WordPress, in the opinion of many developers and designers, is a headache. It powers at least a quarter of websites though, so to dismiss it out of hand seems unfair!
Why would some developers turn their noses up at such a widely-adopted piece of software? We’ll summarize a few reasons below. Then, a brief discussion about when WordPress is still worth it. Finally, for cases where WP is not the answer, we’ll evaluate a few alternatives.
WordPress has a lot of free1 plugins. Here’s how they frame it:
…there are literally thousands of plugins that extend what WordPress does, so the actual functionality is nearly limitless.
You’ll likely find plugins to provide most requirements outside the core WordPress features. What if they fall short of your ideal solution? Not to worry, this is Open Source Software — you can extend it to meet your needs! Continuing from the quote above:
You are also free to do whatever you like with the WordPress code, extend it or modify in any way or use it for commercial projects without any licensing fees. That is the beauty of free software, free refers not only to price but also the freedom to have complete control over it.
I understand and applaud such strong commitment to Open Source! But this language oversells it to non-technical users. In theory, one can extend open source software indefinitely, but not without friction. Downloading plugins, a WordPress site owner avoids development obstacles. (In the process, they gain a lot of functionality for their site.) Those obstacles in their rear-view become frames of reference for sophisticated development projects. The enthusiasm of the marketing copy anchors expectations. Consequently, developers often arrive to project meetings with rosy premises in play.
Most developers have heard some variation on the following. “We need you to add Feature X to Plugin Y that we’ve already sourced for you. Most the code is already there.” So, some developers avoid WordPress altogether. They do this as a way to filter out scenarios where they’d be battling uphill for understanding. If it’s not yet clear why extending freely-available plugins can be time-consuming and inefficient, read on…
(Health outcomes are not part of the analogy that follows.)
Well-designed code can be imagined as a microwave dinner. Each ingredient tucked neatly into its own slot in the tray. The opposite of this is spaghetti. Ingredients twisted around one another, mixed amongst themselves — messy by nature!
WordPress is a heaping plate of spaghetti code. Consider the execution of a single WordPress function. You might see it output HTML, query the database, and add variables to the global scope. A separate, well-defined function should handle each of these actions. When a project does that, it adheres to the single-responsibility principal. Code written this way is easier to test, maintain, and understand. Spaghetti coding sacrifices these benefits for reasons that are not always obvious. From wikipedia:
The single responsibility principle is a computer programming principle that states that every module or class should have responsibility over a single part of the functionality provided by the software, and that responsibility should be entirely encapsulated by the class.
How can one hedge against a large project turning into spaghetti? One answer is to use the programming language to draw boundaries. WordPress’s programming language, PHP, has something that can help with this: namespacing. Sadly, PHP only added namespaces in version 5.3, which came out in 2009. That’s a full 5 years after the initial release of WordPress!
This is a recurring theme. Upstream from WordPress, PHP and the greater software development community make structural improvements. WordPress can’t apply them to the existing code without a substantial re-write. And so, the spaghetti code stays2. And who wants to work with outmoded practices and tools?
WordPress is a web application. There are well respected and oft-applied guidelines for building web apps. “The 12 Factor App” details some of those gold standards. WordPress flouts all 12 factors. Neither does it conform to any of the PHP Standard Recommendations. (The PSRs are sets of rules to help developers write robust & readable code.)
This is no format war. It isn’t like Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD. WordPress has no analogues to any of the 12 Factors or PSRs. When writing WordPress, the authors couldn’t foresee future development practices. Testing environments, dependency managers, and automated deployments weren’t common in the PHP world. One makes an improved analogy by comparing Old 480p DVDs to a 1080p Blu-ray. On best practices, WordPress is at a generational disadvantage.
Two quick consequences/observations that follow the above criticisms:
Cowboy coding is still very much the norm in the WordPress consulting scene. It’s found in places that you may expect it: freelancers on UpWork or Fiverr. Yet, the white-collar, professional-seeming WordPress agencies also do this with startling frequency!
WordPress’ core files don’t pass their own code standards checks! 3 This is emblematic of the generational disadvantage the codebase suffers from. (The standards came into being 13 years after WP did.)
If you’re new to web development, or lack experience with WordPress, use it on a small to mid-sized project. Familiarizing yourself such a popular framework gives you a new perspective. This software is what many web developers use on the daily.
You might also consider developing WordPress themes or plugins. Take a look at their booming premium theme/plugin marketplaces. You may have gripes about how WordPress is set up, how messy and bogged down the sites get in many hands. But, the Gordon Gecko might see the appeal in such a large, captive market.
If you can jump ship, or make part of a project independent of WordPress, here are a few recommendations:
Symfony or Laravel are PHP frameworks. They should be considered if you’re developing functionality beyond simple content management. Both have their idiosyncrasies, but you’ll find that they’re more or less in step with 12 factors. They’re also mature, open source projects with vibrant communities and contributors.
Some projects require only content styling. Content isn’t always updated frequently! If you or your team can handle those updates, a static site generator4 is a wonderful choice. Such a tool sidesteps most maintenance, performance and security concerns!
Sometimes costs are sunk, and there’s no convincing your agency, client, or stakeholders. You can graft some modern development practices to the project with the tooling over at roots.io. And take heart! Nothing stops you from writing quality code within your corner of a WordPress project..
WordPress has lots of problems, but it’s still very popular. Developers often have good reason for being skeptical about adopting it. It’s worthwhile exploring alternatives where you can convince stakeholders to do so.
To say nothing of premium themes and plugins, and their feature lists. (Think War & Peace.) ↩
I acknowledge that this criticism loses some of its edge when you consider that these rules were created 6 years into the WordPress project. (Also consider that it was another 7 years before a WP core contributor really bring it into the fold.) Retroactively updating decades-old functions to comport with new standards is no small task. But this is precisely the point! ↩
A very cool seeming, quixotic take: https://wp2static.com/ ↩