Brent Lightner talks with Clutch about WordPress vs. Drupal

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Strategy, Tech
Taoti CEO Brent Lightner talks about Drupal vs. Wordpress, and how you can make the right platform decision for your organization.
Brent Lightner 2

Brent Lightner

CEO | Founder
Ready for the longest ‘about page’ bio you’ll ever read?? I’m Brent.  I run this shop.  I started it out of a college dorm room back in the late nineties…

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Introduce your business and what you do there.

Taoti Creative is a digital agency. We’ve grown up largely as a web development shop since about 1996, but we’ve really evolved into a full-service digital agency. We do everything from web development, to custom application design, lots of graphics and marketing, PR, and social media. More recently, we’ve delved into the world of emerging technologies like AR, VR, Internet of Things. We now have a full time maker on staff. We’re kind of all over the place. Anything that is digital and helps organization accomplish their goals is right up our alley.

I’m the founder and CEO. I started this thing back in ’96 out of a college dorm room. I’ve held every position here, from plumber to chief executive. These days, my job is largely to make sure our digital strategy is in line with the corporate directives and initiatives. I have three basic principles that we live by around here: quality, innovation, and service. My job is to keep beating that horse, no matter how dead it might get, to make sure we’re keeping our eye on that ball.

Challenge: What should people consider when choosing a CMS or website platform?

I think the main thing to think about is how you’re actually going to use it. I would almost bifurcate the conversation as to whether or not you’re choosing a platform or choosing someone to implement a platform, because those are two very different things. If you’re choosing a platform or a content management system, people tend to over-think it and try to pick something that can do anything and everything, in the hopes that it will never have any limitations.

The problem is, with features and functions comes complexity, and it gets harder and harder to use and more cumbersome to manage. So, going simple is often better, which is one reason why WordPress has become so powerful. It is simpler than something like Drupal. However, sometimes you do need that power, flexibility, and extensibility of something that’s more of a platform and less of a content management system. In this case, Drupal makes more sense.

Solution: What differentiates Drupal and WordPress from each other?

WordPress, on the other hand, is a little bit more straightforward. It kind of grew out of a blogging platform, and to be fair, it’s evolved considerably since then, and it has become a framework in many regards. However, it’s generally considered, and I would agree with this, easier to use and has a more simplistic user interface. If you’re going to have somewhat non-technical people managing your website and maintaining the content on there, Drupal can be a little cumbersome if you don’t know how to turn the things off that don’t need to be there. Whereas WordPress works pretty well out-of-the-box.

That said, Drupal can be honed, if you will. It can be built and tooled in a way that allows you turn off the complicated stuff that you don’t need. You can do every bit as good of a user experience on Drupal as you can on WordPress. Conversely, you can take WordPress and really customize, tweak, push and pull it to do almost anything Drupal will do. So, they’re very comparable in terms of what they can fundamentally accomplish, especially for the masses. Sometimes there are very specific uses, in which case there’s a very clear winner as to the whole Drupal versus WordPress situation.

More often than not, either one will get you to where you need to be. It’s really a function of where your priorities are. If your priorities are simplicity and ease of use, and you don’t have complicated taxonomies or infrastructure, or you don’t need to do a bunch of integrations with complicated custom systems, WordPress can be more streamlined and direct. Drupal is usually a better choice if you have very custom requirements that necessitate dealing with a bunch of integrations and highly custom code.

There are probably books written on this. There are a lot of intricacies. I want to make sure I’m on record saying there’s not a clear winner. It’s not that one’s better than the other. It’s a matter of which one makes more sense for the project and the people who will be using the system on a daily basis.

Who are the ideal clients for these platforms?

A lot of times, it depends on the nature of the client’s staff. Most of the people we deal with are going to be full companies and organizations, as opposed to individuals. Some of them are large enough to have in-house technical resources and dedicated people to manage the website. If that’s the case, those people can often be trained and spun up to use much more specific systems, and you don’t necessarily need to build the lowest common denominator of interfaces that anyone can use with minimal training. An organization that has that can benefit from some of the more extensible and flexible features of Drupal.

If your organization is comprised more of subject matter people, and less technical resources, then WordPress out-of-the-box tends to be favored as easier to use. If you’re going to have more junior staff, or even senior staff without a technical background, being the people actually pushing content to the site, sometimes WordPress can be easier to use. It’s really tough to make broad generalizations as to which is best for either.

Who shouldn’t use these two platforms?

Both of them are overkill if it’s your first website. You probably don’t need either one of these, because there are other options out there that are far simpler, and frankly cheaper to develop, such as Squarespace or Wix. Granted, these are very limiting options, but they’re online services, so you don’t have to deal with hosting. You don’t have to deal with custom modules and all that stuff. It’s all kind of built-in and point-and-click. Frankly, anyone with basic internet knowledge can put up a simple website. The power that comes with these CMS systems and frameworks is just really overkill for a lot of people.

Can you talk about the importance of technical coding knowledge when building a website on either platform, from a client’s perspective?

It’s complicated, and you’re getting to the heart of what we do. Either one of them can be set up with very little or no coding knowledge out-of-the-box. However, WordPress is generally going to be more ready to go out-of-the-box. It’s prettier, and the themes you can buy or download for free tend to slide in easier. With very little coding knowledge, you could download WordPress, follow the instructions, and have a reasonably decent site up and running, albeit a bit generic, but it would be respectable without any coding knowledge.

That is still technically true for Drupal; however, I think most people would argue that the out-of-the-box version of Drupal will be a lot less pretty. It won’t be nearly as easy to do the little things that some people like to add to their websites, such as adding media and some of this stuff. Again, it can all be done, but it helps to have more coding knowledge to work with Drupal.

Now, Drupal 8 was just released last year, and that’s kind of changing the game again a bit. Now, there’s much more of a coder mentality to developing with Drupal 8, which is good and bad. What it’s going to do is probably push Drupal to a higher level of client base. You’re going to need more coding expertise, either through your service provider, staff, yourself, or whoever’s maintaining or building the website.

That said, it is streamlining some of the things that were more difficult to do. Drupal has often been accused of getting in the way of itself, and we’ve certainly seen that around the shop here. With Drupal 8, they’re removing some of those stumbling blocks by letting coders interact more directly with the system itself. In particular, they’ve separated what we call the frontend layer from the backend data layer, so the frontend can look like anything it wants to, and it’s not as dependent on the framework itself to render what that frontend looks like.

In the broadest of sense, with Drupal 8, it’s becoming a little bit more technical to implement. At the same time, for the people who are technical, it’s becoming easier for them. It’s almost a bit of a dichotomy there.

Features: Is there a particular feature in WordPress or Drupal that has impressed you and you think potential users should know about?

They’re both such base-level, generic platforms. It’s all about what you do with them or build into them. There are hundreds I could list off here. I’m not a developer anymore, so I don’t have up-to-date experience. I know Organic Groups is a Drupal module that has been extremely powerful and we’ve used it a lot. It’s one of those features that, if your website or application involves users, this is one place where Drupal tends to have a superior edge over WordPress.

Organic Groups is a good way to deal with content, users, permissions, roles, and just generally handle that whole sticky mess of what to do with different user accounts. Logging into a website is actually really complicated business when you think about it, all the different layers of permissions and ownerships you need with security, access, and all that stuff. It’s something that Organic Groups really simplifies.

There’s a flip side to that. Because it is an existing module, you get what it has, give or take. If you want to do something highly custom, you end up having to kind of abandon it and do your own thing, which can take away the advantage of starting with it in the first place. But yes, Organic Groups is probably one of the modules that we’ve used a lot, especially with Drupal 7.

Are there any areas of these platforms that could be improved to make it a better CMS?

Oh, I could talk for three weeks on that. There is no perfect system. There are times when we’ve had a love-hate relationship with both these platforms. Like anything else, they’re designed to be used by a lot of different people. The notion of a one-size-fits-all type of system is a unicorn. So, of course, it’s open-source, it’s a community-developed framework in both these regards. The people involved in this are constantly trying to weigh priorities about usability, features, flexibility, and customization, because all of these variables impact, they’re kind of a sliding scale. If you make it super-easy to use, you have to cut down on features.

So, as developers ourselves, as a technical shop, we tend to prefer less simple and more features, because we can do more with it. We can always go back in and tweak the user interfaces to make them easier for our clients to use. However, we’re actually working on a project right now where the advantage of using these systems, as opposed to starting from scratch and coding from a blank slate, is that they save a lot of time. They have existing modules and features built into them. You can customize them, because it’s all open-source software. Everyone has the source code. At some point, you get too far away from how it was intended to work, and all of a sudden, they start to become more of a hindrance than a help in terms of saving time and budget when you’re developing things. It can be very difficult to know in advance if that’s going to be the case.

Organic Groups again, is a great example of a module that is extremely powerful. I don’t know what it would take to build that ourselves from scratch, but probably hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of effort. We can download that for free, and have it up and running in 15 minutes. So, in some regards, it saves us a ton of time, effort, and money. However, if it doesn’t quite work the way the client wants, tweaking and changing it can be a nightmare. It’s designed to be used one way, and if you try to do it another, you lose the efficiency of having done it in the first place. That can create all kinds of complications.

These systems also tend to be highly coupled; we call it the whack-a-mole syndrome. If you whack down one problem in one area, it may pop up another problem in another area. The two can be completely unrelated, and sometimes you don’t even know you’ve done it. It can be very difficult to code on these things sometimes, because they’re fragile in some regards. Fortunately, they get better with every new release, especially with Drupal 8 where they’ve de-coupled a lot of things. It’s become a lot easier to separate out the different areas, aspects, or layers of a website so they can be more independent.

In general, they could both be more user-friendly, especially on the interface, and especially Drupal, though Drupal 8 is getting a lot better at that. We wish they had some more stuff built in from the base install, such as single sign-on. That’s becoming a ubiquitous request these days, and it would be nice if it worked out-of-the-box, but that tends to still be a complicated feature to build. There are all kinds of different modules that we wish worked better, or a little more robust out-of-the-box. Again, most of these modules are contributed by individuals who are effectively donating them. It’s tough to hold someone accountable for work when they’re giving it to you for free.

What should companies expect in terms of cost when setting up a new site, maintaining it, and adding new features?

That’s like asking how much a house costs. There are so many different ways to look at that. It all depends on the requirements, the expectations. We see websites, on either of these platforms, costing between tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, sometimes up in the seven figures. Usually, when we’re past a million dollars, there’s more to it than just a website. There aren’t a whole lot of websites that truly cost more than a million dollars. That said, there are obviously freelancers out there who are building $300 WordPress websites on Craigslist. I don’t mean to take anything away from them; that can be done. So, the nature of what the client is expecting is just too varied to give a really good answer to that. It depends a lot on who you’re talking to, frankly. I know that’s not a very good answer. It’s just, without context, it’s really tough to put a price tag on things. As you can imagine, we get this question a lot. Until we start putting some flesh on the bones of that question, it’s really impossible to answer.

What about for a small to medium business owner, who’s looking to add some additional customization and pizazz to their website? If they added moving images, a very interactive UI, a custom backend, what ballpark could they expect for some of these iterations?

If you just need what we would typically call a brochure website, updating the content is easy and not really an issue. You don’t have a lot of moving parts. There isn’t a lot of interaction or integration with third-party systems, or back-office stuff going on. Let’s say you’re a small-time lawyer, and you want to put up your own website to put your philosophy out there and bring in some clients. Something like that is around $25,000. Obviously, it can be done for less, and you certainly can spend a lot more.

However, we have a couple big law firm clients, and some of those sites cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now you’re building database and content types for hundreds of different lawyers. You’ve got a bunch of different people who can manage and edit the site, and permissions between them. You’ve got different offices, different data and content. Maybe one person pushes out some content, but you want it to show up on three different areas of the site, depending on who the user is or where they’re coming from. All those little pieces of complexity add cost. Then you’re typically in the $100,000 to $250,000 range, which tends to be a sweet spot for a lot of the associations and nonprofits in the D.C. area. That’s where we see most of our business, in that $100,000 to $250,000 range.

Certainly, for large organizations with even more content, it’s not really about the amount of content they have; it’s the complexity of it. How many ways do you need to talk about that content? How are you going to structure, search, sort, and filter it? Then you’re getting up into that $500,000 to $1 million range. Beyond that, you’re usually talking about stuff with lots of microsites and custom features, like embedding 360 video. Now you’ve got film crews involved, and you’re barely just talking about a website anymore.

We don’t really like to go under $50,000, but some sites are so simple that you don’t need to spend that. We can do them for $25,000. Less than that, you’re in the realm of freelancer area. The client is a less-than-mature company. So much of it encompasses more than just the technology. It really comes down to branding, messaging, tone, corporate personality, and the calls to action. An effective website is not really the function of the CMS you pick or how you build it. It’s about what you’re conveying and how you’re getting people to engage with you. Frankly, that’s the valuable part. That’s what you’re spending the money on.

So, the difference between a digital agency like ours, that factors all that in, versus the Craigslist freelancer, who technically knows how to download and install WordPress for you. He’s going to set up WordPress, apply the theme you pick, and post your content.  That’s why that costs $3,000 and ours costs $300,000; We’re getting much more into the digital strategy, and that’s what you’re paying for. It ceases to be a technology issue at that point.

Can you give some insight into the importance of SEO and security when building these websites?

That has everything to do with your goals and concerns as an organization. Everyone, of course, says they want that stuff. It comes standard with every new client’ SEO and security are important to them. If you’re trying to get traffic to the site, and usually you are, then SEO is obviously a very important part of the overall strategy and goals of the project. That’s critical. When it comes to SEO, that’s a whole separate subject, but there are three main pillars to that.

You’ve got the content itself, which has to be written by someone who knows what search engines are looking for. That’s not something any technical platform can do or fix for you. The thing the technical platform can do is to implement, if not force, best practices, such as putting those search engine terms, captions, transcripts, images, titles, and things like that. So, those are some things that can be done from a technical point of view when it comes to the content management systems themselves.

The security is another interesting one. Especially these days, everyone is always concerned about security. The reality is, if you don’t have anything on your site to secure, then it’s not really something you need to worry about. There are two different types of security when we talk about websites. There’s the server infrastructure itself. Usually, when people talk about hacking, they’re often talking about people compromising access to the server, actually getting to the server. When you hear things about denial of service attacks and things like that, it’s a server compromise, which has very little to do with the website in many ways.

That said, there are things you can do, such as a thing called SQL injection. If you don’t build a website right, or you don’t have the security patches applied that are put out by WordPress and Drupal, people can actually take control of your server, your hosting, through the website itself and do bad things with it. More often, they steal the data. If you’re storing sensitive data, that’s the part that’s obviously very problematic. A lot of times, most websites are not storing that kind of sensitive data, so it just depends on the nature of the website you’ve got, whether you’re storing personal data, how sensitive it is. That kind of determines just how seriously you should take some of these things. That said, all sites should be secure. No one needs their site being hacked. It’s just that security is a relative term.

There’s a lot of stuff, a lot of low-hanging fruit that can be done. The best thing to do, from a security point of view, is just keep WordPress and Drupal up to date. We offer what’s called the Drupal patching service – we actually call it Drupal insurance. We monitor Drupal in real time, and any time they release a security patch or update, we get it applied before anyone can figure out how to exploit it. Our clients don’t have to worry about contacting us and asking us to update their site with the latest release. We just take care of it automatically.

Are there any additional aspects of building a website, or dealing with a CMS, that you’d like to mention?

A CMS is not for everyone. As these content management systems have gotten more complicated, expensive, and cumbersome to manage and build, even in the industry, we’ve seen a bit of a retro-trend toward going back to simplistic websites for specific things. A good example would be a microsite. Often, you need a microsite for a very specific campaign, initiative, feature, or event that does not need to be updated very often. If that’s the case, it’s actually a lot easier just to build a static site, at least for a developer, than to deal with the overhead that comes with a content management platform. Sometimes, we just try to get back to keeping it simple and building static sites.

A client might ask, ‘What if I need to update this or that?’ It takes us $50 to go in and tweak something, but it may cost $5,000 for us to build this system so that you can go fix it yourself. If you’re on your website, it makes sense for a client to be able to update that and manage it themselves. In many cases, especially when you’re talking at the agency level, it’s easier and cheaper just to let your web developer do what they do and update the stuff for you. Having them build a system that allows you to update it yourself just creates a lot of additional expense and management. Sometimes it’s easier just to keep it all static.

Overview: If we ask that you rate WordPress and Drupal on a scale of 1 – 5, with 5 being the best score…

How would you rate them for their functionality and available features?

WordPress – 5

Drupal – 5

I think they’re the two best systems out there right now, especially in the open-source world, that have features everyone needs.

How would you rate them for ease of use and implementation?

WordPress – 5

Drupal – 4

Drupal is more difficult to implement and manage; however, it’s much more powerful if you need more advanced features. WordPress is simpler to install and manage, but you do so at a sacrifice of flexibility.

How would you rate them for support, as in the response of their team and the helpfulness of available online resources?

WordPress – 4

Drupal – 4

They’re both open-source, so there’s no company to call and get direct support. However, it is an open-source community, which means you’ve got a global network of people who can manage and help.

How likely are you to recommend each platform to someone who’s trying to DIY?

WordPress – 4

Drupal – 3

WordPress is easier to self-install, and the available themes are easier to get working. Drupal is going to require more customization out-of-the-box, even though it will eventually let you do more.

How would you rate your overall satisfaction with each platform?

WordPress – 4

Drupal – 4

They’re far from perfect, but they both really give firms like ours a huge head start. Before these content management systems existed, coding this stuff from scratch was the Wild West. Nothing was standardized or scalable. Having these things has created a whole industry that I wouldn’t be in if it weren’t for these products. So, they’re wonderful, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect.