Friday, October 26, 2012

May I Have a Word(Press)?

Almost all web development these days is based on a content management system (CMS).  The most popular currently is WordPress.  WordPress began its life as a stand-alone blogging software package but evolved over the past several years into a full-fledged open-source CMS.  WordPress users can add pages, design elaborate themes, and add all kinds of functionality - including some surprisingly robust ecommerce capabilities.

Several of my current clients requested WordPress updates this year, including Atlanta Panhellenic, COCAP, Northside Tree, and there are more in the pipeline.   Most users find it easy to use for a layperson.  But WordPress is not the only CMS out there.  How do you know if it's right for your project?

Here's the breakdown:

Again, ease of use.  Many hosting providers, like GoDaddy or BlueHost offer "1-click" installation.  You don't have to know what you're doing, you just have to remember your username and password and the server does the rest.  Adding functionality ("Plugins") is also easy as a user can search for the right plugin through the site's administrative page and install with a couple of clicks.  You can truly get away with not knowing any code or how to interact with a server if you need to.

Flexibility.  Unlike specialized systems like Drupal or Sitefinity, WordPress will function on either Linux or Windows servers, so long as they support the PHP programming language.  99.9% of them do.

Support for non-Flash animations.  It is rare to see a WordPress site without a slideshow that is visible on tablets and smartphones.  That's because the standard WordPress installation has excellent built-in support for these functions.  Don't let slideshows fool you - they have a million moving parts and are NOT simple creatures!  WordPress has made it easy to install slideshow plugins and the plugins themselves are easy to learn.

Quality control of "plugins".   Plugins - additional functions that extend the capabilities of a basic WordPress site - are linked from a dedicated section of the main website,  However there are many duplicates and not all of them are equally useful or reliable.  Some are so generalized it is difficult to customize them to your needs and even require some coding knowledge.  That defeats the "ease of use" principle.  Others are so specialized they can't be used at all.  Further, there is no synchronization between plugin development and core evolution.  Plugins rely on community feedback to determine if they are compatible with the most recent upgrade of the standard WordPress installation, which is notoriously unreliable.  Plugins can be useful but choosing the right ones can be a crapshoot.

Little support for online communities.  Unlike WordPress' counterparts Joomla and Drupal, WordPress does not have major support for directories of users or custom profiles, or individual contact forms. Online community functions like bulletin boards are slowly emerging into sunlight.  WordPress assumes that all users with access to the admin page are there to edit content and not necessarily interact with each other.  The closest WordPress comes is a plugin called BuddyPress; however for the average user, this plugin - plus its over 300 companion plugins - is difficult to use and intended mainly for professional developers.  Most WordPress users I've encountered will use a separate bulletin board program, like phpBB as an additional installation for this purpose.

Weak internationalization.    If your target audience uses more than one language, you're going to run into problems.  Most WordPress plugins rely on automated translation (remember Babelfish?) which is never recommended by serious interpreters or translators.  If you have to have your content translated into different languages (or, if you want to deliver different content based on the audience's language) my personal favorite is Joomla with the JoomFish extension.  (I used this combo on the Cap Global Language Services site.)

When you're planning a website, make sure that you have a solid list of what you want it to do, how you want it to function, and what you want your visitors to be able to do when they get there.  That will help you and your webmaster determine the right technology and the right CMS for the job.

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