I’ve been using WordPress since late 2004 for my personal and client blogs but over the past year I’ve done a number of projects that use WordPress as a content management system (CMS). Previous to this, I always thought of WordPress as a “blog CMS” that could be used for creating simple websites but not really anything more. But a series of improvements to the core WordPress software and advancements in the plugin and theme ecosystem have made WordPress a significant alternative to Drupal and Joomla for complex websites. Since ecommerce is a deep subject that deserves more than a high-level overview, I’m going to save that discussion for a follow-up post.
The first thing that made WordPress a website CMS are the management changes made since version 2.7. Prior to these versions, users had to administer plugin updates manually, which usually were not updated until something broke on the site after an upgrade. WordPress 2.7 introduced the ability to update not only plug-ins maintained in a centralized directory on WordPress.org, but also the core WordPress software itself. The WYSIWYG editor was also improved to a point where it’s very usable for anyone who can deal with Microsoft Word or other word processors. These advances alone would not have made WordPress a contender to Drupal or Joomla but it did provide a platform others could build on to close the gap.
The second major advancement was the release of the Thesis Theme in late 2008. Created by long-time theme designer of Cutline & Neoclassical fame, the theme took a decidedly different approach than other commercial theme offerings. Instead of coding a few killer themes and versioning them for different vertical markets — like StudioPress does for example — Thesis is a theme framework on top of WordPress. It offers the ability for anyone who can write CSS to design and implement a website without modifying an existing or creating a custom theme. It’s like an erector set for building websites and is the best $87 you will likely spend as finding suitable WordPress themes is a time consuming business. My client work has standardized around Thesis as a result.
The final piece of the CMS puzzle are the plugins available to extend WordPress. This has been available for a long time but has advanced to a point where nearly everything you want to do on a website is available in some form and for free. Here are my top 12 WordPress plugins for website building:
cforms – an “outlaw” plugin not supported in the WordPress directory due to it not supporting the GPL license, this is still the best way to put any form on your website.
Events Calendar – want a calendar of events that matches your themes’ look and feel? Forgo the ugly Google Calendar embed in favor of this plug-in.
Exec-PHP – there are times when you will want to run PHP from within a post, page or on the sidebar. This plug-in lets you do this very easily.
Lifestream – all your social network status right in your sidebar.
MobilePress – want a mobile version of your site? No problem, just add this plugin. Even supports custom themes.
NextGEN Gallery – while the media support inside WordPress is very good, for serious photo galleries I use this plug-in that takes it literally to the next level.
WP Super Cache – improve site performance with this caching plugin. Very useful for large sites with a lot of content.
AddThis – a social network widget that gives you stats on usage, this is my go-to plugin for adding social sharing support to posts and pages.
WordPress Database Backup – everyone needs to backup their MySQL database regularly and this plugin allows for automated backups using on the WordPress cron or on demand.
Thesis OpenHook – if you use the Thesis theme, you will want this plugin to integrate the OpenHook function directly into the WordPress backend.
Featured Content Gallery – puts rotating content galleries on pages with some additional controls. Nearly all of this functionality is built into the Thesis theme.
All in One SEO Pack – although made mute by the Thesis theme which has built in SEO support, this plugin is still in my standard pack for the times I use other themes. It’s name tells you everything you need to know about it’s functionality, too.
I’ll be talking about this subject at this evening’s WordPress User Group meeting here in Minneapolis. I’m expecting that I might have some additional tips and recommendations to share after this session so stay tuned if you can’t make it to the meeting.