Craft CMS vs WordPress: a side-by-side review
When we engage with new clients, one of the common themes during early conversations is choosing the right content management system (CMS) for the project — and with good reason. A content management system is the bridge between our code and our client, and therefore the bridge between our client and their customers.
A bad CMS can compromise this chain at any point, even from the very beginning, for example, it may impose stringent coding or design restrictions which then affects our client’s ability to give their customers what they want which affects the customer experience.
It’s no understatement to say that choosing a CMS is one of the most important decisions in a digital project.
In this article, we’re going to walk through the key requirements of a modern content management system by comparing two of the biggest names in this space: WordPress and Craft CMS.
What is a CMS?
To begin, we should answer the obvious question: “What is a CMS?”
A content management system is a tool for creating, editing, and managing digital content such as publishing pages, articles, site structures, as well as digital media including images and videos. Content is published through the CMS interface so users can access it through web pages and/or apps.
The CMS market is crowded with a lot of choice including the recent rise of headless content management systems like Contentful and Prismic (back-end only systems delivering structured content via a RESTful API). To make sense of this crowded market, you will need to consider a CMS product with longevity and cadence, that is to say how long it has been in existence which will demonstrate experience and trust amongst its users, and how frequently it is updated and maintained which will demonstrate how secure the platform is and whether you will find support should you encounter issues.
With that in mind, Craft CMS and WordPress meet both of our key criteria.
WordPress is the world's most popular tool for publishing blogs and has added content management capabilities over time to become a CMS. With that comes a lot of legacy baggage where WordPress tries to be all things to all people including hobbyists, bloggers, and people who trust it as a more fully-fledged CMS. This baggage mainly manifests in the busy user interface, arcane plugin ecosystem and performance issues from a back-end and front-end experience.
Craft CMS is a commercial content management system including premium brands such as Netflix, Apple and Microsoft. It is by far the younger of the two systems, however, it still has many years under its belt. It is developed and maintained by a team of developers and an active open-source community. Where WordPress tends to rely on themes for designers and developers to get started, Craft provides a blank canvas so user experiences are built from the ground up(see the Flexibility for more details).
WordPress the more widely used CMS of the two competitors, which is part of the reason it is a target for frequent attacks, and because many WordPress sites run poorly maintained plugins leaving a door wide open for attackers to gain access.
This security concern isn’t something to be taken lightly. In 2016, the Panama Papers breach that saw approximately 2.6 terabytes of data (somewhere in the region of 11.5 million files) was leaked from Mossack Fonesca, the Panama-based law firm, all because of a vulnerability in a WordPress plugin called Revolution Slider — a plugin to display a carousel of images. WordPress relies on plugins like Revolution Slider to achieve core functionality available in other content management systems such as Craft.
Craft CMS doesn’t have as wide an array of plugins as WordPress, mostly because it doesn’t need plugins to achieve either a) built-in functionality, and therefore, more secure or b) the desired functionality is achievable in code because Craft is more flexible and customisable from a development perspective.
One of our frustrations as a business is the feeling of dread when receiving an email from a hosting provider indicating that a security exploit has been identified on one of the plugins in a WordPress install. It is then a race against time to track down the site, log in, update the plugins (assuming there is an update, otherwise it’s a straight-up removal of the plugin which potentially breaks functionality), then syncing the changes across all environments.
Thankfully, Craft CMS has no major exploits. The Craft Plugin Store is similar to Apple’s App Store in that they keep a close eye on plugins submitted to the store ensuring that the likelihood of any major security breach is low (particularly compared to the 1,500+ documented exploits in WordPress).
Winner: Craft CMS
Wordpress is known for having one of the best SEO plugins in Yoast SEO, which has long given it an advantage in this category. Ask any content editor who has used WordPress in the past and the chances are they have used Yoast alongside it when publishing pages and sending links to social media.
However, Craft CMS has not just caught up in the SEO game, you could even argue that it has surpassed WordPress with its own elite SEO plugin, SEOmatic.
SEOmatic provides more than just common SEO tools, like alt attributes and link title attribute fields. It goes further to automatically render metadata and create sitemaps for Google, all while providing a range of advanced SEO options. SEOmatic strikes the balance between providing the ease of use of Yoast SEO but its advanced features give it the slight edge that even Moz.com, the go-to resource for SEO experts, enthusiastically uses Craft CMS and SEOmatic over WordPress and Yoast SEO.
SEOmatic provides the ability to automatically generate structured data/JSON-LD to ensure pages such as products, events, recipes, showtime listings, AMP pages, and any other content types that Google may pre-format in search result displays which have been proven to boost conversion rates for end-users.
Speed and Performance
If you recall the chain diagram from earlier, the speed and performance occurs at the code level which is where most content management systems impose their will on the design and developer behind the user experience at the end of the chain. The question is how much code is required from the CMS to function correctly and what is the performance impact?
WordPress is bloated from the core up. Especially once you start adding plugins to achieve the essential functionality you need on top of what it gives you out of the box. Craft CMS, on the other hand, has many of the desired functionality items out of the box that would otherwise require plugins in WordPress.
Craft on the other had is incredibly lightweight. It doesn’t come with legacy code libraries to appease the earlier users who intend to use it as a blog rather than a CMS, rather Craft gets out of the way for the developer. So much so that it is easy to use Craft as a headless CMS if necessary so that only structured data is loaded into the page rather than any expensive PHP or database calls.
Winner: Craft CMS
Design and Development Flexibility
Which brings us on to the next key requirement. Although this sounds more like a concern at the code side of the chain, it ultimately affects the user at the other end most of all.
WordPress was built as a blogging platform, and in that area, it excels. However, when it comes to designing unique pages, ambitious and immersive experiences, WordPress falls very short of the mark. Sure, you technically can achieve some degree of unique and ambitions design in WordPress but it usually involves complex workarounds, manual hard-coding of pages directly from the admin panel, and other hacks — all of which adds up to expensive resources in all definitions of the word - design time, development time, the content administrator’s time, support time, and page performance. Employing such workarounds also introduces design and code fragility meaning people usually become averse to making any necessary changes or potential improvements in case it all comes crumbling down.
WordPress has been described as “like starting with a Pollock painting and applying paint remover until you have something you can draw on, instead of just starting with a blank sheet of paper in the first place”. WordPress imposes code and design bloat out of the box rather than Craft’s blank sheet of paper where you start with the user and business needs.
Craft CMS has no design restrictions. It doesn’t impose its way of doing things on top of you. There is no such thing as the Craft CMS equivalent of “site that looks like a WordPress site”. It’s easy to see why two of the industry leaders in immersive user experiences, Netflix and Nike, have chosen Craft as their CMS of choice. It buys them the creative freedom to design and build something unique and engaging for users whilst being easy to use and flexible for content administrators to publish those experiences to their audience.
Winner: Craft CMS
Ease of Use for Content Administrators
WordPress certainly enjoys some familiarity among content administrators and marketing teams who have had previous exposure to the CMS, and anecdotally speaking, we’ve noticed some client’s reluctance to re-platform to Craft and other content management systems as a result.
However, the good news is, Craft’s user interface and functionality is almost like-for-like with WordPress with the only immediate notable difference being that Craft’s interface is easier to use and navigate than WordPress. We have several of our clients who were former WordPress users who now use Craft CMS and found it far easier to use — some of which picked it up so quickly that they didn’t need our training!
It has been described by some of our customers as “WordPress with a major design upgrade”, or “a more modern, easier to use WordPress”. Craft CMS has unlocked marketing teams potential allowing them to easily share pages and posts on social media, run effective campaigns and boost user engagement and conversion rates.
Although that on first glance both the WordPress and Craft CMS admin panels look identical and function the same, Craft CMS does a better job of simplifying the interface and administrative tasks, showing relevant information for content and marketing teams such as page performance, user engagement and campaign success, as well as being built for speed and performance from the backend to frontend.
Craft has a built-in Live Preview feature so content editors can see the content change in realtime as they type. In this safe draft mode, it means they can test things like content length, layout and media before they publish the page to the public. WordPress has a preview function also, but it doesn’t work in realtime and requires the editor to stop working, generate a preview URL (which usually takes some time) and then review.
One of the most powerful features of Craft CMS from a content administrator’s perspective is the ability to save draft versions of pages and send them to other members of their team for sign-off before publishing to the public. The great thing about these sign-off URLs is that they are unique links that can be viewed privately without the need to log into the CMS.
There are many other features we could mention to make marketing team’s lives easier, but we’ll end this section on one of the common complaints of many content management systems: image editing.
If you have any past experience of working with a CMS, you have probably experienced the pain of uploading images fit for purpose for the end-user. Sometimes this will likely have involved you having to stick to stringent image dimensions, file types and optimisations — you may have even had to pick up some new Photoshop skills along the way to make that happen. Thankfully, Craft CMS handles all of this automatically.
Craft CMS can be set up to handle automatic image resizing, cropping (with a focal point tool to make sure nobody loses a head when automatic cropping happens!), and optimisation to make sure pages stay performant and lightweight for users. You can still manually crop if you wish, and as we mentioned before with the Live Preview feature, you’ll be able to see what things look like before they go live.
Winner: Craft CMS
Multiple Sites and Multiple Languages
It is becoming increasingly common for digital experiences to have multiple domains and subdomains managed from the same content management system. Some may even choose to manage iPhone and Android app content from the same content management system.
Craft CMS has multi-site capabilities by default out of the box, once again without the need to add any additional plugins. It assumes your current site is site 1 of many even if you only ever choose to have one site.
You might choose to have a multi-site setup if you want to have a website as a section within your CMS and an accompanying app as a separate section — you might even want to have a mixture of shared and unique content for each. Or you might potentially want to have multiple languages on multiple domains but powered by one CMS cleanly categorised by language. In any of these scenarios, you may want to grant access for all content editors, or maybe only show them relevant parts of the overall CMS — whatever the setup, Craft is flexible and will scale its security, performance, users and permissions levels accordingly.
WordPress, as you might have guessed by now, requires additional plugins to achieve something similar. It doesn’t have the clean user permissions view that Craft gives you where you can easily see who can access what part of the CMS. WordPress users will need to be duplicated across different sites, account details recreated, and of course, new passwords generated and changed.
Winner: Craft CMS
This can often be a stumbling block if we’re trying to convince a client to move to Craft CMS. WordPress is free — it’s used by 30% of websites on the web and is a great way for people to get started with a web presence, however, we have found that the old saying of “You get what you pay for” holds true in this area.
A Craft CMS licence costs $299 which includes one year of updates, then $59 per year for updates after that. The difficulty is trying to quantify the true cost of WordPress considering that to achieve so many of Craft’s core features in WordPress requires additional development time, installing additional plugins — some of which may cost extra such as Jetpack at £250 per year, the time invested in fighting performance issues and stripping out bloated code, difficulty syncing between environments — all of which adds up to a cost that can be hard to calculate, and that’s assuming there are no security issues and exploits to deal with along the way.
It’s worth noting that when compared to other enterprise-level CMS platforms such as Adobe Experience Manager(anywhere from $250,000 to $1,000,000), Craft’s offering seems a lot more reasonable. A followup question might be,“Why is Craft so cheap compared to Adobe Experience Manager?” You have to consider Craft’s market position to answer that question — where WordPress tries to be all things to all people at its free price point, and AEM prices itself at an enterprise level, Craft positions itself out of the hobbyist market of WordPress and leaves the door open for businesses and enterprise at this price point.
On paper, WordPress wins in the price category, but in practice, it’s not as easy as pointing to each platform’s pricing page and assuming that what you see is what you get. There is certainly a hidden cost below the surface with WordPress which is worth considering when taking price into consideration.
Because of its popularity, WordPress has amassed a large user base with a large number of plugin developers looking to capitalise on its market share. This means that WordPress has a large community support network where questions will be answered quickly, and there are rarely any scenarios that haven't been encountered by a developer or content administrator before.
Craft, on the other hand, has a smaller, but very active community on live forums like Discord and Slack. One of the benefits of Craft’s price tag is the fact that you will have access to support directly from the development team if you should come across any bugs or the need for general help and support.
Again, this is a category that could go either way, but due to WordPress being in the game a lot longer than Craft, by that measure it has accumulated copious amounts of Google searches with help questions down the years so there are very few situations where a problem is encountered without an answer a Google search away.
Choosing a CMS is a massive decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. As we can see, it is a decision that has a direct impact on the 3 parties involved with any digital project: the agency, the client, and the customers.
Users demand more from a modern digital experience. Their expectations are higher than ever. They expect Netflix to make the decision for them as to what series they should binge-watch next, they expect Spotify to introduce them to new genres and artists, they expect rich, fulfilling digital experiences that make a lasting impression.
With WordPress, we believe it is stuck in the digital past and walking a difficult line between catering for the hobbyist bloggers who elevated the platform to where it is today, and companies who have adopted it as a means of getting on the web with customisable themes.
But that just doesn’t cut it for the modern user. With conversion rates affected by each millisecond of a page load, the modern content management system needs to prioritise performance and empower agencies and content editors alike to create awe-inspiring digital experiences to engage and retain the attention of the modern user.
That’s why we choose Craft. It is a fit for the ambitious organisations we work with who come with a passionate user base who demand and deserve world-class digital experiences.