The Next Digital Wave: WordPress Spreads Across the U.S. Government
WordPress is the most popular open source CMS available, powering over 28% of all websites. The CMS is quickly becoming a giant in the industry, and is the most widely used CMS in terms of market share. We sat down with Peter Slutsky, Director of Platform Services at Automattic/ WordPress.com VIP, to discuss the power and evolution of WordPress as a full bodied CMS for large scale sites and government agencies.
The Evolution of WordPress
When he first started at Automattic, Slutsky explains, the main marketing focus was still expanding awareness of WordPress as a full bodied CMS. The prevailing perspective among many was that WordPress was a blogging tool used to create a relatively simple site structure. Over the last five years, that perception has changed drastically. “It has been mind boggling that the software has come so far that WordPress is pretty much the dominant open source solution,” he notes. Slutsky adds, “The numbers and the market share support that. There are so many people who have made the decision to move their CMS to WordPress, which has powered the thought leadership around the software.”
So how does this impact the government space, in particular? Waves of technology, be it social tools, GIS, mapping, or anything on the data side of government agencies, certainly impact the use of one CMS over another. Slutsky explains, “We had a Drupal wave after 2008 presidential election. I think when you look at the next wave, it’s definitely trending towards WordPress. People have seen WordPress out there in the private sector, and then started asking why they couldn’t use it at work as well. I think that’s where the evolution has come. WordPress has become the solution for everything.”
Security is Paramount
Website security is one of the most vital concerns for government agencies in relation to proprietary software. Because there is increased consumer usage of WordPress due to its status as an open source CMS, there are naturally more questions as far as safety capabilities. There are simple and efficient ways to mitigate such security risks, however, regardless of which software might be used. “The way we approach it,” Slutsky notes, “is to follow a series of best practices around code, code quality, plugins, plugin quality, and of course all the other development and platform best practices that fold into hosting and managing WordPress.” There are also dedicated security team members continuously monitoring the software and platform at WordPress.com, updating security documentation and examining vulnerabilities with plugins or themes. Slutsky views this as an integral part of WordPress’ responsibility as stewards of the open source community to ensure that WordPress is easy to use, up to date, and safe.
Most importantly, he adds, this means agencies must keep their CMS and plugins up to date. In the government space in particular, this is a problem that Slutsky and his team see quite often. He says hundreds of WordPress sites that have .gov domains are still running out of date software, a primary security risk that is easy to resolve. “We want people to know that every time a new release comes out, the beauty of WordPress that sets us apart from Drupal is that every version has backwards compatibility,” he explains. This is a key differentiator from Drupal in that any updates for the newest version of WordPress are going to be compatible with all components found in the previous version. The software grows with the organization and vice versa. “If you update WordPress to a new version, it is going to be compatible with everything built before; that is an ethos, the strategic way WordPress was built and evolved,” adds Slutsky.
Mitigating Gaps in the Knowledge Base
There are still gaps in the knowledge base that need to be addressed, however. In the government space in particular, Drupal is most closely associated with .gov domains. Over the course of the previous administration, Drupal was the most well-known CMS choice for government sites; however, the massive growth of WordPress as an intuitive, safe, and user-friendly CMS in the last five years is rapidly altering that perception. The blind spot in the lack of knowledge that WordPress fills is an ongoing effort for Slutsky and his team. The need to fill gaps in understanding about the power and flexibility of WordPress still remains. Slutsky explains that there are still misgivings about WordPress as a full-bodied CMS, versus being a smaller site or blogging tool. He notes, “There certainly are very large companies located in the DC ecosystem that push their proprietary software and promote expensive, incredibly robust closed ecosystems as the only option for ensuring security for a full bodied website. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you look across the private sector, in the media space and large companies, the WordPress adoption momentum has been growing and changing the decision making process on a broad scale.”
The old adage “content is king” is no less true for a government site than any other. At the end of the day, explains Slutsky, the government digital space is about articulating a message to the public. Whether this is through the format of written, video, data, mapping, or other types of content, these sites are, at their core, a tool used to inform targeted users about pertinent information related to government operations with conversions in mind. Therefore, a primary goal in leveraging a CMS like WordPress should be to look at the user experience as the starting point for content publication and governance needs. What has the user come to expect, and how can those needs be served through the content on the website? What is the type of user experience they’ve come to enjoy in the private sector on newspaper, social media, or other sites? Slutsky explains that “making this user experience work inside the government sphere is the next wave of technology. It’s applying the lessons of the user experience and layering that into government by exploring how WordPress is being employed in the private sector and making that work inside government. That’s what the WordPress draw is.”
Cost savings are equally important considerations for the government sphere. Building and maintaining a WordPress site is easier and less expensive than a Drupal site, and updates do not require rebuilding from the ground up. The backwards compatibility found in WordPress lets you to update easily and quickly, allowing your CMS to evolve and grow in tandem with your site expansion.
It is also a benefit of WordPress that the administrator experience matches the user experience in terms of ease and intuitive design. For content creators and administrators, Slutsky notes, “you don’t want anything between you and the publishing experience except for an easy, intuitive way to publish. That’s what WordPress gives you.” Repeatedly, user testing proves that WordPress is one of the most intuitive ways to publish content on the web, making it the CMS of choice for hugely popular sites like The New Yorker, BBC America, The Walt Disney Company, Time Inc., The New York Times, and many others.
What’s next for WordPress users? Slutsky says that “everything is being rethought, from content creation to plugins and iterations.” For example, two exciting new plugins are being developed; Jetpack, one of the top available plugins, is revolutionizing the way WordPress users receive features. The beta plugin Gutenberg is offering a new, block-based approach to composing pages and articles that makes it easier for editorial teams and code maintainers alike. API’s are increasingly robust, with more capabilities for custom integrations and stylizing. The headless CMS is also gaining steam as a trend, where WordPress serves content in the background with a custom-built front end. All of these innovations are reinforced by the open source community and spearheaded by Matt Mullenweg’s vision and understanding of product innovation. “Automattic is spending a lot of time and resources to push the WordPress community, and in turn to push ourselves to develop the most cutting edge platform for hosting and features for our users to benefit from,” Slutsky adds.
As waves of technology come and go, WordPress is becoming the most powerful contender for a full bodied CMS suited to unique content workflows supported by a broad and knowledgeable open source community. Integrating WordPress as an open source CMS into large projects, like those found in the government space, is the future of the CMS. “We didn’t know what the future would hold five years ago,” Slutsky explains, “and now it’s exciting to see how many people are ready for WordPress.”
At WDG, we are intent on leveraging WordPress as the scalable, secure, and highly flexible CMS solution for our clients. Our development team members are leaders in the open source community, contributing custom plugins like WP Jarvis to WordPress. With a growing focus on increasing publishing speed and complex integrations with third party systems, we feel WordPress is the CMS of choice for large scale clients, particularly those in the government space. We are proud to implement them with expertise in mind.