WordPress is the dominant method to build and manage a website, but static site generators are surging in popularity amongst developers and for certain types of websites.
The current state of affairs
In 2016, WordPress is far from the only choice for a new website. In fact, website owners have enjoyed a plethora of options (hosted and self-hosted) for many years. WordPress has remained the juggernaut solution for self-hosted websites, with 25% marketshare of the total web, and as the mainstay CMS for small-to-medium businesses with small or low budgets.
Amongst two groups — large institutions that need high scalability, and the ever-tinkering developer crowd — another option is trending positively: the static site generator, also known as a flat-file CMS.
Don’t get me wrong — the WordPress install base is huge, and the threat posed by static site generators is small. But it’s growing. Post Status editor Brian Krogsgard polled developers prior to Pressnomics, to assess the threat level posed by various CMSs and publishing platforms; Medium and static site generators were considered more of a threat than any others:
He also wrote in a newsletter to members in November, 2015, “Didn’t I just mention about the appeal of static sites? I really think they’re a big top-end threat,” referring to the launch of vets.gov. Earlier that month, Smashing Magazine christened them the next big thing. A number of high profile websites use static site generators, from Vox Media to Barack Obama.
A spate of flat-file CMS options have become strong contenders: GitHub’s Jekyll is by far the most popular, but it’s joined by Grav, Couch, Pico, and more. You can even host your static site on GitHub Pages for free, and they’re happy to let you use a custom domain.
Historical WordPress advantages
The continuing appeal of WordPress has been fourfold:
- The ability to get started very cheaply, without a monthly fee on top of hosting costs.
- The liberty to use a custom domain name.
- A robust ecosystem that provides thousands of free or inexpensive themes and plugins.
- One-step installation facilitated by mainstream web hosts’ embrace of WordPress.
Since Jekyll and its ilk are mostly open-source, advantage #1 is wiped out. GitHub Pages knocks out advantage #2. WordPress retains the upper hand regarding #3 and #4. Younger projects have a long way to go before they can rival the WordPress community, and they’re still focused on serving fellow developers rather than everyday consumers. Until that changes, big web hosts won’t bother to enable ultra-easy installation.
Modern WordPress drawbacks
WordPress does have legitimate downsides, especially if you’re already a competent web developer or you’re focused on the highest levels of technical performance.
Site speed is ever more important in an age of social distribution and mobile browsing, and made more difficult considering site assets and page weights seem to be constantly getting larger. WordPress can be difficult to scale for high levels of traffic, and certain site architecture decisions can get developers in trouble.
High scalability and smart web performance management with WordPress requires significant development expertise or more expensive managed hosting partners, especially for complex WordPress installs; whereas the inherently static nature of static site generators makes scalability more trivial.
Finally, security is a concern for some people that choose static site generators. WordPress has opportunities for user input that static site generators do not. It is also a natural target of hackers, simply due to its popularity. And static site generators are almost completely locally stored — aside from the output itself — whereas WordPress (potentially outdated, along with underlying themes and plugins) is stored on the server, more vulnerable to attacks.
Why WordPress is still winning
As I noted amongst its historical advantages, WordPress has an unparalleled ecosystem of plugins, add-ons, and extensions. (For comparison, the Jekyll Plugins website only lists fifty-two options at the time of writing.) It’s also relatively easy for non-technical people to install and use WordPress, in part because mainstream hosting companies put in the effort to make it easy, but even prior to such conveniences WordPress boasted, “the famous 5-minute install.” And static site generators are just not as powerful as traditional content management systems, especially in regard to user input.
Among the static site generators, Jekyll in particular is working toward feature parity, but it will take a long time. Current ease-of-use tools like Prose, a content editor that integrates with GitHub, and CloudCannon’s Jekyll GUI, which aims to help developers collaborate with clients, are in their infancy in terms of adoption and are still finicky to use.
It can be tempting to look longingly at the growing ecosystem around static site generators. It's also easy to forget just how much you get “for free” with built-in WordPress functionality. Static site generators definitely play a role in the modern web, and can be a great choice for certain types of websites. But no static site generator signals the end for WordPress and its continuously strong community.
The future — what should you do?
Since you’re reading Post Status, it seems fair to assume that you’re part of the WordPress ecosystem, and very likely earn a living from it. Should you be panicking? No, for all the reasons I laid out.
But any wise professional keeps an eye on the future of their industry. We are seeing a trend, and over time Jekyll and its siblings will gain more marketshare. It’s probably worth your time to try out a few flat-file CMS options, get familiar with how to use and customize them, and perhaps consider what WordPress itself can learn from them.