WordPress: a content management system for the masses

The Thinker by Rodin

This blog runs on WordPress. It wasn’t always this way. It started out on MoveableType, which in 2002 was the hot software for a phenomenon that barely existed: blogging. Five years ago I ditched MoveableType and moved to WordPress. MoveableType became too commercialized. While ostensibly open source, the licensing was hard to use freely. The hassle factor eventually became too much to deal with, so I moved to WordPress, but not without a lot of head scratching. Utilities for moving the content out of MoveableType to WordPress were rudimentary. Fortunately, I’m enough of a hacker where I rolled my own.

Moving to WordPress turned out to be a smart move for the blog. There are no more hassles about licensing. And WordPress is huge, with thousands of themes and plugins. If there is something that WordPress will not do out of the box, it has likely been done not just once, but with a dozen variants via free plugins. Unlike, say, phpBB forum software, which can be modified but is a hassle, installing, activating and deactivating a plugin with WordPress could not be simpler. You can search for a plug in inside your control panel, install it with a couple of clicks and you are on your way. Deactivating is just as simple. In short, WordPress is super-slick, has no licensing hassles and is completely free.

The more I use WordPress, the more I understand that it is really something like a Swiss army knife for managing basic content on the web. Yes, it does blogging very smoothly and elegantly, but it also does so much more. I find myself using WordPress for pretty much all my web projects, including recently this neighborhood web site. It makes expensive software like Dreamweaver and FrontPage unneeded in most cases. You can manage all of your site’s content with a web browser. Need a basic web site but lack design skills? WordPress is what you need. Find a cute theme and if you want to make it stand out upload a site logo too. Need a simple content management system? WordPress can elegantly do the job. In fact, I am using WordPress not just for my own web sites, but also for sites I put up for friends, neighbors and to earn some spare cash. Regardless of use, you essentially have a content management system for free with a look-ahead search control and easy categorization and tagging features. All you need on the web server is PHP and MySQL, which are usually provided free.

Web hosts are also making it easy to use WordPress. It used to be you had to download the software, then upload it to your web server, create a database to hold the data, and maybe adjust some file permissions first with FTP. Now web hosts largely come with script installers, where WordPress is one of the prominent options. With a couple of clicks, it will install WordPress for you.

What may be keeping WordPress from being used more for other than blogs is some basic knowledge. There are lots of online video tutorials out there, but it helps to know a few key concepts:

  • Posts are used for blogging. Think of a blog as a public diary and a post as a diary entry. Posts are normally shown by date from the most recent, but can also be easily categorized or tagged so they can be readily found in logical ways.
  • Pages are for static content. This is key, because if you want to create a web site for say a church or social club and don’t need posts then just create pages.
  • Sidebars allow easy navigation and they are modified through the use of widgets (Appearance > Widgets). The theme determines how many sidebars you can have. Default content will appear on a sidebar, but it is so easy to move sidebar content around just by dragging and dropping. It won’t take you long before the default sidebar content probably won’t be enough. That’s when you go hunting for plugins, which can be done inside your control panel. Most plugins also have widgets. So after you install, enable and maybe configure the plugin, look for the new widget then drag and drop it into where you want content to appear.

A few tips:

  • Spend some time picking an appropriate theme. There are so many of them out there, but they are easy to try on in the control panel and switch as necessary. All your content should move smoothly as you change themes.
  • Be careful allowing open commenting without moderation, as you are likely to attract spam otherwise. In most cases you should install the WP-reCAPTCHA plugin, get a public and private key from Google, and configure the plug in to use it. This gives you high confidence that spam won’t leak through, but it’s usually a good idea to force a comment to go through moderation if it contains embedded links.
  • If your site is personal, you can have the Akismet plugin filter comments for spam for free. Otherwise you may want to consider buying a package from Akismet to limit the amount of spam you will have to deal with.
  • Want to serve ads? It’s pretty easy. First, set up a Google AdSense account. For sidebars, you will usually want to set up skyscraper ads. Then download and configure the plugin with your publisher ID. Of course, there is a WordPress plugin for Adsense with a widget that allows you to easily place the ad. You can also insert a text widget with the ad code from Google. Google allows up to two ads per page.
  • Need to move existing content? In most cases, simply copy and paste each page one at a time from the old site using your browser. In some cases you may need to fix anchors because absolute URLs will tend to copy over. This is easy to do by pressing the HTML button when you are editing a post or page.
  • Want to track site your site usage? Get a free Google Analytics account then install the WordPress plug in.
  • There are so many smartphones out there that it makes sense to optimize your site for them. I suggest installing a mobile friendly plugin.
  • Sharing site content with social media is all the rage. An AddThis account with the WordPress AddThis plug in makes it easy to share posts and pages on your site, plus you can track social media usage on the AddThis site.

WordPress takes the hassle out of presenting and organizing web sites, and it’s free after you pay for hosting. Happy web publishing!