John Mayer: Hi, I’m John Mayer. Today I’m here with Anthony Schwartzman. Anthony has over a decade of experience in web development. Today we’re talking about WordPress. Welcome, Anthony.
Anthony Schwartzman: Hi, John.
John: I’ll start off by just asking the simple question, “What is WordPress”?
Anthony: WordPress is a software package that started life a number of years ago as a blogging platform. Since then it’s matured into a very rich CMS and I believe…
John: CMS being content management system.
Anthony: Yeah, sorry. Being content management system where blogging is just one small part of its many capabilities. I believe something like 20 percent of all the websites on Earth run on WordPress right now. It’s some sort of surprisingly high number.
John: It used to just be if you wanted a blog you’d start a WordPress blog and you could either have the WordPress blog hosted on WordPress.com or you could have it on your own domain name. But now WordPress is being used to actually build entire websites that might include a blog but you’re able to log into WordPress and change all of the pages on your site, make edits, in addition to blogging and things like that.
Anthony: Yeah, that’s right. It started life akin more to something like Blogger or Typepad, which were really about doing one thing. A lot of these other features have been added to it over the years. It’s really a full featured piece now.
John: What are some of the benefits in terms of Web development of using WordPress?
Anthony: Because it’s so widely deployed there are an enormous number of people that are familiar with it. That’s good for the owner of the website because it means that it runs on a system and a structure that it’s relatively easy to find someone to work on.
John: If you have a problem and you need something done and your Web developer is out of the country on vacation or something like that you can find somebody else right away that knows WordPress.
Anthony: Yeah, typically. In a way, maybe that’s the least of the benefits. It’s an open source platform so it’s easy to customize. It has a relatively wise and solid information architecture so it’s built to be extended in a way while retaining an enormously powerful feature set in its core.
You can use it naked and get really good results but you can also bolt all sorts of cool stuff onto it. It’s also free. That’s nice. As an open source project, it has had many, many eyeballs on it over the years finding the things that are broken and fixing them and improving it. It’s under continuous development so it’s always getting better.
John: You mentioned that it’s free. Are there other CMS platforms that you might use for your website? Or maybe not. You might have to pay just to get the platform and then build the site on top of that.
Anthony: Conceivably but none really come to mind. In a way, they’ve all been displaced by WordPress. Other kinds of open source content management systems.
John: I know that there’re different themes that you can get for WordPress. Explain to me a little bit about what a theme is and what that helps you with.
Anthony: A theme is really a collection of files that define how the content that’s in a WordPress database is presented in the browser. That’s everything from how the page is structured and laid out, what colors it has, what kind of texture, feeling, fancy interactivity, sliders, accordions, and all that kind of stuff. That’s all contained within the theme. It’s a skin or presentation, if you will.
Because WordPress is so widely used the theme marketplace is really rich. There are thousands and thousands of these out there. Again, because of that there’s been a great deal of competition. Over the course of the last couple years we’ve seen these themes become richer and richer and more and more full featured.
I would say that today, for $50 plus a WordPress install you can get a site that looks like you spent $5,000 on it. That would have been the only way to get to that kind of result five or six years ago. This technology has been democratized out largely because of the accessibility of this platform.
John: Is that something that you recommend? If you used the same theme as somebody else your web site might look exactly like somebody else’s web site. How much customization can you do within that?
Anthony: For one thing, there are so many themes out there that in my years of web development and browsing I’ve never really seen two sites that use the same one. Now, that’s one anecdotal example.
John: Just because there’re so many themes out there.
Anthony: Just because there’re so many themes out there and so many sites. You’re unlikely to run into a duplicate. Now, I don’t have any real research to back that up but generally it’s pretty unlikely.
That being said, a lot of modern themes actually come with their own control panels which allow you to change colors, typography, page layouts. They’re becoming extraordinarily flexible. If that isn’t enough, there are systems by which you can extend and selectively overlay elements of themes in order to customize them. The sky’s the limit. You need someone who can write code, but this is a widely known code base, and a lot of people, as we’ve mentioned, are familiar with it.
John: You’ve mentioned that you can add a lot of things on to WordPress. You have the themes. I know that there are also plug‑ins that you can install to WordPress. What are plug‑ins? What do they do?
Anthony: Plug‑ins are bundles of code that extend the functionality of WordPress to do other stuff. You might have a plug‑in that generates forms and collects the responses into a database and emails you when that event takes place.
John: I know there’s a plug‑in that can set up 301 redirects, for example. 301 is a “permanently moved” redirect. If you have a website that you’ve moved from an old version to a new version and you need to be able to redirect those old URLs to the new URLs, you can set up a 301 redirect. A plug‑in might be an easy way for the average user to go in, without having to go back into the back end of the code, and set up those 301 redirects. You can do it right within a plug‑in.
Anthony: That’s certainly true. Other plug‑ins that generate sliders, if your theme doesn’t come with one, and almost anything you can imagine happening on a website can be done via plug‑in. There’s plug‑ins that generate client areas, so that people can log in and see private pages. The sky’s really the limit.
Again, because WordPress is so widespread, there are enormous amount of plug‑ins out there. Most of them are free. Every once in a while, you get one that’s super fancy and you have to pay for it. They’re usually pretty cheap, and they’re usually worth it.
John: Are there any issues with using plug‑ins? Do you have problems with WordPress because of that?
Anthony: If you have a great deal of plug‑ins on your site and you get hacked, because maybe you have lax FTP security, typically bots and hackers that attack WordPress will inject malicious code into PHP files. The core of WordPress has a lot of PHP files in it. Plug‑ins are based on PHP files. In a way, the larger your system is, the more area there is for it to be infected.
I wouldn’t say that plug‑ins, in and of themselves, necessarily, unless they’re really poorly conceived, make it easier for an attacker to gain entry to a system, but once someone has done so, they certainly offer a larger spread of fertile ground for viruses to corrupt. In that case, the process of cleanup becomes longer and more onerous.
There’s a balance to strike, as with any software system, between useful functions and bloat. It’s important to manage plug‑ins, like anything else, judiciously, and keep the ones that really provide value and trim away the stuff you’re not using.
John: At McDougall Interactive, we do a lot of search‑engine optimization, or SEO. How does WordPress work with SEO? Is WordPress an SEO‑friendly environment, or how does that work?
Anthony: I would say it is. The first thing to note is that WordPress core is really well built, so that it outputs clean URLs. It allows the administrator, through the panel, to define the URL structure with a great deal of flexibility. The quality of the front‑end code is really largely determined by the theme itself, but the better‑built themes do generate really good, clean, compliant front‑end code, and that’s a real boon. It builds pages that can be spidered successfully.
There are also some plug‑ins ‑‑ we use one called Yoast on a lot of our sites ‑‑ which allow great power to add on‑page SEO elements…
John: Like title tags and meta descriptions…
Anthony: Title tags, descriptions, headers. All that stuff.
I would say it’s a very strong platform in that regard for those kinds of functions and desires. We’ve had good success with it.
John: I know one of the things that you look for with search engine optimization is to make sure that the URL structure has…you want category level subdirectories and then you want to have the page name have keywords in it.
It probably depends on the theme. I think the base WordPress instillation, the default, is for the pages to be dynamic. Question mark page equals 356 type of thing. But are most of the themes set up so that it automatically will put the name of the page as the URL?
Anthony: That’s an option that’s actually a part of WordPress core. You’re right in that the default instillation starts with ugly URLs but the core admin includes a one click function to generate pretty human readable URLs that function the way you describe, with the name of the pages included without any query variables.
John: All right. Thanks Anthony for talking to me.
Anthony: You’re very welcome.
John: For more information visit McDougall Interactive at mcdougallinteractive.com or call (978) 750‑8000.
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