The Dark Side of WordPress

WordPress is wonderful!

It is user-friendly, so simple to use & a very powerful system for building websites.

There are stylish, appealing, and visually creative themes to choose from aplenty, as are plugins that provide features and functionality for almost any purpose.

It is ‘Open Source’ so there are no costly license fees at the outset or to renew regularly.

It is built using PHP coding and MySQL database systems, which are respected, robust, reliable, well supported and are also ‘open source’.

WordPress is so popular.

It has taken the internet by storm. Last time I looked 22% of all websites on the web were running websites with WordPress, that’s more than 74 million websites using it globally. Around 60% for all CMS (Content Management Systems) websites use it.

Some of the world’s very notable and respected websites are reported to be built with WordPress, including the websites for governments and internationally renowned newspapers.

WordPress is the ‘bees-knees’ and has left Joomla, Drupal, Magento and other CMSs languishing in the dust.

Unfortunately there is another side to the story.

The Dark Side

Updates & Backups

Websites operating on WordPress (WP) need to be backed up regularly including databases and the PHP coding files. This is perhaps less of a big deal than it was, as there are now more automated systems to do this on a routine schedule. It was something that was previously initiated manually, until recently and unless you completely trust the system, it still needs to be monitored to ensure the integrity of the process.

To ensure security vulnerabilities and bug fixes are plugged and up-to-date, it is important to have the latest version of WP installed. This used to require doing a manual backup of the database and PHP files ahead of any updates as there was a risk that something would go wrong or not work. If you just have one or two websites this is not perhaps a very big issue, but if looking after 20-30 websites, as a small website developer may do, this becomes a regular and major chore.

Asynchronous Updates

Every time WP is updated or a new version released, there is a risk that plugins or themes will not be compatible with the updated version. In my experience asynchronous updates between WP and plugins/themes have been a major headache. When this happens, at best, that function or feature stops working. At worst the entire website goes down. This has happened to me on several occasions. The issue then needs to be debugged, usually from the back-end, which can be much more involved technically than the apparent simplicity that WordPress touts. It’s not for the feint hearted and if you have numerous websites to look after, it can be a nightmare.

At least in the days of manual updates you could deal with debugging one website at a time and use learnings from upgrading/fixing one website for the next. With automation what happens with one website will happen to them all and that could mean a lot of unhappy customers, all at one time. 

Plugin/themes updates can happen independently to WP updates, so imagine you operate 20 websites with an average of 12 plugins each. That’s 20 backups, potentially up to 20×12=240 plugin updates with the risk of incompatibility bugs every time for every one.

Static Fantastic

In the old days you built a static HTML site, published it, backed it up and walked away. If something needed modified or extended, you did the mod, backed it up and walked away.

The price we pay for wonderful, user friendly, great looking, powerful, versatile WP websites is that they are a millstone around a website developer’s neck and to their customer who has to pay for a support package.

If someone with a good amount of web savy is looking after one or two of their own websites that could be easier to manage but they would still need to keep up to date with the state and complexity of the back-end ‘art’. This takes a lot of the glitzy shine off of the lauded user-friendliness. Plus any foray into code that is required may be fine for those who have well developed HTML or PHP skills but it takes away the idea that anyone with moderate PC skills and web awareness can do it.

Will my customers wear the monthly or annual support charges?

Simple brochure style sites don’t need the high end CMS functions and while the increasingly ‘drag and drop’ WP environment is a pleasure to use, the back-end complexity is overkill for these kinds of websites.

Unless you blog, publish news or other changeable information where archival, category & tag searches are useful, then the WP back-end is superfluous.

Go Hard Wired

Commonly available free or low cost WP plugins for e-commerce are basic and okay for small trader websites, but not very great for customisation and large scale use. No doubt a professional developer could write some but with the likely costs involved it would be easier to write an entire dedicated solution.

Similarly there are numerous other functions that a user may require, that involve extensive and prolonged searches to find and test. In the end, there is no guarantee the search will find suitable plugins either free or commercially. Any plugins that look like they may do the job have to be installed to see if they do what is desired, they may or may not. It all takes up lots of time. Time that is hard to justify or charge against, either as a commercial enterprise or with the normal remit of any business.

Blogging on steroids

Wonderful though it is, WP is blogging on steroids. It is useful for a load of things but it has a plateau, it has limits.

It may be useful as a platform for developers to build their own custom plugins and themes but again they might choose to build their own site from scratch. Why risk the cost of building on a platform that may change beneath your feet? It has continually ever since I started to use it.

The Perception of Free

Like many things on the web, if you know how to write code, there is so much that is free.

WordPress promotes the idea that it is free and easy to use. Charging professional fees for something that is ‘free’ is slightly harder to do and has many have-a-goes chipping away at profit margins and the professional image of the industry. Many ‘website developers’ have no idea what is involved with useability, SEO, marketing or indeed about good business practices or how to charge to operate a sustainable business. With WordPress anyone can have a go while the general public may be resentful at how much it costs to have a website built on a ‘free’ platform.

Self Editing for Idiots

Then there is the self editing myth.

If a developer has set up user accounts inside WordPress that allow the customers to create new content or of modify what the developer has set up, it is asking for trouble. Invariably Joe Public doesn’t have the knowledge of how to lay pages out attractively, how to use simple and effective user-friendly navigation, nor how to construct well written content. They don’t know how to create a well structured website or about net-etiquette.

Very soon the proud work of a developer will have spelling and grammatical errors to make the least erudite among us cringe. Strange or inappropriate graphics, images or colours that simply don’t work will have the developer rushing to take their credit and link to their own website off the footer, before anyone thinks the hotch-potch is of their doing.

So keep the idiots away from self-editing and corrupting or destroying the developer’s tasteful, hard work. If they must have some input, keep it to the minimum and watch it like a hawk.

The Utopian Nightmare

For me, the wonders of WordPress have been undermined by the practical reality.

On one hand it is fantastic and wonderful. But don’t expect too much from it it you want to get creative and go off piste, unless you have the coding skills to maintain things when they go wrong.

I did create this article using WordPress. This website is a WordPress website. But when customers come along who want special functions on their website that I built for them, that’s when it can all get too much.

So I’m now in the ‘what’s next?’ zone.