Why developers are so divided over WordPress

After seeing WordPress top the most dreaded platform on Stack Overflow’s Developer Survey for two years in a row (2019 and 2020), a few weeks ago we explored why developers hate using the CMS.

Interestingly enough, we ended up getting some impassioned responses from developers who love WordPress. Just visit some of the many Quora and Reddit threads about the CMS and you’ll find die-hard WordPress haters and lovers battling it out.

We decided to dig deeper into this story. What’s actually fueling this rift within the developer community and what could WordPress do to appease Stack Overflow respondents?

Seeing as we actually use WordPress here at TNW, we started by having a chat with a developer from our very own team.

What WordPress fans love about the CMS: It’s built for everyone

When WordPress started out in 2003, it was built to help bloggers and small businesses develop websites without the need for coding skills. Rather than having to build a site from scratch or hire an expensive agency, these individuals and small teams could simply choose from a number of beautifully designed ‘theme’ templates, customize, and go.

The success of this much simpler and more accessible model held promise for users who wanted to spread their reach. There are now over 4,000 themes to choose from.

Along with that came the first plug-ins so users could customize their site even more with new options to optimize SEO, connect to social, integrate with newsletters, and more. The number of plug-ins ballooned to over 50,000 options.

“From an end user/client perspective, WordPress offers a low learning curve, relative ease of use, and a plugin ecosystem which can enable people and businesses of all skill levels to create high quality sites and applications, often without needing to hire developers,” said Ronan O’Leary, Senior Web Developer at TNW.

Having worked with WordPress over the course of his 10-year career as a web developer, he said:

It’s kind of like having an on again off again relationship.

For him, one of the great things about WordPress is that it’s open source and has an extremely large market share, so there’s a very good chance that a large number of devs have experience in dealing with the platform. This also means that solutions to immediate issues are generally a quick Google away.

“It’s very flexible as it’s grown from being a blog platform to a more rounded, fully featured, and extendable CMS,” O’Leary said.

The problem: It’s become a victim of its own success

The accessibility WordPress was built to offer may just be the cause of the divide we now see within the developer community. With 64 million users across the globe, O’Leary believes:

They’re really the victims of their own success. You can never fully please anyone at that level of market penetration.

The problem is, with the amount of sites that are run on WordPress, the majority of them will be running on the traditional way of doing things, making it difficult to introduce really far reaching updates without alienating a large group of clients. With the constant and high speed rate of innovation in the dev community, O’Leary expects the gap between old and new technology to only get wider:

In the past few years, there’s practically been a revolution in terms of how we deliver frontend content using what is referred to as ‘Jamstack’ – this is rapidly growing into the new standard architecture for the web. There’s a lot of activity around libraries and tools such as React and Vue JS – which enables people/companies to build JavaScript powered frontends which are faster, more performant, and more modern.

That kind of thing frees you from having to work within a template system. So, I’d say the downvote is probably stemming from good old fashioned frustration. This is 13, 14, 15 year old tech, so there’s probably a lot of devs who’ve had to find workarounds at some point.

Furthermore, while having such an open system has its upsides, it also means there isn’t a defined standard for code or code quality. O’Leary said this often leads to headaches where solutions need to be crafted to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of a given theme:

When I was working for an agency, on occasion, you’d get a client who would be dead set on a specific theme which may not have been coded well. But within an environment like that, you can be quite restricted in terms of what you can actually do. So I think that that would certainly explain why there’s an awful lot of backlash from devs.

By and large, developers like to have familiarity with tools libraries that are a bit more opinionated. Whilst WordPress caters for users of all levels, I would surmise it’s too broad to interest a sector which is constantly striving for speed and better delivery of content.

So can WordPress actually keep the accessibility its fans love while modernizing its offering for frustrated devs?

If you read our previous article, you’ll remember Dominik Angerer, CEO of headless CMS platform Storyblok, shared some of the difficulties he and his cofounder faced when working with traditional CMS systems.

Catching up with him again, he shared that he believes most legacy systems (including WordPress, Squarespace, Drupal and others) are now transitioning towards a headless approach. In his view, this will really help them modernize their offering for today’s users:

WordPress is actively moving into an API-based approach. This will allow developers to use any technology they want to use and gives them more control over technology choice, update cycles, and even security benefits.

We’ve talked about how a bad WordPress project can completely lock you into a technology stack that you can’t update. In general WordPress is actually moving towards a headless direction themselves. Adapting to the API-based approach and with a hosted version you don’t have to worry as much about updating or having to use some of the old security hotfixes of the past.

However, with adding headless CMS capabilities now the visual approach for content editing isn’t improving as much and still turns away marketers so we see that as one of the big advantages besides some enterprise collaboration features such as discussions, workflows, and different approaches to CMS extensions.

Introducing new concepts to a widely distributed solution, such as WordPress, takes a long time as it’s not just the core that has to change but also the plugin ecosystem, approach to themes, and even custom plugins that are affected by those changes. Whilst WordPress has made a huge push towards the adoption of a new editor experience called “Gutenberg” — built on the back of React — it’s fair to say there has been a somewhat mixed, even polarized reaction to it.

“If it were my call, I think fully splitting the legacy WordPress infrastructure from new developments would be a great start,” said O’Leary. 

“A legacy WordPress could still exist, enabling existing sites to be maintained with the traditional implementation and without needing to adopt an approach which doesn’t suit all use cases. Ideally, there could be a newer, more headless-centric version based around modern approaches (headless/jamstack frontends) and without the clutter or bloat that can often come with themes.”

“While this is somewhat simplistic to say, there are already in fact, forks of the WordPress core specifically excluding Gutenberg and sticking to the traditional approach. Equally, more and more companies, agencies, devs etc… are using the platform in tandem with the likes of Next.js/Nuxt.js. Or even using WordPress as an API interface/backend.”

There are a lot of options to consider but with so many faithful users wanting more functionality, and added market pressure, there’s no doubt WordPress will be introducing some interesting updates in the years to come. According to O’Leary:

There are still a lot of people who love the platform. It is HUGELY popular. But there are also a lot of people who get frustrated with the workarounds and hacks that come with it — so it’s quite a polarizing topic within the dev community.

For me, it really depends on what the best tool is for the business or project. Sometimes it’s WordPress and other times it’s something that offers different functionality.

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