The Truth About WordPress
by Sallie Goetsch of the Podcast Asylum and Jon Leland of ComBridges
Recently, 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.