2 WordPress myths and costly pitfalls of custom CMS systems

By | Narooma and South Coast, Sydney and Melbourne, Web Design, Wordpress

Recently I’ve come across web development shops that have an aggressive stance towards open source content management systems, such as WordPress and Joomla – touting that they are somehow inferior, slow and confine the output of the creatives designing and developing their product within the boundaries of pre-built themes.

In practice, these are baseless myths and they’re perpetrated by an increasingly isolated bunch of developers that promote their own, home-grown content management systems. Thankfully we don’t get a whole lot of this on the South Coast but we do see it coming from various agencies in the big cities.

While we don’t use it exclusively, we use WordPress a lot – and one reason is because of its sheer popularity with our clients. In this post, I provide some examples that debunk a few myths surrounding WordPress, and later I’ll explain why anyone would want to convey this message.

Myth #1 – Using WordPress means your creativity is hampered by a pre-existing theme.

Decent web developers don’t use pre-built templates or at the very least use them out of the box. When we use WordPress, for many lower budget sites we use a range of frameworks or themes that speed up the development process and we’ll work upwards from there.

Most of the time, this literally means we can have very basic page layouts – (like our own site for the moment!) – with headers, navigation, sidebars and footer layouts in place. Sometimes, it means we can whip up a rough, working prototype website for clients that need a feel for the site, or run it past a focus group before any serious design work ensues.

Normally, we’ll go through a wireframe and design process until it is approved. Good web design businesses focus on the client, their needs and craft beautiful designs without thinking about any constraints. On approval, we apply those designs, details and extra functionality into the WordPress theme framework we’re using that’s suitable for the project – and that will require coding with HTML, CSS, Javascript and PHP.

So does using WordPress mean you’re stuck with the design or functionality of a theme? No way. Only if you’re doing it yourself or you’re using a web designer with no coding skills.

Myth #2 – WordPress is slow, and so are pre-built themes

With any site on any framework, it’s as slow as you make it. If you fill up an HTML site with multiple CSS files, multiple javascripts, massive unoptimised images and loading fonts and these types of resources – then yes, it will be slow.

There’s another part to it though, and that’s behind the scenes. WordPress contains a heap of processes for functionality you may not necessarily use on your website. This can mean the database is not 100{7cc85a26184ee315c5bd7accd1f336d9c65e0bf9730b6541f835ca07ee6d1945} optimised for speedy operation and there are redundant PHP processes that slow things down server side. The practical workaround, that’s effective for millions of sites around the world, is to use caching. And it can be done really well.

We can cache database objects so its not working hard, cache theme resources and cache pages so they’re rendered from HTML files.  With javascript & css minification the number of resources loading on a page at once is reduced. Of course, reducing the amount of unnecessary CSS and code so you don’t have a bloated theme in the first place is a given. At this point, the difference in reality becomes harder and harder to determine.

Using a clean, well coded theme and optimised images, we put a WordPress site to the test using www.pingdom.com’s speed test utility… and we put it up against a web design agency’s site that uses their home-grown CMS system. The results?

  • Custom CMS – load speed: 563ms load time. (nice, rapid!)
  • WordPress CMS – load speed: 695ms load time (slower, but rapid!)

Repeated tests yielded similar results. The site on the custom CMS loaded fewer javascripts and resource files, and was slightly smaller in total, combined file size. While smaller, it was faster, no doubt. By 130 odd milliseconds. To put this into context, throwing a few 200kb photos on your homepage might blow this out by another half second. So do we really need to say WordPress is slow?

No.  It’s just a weird kind of developer snobbery, and in practice it’s basically rubbish. 

So… if it isn’t slow, and you can design and build whatever you want… why say it?

Here’s why – and having worked at agencies around the place, it’s the oldest trick in the book. 

1. They’re literally forcing you to stick with them.

Yep. If they’ve got a custom CMS, that means they’ll be managing it on their own servers. And that means, in the majority of cases, your website will only work on their server.

If you have a disagreement, or they raise their prices, and you want to change provider – your website may as well be thrown in the bin. It can’t be hosted anywhere else – at best you could grab some text, images and HTML code and hand over to another developer to convert into your preferred open-source system. This can cost thousands.

2. They’ll make money through expensive hosting

Your hosting environment will be unique, and the agency will be monitoring it and managing this specific environment themselves. Having worked in this way for agencies around Australia, it’s a massive exercise and a costly one. How much do you think IT infrastructure support specialists and dedicated developers to support the custom CMS cost annually?

This generally means your hosting will be more costly. And not only will you be paying more than regular hosting, there’s nothing you can do about it – your website will only work on their servers. Sometimes the CMS’s advantages will be spruiked to justify the costs – whether it’s a special analytics interface or integration with a 3rd party API (WordPress can do all of that). Or it might be the costs are hidden; wrapped up in an ongoing maintenance plan or service level agreement.

Oranges for oranges though – it’s more expensive. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

At Fisse Design, our managed hosting services have no contract – you can leave at any time and work with your preferred supplier. We’re confident most developers can pick up where we left off, grab the website and place it on any old standard web hosting plan. We like to think that you stay with us because our service is good and well priced… not because you’re forced with us. That’d be pretty nasty.

3. Expensive website builds and upgrades

Because no one else in the world will be using the same custom content management system, no one else can build your site or manage design updates or functionality upgrades to your site. They probably wouldn’t even be granted access. Being specialised introduces costs, and why wouldn’t you – when you’re the only operators in the world building these specialised websites.

That’s why you’ll find the cost of entry, i.e. your first website build, is already more expensive. And if you’ve built say, a $15-20,000 website with them, how can you say no to $5000 worth of updates that in a global marketplace, might only be worth $1000. You’re stuck.

WordPress and other popular, open-source content management systems have millions of developers around the world contributing – building snippets of code that are available to use and reducing the development time on projects. This translates to a cost benefit to you – and that’s why as a general trend websites are cheaper compared to 90s and noughties.

So there you have it.

Next time you read about these mythical failings of open source content management systems, just have a think about why a salesman would need to do so (when selling the benefits of their own bespoke content management system). Ask yourself the following questions:

  • If it’s so good, why is no one else in the world is using it?
  • How much will it cost me for website updates?
  • Can’t these features be offered via an open source CMS, like WordPress?
  • How much will it cost me for ongoing hosting and maintenance?
  • Can I leave this supplier?
  • Have you talked with anyone else to guide your decision… or only the salesman?

Building custom websites on the South Coast!

Yes – and would you believe it, we can build you a custom website!

It will be custom, built completely from scratch if necessary. We can work out the functionality, layout, design – and you can have as much input as you want. Then, it can be built on an appropriate open-source content management system and hosted wherever you want. Click here for more info!


New website grant from Voiceless at Sydney Awards

By | Responsive and Mobile, Sydney and Melbourne, Web Design

Here at Adrian Fisse Design, we’re proud to announce a grant that’s been awarded at the Voiceless 2013 Awards last Thursday Night in Sydney. Working directly with the Australian Animal Protection Law Journal (AALPJ), we’ll be developing a website containing extracts and archives of law journals pertaining to animal welfare legislation in Australia.

A key component to the success of the site will be making the site completely responsive, that is mobile and tablet ready, providing a customised article taxonomy (categorisation of articles) and powerful search functionality. The website will have powerful data conversion facilities allowing Word document formats to be parsed into other industry standard archival document types suitable for web publishing, and be readily updatable by the Journal’s editor, John Mancy.

While the site is primarily about law, and catering to students, animal rights advocates and law firms with an abundance of data, it will also provide other animal welfare angles such as best practice guidelines for the production / manufacture of animal based products and highlight ethical businesses in Australia.

We will be assisting AALPJ with launch materials for universities, social media and email campaigns. What an exciting opportunity – development starts early next year.

Eurobodalla Council – Moruya website workshop seminars

By | Batemans Bay, Bega, Bermagui, Canberra, Graphic Design, Narooma, Narooma and South Coast, Responsive and Mobile, Search Engine Optimisation, South Coast, Sydney and Melbourne, Web Design, Wordpress

Update – presentation materials from the Moruya Workshop – read more here, or download here:

I’m excited about the website workshop for small business in Moruya this Tuesday 17th of September. Entitled “Make your website work for you!” – Eurobodalla Council has introduced this initiative for local towns including, potentially Batemans Bay, Narooma and towns further south.

I must say I’m impressed by the Council’s efforts for educating enabling small businesses. Having operated small businesses on and off for over a decade, I’ve never seen these kind of programmes driven by councils in capital cities.

I’ve been contracted to run these seminars and looking very much forward to it.

Keeping discussion open and working through various activities, I’ll be taking attendees through these key topics:

  • Your Website’s Potential – some illustrated examples summarising the how’s and why’s of making money online.
  • Website Strategy – Fundamentals for website beginners, planning what a website is actually going to do, why and how.
  • Driving Traffic to your Site – SEO, Pay Per Click advertising, Social Media and Offline Marketing
  • Maximising Conversions – Examples of good and bad sites, user experience essentials and tips for max conversions.
  • Measuring Success – Analytics and the importance of benchmarks, goals and measuring what works.
  • Maintenance and Performance Optimisation – The importance of content, keeping sites up to date and goal orientated changes.

Of course, throughout I’ll be providing interesting statistics and some humorous examples. :) If you’re local and reading this, look forward to meeting you there!


New website – Parker’s Organic site launched

By | e-Commerce, Sydney and Melbourne, Web Design

We’re proud to announce that the new Parker’s Organic website has been launched.

With a brand new design that suits the organic nature of their product, the new Parker’s site is markedly improved in appearance.

But the real work was behind the scenes. Integrating with Westpac’s payment gateway, PayWay, Adrian Fisse Design’s developers hooked up the site to Westpac’s API. Now visitors can select boxes of organic drinks and pay for them securely online.

A massive feature of the site is the ability to subscribe to selections of boxes of juice – so that repeat orders automatically take place behind the scene. Of course, with that kind of system, the customer needs to be able to manage their orders. We provided a secure interface where customers can edit their order by adding & removing product (for the next order in succession), add or change delivery instructions, change billing and delivery address and even the ability to pause orders.

Check it out at www.parkersorganic.com.au!

Top 5 considerations to self-check your e-commerce startup

By | Canberra, e-Commerce, Responsive and Mobile, South Coast, Sydney and Melbourne, Web Design

Many people come to me and say “we should just open up an online store, and…”

Even though I’ve been immersed in online shops for over a decade, it’s now, everyone I talk to, they want a piece of the action. And with easy, automated recurring business and online payments, why not?

Well, it’s easy for me to assist and the cost barriers to opening up a good looking, functional e-commerce site are well and truly broken. The thing is though, I want my clients to be successful and not be deflated with any hidden surprises down the track.

So for anyone out there reading, here’s some things you really need to consider before employing any kind of web designer:

1. Who else is doing exactly the same thing?

Google it, you may be surprised.

It’s not the end of the world, competition is healthy…. however you do need to consider how exactly it is you’ll out-do them at their game. Is it customer service? Competitions? Tempting loyalty programs? Amazing viral social media campaigns? A convenient app to penetrate the younger market? A better product? A cheaper product?

Some niche markets and products are obviously going to be easier. But really, if you have an idea like “we need to setup some kind of online computer parts store” – you need to can that thought, pronto! You’ll have an easier life and more returns working at a supermarket.

2. Warehousing concerns

Are you holding stock? Or entering into a drop-ship programme?

You need to think about this. Especially if your market is highly competitive, there are so many costs and issues around stock, warehousing and delivery. First of all, are you required to hold stock? Do the models change frequently or does the product go off – in other words do you have to worry about stock rotation. If so, are you across the costs and time in managing this? How much product do you think you’ll need to hold, and if you’ve borrowed money for stock, are you able to remain competitive while ensuring your products have enough return to keep up with that interest?

Many successful online stores use drop-ship programmes, where giant distribution warehouses offering popular products handle all of the delivery and warehousing concerns – you just need to sell their product for them online. This is a great way to go, but once again, you need to do your research on the numerous suppliers available and go back to my first point – how will you differentiate yourself from hundreds of other stores?

3. Product selection and marketing

So you’ve selected a product or product range. Is it the type product that sells itself through a redeeming feature, such as its uniqueness, quality or price point? If you’ve nailed one or two of those, you could be on a winner. Have you examined how other people are doing it online? Are there cheap nasty equivalents for sale on eBay at tempting prices? Are the websites selling similar products a bit dodgy? Make sure there’s an opening there for you, where consumers can easily recognise you have a point of difference.

4. How are you reaching your market?

Is it the web alone (ie good search rankings and an effective store) that will do it, or have you considered other avenues for your marketing mix? Who is your market and are they web savvy? Do they prefer to use mobile phones, apps and social media, or are they the Baby Boomers sitting at a desk?

These questions will determine your best approach to your marketing and what service you present online – you may opt to go for a traditional e-commerce site with good search rankings, or mobile optimised site getting traffic from Facebook and Google+.

5. How are you handling payments?

Payment Gateways and Merchant Bank Accounts

If you’re expecting large volume sales and frequent, high value transactions I would  definitely suggest going for a dedicated payment gateway solution through a merchant account at your preferred bank. St George Bank and Westpac use decent services such as eWay and PayWay which have excellent APIs for Australian website developers. It is a solution that is larger scale and has additional security concerns. Transacting in this way requires PCI compliance to avoid being banned or restricted by any of the leading credit card suppliers (Visa, Mastercard et al) and being subject to fines.

On the other hand, those transacting less than say, 100K a year online, simple PayPal solutions are available. They are easier and quicker to setup, and while the transactional costs are high, the setup cost is much lower. Since eBay has adopted it as a payment method for a decade or more, consumers are familiar with how it works and trust it.

Revisiting older projects – SEO

By | Search Engine Optimisation, Sydney and Melbourne, Web Design

It’s cool to sift through the archives and look at older projects to assess them for their flaws and merits. I do this occasionally and have a giggle at what we were all doing in the nineties.

One bunch of cheap websites I did for a neighbour 18 months ago though are doing the job quite nicely. While far from ground breaking in terms of design or features – the sites serve their purpose, display all the content neatly and effectively and are doing their job (especially as far as search engine ranking go) very well.

It goes to show that simple can be great. My brief was to get their products online, but mainly to get them on the first page of google so people could email or call. The sites are www.pre-pak.com.au and www.precisionforme.com.au.

With only a few standard techniques of optimising browser Page Titles, well-structured content and a few other tricks the sites are both #1 or #2 under most relevant search phrases to their businesses on Google.

In cases where competition is a little tougher, I’d employ a more thorough SEO service and encourage more frequent content submission via the website and social media.

Anyway, I’ve just sent her an email to see how business is going – very keen to find out!

Parkers Organic Juice ecommerce website

By | e-Commerce, Sydney and Melbourne, Web Design

Coming soon… Adrian Fisse Design is proud to announce the upcoming launch of the new Parker’s Organic Juice website.

Retaining its zesty look and feel, we were contracted to implement an e-commerce system to their existing website with payment gateway through Westpac.

The system integrates with the WestPac Payway API and securely transacts all purchases on the site including recurring subscriptions.

We’ve also built a user management interface, where subscribers to Parker’s monthly boxes of juices can log in and edit their upcoming orders month to month… pause deliveries and edit their order details.

The whole system was built to accommodate fairly specific internal processes and product price, tax and shipping models. In the testing phase right now, this will be ready to launch shortly! Stay tuned!

Business gold – remote working relationships

By | Graphic Design, Sydney and Melbourne, Web Design

I thought I’d end a great day by clearing out a few business administration chores for a fresh start tomorrow, followed by a moment’s reflection. In doing so, I’ve gone in and re-read my previous post from a busy few weeks ago, and thought about the importance of working relationships.

Anyone will tell you that one of the most important functions for individuals working as freelancers is to establish and maintain good working relationships. It’s the same in reverse, with many businesses capitalising on the cost benefits and flexibility outsourced staff provide.

Working from Narooma, I have a number of partners providing secure, ongoing work and this is what makes freelancing viable and less stressful. And recently, having worked with groups in Melbourne, a programmer colleague in Sydney and a creative writer in New York – it just strikes me how simple it is in this day and age to collaborate with businesses remotely. Anywhere in the world.

The last time I worked independently full time, we were so Australia-centric and really most of our clients were within a 15 minute drive. Now 15 years down the track, you can be so engaged with your contacts whether they’re clients, subcontractors or businesses you want to work with. Skype, Twitter, Facebook… I love it, and it makes me feel connected and it’s great when I can interact on a businesses Facebook page to continue the dialogue after working with them.

With all of these advances,  I truly wonder why local outsourcing or telecommuting isn’t common place. It needs to happen more. The mind boggles when you consider our congested cities, our infrastructure straining to service them, shocking traffic and bleak housing scenarios… combined with the excessive greenhouse emissions that are part of it all.

So it’s an interesting time, and for me, well, it’s a great time. This ease of communication opens up so many avenues as a freelancer. I think more businesses should consider outsourcing Australian designers and developers. Today, I’ve secured yet another Melbourne based agency who’ve chosen me as their ongoing, remote designer of choice. It’s a win win. For me, I get fantastic variation in projects and the ability to work where I want. For businesses, they have a massive choice and the flexibility to choose individuals better suited for specific jobs… plus – no super, no hardware, no ongoing overheads… and no excuses about traffic jams!


Freelance design – here we are again!

By | Graphic Design, Narooma and South Coast, Sydney and Melbourne, Web Design

Like many creatives, I’ve cycled through agencies, corporate work and freelance work over my colourful career as a web designer.

And here we are again – I’m back in Freelance Mode after finishing my contract at the retail giant Just Group in Melbourne following 5 years as Creative Director in a much smaller agency environment. Let me tell you, it gives me great perspective and I’m completely charged to be working for myself once more.

What’s in it for me? The challenge of bringing in the work. Creative freedoms. Discipline in business management. The ability to live in Narooma and love the sea change NSW’s beautiful South Coast offers.  Developing skills. Riding to work. And being closer to my family at all times.

It’s good to be back.