If you’re evaluating Craft CMS, or for that matter, any CMS, for your business’s next website, there’s a dark secret about the web design business that you should probably know.
Quite often, the choice of CMS or platform that an agency recommends to you has more to do with the technology that they are comfortable with, than the specific needs and goals of your business.
When Simplicate was founded, we were clear that we would do our utmost to avoid falling into this habit. It’s why we are pretty technology agnostic. From WordPress, Joomla and Drupal, to custom-built CMSs for massive websites, we’ve handled projects spanning all kinds of platforms and technologies.
Our guiding principle has always been: what works best for the customer’s use-case?
In the context of most small to midsize business websites, we were often hard-pressed to find a universally compelling answer to that question.
That is, until we discovered Craft CMS.
What CMS should my business use?
This is easily the most common technology question we hear from potential clients today. In fact, we heard it so much that it was the driving force behind creating this guide.
So, without further ado, let’s dive right in.
What’s the best CMS for your next website redesign? Should you ditch WordPress? What exactly is Craft CMS, anyway? Is it any good, and is it right for your business?
This guide will strive to answer all of these questions, and then some.
What is Craft CMS and who’s using it?
Craft CMS is a flexible, user-friendly content management system for creating custom digital experiences on the web and beyond. It was first launched in 2013 by the talented folks at Pixel & Tonic, who continue to actively maintain and improve it.
Craft CMS hails itself as a “content first” CMS that allows teams to customize an experience specific their own project without making assumptions about the content or structure.
It was built to handle challenges in web design, development and content management that quite simply didn’t exist (or couldn’t easily be solved) when the last generation of content management systems were gaining popularity.
Who’s using Craft CMS?
Today, Craft CMS has come to be used by tens of thousands of businesses (including the likes of Ikea, Netflix, Volkswagon, Hallmark and Associated Press), and its popularity continues to grow.
Aside from individual companies, Craft CMS is also trusted by world class agencies like Ideo and TBWA who are responsible for building sites for massive, international Fortune 500 companies.
That being said, as far as we’re concerned, one of the biggest names to recently use Craft CMS is none other than the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium).
Who’s this W3C you speak of?
If you’re not familiar with the W3C, they’re an international organization that works with companies and the web community to develop the standards on which many web technologies operate on.
As if that’s not enough clout, they’re also founded and led by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world-wide-web.
The W3C began with an very in-depth list of content management system requirements, and eventually short listed three open source content management systems for to review:
Eventually the W3C selected Craft CMS over Statamic for its redesign project, after dropping WordPress from consideration in an earlier round of elimination.
Chances are, your next project doesn’t have more comprehensive or demanding requirements than the W3C. If Craft CMS is good enough for them, then it’s good enough for the vast majority of website that require a CMS.
Should You Switch to Craft CMS?
We would never recommend “switching” your content management system just for the sake of it, besides, that’d be a pretty hard sell to your accounting department.
Most organizations only need to make a decisions about making a CMS switch when they’re considering a major re-design or overhaul of their website.
Even then, it can be difficult to suggest upsetting the status quo that is WordPress (or whatever tool your organization is already familiar with).
However, if you’re going to be spending any non-trivial amount of money on a redesign of your next website, it’s probably a good idea to scope out what’s best for the needs of your project.
WordPress was a game changer back when it was first launched in 2003. There were hardly any other options for web publishing software that small businesses could actually afford.
That’s no longer true today.
While we strongly believe that Craft CMS is a great fit for businesses that may have outgrown WordPress, with so many alternatives available (some of which we’ll discuss near the end of this article), you might find that even if Craft CMS isn’t right for your next project, WordPress might not be the answer either.
If you’re on the fence or evaluating your needs, we’ll talk about some of the common issues people might experience using WordPress and how Craft CMS differentiates itself in the next section.
WordPress vs Craft CMS
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already using WordPress. Or you’ve at least heard of it and have considered using it on your next site. After all, WordPress powers 63.6% of all websites that use content management systems, which translates to roughly 38.7% of all websites. That’s a lot.
Obviously, WordPress wouldn’t have become such a giant if it wasn’t really good at something. We’re talking about a CMS that’s open-source, loaded with features, backed by a time-tested company, supported by a huge community of third-party developers, and is free* to use (*not really, but more on this later).
So what’s not to like about WordPress?
Well, it turns out, there’s quite a lot not to like about WordPress.
In the interest of fairness, we should make it clear that you can build a website of (almost) any scale and complexity using pretty much any of the major CMS’s available on the market – WordPress or otherwise.
It isn’t so much a matter of which CMS can be poked, prodded or frankensteined do what, but rather, how efficiently a result can be achieved using a particular tool.
Less time fighting against your CMS means more time to focus on doing the stuff that drives real value for your organization.
We’ve decided to focus this article primarily on WordPress due to its popularity, however, similar problems exist in other popular content management systems like Joomla, Drupal, or even WYSIWYG editors like Squarespace or Wix.
From the perspective of a business owner, probably the biggest allure of WordPress is its promise of DIY simplicity. If there’s a particular feature you need that isn’t available natively in WordPress, you can choose from more than 54,000 plugins on the official plugin repository, to find one that adds the functionality you need. And that’s not counting external marketplaces with thousands of other plugins.
No need for custom code development, just install a plugin and presto! Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, in practice, it’s a little more complicated than that. To be clear, plugins can be very useful, and there are some that may even be deemed essential. The problem is that WordPress has come to rely on third-party plugins far too much.
The typical small WordPress site uses 20 to 30 plugins on average, and larger sites often use twice as many. This is sort of like making a submarine out of a bathtub. There’s nothing wrong with bathtubs, but if what you want is a submarine, it’s much better to build one from the ground-up. Modifications and add-ons will only get you so far, and you certainly shouldn’t be making plans to sail into battle in a bathtub-submarine.
For one thing, because of the way WordPress is built, plugins tend to slow down your WordPress site’s page load speed. This is bad.
40% of users will exit a site if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load, and slow page load times adversely affect Google search rankings.
Craft CMS also allows plugins to add functionality, but unlike WordPress, Craft CMS was designed from scratch to manage websites rather than personal blogs. Consequently, Craft’s inbuilt features like matrix, custom fields, and relationships, make it a lot easier to achieve the functionality you want for your website without having to resort to third-party plugins. In other words, as compared to WordPress, you’ll need far fewer third-party plugins in Craft CMS, to achieve the same end result.
Also unlike WordPress, Craft CMS keeps the functional code (PHP) completely separate from the code for aesthetics / presentation (HTML, CSS). This means that when you do have to use plugins in Craft, they are generally less prone to unintentionally breaking something on your site.
One interesting side-effect of this difference is how safe your site is from malicious attacks. Which brings us to the next point.
There’s no such thing as an invulnerable website. Security isn’t a binary, but rather a spectrum that ranges from highly immune to highly vulnerable. On that spectrum, WordPress has historically been, and continues to be, slightly skewed towards the vulnerable end, while Craft CMS arguably leans towards the other end.
To be fair, not all of WordPress’s vulnerabilities stem from bugs in the WordPress core. Roughly 87% of them are because of exploits in plugins, and 8% are from themes. It’s also worth noting that there are thousands of themes out there, and only some of them are documented – so it’s more than likely that themes account for a much higher share of these security issues.
Of course, it is possible to “harden” an installation of WordPress to make it more immune to attacks. But as with all things WordPress, this involves installing several extra plugins, and comes with additional performance overheads. (Not to mention, added cost and complexity.)
Loyalists point out that WordPress’s popularity is partly the reason for the higher number of security breaches, and they’re absolutely right. After all, if you were a hacker, it would make sense for you to go after the biggest target, rather than waste your time devising exploits for a relatively obscure CMS.
(BTW, this is important: Always remember that how vulnerable your website is has nothing to do with how big or popular it is. Hackers use automated bots that crawl the web and examine websites to detect the underlying software and vulnerabilities. So, regardless of which CMS you use and how low-profile you think your website is, please, take all the security measures you possibly can if you don’t want to end up with a defaced website, or worse.)
In light of all this, Craft’s approach to security makes a lot of sense. The statistics speak for themselves.
At the time of writing, WordPress has had more than 2,345 documented security exposures since 2012.
Craft CMS, on the other hand, has had about 30.
So far, we’ve talked about aspects that are mostly only of interest to management-level decision makers. But let’s face it: the typical author or editor who’s going to write content or approve submissions on your website or blog, isn’t likely to be concerned with security or the stuff under the hood that makes everything tick.
What they are interested in, however, is how easy or difficult the CMS makes it for them to do their job. And in this area, Craft CMS really sets itself apart from the competition.
For authors and editors, the ability to see and control how a piece of content is going to look, before it’s actually published on the live site, is a superpower that can save them a lot of anguish and time. Traditionally, this was a feature that wasn’t well implemented in WordPress. Recent versions are markedly better at it than before, but more often than not, there are still differences between the preview and the published version.
Adding insult to injury, the code that is output by the WordPress editor is often wonky. In an age where search engines parse literally everything about your site to determine its search rankings, having immaculate code is pretty important to a site’s success.
Craft CMS takes care of this through its native Live Preview feature, which shows you changes in real-time, as you’re making them. No need to save or hit refresh. I’ve worked with dozens of page editors and this is the closest thing to true WYSIWYG that I’ve come across so far.
Another major time-saver is the ability to edit images. A typical website requires images of different dimensions and formats depending on the where they’re being used: thumbnails, headers, sidebars, post body, gallery carousels, and what have you.
WordPress is very spartan when it comes to built-in options to edit images. If a particular image is too wide, the user has to download the file, fire up an image editor, resize it, adjust the export settings, save the file, and then re-upload it before they can use it.
Craft CMS dramatically shortens this workflow through its default image editor. Cropping, rotating, resizing, straightening, flipping, setting the focus – it can all be taken care of without ever leaving the browser window. Craft also lets you host your images on a CDN, straight out of the box, whereas WordPress – you guessed it – needs another plugin.
At a slightly higher user permissions level, there are tasks like managing website navigation and plugin updates, all of which are markedly simpler in Craft CMS. A comprehensive comparison of every single feature on Craft CMS and WordPress is beyond the scope of this post. If this is something you’re interested in, drop us a mail and we’ll arrange a free demo login just for you, so you can try everything out firsthand.
Speed & Performance
We touched on this point briefly earlier on, but it’s important enough to deserve its own section. We’d be the first to tell you that WordPress can be tuned to be blazingly fast. We’ve done it ourselves for many of our customers. With the right hosting environment, a skilled developer can configure most WordPress sites to be just as fast as an identical site on any other CMS.
But herein lies the problem: it will take a skilled developer to do that. As always, there are plugins out there that claim to make your WordPress site very fast, and they work with varying degrees of effectiveness. But WordPress plugins are a source of performance bottlenecks themselves – a lot of the sluggishness on the site’s front end and administrative backend comes from the plugins that are supposed to improve your site in the first place. So, to really achieve superlative performance though, none of these plugins will cut it.
And if you’re going to hire a skilled developer anyway, they’d probably tell you that it’ll take them a lot less time to performance-tune a Craft CMS site, than a WordPress site. And of course, less time spent tuning means more time available to complete the rest of your site quickly.
WordPress began it’s life as a blogging platform, and much of it’s identity and how it thinks about content is still tied to that.
Every new WordPress site comes with two types of content enabled by default: Blogs and Pages. This is a great start if the type of content you need for your site matches up with that.
What if you need more content flexibility?
What if your primary content is recipes and meal plans? Or magazine issues and research papers? Or neighbourhoods and school districts. Or any of the million other types of content that we use websites to organize and present on website.
WordPress does allows you to create additional content types, but the process leaves much to be desired and often .. you guessed it .. requires more plugins.
And even once you’ve told WordPress about the types of content you need, you still have to teach it about what pieces of information need to be associated with each content type.
A blog post has a title, an author, a published date, body content, some topics, and a feature image.
What if your content needs drastically different fields than those?
WordPress has an answer for that too .. in the form of more plugins (and more overhead).
How does Craft CMS handle content organization?
Craft was designed to put your content first, instead of trying to make you conform your content to fit within its tools.
Your first task when working on a new Craft CMS project is to describe the kind of content that you’ll need.
Craft CMS lets you describe exactly the kind of content that you’ll need using almost 20 pre‑defined types of fields.
And if you find that you have a type of data that doesn’t fit neatly into one of those types (for example, latitude and longitude), Craft CMS makes it easy for developers to create their own and add it to the list.
Craft CMS then allows you to organize your fields in exactly the right way to allow you to describe your content in exactly the way you need to using it’s powerful, built in field manager.
These features combine to create a powerful and flexible content organization framework that will benefit any site who’s content is more structured than a blank Word document.
Since Craft CMS has this functionality built into its core, you don’t have to rely on multiple plugins, each built by different teams, and each with their own idiosyncrasies being wrangled into work together with duct tape and wishful thinking.
Search Engine Optimization
Different sites require different levels of search engine optimization, but having a content management system that makes managing the on-site SEO process is essential.
Both WordPress and Craft CMS ship with a very basic tools for managing your SEO tags and content structure. However, for more in-depth functionality, both tools require you to turn to plugins.
For WordPress, that typically means installing Yoast SEO. With Craft CMS, most teams choose to work with Seomatic.
From a functionality and pricing perspective, Yoast and Seomatic share a lot of similarities.
However, Seomatic benefits heavily from the flexible nature of the custom content fields in Craft CMS, that make it easier to streamline SEO management tasks directly into the content editing process.
Moz.com (the makers of several massively popular tools used by SEO professionals around the world), use the Seomatic plugin on their Craft CMS website.
No one has more rigorous standards for an SEO plugin than a titan of the industry like Moz.
So far we’ve talked about a lot of features that are important to the people running and managing a website. But what about the benefits of Craft CMS for the people who are actually building the website?
If the people doing the coding don’t work within your organization, then you might think that you don’t need to care about how easy or hard it is for them to work with the tools they’re using to build your site.
But you’d be wrong.
The hidden cost for choosing to build a site on WordPress (or similar last-generation content management tools) vs. more modern and flexible tools like Craft CMS comes in form of developer hours.
Simply put, if one content management system makes a developer jump through more hoops to get a job done than another CMS, you’ll end up paying for that time one way or another.
You’ll either pay for it with an increased budget, or with a decreased amount of time available for developers to focus on additional functionality that will improve your website.
If your website falls very neatly into the Pages + Blog Posts format that made WordPress popular, then there’s a good case to be made that it’s the right tool for the job.
But if the further away from those requirements that your site deviates, the more pressure your developers will be under to make things work inside a tool that is inherently fighting against them to prevent them from doing what needs to be done.
Multisite & Multilingual
Not every web project requires multiple languages or for multiple sites to be managed from within a single interface, so we won’t spend too much time talking about this.
However, if your site does need this functionality, it quickly becomes a huge factor in your decision making process.
Wordpress is capable of handling multi site management from a single control panel, using either the built in Multisite configuration or (say it with me now) more plugins.
If you need to translate your site into multiple languages, you’re on the hook for another WordPress plugin, likely WPML.
How Craft CMS handles multisite and multilingual sites
Like many of the other features we’ve been talking about in this article, Craft CMS handles multisite and multilingual sites right out of the box, without the need for additional plugins.
Craft CMS not only makes it easier to create multiple sites, but also to decide which content and design elements are shared between sites, and which are kept separate.
Multisites and multilingual sites are treated as first class citizens by Craft CMS and not as an after-market add-on. This out-of-the-box functionality allows for greater flexibility to meet a wider variety of needs without resorting to the dark arts WordPress plugin wizardry.
Drawbacks of Craft CMS
From everything we’ve discussed so far, it’s pretty clear that Craft CMS has quite a few things going for it. But it isn’t perfect, and it isn’t for everyone.
First and foremost, Craft CMS isn’t free. Or rather, it is free, but only for small, non-commercial projects. Most projects will be required to purchase a Pro licence for $299 + $60 / year.
For any non-trivial project, there’s a very strong case to be made that $299 is a smart investment based on how many developer hours could be saved by using Craft CMS over WordPress.
Also, it’s probably worth mentioning that for as much as WordPress touts itself as being a “free” content management system, that’s rarely the case.
Because WordPress has become so reliant on plugins for increasingly necessary functionality, the average annual cost of running a WordPress site for a business now works out to about $800 to $1,000 per year.
That’s just the static annual cost without considering any time needed required for customizations by developers. For anything beyond the most basic websites, it’s hardly fair to consider WordPress “free”.
DIY vs. Hire a Craft CMS a developer
Another thing to consider is that Craft CMS isn’t exactly DIY, at least not the way Wordpress can be.
Unless you’re rather familiar with code, you’re going to need to bring in a developer on the project. A lot of things in Craft need to be coded from scratch, including your site’s theme.
Of course, this automatically implies a certain level of skill; with WordPress, anybody who can install a plugin or a theme can claim to be a developer. On the other hand, developers that work with Craft CMS need to have a stronger foundation across the entire web development lifecycle.
Fewer Craft CMS developers around
But the flip side, other than the more limited set of developers from which to choose, is that projects in Craft CMS demand a higher degree of clarity of purpose. A figure-it-out-as-you-go approach is possible with WordPress, since you can always add and remove plugins and change themes as you go along.
With Craft CMS however, making major changes in design and functionality may require developer support. The best way to evaluate whether the cost of hiring a developer makes sense is to also calculate the cost of the alternative.
What is the real cost and impact of having inexperienced or non-technical staff making changes to your website – in terms of productivity, site performance, usability, uptime, SEO, lost leads and customers and so on? As opposed to the cost of giving them the tools they need to easily and quickly edit / manage content on the site, leaving features and performance to the devs? In cases where the former is clearly better, sticking with WordPress is probably the right choice.
Another issue with Craft CMS is the lack of a done-for-you, cloud-hosted version. As of now, you (or your developers) have to determine the best place to host your Craft website. This works fine, but it sure would have been nice to have the convenience of a cloud version with no hosting setup or configuration required.
Size and scope
And lastly, scale. Craft CMS is truly a solution for mid-scale projects. If you’re looking to build the next Amazon or Zappos, you may be better off looking at other platforms.
Alternatives to Craft CMS (and WordPress)
So, what if you’re tired of the numerous maintenance and security issues of DIY WordPress, but you’re not quite ready to hire a developer and dive into Craft CMS? We’ve listed a few of the options you could check out.
The Point-and-Click Tools
Squarespace is probably the most well-known, but Wix and Weebly are also strong contenders. These are quickly becoming the go-to tools for companies that need good-looking, easy-to-edit websites. They take away all the headaches that come with WordPress, but they also take away most of the features.
A relatively new entrant in the website builder space is Webflow. They nearly went bankrupt some time ago, but they currently seem to be backed by solid funding and boast an impressive list of customers, so they’re worth checking out.
Be advised that while these PaaS providers do offer the benefit of requiring little to no maintenance in the form of updates and security patches, they do have their own disadvantages. All of these platforms are pretty restrictive in terms of the functionality they will or won’t allow. Also, anything beyond the most basic customisation will still require hiring a developer anyway. More importantly, migrating away from these platforms is seldom straightforward, since they generally don’t provide unhindered access to all your content, code and assets.
The Ecommerce Tools
Shopify has cornered a big chunk of the ecommerce market with its reputation as a user-friendly ecommerce platform. The sticker price on their subscription plans can be quite misleading, though; it isn’t uncommon for Shopify site owners to find that they need a lot of extra plugins and developer customisation to really get the site working the way they need it to.
BigCommerce and Volusion are also well-established Shopify alternatives. Depending on what you want to accomplish with them, even these tools require varying levels of developer support. Magento is possibly the most widely recognised name in this space, but a lot of users are moving away from it for similar reasons as with WordPress – bloat and performance issues.
(By the way, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that Craft Commerce competes in this arena as well, and brings all of the advantages of Craft CMS.)
Headless Content Management Systems
Headless content management systems offer a great set of advantages, and many CMSs are heading in that direction (it’s also something that Craft CMS handles very well). Contentful, Prismic, DatoCMS and Strapi are built as headless CMSs, but using any of them requires that you have, at minimum, a very competent front-end developer working with you.
All of them do not work at all as DIY tools and what’s more, they typically require the additional use of a static site generation tool. (While on the topic of static sites, Statamic is an interesting option, but also one that needs developers for feature-rich sites.)
High-end Enterprise Level Tools
Sitecore, Kentico, Microsoft SharePoint and Adobe Experience Manager are just a few of the big names in this category. These tools are no doubt powerful, but they’re also very expensive to licence, and to operate and maintain.
Unless your business is a multinational conglomerate that’s structuring your brand experience across three dozen countries, it’s unlikely that the cost really makes sense. Even at that scale, probably only a fraction of the businesses using these tools are making the most use out of all the features they offer. In short: the cost-benefit ratio on these tools doesn’t make sense for most midsize to large companies.
Niche All-in-One Tools
If your use-case has a narrow, sharply-defined focus, there are niche tools that might work well for you. Ghost and Substack, for instance, work well for a content publishing / subscription focused website.
The caveat is that your business has to adopt not just the tool, but the entire business model that these tools cater to. Depending on your business roadmap, this can be both powerful and restricting.
Joomla, Drupal, ExpressionEngine – these have traditionally been the usual-suspect WordPress stand-ins. None of them is free of all the issues with WordPress, and they typically have steeper learning curves than WordPress (like we said: there’s a reason WordPress is so popular). More importantly, these are platforms that are fast moving into “legacy support” territory, so we would recommend steering clear of these for any future-proof website.
Craft CMS is really good at delivering on the core elements of a modern content management system while being flexible enough to meet a wide range of business objectives. While other tools can be great at meeting specific or niche needs, they can also have serious drawbacks or deficiencies if you try to ask them to do things outside of their wheelhouse. Craft CMS remains a very competent generalist that can be configured to meet the needs of most organisations without breaking a sweat.
If you’re still unsure, why not get in touch with us for a free consultation? Obviously, we think Craft CMS is a great option, but if it doesn’t inspire confidence for you, we promise that we won’t force it on you. Our team of developers speak many codes, so we can always find an alternative that fits your business needs just right.
On the other hand, if Craft CMS does sound good to you, tell us more! Our process always starts with understanding the broader goals that you want your website to fulfil for your business, and developing a concept and proposal based on that. Check out what some of our customers have to say about our work.