This article will focus on WordPress, the most popular web publishing tool in the world.
The Bad, Old Days: A Brief History of Website Development
In the early days of the “mainstream” web (1994-1997), websites were made up of HTML pages that did not change unless a person went into the code and edited them. Because this was not a great long-term solution for big companies with lots of data and products to sell, database-driven website technologies started to emerge.
As is the case with any new technology, several businesses jumped in with their own “content management systems” (essentially web pages plus a database of content that you could control). These systems allowed people to update certain parts of their website without programming knowledge. Some companies did this better than others, and grew very quickly, creating the content management systems sector of the Internet technology market today.
The Tipping Point: How WordPress Changed the Internet
What is WordPress?
WordPress is a free content management system, originally created as blogging software. It has rapidly expanded beyond that, and is now used to power all sorts of websites and e-commerce websites.
WordPress was the right software at the right time. And, by giving it away for free, the creators of WordPress disrupted the content management systems market. This is not a new strategy, and several other companies have done this with great success, primarily Google with free versions of tools companies usually had to pay for, like Google Analytics and Google Website Optimizer.
The major reasons for the rapid growth and success of WordPress are listed below.
Continuous Improvement via Open Source
While Automattic is the company behind WordPress, the core software that runs WordPress is an open source effort. Programmers from around the world contribute code via the Internet. Through a system of code checks and version control, those contributions are combined into releases. Here’s a great overview on how to contribute to WordPress, which gives insight into how it is planned, built, tested, and maintained.
Infinite Possibilities for Functionality via Plugins
A key concept in WordPress is the use of plugins: “pieces” of software that make WordPress better. You can literally find a plugin for almost any need you have in the WordPress Plugins Directory. Anyone can create a plugin, and plugins are generally free. What is consistently amazing about plugins is the breadth of the Plugins available. There are plugins to: manage your sports league, create a “map” of your site for Google, integrate with other 3rd party tools like MailChimp, and make your website compatible with iPhone, Android, and Blackberry. You name it, and you can probably find a plugin for it.
Drastically Reduced Design Time via Themes
Another key component of WordPress is Themes. Themes are pre-designed templates for the visual look and feel of your website. By using a theme, you drastically reduce the cost and time required to design a new website from scratch. Anyone can create a theme, but the premier creator of themes (in my opinion) is WooThemes. WooThemes has a wide variety of search engine-optimized, easy to use, easy to modify themes to pick from when creating your WordPress website.
How to use WordPress
How you choose to use WordPress is really up to you! Here are a few common ways people have decided how to use WordPress.
WordPress is an excellent “engine” to run your website. By using WordPress you make the website extremely easy to update, and easy to grow. Gone are the days of planning out your entire website before you create it. With WordPress, you can add sections, revise pages, and change how your website works on the fly! Also, since editing pages is as easy as using Microsoft Word, you can get everyone involved in updating your website.
WordPress was initally created as a blogging platform, and it does a great job of it. You can easily post to your blog using WordPress, a WordPress mobile app, or even email. WordPress will keep track of your blog posts, help you organize them into categories, and let you “tag” them with keywords that describe the blog post (think: index of a book as an example).
WordPress.com vs. Self-hosted WordPress vs. WordPress Multi-User (or MU)
Once source of confusion for many people initially is the difference between WordPress.com, “self-hosted” WordPress, and WordPress MU. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- A website where you can go and create a free website or blog in a matter of seconds
- Pros: fast to create, don’t have to worry about hosting, can use your own domain name, don’t have to update WordPress or plugins
- Cons: can’t add in plugins, limited theme selection
- Great for: people who “just need a website”, bloggers who are “just starting out”
- Open source software that you can download and install on a web server
- Pros: easy to install, run any plugin you want, use any theme you want, infinitely customizable
- Cons: have to maintain hosting and server, takes time to setup initially, have to update WordPress and plugins as updates are released
- Great for: people who want the most flexibility possible with their website
- Open source software that lets you run thousands of blogs from one central “control panel”
- Pros: easily create thousands of blogs quickly, centralized control of aspects of each blog
- Cons: difficult setup process, not all themes/plugins are supported at this time
- Great for: a large organization (think: Harvard Law School) that wants to offer blogs to many people on one URL
The Future of WordPress
WordPress is developed by a wide group of people, which has pros and cons. Now that WordPress has the customer base it does, the WordPress community can start to focus on the development process, churning our more stable, more secure versions of the core WordPress software itself. I can also imagine a future where Plugins separate between paid “premium” versions and “free” versions, where the premium versions are faster, more stable, and more secure than the free versions. However, the beauty of the flexibility and open source nature of WordPress means it will go in directions we can’t even think of today!
WordPress Plugins – 11 WordPress Plugins to Install Today
- All In One SEO – more control over your content to improve it for search engines
- Google XML Sitemaps – automatically build and submit XML sitemap (an index of your website) to Google, Yahoo, Bing
- Google News Sitemap Generator – to help you get included in Google News
- WP Minify – to speed up your site by reducing the number of files that have to be downloaded
- WP Super Cache – to speed up your site and prevent crashing due to spikes in website visitors
- TweetMeme Retweet Button – to easily share your content on Twitter
- Facebook Connect (Sharing button and Comments box) – to integrate with Facebook
- SEO Slugs – to remove non-optimized words (a, an, the) from your URLs
- SEO Smartlinks – allows you to always link certain keywords to certain pages
- Bei Fen – automatic backups of files and database with email
- WPtouch – create a version of your WordPress website optimized for iPhone, Android, and Blackberry
- WordPress – Official Website
- WordPress Blog – news and updates from the WordPress team
- WordPress Themes from WooThemes – highly recommended WordPress theme developer
- WordPress Guide – a detailed, updated guidebook for using WordPress
- WordPress Plugins – free add-ons to make WordPress better
- WordPress VIP – a hosted WordPress service
- WordPress TV – videos about using WordPress
- Wordcamp – informal conferences organized by WordPress users