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WordPress myths & costly pitfalls of custom CMS systems (2019)

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. WordPress is the world's most popular CMS for a reason. 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.

Good WordPress websites are not hampered or constrained by pre-existing themes. Themes can be made from scratch, or clean, well-coded base-theme templates can be used for great results. 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 - 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. With us, we keep the code clean, fast and importantly, keep the costs down to a practical price range that suits mosts businesses.

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% 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'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!