… web developer, writer, and consultant based in Hveragerði, Iceland.

I write about web dev, interactive media, digital publishing, and product development.

I’m available for consulting and hire.

Which CMS/blog system would you choose?

Earlier today, I asked the following question on Twitter:

With https://publishers.medium.com, Medium is positioned as a competitor to things like Squarespace and https://wordpress.com’s premium plans. Which leads me to the question: if you were starting a blog/website for a co/org, what service would you use and why? Let’s also assume this is either an organisation with fairly simple, typical needs or just intends to use this for a a subset of its site.

Why ask this? Simple. It’s one of the questions people tend to ask me when they find out I’m in web development.

Laying out the characters in a bit more detail

Basic assumptions:

  • We want to minimise management and administration overhead.
  • We want to minimise the need for training.
  • We’re willing to pay, but not too much.
  • There are three things that are essential for small to medium sized businesses and organisations in terms of online presence: 1. A website. 2. A mailing list. 3. A Facebook page. The website primarily exists to give the business’s content search engine visibility and to point at the other two.

With that said…

Medium

Medium is the newest player and has, for most of its life, not had a direction that would lead you to believe that it would plausibly play in this sandbox. Its ambitions to being a social media platform, for example, aren’t particularly compatible—strategically—with adding support for Google’s AMP or Facebook’s Instant Articles.

To choose Medium to be the engine behind your site first requires you to believe that this particular pivot of theirs will stick. If you don’t believe that, choosing them would be folly.

Pros:

  • Relatively easy to use, even if its editing UI has declined substantially from launch.
  • Built exactly to fit current design trends. Indeed, it started many of them. If you want a site that looks like everybody else’s, Medium’s your game.
  • Interesting discussion and commenting system.
  • If journalists and hipster startup dudes are your target market, Medium’s community delivers that in spades.
  • Seems likely to keep up with tech trends.

Cons:

  • Seems likely to keep up with tech trends.
  • It attains its ease of use by being bereft of actual features.
  • A close source silo that leaves very little to your control.
  • No asset/media management (anybody who has maintained a company or organisation website over several years knows how important this can get).
  • Looks exactly like everything else. Only the home page is customisable and even then it still looks like Generic McGenericface.
  • No customisability in general. Very little flexibility.
  • An immature and untested commenting system.
  • If journalists and hipster startup dudes are your target market, Medium’s community is completely irrelevant to your needs.
  • Free. Which means there’s no guarantee that Medium won’t pivot away from this offering in the future.
  • Very limited analytics.
  • You can realistically only use their mailing list offering, which offers very little in terms of analytics or targeting.
  • If you need to search for information and help, has one of the most generic, search unfriendly names possible in the English language. Just try to google for information on Medium’s mailing list feature. Go on, I dare you. You pretty much have to know that they call it ‘Letters’ to be able to find out anything useful.

Wordpress.com

I have a love-hate relationship with Wordpress. I love its openness and flexibility. I hate using it, looking at it, experiencing it, and—most of all—maintaining it. Out of the box Wordpress is a security nightmare, its interface is an indecipherable mess, and it’s ugly to boot.

Wordpress.com partly solves my problems with Wordpress proper by taking care of maintenance and bolting on a different User Interface for managing, writing, and editing posts.

I hate the new UI too, just in a different way from the way I hate Wordpress’s regular UI.

Pros:

  • Demonstrably scalable.
  • Relatively full-featured, both in terms of management and tech-y trends.
  • Many people will be familiar with its UI, both the horrible one (original Wordpress) and the horrible one (Wordpress.com).
  • Many themes to choose from, most of which are easy to customise, especially if you know CSS.
  • It’s what everybody else uses.
  • Analytics are somewhat better than Medium’s.
  • Migration to self-hosted Wordpress should be easy if you outgrow Wordpress.com.

Cons:

  • All available UIs for it are awful.
  • Most of the themes are tacky, ugly, or unusable, meaning that tweaking is necessary.
  • It’s what everybody else uses.
  • Hard to integrate forms into the design which makes it tricky to integrate a mailing list signup form in a nice way.
  • Analytics are still limited, even if you do have the option of adding Google’s spyware package to your site.
  • Little control over what actually gets downloaded by your visitors. Most of them will get a useless but hefty JS bundle with every request that Wordpress.com really thinks everybody should have. Because admin reasons or something.

Squarespace

These guys are, for most people, the go-to answer to this question because they are the only ones who seem to take it seriously. Their value proposition is really simple:

“You give us money and you’ll get a website that’s easy to set up, easy to use, and looks good.”

Their templates look a little heavy for the most part but unlike the others, they know exactly what problem they set out to solve.

Pros:

  • Nicest UI of the three.
  • Most features of the three.
  • Built-in MailChimp integration.
  • Forms.
  • Better analytics out of the box and code injection lets you integrate pretty much anything you want.
  • This is what they do. No confusion about their incentives or longterm goals.

Cons:

  • Templates tend to be bandwidth-heavy and require some expertise on your part to slim them down.

  • Closed source.

  • Most serious integrations and setups require coding skills.

  • Not Wordpress and so not part of its huge ecosystem.

Honorary mentions

  • Ghost Pro: trendy, immature, relatively sparse on features. Simpler than Wordpress and offers more flexibility than Wordpress.com. If you need to do anything interesting, you probably have to build a plugin or extend it yourself.

  • Tumblr: even people who love Tumblr think it’s a bit of a joke.

  • CraftCMS: a really compelling CMS if you are up for self-hosting. Closed source, though.

  • Jekyll: Only usable by developers. About as accessible as improv Klingon slam poetry to anybody else.

  • Drupal: I’m neither a sadist nor a masochist so… no.

  • Known: More of a social publishing platform. Very useful if you are building a bespoke social network like for a University or a large organisation. Less so if you are just one small organisation.


From the pros and cons listed above, it seems to me that as soon as a small to medium-sized business or organisation has any budget, Squarespace becomes the natural choice. The rest are either limited in how they integrate with your mailing list (essential) or analytics (less essential but still a common business practice).

The best of the runners up, like CraftCMS or Ghost are only useful if you have a developer on board or are willing to take care of hosting it yourself.

Did I miss anything?

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