“Is WordPress actually mature enough for my organization’s needs?”

In years past, the maturity of WordPress was a topic of debate and controversy. Prior to 2012, it wasn’t clear whether WordPress had developed into a platform that, in particular, could stand up to use by large and demanding organizations.

Frankly, two years ago, objections to using WordPress for anything other than a blog were valid. WordPress was known almost exclusively as a blogging platform, not as a CMS, and for good reason. In many cases, only the core members of the WordPress Community were aware of the potential WordPress to become what it is today.

Now, WordPress is responsible for about 17% of the Internet, and the same people who thought WordPress wasn’t appropriate for anything other than a blog (read, “mature”), much less as a CMS solution, or an App Engine, are find themselves and their organizations deploying dozens of WordPress sites. Many of them are actually coming to WordCamps and spreading the word about WordPress to their colleagues.

So what happened? What changed with WordPress since 2009 and 2010? What actually makes a blogging platform reinvent itself as a CMS? How does a CMS evolve into an App Engine?  What has WordPress done to become the top CMS choice on the Internet for bloggers and large organizations alike?

I want to cover the key areas WordPress has grown and matured over the past 2 years. Many members of the WordPress Community are well-aware of what has changed because they were the people writing the code and developing the WordPress user interface. But there is a growing number of new members to the WordPress Community using the platform inside large organizations and enterprise companies, SMBs, and startups. They’re part of the key growth for WordPress in the next few years. My hope here is to give a bit of context for why WordPress has grown the way it has, and also resolve any lingering questions that might prevent someone from choosing to use WordPress this year.

The post will cover key feature updates that WordPress has seen, specific functionality that has been added, as well as the Community of 20,000 people surrounding WordPress, and the thought-leaders who have shaped the platform into one of the most notable open-source software platforms of the decade.

Custom Post Types

When did the WordPress software make the transition from being mere “blogging software” into a full CMS? What signaled that transition? The arrival of Custom Post Types meant that content in WordPress could be structured and arranged in a number of new ways, and that you could build WordPress for a number of websites, not just blogs. Custom Post Types became available with 3.0 “Thelonius,” and that was really when WordPress was no longer “just a blogging platform.”

Essentially, WordPress “Posts” were limited to the following: Posts, Pages, Attachments, Revisions, and Nav items. You couldn’t rearrange how post content was organized, much less customize it. Custom Post Types provided the ability to rearrange and customize, and opened the door for great deal more Post Types than just a “blog post.”

By customizing a post type, you can organize and manage new types of content that don’t fit neatly into the traditional “Post” and “Page” framework, and do things like the following:

It’s worth noting that Custom Post Types are only available on WordPress.org, the open-source version of WordPress.

Contribution from Leaders in the CMS Space

Open source projects are amazing when they bring thousands of people together for a single project. And WordPress has been particularly fortunate that many of the top influencers and thought leaders in the CMS space as a whole (not just WordPress) have dedicated work to WordPress, often full-time.

Folks like Mark Jaquith, Andrew Nacin pour themselves into leading WordPress as a CMS, corralling and prioritizing all the contributions that the community makes to the codebase, and managing the features added to each release. I know that these folks would be the first to say this, so lets also be clear that WordPress does not exist without the contribution of everyone who has submitted the smallest a bug fix. Everyone who has submitted the tiniest bit of code to Core shares in the success of WordPress. However, I’m specifically calling out the thought leadership of people whose work not only impacts WordPress, but in the CMS space as a whole, including Drupal, Joomla, and others. WordPress leads the way for other CMSes, both from a feature and UI perspective, and also from an open-source community perspective.

Feature and Code Updates

Since “Thelonious” 3.0 was released, there have been a number of significant updates to WordPress that the core team has put together. Here’s a list of key updates that have added functionality, or updated the WordPress codebase.

  • WordPress Multisite, the ability to create a network of WordPress sites, all running on the very same WordPress install, was added with 3.0 “Reinhardt.”
  • PHP4 was purged with 3.2 “Gershwin.” This was a huge undertaking, because PHP4 was a huge legacy codebase, so to gut PHP4 in favor of the new PHP5, meant that everything had to be re-written, and the new codebase that resulted was leaner and much more efficient.
  • The User Experience was improved dramatically with 3.3 “Sonny.” The more intuitive drag & drop uploader was introduced, and the Core team made a number of dashboard tweaks for ease of use.
  • The ability to embed Tweets by simply dropping the tweet URL into the post, rather than writing HTML embed code, was added with 3.4 “Green.”
  • Uploading and managing media became dramatically easier with 3.5 “Elvin.” Managing pictures and the like was once a bit tedious, and now the media experience with WordPress is easy for most end-users.

A Well-Designed User Interface

Perhaps most notable from an end-user perspective, WordPress is remarkably intuitive to use for non-technical users. For those of us who have ever considered working with Drupal or Joomla, the difference between those open-source CMS-es and WordPress is amazing. It’s simple. WordPress is easy to use. Most other open-source CMSes require a degree in Computer Science.

But the difference gets even more stark when we compare WordPress to a proprietary CMS that might have been built for the marketing department a large company. Proprietary CMSes often have a very complicated UI. Sometimes you need to be familiar with PHP just to use the Interface as intended.

The real measure is how simple is it for folks with minimal technical background to find the “Add New Post” button, enter a title, fill the body up with words and pictures, and click that simple blue “Publish” button. Thanks to the work and iterations of world-class designers, WordPress makes publishing your first piece of online content simple.

And once those folks have gotten comfortable, the simplicity of WordPress’s UI gives way to its sophistication, and the user can begin exploring whole world of publishing now available to them (See Custom Post Types, above).

Production Use of WordPress by Large Sites like CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times

It’s one thing to make claims about WordPress’s hypothetical ability to be used in production by major organizations, it’s entirely another to actually see WordPress used in production by some of the highest-trafficked websites on the internet. These sites not only put the codebase to the test, and require a robust managed WordPress hosting platform to serve their traffic, but they also test the software’s suitability to a large-scale publication environment, and provide worthy test-cases of WordPress’s robust functionality.

These sites have both demanding scalability and security requirements, but also require a large number of contributors to have the ability to publish content. These sites are only able to use WordPress because it is secure and can handle large amounts of traffic, but also because their non-technical content contributors can easily create and produce content without knowing how to code.

Internationalization and Localization

One of the ways WordPress can measure its growth is by examining how easy it is for anyone with an internet connection to download WordPress and use it in their own language. In the past two years, the codebase has been internationalized, making it possible for millions more people across the globe to get involved and contribute. The goal of WordPress to democratize publishing means making the same technology available to anyone. WordPress has been both Internationalized and Localized so that no matter what language someone speaks, they can contribute.

WordPress is Internationalized, that is, anyone can add their mother language to WordPress without making engineering changes. The capability to use WordPress in any language is built-in to the software, and making WordPress read in Russian instead of the default English is almost as simple as installing a plugin.

Then, WordPress has been Localized, using the GNU gettext framework. That means that any WordPress install can be made to display not only in Spanish, rather than English, but also in Chilean Spanish, con modismos Chilenos, rather than in a Continental Spanish dialect unfamiliar to to Chileans. WordPress can be made local to any dialect on the planet!

Mature Open-Source Community

The Community around WordPress has matured along with the software. This is important, because in choosing a CMS, one of the major aspects to take into account is the community that surrounds it, particularly whether the community is open or closed. With WordPress, one of the things that you get is an open community of 20,000+ people building and improving and iterating the codebase and extensibility every year.

In particular, from the perspective of a marketing department in a large enterprise, the use of a CMS that has the work of thousands of people built into its codebase is particularly compelling. This also means there is an abundance of consultants to work on your project, it means that the features your team needs are likely available with a simple plugin (of which there are more than 23,000, at publication date).

Managed WordPress Hosting

Prior to 2011, while WordPress was seeing production usage as a CMS, many well-known hosting providers would crash when a sudden influx of traffic would come from making the Yahoo homepage, or being featured on the national news. Not to mention, “WordPress security” was a term used mostly to describe the absence of a good security solution that would keep WordPress installs safe from hackers. Due to how WordPress was built, hosting companies had to be heavily customized in order to serve WordPress. The customization process was expensive, and required ongoing work from special consultant.

However, in 2011, a handful of Managed WordPress options came onto the scene, including WP Engine’s own managed WordPress Platform. WP Engine has now become one of the most mature solutions. Managed WordPress hosting meant that a WordPress install, right out of the box, was capable of scaling to serve a 10x or even a 100x traffic surge, and that the servers were designed from the server blades up with security in mind.

Managed WordPress providers were a boon both for bloggers and SMBs, but also for large organizations who now could partner with a company that specialized in WordPress hosting without having to manage the security and the scalability with a consultant or hiring a full-time sysadmin. At WP Engine, we’re seeing a number of large organizations using WordPress more and more, and we’re happy to work with their sites and be part of their efforts.

The Future of WordPress

It’s also exciting to see where WordPress is heading in 2013 and 2014. WordPress has a strong foundation and is poised to continue growing. It’s likely that this time next year, WordPress will have dramatically more than 17% of the internet running on it. There are also signs that organizations will not only be using WordPress as a CMS, but also more and more as an App Engine. The next time you’re on a large site, you can ask yourself, “I wonder if this was built with WordPress?”

What about you? What are you using WordPress to do? What’s are some unexpected things that you’ve seen WordPress used for recently?

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter