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The call for a “Heroku for WordPress” is by now a common refrain. WordPress, if you’re not aware, powers half of the top 100 blogs and 14.7 percent of the top one million websites in the world. In the U.S., 22 out of every 100 new domains run on WordPress today.
As the CEO and co-founder of WooThemes, a theme and infrastructure provider for WordPress sites, I’ve been involved with WordPress for years now. My co-founders and I were designing and developing for it long before we started WooThemes in 2008. And as WordPress has grown and evolved, so has WooThemes. As builds change and use cases evolve, we’re one of the first to know.
WordPress started as a simple blogging platform and open source project. As the platform and the themes running on top of it grew more sophisticated, WordPress became a full-fledged content management system somewhere around 2004.
These days, WordPress acts a lot more like a development framework or a PaaS (Platform as a Service). The full WordPress stack is not just integrated, it’s mature. And in the last year, several new services have sprung up to provide the missing pieces that today make WordPress a platform in the truest sense of the word.
So, what were those missing pieces, and how have they propelled WordPress forward?
1. Better analytics
However, native WordPress analytics have always been lacking. Bespoke tools that uniquely address the structures and behaviors of the WordPress platform make all the difference when you’re making the decision between WordPress as a mere CMS and WordPress as a more holistic choice.
The best example of next-generation WordPress analytics is PressTrends. Full disclosure: I’m an adviser to the company and received a small amount of equity for those services. I’ve also been a user of its tools for over a year.
PressTrends is the best way for developers, designers, consultants and publishers to understand how their themes, plug-ins and entire sites are being used in real time. And its dashboard helps you track multiple WordPress instances side by side. People use PressTrends to make decisions on everything — from which module to include to what color of text to use, all based on real data. You can see at a glance how many folks are using a given theme and what version of that theme they’re using. You can see who is commenting on your posts and how many comments have replies. And you can see how many categories you’re publishing to and which categories have the most inbound links.
The reason all this matters is because PressTrends isn’t just measuring traffic (like Google Analytics). It’s not just measuring content performance (Parse.ly). Instead, it’s measuring the performance and engagement around the platform itself — the unique functions and elements that only WordPress has, and only WordPress needs.
PressTrends will offer improvement suggestions based on your history. Is it time to move the search widget to a more prominent spot? Did the new theme installed over the weekend spike engagement? How popular is the carousel for content compared to the “suggested stories” section?
In that sense, it’s actually the qualitative aspect of analysis that makes “WordPress as a Platform” possible. We’ve always had quantitative tools, but those tools only give an outside-in perspective. Qualitative analysis puts those numbers in context with your site and WordPress itself.
2. Dollar dollar bills, y’all
Another key driver of the platform vision is the arrival of commerce on WordPress. WooThemes has its own horse in this race, but the broader trend of money changing hands on and through WordPress reflects the sites’ serious evolution.
First, executing transactions involves a level of technological competency, not to mention privacy and security, that is well above the simple posting of text and images.
Second, the involvement of multiple payment gateways, complex check-out processes, handling cost flows and table-rate shipping extensions that account for different countries and weight brackets — well, that’s a mouth full of jargon that makes my argument for me, doesn’t it?
And what if you need to check your store’s overall performance? What if you need to drill down into daily and monthly sales, individual product performance, top sellers and top earners? And finally, are you ready for maximum scale? Are you ready for the holidays?
The arrival of commerce on WordPress is as good an indicator as there is that we’ve achieved a new plateau. Commerce represents a set of tasks that you never before would have assigned to WordPress, or thought WordPress was capable of. And yet, WooCommerce already has 130,000 users, and we’re just one segment of the market. This stuff is real, and it’s here.
It is one thing to throw up a “buy now” HTML button that redirects to a shopping application, but it’s quite another to build a professional shopping site with world-class designs and powerful customizable features natively in WordPress.
You used to have to pay a fortune or use an old fashioned e-commerce system. Over time, WordPress may swallow other verticals too. But for now, the fact that millions of dollars are changing hands through the platform is validation enough that companies large and small see WordPress as mature, and viable longterm. You don’t entrust your money at the point of purchase to just anyone.
3. The hosting challenge
For the longest time, a big gap stretched between WordPress.com and WordPress.org, and there was a vast middle ground where customers’ needs were underserved. On the high end, there was WordPress VIP, a turn-key solution that was worth the money, but only feasible to the largest sites and services. On the low end, self-serve and self-host options were unappealing to those who wanted better performance and better configurability.
Enter new companies, such as WPEngine, which let you have your cake and eat it too.
WPEngine is kind of like the Acura of WordPress hosting — it’s simple and yet powerful. It offers everything you need and nothing you don’t for a reasonable price, and the assurance of some of the best WordPress technologists in the world. Competing services like Page.ly offer similarly well-managed WordPress hosting for anyone who is getting serious about WordPress for the first time.
And importantly, these players offer a lot more than just “hosting.” They include hassle-free backup, curated plug-ins and themes, automatically configured caching for surprising scale, and integrated content delivery networks with insane speed.
This means that the rich middle-ground of WordPress — the vast majority of those 75 million websites and counting — now enjoy a cadre of hosting options that match WordPress’s own maturity in scope and tenor.
WordPress’s early DIY culture was wonderful, and it’s the reason for its continued success. But these days, WordPress developers and consultants are finally backfilling core pieces of the stack. This allows the rest of us to focus on great design and new applications, so that we can move the platform forward.
Are we there yet? We’re close, but not all the way.
Today, I’d argue that we have all of the elements we need to make the true “WordPress as a platform” vision a reality. But what’s missing is integrations — API calls and shared data models that can integrate these new offerings into a singular experience.
I’m not suggesting that these companies shouldn’t remain independent and laser-focused on what they do best. But, the characteristics (integration with third-party services beyond plugin architectures, up-to-date asset deployment processes with heavier consideration for performance, etc.) that have made platforms like Heroku, AWS and Azure so compelling are still nascent in the WordPress ecosystem.
Even though the parts are pretty damn impressive right now, WordPress can be greater than the sum of its parts.
Adii Pienaar is the CEO and co-founder of WooThemes, one of the largest theme and infrastructure providers for WordPress sites. He is also the founder of the Rockstar Foundation, a non-profit organization which aims to empower disadvantaged girls in South Africa through superior education. He is an active advisor, mentor and investor to other startups and the author of Rockstar Business.
Disclosure: Automattic, maker of WordPress.com, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, GigaOm. Om Malik, founder of GigaOm, is also a venture partner at True.