The Truth About WordPress

by Sallie Goetsch of the Podcast Asylum and Jon Leland of ComBridges

istock_000006783097xsmall2Recently, in a WordPress group on LinkedIn, the question was asked “Is WordPress the answer to all our prayers?” The writer was extending the conversation about his own blog post which objected vehemently to crazy claims that complete novices could build “killer websites” in minutes if they just used WordPress. It seems that the world of technology is filled with these kinds of false promises and unrealistic expectations.

For those of us who have hand-coded HTML back before tools like Dreamweaver were invented, and who have experimented and had learning experiences with creating web pages in a wide variety of ways, WordPress is an important new platform for website development. Compared to anything we’ve seen before, WordPress is amazingly simple and intuitive, especially given its array of powerful features. It lets you change your design without affecting your content, it has great built-in SEO (search engine optimization) features, and it’s free.

WordPress also has advantages over competing website publishing systems like Drupal and Joomla. For one thing, you can use easy offline editors (like Windows Live Writer and Ecto) to update content on WordPress sites. WordPress also began as a blogging platform, and as a result, it’s “natural” for WordPress websites to include blogs. For many website designers, even those who have never learned Java, never learned Flash, never learned PHP, and don’t know a single programming language, WordPress does answer many prayers.

But, that’s very different from saying that anyone can use WordPress to design and implement a sophisticated website. If you try to take advantage of WordPress’ full capabilities as a content management system without knowing anything about HTML, CSS, or PHP — or about WordPress itself — you are simply asking for trouble. Yes, you can set up a basic blog using WordPress.com without knowing much, but to really make WordPress (or any other new software) sit up and do tricks, you have to put some time into learning how to use it. (More advanced users download WordPress from WordPress.org. The supply of tricks available at WordPress.com is limited.)

When you think about it, most people only know how to use the most basic features of the software that they use every day. They treat Microsoft Word like a glorified typewriter and don’t even know most of its tools and options exist, much less how to use them. They pay hundreds of dollars for Photoshop and only use the functions they could have gotten for free with Picasa. (Photoshop is so sophisticated that even advanced users can spend hours studying DVD tutorials to learn new things.)

So why should WordPress be any different? It’s not, but people get excited and apparently WordPress’ many benefits give birth to irrationally exuberant expectations. Either that, or there are some people out there who think that because WordPress is easy for them, it must seem that easy to everyone else.

For example, if you hear that there are 5,000 free plugins that extend WordPress’ platform, and hundreds of free themes in the theme repository, shouldn’t you expect that just looking through them and testing them to see which ones would be best for you might take quite some time? And then there’s the fact that new versions of WordPress come out a lot more often than new versions of Photoshop. So you have to stay up to date, by doing things like attending meetups and Wordcamps, reading blogs, watching videos, listening to podcasts, or even reading books. (There are several good books on WordPress, but it is hard for print books to keep up with the rapid developments in the platform and its plugins.)

Because WordPress is a web-based platform, it’s much easier for geographically dispersed teams to collaborate on websites. But due to its popularity, WordPress sites are also open to server hacks and blog spam attacks–as ComBridges discovered first hand recently.

While it doesn’t necessarily take a programmer to learn WordPress, if you want to create a sophisticated WordPress site, skills like PHP will come in handy. And, if you want to learn your way around, study the WordPress Codex and be sure to allow some time to learn important fundamentals such as, for example, which plugins make it easier to use WordPress as a CMS (content management system). For professional website developers like us, that’s part of our job.

Even though WordPress is easy enough for Sallie’s hairdresser to update, Sallie was the one to create the site, and had to provide more than one tutorial on posting to the blog and editing pages.

WordPress deserves to be praised for many reasons, but exaggerated claims about its ease of use for the complete novice does everyone a disservice. Let’s practice a little expectation management, people.

5 replies
  1. John Coonrod
    John Coonrod says:

    I’ve used wordpress and drupal for a number of sites and I have to says – for setting up a “basic” website – both are rather difficult and – I would say – needlessly so. Both install as a platform for a website – not a decent looking website. That should at least be an install option. “CMS Made Simple” might be a step in the right direction – a CMS that produces a fully functional, professional looking organizational website on first install.

    Reply
  2. David Horowitz
    David Horowitz says:

    Sallie and Jon, thanks for the thoughtful post on WordPress. I’ve been experimenting with WordPress as a blogging tool (http://soundside.wordpress.com and http://thepresser.wordpress.com) and had good success with it. I also use Windows Live Writer as a front-end often and find that easy and convenient. However, you are correct in that I haven’t scratched any deeper than the default theme or added any plugins to my pages – I’ve just created basic posts and used categories and tags and Technorati tags also. I could see that WordPress could be used as the basis for a basic website, but I agree that it would probably take some degree of programming experience to get what you want (like Sallie’s hairdresser). Thanks for putting it out there.
    David Horowitz, Lead Technologist
    Soundside Inc.
    http://www.soundsidesoftware.com

    Reply
  3. ali hong kong
    ali hong kong says:

    I agree with this. As professional web designers, we struggle with making WordPress do non-blog things. more so than our own custom CMS work. And then we have to contend with clients’ expectation that it should be simple, and therefore cheap!

    My theory is that most of those who espouse the benefits of WP are also the people who need WordPress. i.e. non technical publishers. They install a plug-in, learn to hack their way around so that its useful, and are then loathe to try any other plugin. So when you read someone say ‘Administer is the best ad tool i’ve used’ you should read ‘Administer is the first tool I got to work’.

    Also, updating a magazine-style blog with WP is more complicated than dreamweaver, in my opinion! People just need the comment and loop functionality so bad that they’ll put up with stupid copying and pasting of URLs into custom fields. god… i hate it.

    Reply

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  1. […] David Horowitz Colleagues Sallie Goetsch of the Podcast Asylum and Jon Leland of ComBridges posted The Truth About WordPress, which intends to answer the question “Is WordPress the answer to everyone’s prayers?” It […]

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