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WordPress vs Gatsby

Tim Davidson
by Tim Davidson
6 min

This article will cover the benefits of using WordPress compared to using a static site generator like Gatsby or NextJS. The Gatsby vs WordPress argument isn’t new. There’s a lot of theoretical points for both sides.

We’ve built dozens of WordPress and Gatsby sites. The opinions we’re about to share are based on how well each technology does the job of creating a simple, maintainable website for our clients.

I want to preface this article by saying we are big fans of static site generators. I’ve even written a handful of articles about how great Gatsby is. But you can probably tell by now that we’re favouring WordPress in this writeup.

WordPress gets a bad wrap from a variety of critics. Developers don’t appreciate the clunky processes required to build new themes. Non-technical folks get frustrated with WordPress’s cluttered interface. Larger companies stay clear because of performance and security concerns.

Despite its well-documented flaws, WordPress is an excellent solution for most websites. It even outshines static site generators in some areas. 

Here’s a summary if you want to skip ahead to the good stuff:

  1. Easily configurable staging environments
  2. Split testing
  3. Client autonomy
  4. Familiarity 
  5. Established plugins

Easily configurable staging environments

If you’re a WordPress developer or have a good WordPress developer on your team, they may have come across the roots.io ecosystem. Roots.io provide an excellent server provisioning toolset called Trellis that makes spinning up a testing environment a breeze.

Pair this with a plugin like WP DB Migrate Pro, and you can quickly spin up an exact testing environment. 

I know this seems like a silly benefit because staging environments are also a breeze to set up on Gatsby or NextJS with providers like Netlify or Gatsby Cloud. The point of difference is these platforms need to be integrated with a third party content management system to let non-technical clients or staff make content changes.

Often these content management systems have poor support for staging environments. The best example of limited staging features is Prismic. These guys are not a small company. They boast some huge clients *cough* Google *cough*. Yet their staging sites only unlock for subscribers on their $500/month plan.

Prismic pricing for staging environment

You could argue that other content management systems have better staging site options. This point is valid, but a thousand new headless CMSs have hit the market over the past couple of years. Going through them one by one to see which has the best testing environment is a huge time sink. 

These challenges are why WordPress gets the tick of approval for easy test environment configuration. 

Split Testing

The benefit of using a platform like Gatsby or NextJS is pre-rendering your assets and achieving lightning-fast performance. Ultra-performance unlocks many trickle-down benefits are, but the page load speed, user experience and general code optimisation are at the centre.

Arguments for Gatsby typically centre around performance. They often fail to take into consideration when the marketing-focused end-user expects from their site.

They want clicks, conversions, contact form submissions. They want to influence their visitors in some way. Businesses willing to pay an agency like Clean Commit to redesign and develop their website probably expects to see a return on the other side.

The best way to determine how well website content and design is achieving its goals is to set up conversion goals, create a series of hypotheses about what changes would improve the results, then test the changes. This process is colloquially called split testing or A/B testing.

Split testing with WordPress is pretty straightforward. Duplicate the page you want to test and change one variable. Sign up for Google Optimize, Optimizely, VWO or any other testing platform. Route half the traffic to page 1 and half the traffic to page 2.

Just about every A/B testing platform on the market is designed specifically to work with WordPress. The process is usually as easy as pasting a code snippet into the head of your document or installing a plugin. There are tons of resources on avoiding the performance issues and screen flickering that typically plague split testing.

Split testing with Gatsby or static site generators is more complicated. 

I should point out that if you’re a developer working on your own website, split testing isn’t harder with Gatsby because you can quickly duplicate pages and configure the testing software.

As a non-technical marketing person, there’s no easy way to duplicate posts or pages in most common content management systems. Platforms like Prismic and Netlify CMS don’t provide this option, so this is the first hurdle.

There are workarounds to create the duplicated pages for testing. However, there are fewer options for optimising the code that triggers the split test compared with WordPress. 

Funnily enough, Gatsby and NextJS both boast easy split testing as one of their advantages. Teams with dedicated developers would probably agree. For the rest of the market, it’s simply not true.

Client autonomy

Businesses that hire an agency or freelancer to build their website are often worried that they’ll need to get their developer in to help any time they need to make a small change. 

Content management systems like Prismic, Contentful, and Sanity let non-developers make content changes easily without help. However, these changes are limited to wording, images, and adding new sections to an existing page.

This range of changes is enough for some businesses. For a lot of active teams, it’s a frustrating restriction. Users expect to make simple updates, like editing menus, adding new pages, and installing plugins. Whether or not untrained users should be making these changes is a different argument, but they expect to be able to.

WordPress provides a higher level of autonomy. Not needing to help with every little change on the site is also beneficial for the agency or contractor. It may seem like that would be an excellent money-making opportunity because there is a constant trickle of work. In practice, it becomes an annoying disruption and kills efficiency.

Familiarity

When a new client comes to us asking for a new website, one of my first questions is about their feelings for WordPress.

There’s usually not much love for the platform. Answers range from “yes, we use it and don’t love it” to “I’m indifferent and willing to try a different option”.

We’ve used this opportunity to push clients towards Gatsby and Prismic. It’s a new, sexy stack and solves some of the issues that frustrate WordPress users. 

More often than not, the move away from WordPress has been a mistake. The solution is adequate, but the learning curve causes issues and users are so used to the WordPress way of doing things that they struggle to adapt. 

Moving to a static site generator also creates headaches when client’s search engine optimisation specialists come in expecting to work with a WordPress site and are greeted by an alien platform that they don’t understand. 

Established plugins

WordPress has a crazy number of established plugins. There’s a plugin for just about every need. Functionality that would take hundreds (even thousands) of hours of development can be installed and configured in a matter of minutes.

Just about every established marketing or email automation platform provides its own WordPress plugin. Even Google has built WordPress plugins to allow integration of its web suite.

The enormous ecosystem of plugins has taken 18 years to build and can’t be rivalled by any other website platform. A lot of high-quality websites SEO and marketing services function exclusively as WordPress plugins.

Official WordPress integrations are also very common in digital marketing platforms. 

Gatsby does a decent job providing its own library of plugins, but it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as WordPress. 

Final thoughts

Well, what’s better? WordPress or Gatsby?

This is an incomplete question because it doesn’t consider what the website will need to do. 

WordPress is an excellent solution for brochure sites or blogs where content is regularly updated. But it’s a less ideal solution for a multinational company that needs to show different content to different countries.

Gatsby is an excellent solution for teams that rarely make content changes and don’t bother with plugins or core version updates. It’s a less ideal solution for teams already embedded in the WordPress way of life that want to split test their content and have autonomy over their site.

We’re advocates for picking the best technology for the situation. Usually, that’s WordPress for our clients, but it’s not a hard and fast rule!

Tim Davidson
Tim Davidson
Tim is the face of the company. When you want to kick off a new project, or an update on your existing project, Tim is your man. With a background in project management, Tim specialises in managing the chaos around the company.

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