Friends don’t let friends use Wordpress

by Duncan Wilcox, Sep 27, 2021

Wordpress competes with our product, Sparkle, for your new website. And that undermines any argument we may make: we are clearly biased. This compels us to make as objective an argument as we possibly can, you are the ultimate judge of whether it makes sense and is relevant to you.

And really, we do have a vested interest in people not using Wordpress, but this is not a hate piece, just as an attempt to get people to snap out of Wordpress tunnel vision.

Key points:

  • Your job is not tracking vulnerabilities, implementing security best practices, updating server software, and sorting out the resulting theme/plugin conflicts
  • It’s not going to be free to get Wordpress to work and perform like you want it to
  • A monoculture is always worse than an equilibrium
  • You don’t want to become a full time Wordpress expert
  • Wordpress’ popularity doesn’t mean it’s the best tool for all websites, or for you specifically
  • The complexity of the whole ecosystem pushes regular people towards social media where their voice is drowned

Wordpress is unstoppable, as of September 2021 it’s used on over 42% of all websites. This is bad, it’s bad for the web, bad for the planet, and Wordpress is most likely a bad choice for you.

Wordpress

By being free and open source, Wordpress is fueling an ecosystem of hundreds of thousands of themes and plugins, and industry wide support, making Wordpress a de-facto standard and primary choice.

Is that good? Well yes. The ecosystem richness lets many people build and sell anything from Wordpress tools and infrastructure to themes and complete websites. That’s great.

But also no.

Wordpress is problematic not because of one thing it does wrong, rather because of a combination of a few damning factors.

Wordpress is a nightmare to manage

Wordpress is written in the PHP programming language. While PHP can be used correctly, it doesn’t lend itself to being used in a safe/secure way by default and these programmer opinions corroborate the complexity and unpredictability of dealing with the Wordpress code.

The proof is in the nightmare security story:

Wordpress is eminently composable, plugins and themes all contribute to assembling the final page.

You might think that “plugin” means something significant like a shopping cart, or a special image gallery, but if you don’t code you might end up relying on plugins even for trivial tasks like changing color of parts of the page.

The cost of the modularity is not just the increased attack surface, it also affects of performance. As a result the average Wordpress site has pretty bad Web Vitals.

Wordpress’ reliance on the database might have made sense in 2002, but in the 2020s, where a social media mention might bring you spikes of hundreds or thousands of visitors per minute, the stock Wordpress just won’t keep up.

All this means you are constantly babysitting a Wordpress install, with a constant fear mixed with excitement at every new traffic source and plugin update.

The “free” illusion

Truth to be told, any of the security, performance or scalability problems can be solved by paying, you can buy yourself out of just about any Wordpress problem.

Your free theme breaks? You can buy a subscription to a well maintained one, or hire a consultant to fix it. Site is slow? Get a Wordpress-specific hosting plan, or subscribe to a Wordpress acceleration service. Security issues? Services and consultants are plentiful.

For example wpengine is a managed Wordpress host, it starts at $25/month, addressing many of the security and scalability concerns.

What motivates a plugin developer to further maintain and develop it? A popular business model for open source is called “freemium”, where you get something for free, but more features required a premium (paid) upgrade, not unlike commercial try and buy software. Anything half serious will require a subscription.

The illusion that open source is free quickly vanishes.

Paraphrasing early Netscape developer Jamie Zawinski’s famous quote: Wordpress is only free if your time has no value.

Wordpress is bad for the web

Remember what happened when Internet Explorer had 80% share? Innovation stagnated, it was a bad place for web developers and web users.

The same is happening with Wordpress. Monoculture of a single browser, or a single web platform, is bad for the web. It would be bad if it was some other platform as well, but right now it happens to be Wordpress.

Wordpress is worse than Internet Explorer was, because it’s so prevalent it is damaging the very infrastructure of the web. Inexpensive web hosts almost don’t exist anymore, they all seem to configure their web servers to support Wordpress needs, with aggressive (and expensive) security and caching features.

That’s why Wordpress consultants build sites for a starting price of $2500-5000.

And for that entry level price you’re probably going to get a canned design, a few off the shelf plugins, and some manual labor in the form of touchy-feely SEO services (hard to measure, really).

Creating web code that is well tested, high performance, accessible and responsive is so hard, web agencies will not touch it, or not for $5000 anyway. So you’re not buying good coding, and you’re not buying good design.

While it’s hard to blame agencies for trying to make a living, the price tag, jargon, technicality and complexity keep most people away from the web. They’re pushed to social media instead, where walled gardens, rampant propaganda and rapidly obsoleting timelines drown individual voices and small businesses alike.

If you think social media is bad, the industry that thrives on technical complexity is part of the problem.

Wordpress is bad for you

You would think Wordpress would be best suited to a large organization then? Not quite: Smashing Magazine, a pretty large website by all standards, switched away from Wordpress some time ago, giving plenty of good reasons.

Wordpress is not universally bad of course, there are millions of websites using it, but considering the management complexity and the cost, it should not be used for most websites.

It’s just the default choice for many web agencies, an easy way to turn time and labour into money.

Wordpress is good for agencies because it offers a lot of choice while requiring advanced technical skills, with the “demo” price of freemium plugins being free for the most part.

If you follow the money, it’s clear that there are many parties with interest in the ecosystem. This is Wordpress’ true power, the marketing effort of a million small voices, promoting Wordpress to promote their product.

But that’s about them, not you. Wordpress is a free blogging platform, dressed up as a website builder in order to sell you stuff.

A typical Wordpress issue is there’s a security fix you absolutely need to install, but once you do that the updated software conflicts with the themes or plugins used in the site, and the site is broken until you fix it. But your client doesn’t want to pay for the work because they didn’t ask for it.

Even if it ticks many boxes, Wordpress is probably still bad for you.

Wordpress is bad for the planet

The principles of green engineering, an interesting collection of emerging guidelines to “make decisions which have a meaningful impact on the carbon pollution of their applications”, suggests accounting for the energy use regardless of application domain, industry or organization.

Even if the server hosting compensates their energy consumption by buying renewable energy or via carbon offsetting, a server using less energy is always better than one using more energy.

In the context of websites and the server that host them, there doesn’t appear to be good research on the energy use of different website platforms.

An intuitive understanding suggests that the comparison is between:

static website: a web server serving static files as the output page

Wordpress website: a web server running PHP programs, that connect to a database and produce the output page

Clearly the static website has a simpler server architecture.

A proxy for the energy use is likely to be the hosting cost, and while that also covers the premium nature of the hosting plan and higher support costs, it fundamentally reflects a more complex server architecture.

The average cost of Wordpress hosting for the top 10 sites listed by reviewsignal.com is currently $37/month. Contrast with the average of $6.60/month for simpler shared hosting plans that are perfect for static sites.

And that’s not as extreme as the Amazon Web Services cloud setup, which mentions a $1-3/month cost for a static site versus a $450/month cost for a (much more sophisticated but realistic) Wordpress setup, but the end result is the same.

You have a moral responsibility to make your website be a better guest on this planet: make it a static website (with Sparkle).

So why does “everybody” say Wordpress is great?

There’s a clear relationship between open source software and people making money from it.

The open nature of the software leads to unstructured growth and the development of hundreds or thousands of features in all directions, which is great until you realize the unwieldy growth created complexity in the form of it being hard to configure and operate, and a nightmare to fix, when you hit an edge case.

Of course those who have invested in Wordpress knowledge and understanding, thrive on the complexity, and many businesses have grown by solving specific pain points. This explains the large ecosystem: it feeds on Wordpress complexity. Unfortunately they not only have a vested interest in seeing Wordpress remain complex, they also need competitors to fail, particularly the ones that are easier to use.

While Wordpress themes, plugins and service ads are everywhere, bad fast food is not any better because it’s ubiquitous, you might just not be recognizing it as such.


There are many great tools out there. Just don’t pick Wordpress by default, or without considering the long term cost.

Sparkle

Sparkle is striving to become the best visual tool to create websites.

Please check out the documentation for an idea on how Sparkle can help create websites visually, or download the free trial.

If you have any questions or feedback please get in touch.

Sparkle combines an all-in-one approach, an understandable interface and a focus on producing high performance and search engine optimized websites. 

All in a powerful native Mac app. 

Nothing else comes close.

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