than its competition.
  • It is in high (and growing) demand.
  • It has a large (and cool) community.
  • It is easy to learn.

Some of the attributes, like “cool”, are subjective and I won’t bother to go into that. Others are real, but do not necessarily represent a unique strength of WordPress. Others yet are real and a truly outstanding characteristics of WordPress as a platform. Let’s take a closer look at each:

Prominent users

Prominence in the user base is important as a marketing factor, and a driving argument for future decisions elsewhere. It is much easier to sell to your boss that you’re going to built his next website with platform X if platform X is used by the NBA, or the NSA, or some other RETLA company.

However, this is nothing special to WordPress. It’s in the nature of things that a popular platform – any popular platform – has prominent users. Especially if it has been around for a while. I know that Joomla and Drupal have no less prominence in their user base.

So this is not a point on which WordPress really stands out from its competitors.

Governmental users

I took on this separately, since it has an importance of own.

For one, it may imply long term stability. Government organizations all over the world have the common property to be inert. It usually takes them long to make a “strategic” decision, which once made is “carved in stone” and “conserved for eternity”.

Unfortunately, the process of contracting someone is usually subject to the same inertia. Also true about every non-trivial decision in the course of a project. In other words: It’s not so easy to get a contract for a government project. Neither it is always fun to do work in that context. (It depends from context to context though, and someone’s inertia may well be another one’s agility.)

A special category of government organizations are “classified” organizations – those with a high security claim on their information, and hence on the platform that manages them. The aforementioned post refers to another post, which again reveals that WordPress is used by the NSA, the CIA, the Army, the Air Force, and a whole bunch of other top-secret type places – that is, in terms of security, some of the most demanding places on the planet.

Personally, I have doubts about the truthfulness of these “facts”. There is neither a reference to an existing website, nor to a credible source of information. I also doubt that WordPress’ safety level would come even close to the requirements in those organizations. (But then again, there are voices who claim intelligence agencies across the world would use MediaWki, so…) Philip has some good arguments about the credibility of such statements in his comment.

Be that as it may, knowing that the NSA uses WordPress is one thing, getting a contract with them is something entirely different. The hurdles to take in order to get there are a great deal tougher than with “normal” organizations, as you can easily imagine.

All in all, whether or not a platform is used by “the government” doesn’t necessarily mean a huge benefit to the broad majority of developers for that platform.

More popular than competition, in high demand

According to the author, the statistics graph in his post reflects “access numbers” – that is, daily unique visitors to the platform’s home sites. This was a clever choice, for two reasons: For one, daily visitors are most likely to reflect the actual user base. Second, another metric, say search volume statistics, would have shown a different picture.

While “access numbers” may reflect actual users of the particular platform, search volume can be interpreted as interest for that platform, and therefore may well indicate potential future users. Then Joomla is in some advantage, even if none of the Joomla prospects are renegades from other platforms. I dare to postulate though that a significant portion of those searching for Joomla are looking for alternatives to their current platform, and it is highly probable that they are coming from WordPress – as the platform with the highest “access numbers”.

See, statistics are really open for a lot of interpretation, and even slight changes in metrics may suggest totally different conclusions.

Anyway, neither metric says anything about the financial capacity of those users – and that is the really interesting thing. Rather than the mere number of users, as a developer you should look for commercial users, as they are the folks with the real money to pay for custom development. And here I would still place my bets on Joomla, as I would expect that commercial sites are more likely to go with a more sophisticated platform than WordPress is. They also tend to be more conservative in their choices. At least, my reasoning is reflected by the above statistics (and there’s been other research that supports my position, according to which 63% of Joomla sites in 2007 were commercial sites).

Let me put it this way: The average Joe from around the corner who happens to blog with WordPress is unlikely to afford the rates that would make you, a developer for WordPress, rich.

Rather, average Joe is much more likely to learn a bit of WordPress hacking himself, and begin to provide WordPress services of own, hereby establishing (yet another) competition to your business.

And why is he able to do that? Because WordPres is…

Incredibly easy to learn

This is probably the most outstanding property of WordPress. None of the other established CMS’s out there is so easy to begin with as WordPress. Not even close. And I mean both, using it, and programming on top of it, is a whole lot easier than with the majority of other systems.1

Let’s look at this property from a few different angles.

Angles On WordPress Easiness

WordPress Easiness for Developers

As a developer, you want to be productive quickly, so it seems wise for you to choose a platform like WordPress. If you are skilled, and you can build on prior experience, you can start coding WordPress plugins within a few weeks, even days if you are really skilled.

The reason for this is simple: WordPress doesn’t really have any sophisticated architecture.

As a consequence, you don’t need to learn new abstractions to find you way around WordPress, especially if you stick to plugins and don’t mess with WordPress’ core code. If you know a bit of HTML, PHP, and SQL, there’s little else you’d need to get started.

In other words, the consequence of it’s lack of a sophisticated architecture is that WordPress imposes an extremely low technological entry barrier for developers.

This is in contrast to, say, Drupal, which has a brilliant internal concept, based, as I see it, on graph theory. But there you go. If you ask yourself “What the hack is graph theory“, then it is a clear sign that Drupal imposes a much higher technological entry barrier.

On the other hand, if you happen to be amongst those chosen ones who know about graph theory, and feel comfortable juggling with all kinds of abstractions, you are likely to quickly run into WordPress limitations. Everyone does sooner or later, it’s just that if you are a programming genius, this is going to be really soon for you. Then there is a real chance you get frustrated, and drift off to other, more sophisticated platforms, which, while harder to master, may be more challenging and fun to work with on the long term.

For the rest of us: Due to the low technological entry barrier, we are likely to be facing a growing sea of competitor WordPress developers. And this means: Lower rates. I won’t claim I did any scientifically relevant research on this, but my impression is that already the rates for developing a WordPress site is an order of magnitude below those for Drupal sites. (My impression is that rates for Dupal sites start at medium 4 figures, while those for WordPress sites start at 3 to low-4 figures.)

Eventually, the aforementioned article is certainly right in one point: There is and will be enough work for WordPress-based developers. But unless you live to work, you shouldn’t strive for more work, but to earn more with less work.

On the other hand, other platforms might also involve more effort, not only to learn them, but also to setup and maintain them, and develop on them. In the end, you’ll have to see for yourself which one you feel comfortable with.

WordPress Easiness for Webmasters

As someone who is concerned with maintaining a 24×7 available high-quality site, you want to make sure the code that runs your site is top quality, stable, reliable… and makes you super-attractive for the opposite gender. (O.K., perhaps you don’t explicitly require the last one 😉 )

Naturally, your would sleep better in the assuredness that the software is implemented by a top software developer. And that does not necessarily include average Joe from around the corner.

And now think a bit further: If an entry barrier for developers is as low as the one with WordPress, what do you think is the average skill level in the WordPress developer pool?

I could also put it this way: WordPress doesn’t make it “rocket science” to develop for it, Drupal does. A possible consequence though, is that among Drupal developers you will find only “rocket scientists” (as those who are not don’t comprehend it anyway), but you’ll have to search for one in the WordPress camp.2

Sure. There are real luminaries among the WordPress developers. But when they are recognized as such, they are more likely to be booked off than available. And they can afford to call for rates that may well be beyond your budget.

Conclusion

Personally, I think WordPress is a great platform for WWW beginners. If you long to express yourself, and just want something you can start with immediately, WordPress is the right tool for you.

Same with programming for the web. If you are new to the technology (and there’s a lot in there), WordPress will not make your learning process harder than it must be. On the contrary, it will take care of many of the odds and ends of web programming for you, so you can start being productive a whole lot sooner.

In its current state though, WordPress is lacking too many of the content management features to be the “de facto standard” platform of choice for a full blown commercial website. Lovely or not – too much tweaking and twisting is needed for that. (It’s like trying to use a lawnmower as a tractor.)

Sure, it’s true that it is possible to make a living from providing WordPress services (as many do). I won’t place my bets that you’ll be able to retire with 45 from that business alone though.

  1. I know it, because I’ve put significant efforts into investigating and evaluating dozens of platforms for my site. []
  2. Don’t take the terms “rocket science” and “rocket scientist” literally. They are just a metaphors. []

12 Comments

  • Well I have found WordPress is not as easy to create as Publisher. Sure you can add text, images, but you are limited to left center right. Going from full control where one could even layer static and dynamic images to three locations is most difficult to accept.

    I have spent countless hours trying to correct my website. If it weren’t for the cool plugins that are created, I would be using something else.

  • […] the scenes, WPMU was disappointing as well. I’ve already written elsewhere that WPMU is driven by the needs of wordpress.com, and it’s approach to data storage (i.e. its database schema) is a major consequence of this. […]

  • Genius web developer = Drupal
    Mediocre/amateur web developer = WordPress ?

    Ease of use is relative. My clients are not likely to become my competition in my working lifetime which I hope does extend beyond 45. I have never wanted to get rich quick – I’m doing work I love.

    I don’t feel like a WWW newbie. I’m not a WWW newbie compared to some. To others I am wearing WWW diapers.

    My payscale covers Pro Bono & Premium price points for custom themes and graphics. If I work “for the good” for a project I believe in and receive no money chances are I will have added still more to my skillset which makes me more confident in my work.

    I choose only supportable plugins to make my job easier and give my clients what they want. My clients do not assume that because I use WP for their website engine that I should get paid less.

    WP is a means to an end,true. It was easy to get into because loads of good people contribute scads of tutorials and plugins. But I would not say it was easy to learn. After 4 years I am still learning and happy about it.

    Your post got me thinking. Thanks.

    • Hi mccormicky,

      thank you, too. It’s good to know what I write makes people think.

      You know, I knew one day some one would “derive” such equations between platform and talent from it. 😉

      But equations suggest a precise rule, like a physical law, which is by no means the case here. It’s more about probability and statistics, if you want.

      The thought is: From all programmers on the planet, there is a small percentage of them who are the “rocket scientists” of programming. Then there are some who understand “rocket science” well enough to assist with building rockets, but not enough to build one themselves. And then there is the “rest”, who will never come even near a “rocket”. Because the “entry barrier” to get to the “rocket” is high.

      There is a chance you can find a rocket scientist work as a car mechanics, and there may also be a chance a car mechanic is working in rocket science. But these will be exceptions, not the rule.

      Having said that, even among rocket scientists there are variations in skill and talent, and a mediocre rocket scientist may well make a car mechanic top star.

      Do you know what I mean?

      Of course, entry barrier is not the only key. Another is limited time/resources. I chose WP over Drupal or Joomla, because I knew they’d take much more time to manage (in terms of both, learning curve, and administration), leving me less time for writing or developing plugins.

      I’ve got my impression about pricing from some (non-scientific) Internet research I did in order to get a feeling about it. I memory serves, most Drupal site development services were priced as “starting at” 2000-6000, while the predominant WP site development services were much lower, like 700-3000. On the other hand, I’ve set up several Drupal sites, and several WP sites, and I can tell setting up a Drupal site is 2-3 times the effort it takes with WP. (I’m not talking about installation only. You install Drupal in much about the same time as WP. But when it comes to adding plugins, things are getting much tougher with Drupal. At least it used to be the case.). So it’s roughly the same hourly rate with both I guess.

      It’s true that there will be new things to learn with WP, too. After all, it is evolving, and new things come to it continuously.

      But I don’t think that WP is easy to learn because there are so many tutorials. I think there are so many tutorials because WP is so easy to learn. And explain. And this is so, because the concepts behind WP are no “rocket science”.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful remarks.

  • WordPress MU is the way to go for enterprise solutions. While it’s rep is indeed for blog farms using multiple databases, it’s worked great as CMS for many organizations and associations I’ve worked with.
    Cheers.

    • Mercime, I agree that WPMU is somewhat closer to enterprise use cases than WP. (I’ve been thinking about moving to WPMU myself actually.) But being more suited than WP doesn’t make it well suited in a broader sense. WPMU is still “just” a blogging platform. It is driven heavily by the needs of wordpress.com, so it naturally has the multi-user aspect evolved most. It can serve as a multi-blogging platform, but even there, despite the similarity of the multi-blog use case to the multi-user use case, it is missing some relevant features, like cross-posting. I’d say it won’t take significantly less tweaking than WP would take for a single “enterprise” website.

      That’s my view at WPMU. I’d be very much interested though in the concrete experiences you’ve made with WPMU in the real world. What are the feature that make it well suitable for enterprise solutions? How do they add to WP alone? Do you have some experience with alternative CMS’es, and how do they compare to WPMU in enterprise context?

      I’m looking forward to hearing from you again. 🙂

  • Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  • Hi,

    I know wordpress has limitation, but, for me, it does easy to use.
    Appreciated if you can advise us on the approache that how much we can do with wordpress for non-critical web-based applications development? I have been thinking if it is a good idea to do programming on wordpress in stead of programming from basic. Would it be possible to use/change wordpress for application below
    1. service portal web site
    2. product showcase web site
    3. multi-choice test engine
    4. ERP, for record and tracking order status with some calculation and emailing function
    5. content management system (a system with rich searching and classification)

    thanks!

    • Patrick, somehow this comment of yours was again in my spam queue… weird !?!

      Anyway, these are good questions. Yes, all these things can be done with WP. But the questions is how much effort is required to do it, not if it can be done at all.

      I’ll see if I get around o writing an article with differentiated insights on how well WP lends towards each of your applications.

  • I said … (eventually, I will learn PHP well during such economic downtime)

  • hi, You read my mind! I have been looking for a “reliable” Content Management System (CMS)solution for my archive. I am using workpress (instead of mediaWiki and other blogware) for CMS, however, I have been thinking if my approache right? Thanks for you sharing of your viewpoints, I will read it in details as soon as I got a chance, as it is quite informative(lenghtly). It will be great if you can do comparison with mediaWiki and WP.

    BTW, my requirement for CMS are:
    1. it should be supported by mySQL, a database which is free and easy-to-operate for a ordinary PC user like me
    2. have good feature for presentation and classifcation of information
    – WP’s themes gives users flexibility and instant resources for presentation / layout design
    – WP seems have limitation in building complex structure for posts(content)
    PS: I came across your site when I had been serching know-how of building table-of-content for a couple of days
    PS: Classification is the beginning of all understanding!!!

    3. resources and flexibility for further development
    – developers group and sharing (hackadelic, I check your blog daily)
    – plugins (I think I will pay for a magazine which show me the fashion and combination of WP-plugins)
    – programming language (eventually, I will learn it well during such economic downtime)
    – testing platform (WAMPserver 2.0 helps me a lot)
    4. Security, I am looking for tricks to set level of access of posts
    5. Info Exchange/Communication with readers, I think a forum will be need as supplmentary of my blog eventually

    my trail:
    ccie.hk
    foodbook.hk

    bye for now, ttyl

    • Patrick, thanks for sharing your views.

      When you read the article, you will notice that it’s not at all pro-WP. Rather, I tried to take on a neutral point of view, instead just appraisal.

      I’m afraid I can’t provide an in-depth comparison with MediaWiki, since I don’t use it. I do know wiki technology well though, from other wiki platforms, and I can say it’s much more suitable then a blog for anything of the “knowledge base” kind.

Blog Categories

I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...
and I'm all out of bubblegum.
-- Nada in They Live