CMS-Lite: while WordPress is the best of open source options, it just can't handle all the needs of large institutions
August 30, 2014

CMS-Lite: while WordPress is the best of open source options, it just can't handle all the needs of large institutions

Christopher Davis | TrustRadius Reviewer
Score 6 out of 10
Vetted Review
Verified User

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Overall Satisfaction with WordPress

While Hannon Hill's Cascade Server is at the heart of Philadelphia University's web content management strategy, a single product cannot always satisfy the disparate (and often transplanted) limbs of an institution where some faculty and staff desire more freedom when it comes to the design, administration and expression of what is traditionally understood as a blog.

Predating our use of Cascade Server by two years, our installation of WordPress on a dedicated server was a stopgap measure instituted first (and still) for our online daily news outlet: PhilaU Today. WordPress was free, open source and easy to install and get up and running. Its community of devoted developers writing plugins for practically everything also made WordPress more appealing than its competition at the time. Once the word spread (a partial pun?), academic programs and services (e.g., Industrial Design or Study Abroad on any given year) began to request installations that would allow them to showcase their particular student work and news — elements not always covered in PhilaU Today or on the recruitment-focused websites for each major. By the time we adopted Cascade, these blogs were legacy, and with our focus on using Cascade to push out the unified design of the juggernaut of our primary domain that encompasses over 50 academic programs, 3 distinct colleges and numerous administrative departments, we made the conscious decision to let the WordPress blogs be while we developed and designed the — by nature of our brand — Philadelphia University website proper.

After establishing the wireframes, information architecture and all of the supporting design and scripting elements that would become our primary, recruitment-focused domain, it became clear to a small department of IT staff and an even smaller department of Marketing and Public Relations (which includes web communications) that WordPress blogs — providing that they were initially setup by Marketing and IT with a top level admin from each that could not be removed from users — would continue. Seven years on, and these blogs have not only continued, but thrived to now include over 70 blogs.

Many provisos are in place for those who blog using WordPress: 1) the initial setup, approval of blog design (which was encouraged to be unique and fitting for the program it served), and right to override or edit content must remain centralized with marketing staff; 2) blogs could not violate the University brand (outlined in our Style Guide); 3) blogs must be maintained with current content as any blog untended for weeks at a time is the kiss of death; and 4) use of WordPress must be restricted to blogs. Regarding the latter, it is great that WordPress sites have now advanced to the point where they can be setup to act as standalone sites (i.e., not traditional blogs). But our policy was clear: official departmental sites were to built within Cascade Server. To do otherwise would risk not only redundancy of information, but also misrepresentation of the institution by well meaning people who do not nor could ever represent the institution as a whole.

These blogs could have been brought into Cascade Server. We considered that option. But legacy site management being what it is, we chose to retain the separate WordPress server and maintain it as our place where members of the University community could contribute to our brand story without diluting the precision work that goes into the design and maintenance of the primary domain.

  • Easy installation
  • Intuitive interface for non-technical users
  • Massive community of developers whose often free plugins make for quick and easy add-ons (e.g., social media sharing)
  • True customization is only possible if you have a really good designer / developer on staff or are willing to pay for a freelancer (i.e., free or premium ($) themes can be rigid)
  • No "out of the box" workflows to speak of (you can find plugins, but you need someone on staff who knows what to look for!)
  • By its nature of being free and open source, there is no true support, only community forums where problems are discussed; this is no substitute for a CMS vendor with excellent customer service (a true test of the real but often unstated value of content management systems)
  • Happier faculty and staff that feel constrained by the necessary but often misunderstood need for administration to control the look, feel and function of the primary institutional site
  • Hand-in-glove opportunities for feeding easily and automatically generated WordPress xml to other sites (i.e., those sites that are managed by a more robust CMS), thus integrating and sharing content across disparate sites
  • Drupal,Joomla!
With Drupal and Joomla as the only open source blogging products we considered (those many years ago when the web was in its relative infancy), WordPress was the clear winner as a turnkey solution with relative ease of use.
As we become ever more proficient and thorough with our primary CMS — Hannon Hill's Cascade Server — we may begin to consider bringing these satellite blogs into the single product fold. Should that day come, we would no longer need WordPress. Of course, the switch would mean massive SEO problems and a steep learning curve for many users. A staff our size — one designer / developer, one administrative content manager, one content writer, and a former jack-of-all trades oldhead web guy who now fancies himself an expert at digital marketing — might not be able to handle that migration.

Having our blogs separate and distinct from our primary web server has proved successful to date. Their separation makes good sense for the niche audiences each academic program requires. And their shared relationships (via links, social media crossovers and XML feeds) only strengthens our brand by showing just how diverse our offerings are.
WordPress is well suited for traditional blogs (understood primarily as an engine for sequential posts). Where it has become more than blog and can mimic some of the best web designs on the market, you will pay for the consultants, freelancers or on-staff designers and developers needed to make the necessary customization.

Also ask yourself how scaleable, modular, and just downright big your intended site needs to be. The more complex the site, the less likely WordPress is a good solution. For a small company that only needs a few static pages and a place to post news items, WordPress more than does the job.