Choosing a platform to build and manage your digital presence is tough as it can have a lasting impact on your business. 2019 made one thing clear: We have a lot of choices when it comes to picking a new CMS. It's also never been a better time to get ready for the onslaught of new digital products. In response, older CMSes are adding headless functionality to stay ahead, and new headless/decoupled CMS offerings are popping up everywhere. It's competitive! And while that makes your job harder, it's ultimately a good thing; a competitive atmosphere creates better products as everyone races to improve.
With WordPress powering 26% of the world's top 10,000 websites, it's normal for decision-makers to consider the platform for a project or migration. To feel swayed by popularity — even if it's not right for your product and team — is human nature. WordPress is big and has stood the test of time. Most marketers, writers, developers and designers have used WordPress at one point in their careers. Even if you don't want them to, these factors can influence your decision.
But does that mean WordPress should be at the top of your list for your next CMS? If you're a small business, or you're looking for a personal blog or website –– our answer is to go ahead. Weigh your options, such as Wix, Squarespace and other Wordpress alternatives, and then go for it. If you're looking for a CMS that scales for enterprise, we say think again.
Before we dive in, it's necessary to clear up the difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. They’re different products but often confused.
WordPress.org is the self-hosted option. You can use whatever hosting you want and install WordPress themes for your front end. WordPress.org gives you access to more than 50,000 plugins. These plugins allow companies to add a whole host of features and capabilities to a WordPress site. They are the solution to everything, including security, SEO, social media and (more recently) adapting content for other digital products. Most businesses run their websites or digital products on WordPress.org with plugins to create CMS functionality and to patch over any failings.
WordPress.com can be installed and used free of charge. Unlike WordPress.org, you can't install plugins, and it has minimal theme support. You don't have to organize your own hosting, and you can add little customizations like a domain name. Most personal blogs are run on WordPress.com. It's a very comparable service to other website builders like Squarespace.
Think about your car. You might drive a little Volkswagen Polo, or if you're a family person, maybe an SUV that has a bit more space. The people who designed and made your car envisioned you using it to nip to the shops or pick your kids up from school and maybe taking it for the odd trip on the weekends. You've probably used it for more and gone on an off-road adventure, or perhaps even to tow a trailer. While the car wasn't built with features that make hitting the dirt trails or moving house easier, you've made it work regardless.
The same goes for WordPress. It wasn't created to support enterprise-level businesses or deliver content to digital products like phones and digital displays. It wasn't designed to be a CMS, much less a headless CMS. But over time, people have used it to do all these things.
WordPress started as a blogging platform. People without a programming background could easily do a WordPress installation, design their own theme, and launch a website. For developers, WordPress was easy to use, too –– at least initially. The default offerings, with a little tinkering, would produce a decent web page.
With the arrival of headless and decoupled CMSes on the scene, we imagine WordPress felt pressure to keep up. Traditional CMS platforms like WordPress were not built to create omnichannel experiences or digital experiences that went beyond a webpage. With more and more digital products requiring content, WordPress couldn't easily manage content for different devices. It was created to make web pages and blogs –– not smart fridges, Alexas, and the Apple Watch.
To meet that need, developers started to "hack" WordPress into a headless or decoupled CMS. A headless WordPress doesn't come out of the box. Changing it to be "decoupled" meant using WordPress for the backend and using a separate front-end app. And to enable content modelling meant extending it with an Advanced Custom Fields (ACF) plugin, and a plugin to provide the REST API access to the stored content.
The WordPress REST API started as an independent plugin, but in 2016 they released their own fully functional REST API. For the uninitiated, a REST API is the ability to deliver content in a generic, standard, and unformatted representation (mainly JSON format). It allows for whoever is receiving that content to pick and choose how they want to present it. By decoupling content management from front-end display, a headless CMS will enable developers to use any technology to display content. It meant that WordPress had a solution for the growing demand for delivering content to digital products that weren't just a webpage.
Does the REST API mean that WordPress is now a headless CMS? Does the REST API mean the problems with delivering content to the Internet of Things (IoT) are gone? Yes, and no. Some people argue that WordPress's REST API qualifies it as a headless CMS. Others say that a true headless CMS needs to do more than provide an API. A headless CMS needs to help users, including non-technical users, build omnichannel experiences. This includes providing tools such as content modeling (to make content scalable and reusable) and smart previewing content.
The dilemma when declaring something "the right choice" for your company is that it is way too vague. You can't pick a winner between two very different products. A product might prove suitable for one project, and then terrible for others.
WordPress is a good choice for bloggers, freelancers, or organizations that just need a simple website that's not feature-heavy. WordPress is excellent for individuals that want to set up a web presence and want to tinker with customizations, themes, and some plugins to create something unique.
If you're not planning on expansion to other digital products, or are a small business that isn't going to rocket into enterprise-level success, then WordPress will probably work for you.
The open-source nature of themes, widgets, and plugins can leave WordPress extremely vulnerable to cyber attacks. WordPress has over 50,000 plugins available, and they do everything from linking your social media to optimizing your SEO. They are WordPress's answer to enhancing their core functionality and allowing almost unlimited customizations.
You might be thinking, "But... that sounds good!" And it would be good if every plugin was high quality, well documented and easy to understand. Unfortunately, that's not the case; WordPress has a plugin problem. Anybody can create a plugin, including people with bad intent who work with malicious code, malware injections, spyware and more. Plugins are the number-one way that WordPress sites are compromised. Each plugin is a potential gateway or entry point for hackers, and because you need so many of them to create a functioning CMS, things can become very complicated.
Developers use plugins to turn WordPress into a decoupled WordPress. They're also used to fix problems, change the function of WordPress into solutions such as an ecommerce or knowledge base, and achieve better performance. Whatever you need to do –– there's a plugin for that!
While plugins are used to fix problems, they're also the cause of a lot of problems. Using a lot of plugins causes performance issues, makes pages more vulnerable to security breaches, and are often the cause of page issues and breakdowns. Developer's desert third-party plugins and themes don't get updated in line with new WordPress technology and standards. Themes and plugins need to be updated regularly –– as often as weekly –– to maintain your security.
WordPress has security challenges because hackers target WordPress sites more often than custom sites. Why? One of the reasons is its popularity. If hackers are looking to break into as many sites as possible by using something automated, then WordPress will be top of the list. If they run a successful hack, then they have access to a huge percentage of the web.
Nine out of 10 security issues are due to out-of-date plugins, or plugins downloaded from an unreputable source. But WordPress is also vulnerable to brute force attacks (password guessing), supply chain attacks and attacks as a result of using insecure hosting environments. There's a lot of vigilance, discipline and work that goes into making a WordPress site secure.
Even with the headless capabilities made possible with the REST API and a host of plugins, WordPress has trouble scaling. CMS requirements have changed drastically in the past few years with digital transformation and the new digital products on the market. When you think about scaling, there is more to it than growing your customers or audience. At Contentful, we like to think of the seven dimensions of scale and asking, "Will it scale?" is not enough. It involves questions about performance, security, geographic scalability, administration scalability and your infrastructure's ability to support more and more digital products as they come out.
WordPress can seem like an easy way to get a website up and running, but the more you add (plugins, themes, workarounds), the more complicated it gets. Suddenly you're stuck with a massive amount of technical debt and associated running costs. WordPress wasn't created as a CMS for the range of digital products we have today. It was created as a quick and easy website builder and has been adapted and modified for other uses.
Contentful was created to solve the problems of traditional CMSes such as WordPress. It was designed to be context and content agnostic from the very beginning. From day one, Contentful was used to create and send content to all types of digital products. Contentful has always been a headless CMS. It has never gone through substantial changes to meet the need of the market –– the very nature of Contentful means it's always ready for whatever is next.
The only change is that Contentful has expanded to become a full content platform. In addition to providing a headless CMS, Contentful has an authoring tool that non-technical users love to use, an app framework where you can connect your favorite tools or services and a world-class support team. It's features like this that make Contentful a perfect choice for enterprises. If you're interested in learning more about Contentful for enterprise, here are some of our favorite links:
Jo's a Contentful web app expert and collaborates with our customer success teams to elevate the authoring experience. She's a long-time power user who knows the product inside and out.