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Report from WordCamp UK 2009

wordcampuk-2009-graphic WordCamp UK 2009 was my first WordCamp, and certainly won’t be my last. This informal conference was an interesting mix of bloggers, developers, small businesses, corporate consultants, designers and open source enthusiasts, all united by an attachment—varying from considered preference to warm affection—to the WordPress web publishing platform.

I know quite directly, through my inability to keep pace with the current demand for my WP-related services, that my choice to specialize in WP, made aeons ago back in 2005, was a damn good choice. Not only good, but unaccountably prescient. WP is already a major deal in the web sphere, and is set to keep growing.

It’s a testament to WP’s open and human-scale ethos that the appearance of WP’s most visible face—co-founder Matt Mullenweg—was surrounded by a mere modicum of buzz, meagre nods to any cult of personality (though apparently some were very taken by him!). But at the same time he thoroughly re-invigorated people’s love for the WP way. With a winning combination of boyish enthusiasm and gloss-free confidence, Matt managed to make it clear that WP itself is the star. Inasmuch as our world demands a figurehead, Matt fits with a reassuring lack of convention into the role. But the event’s energy palpably was not orbiting Matt or anyone else in particular; it flowed freely between each presenter and their audience, and even more, through each conversation struck up by any and all participants.

Actually, it became clear from Matt in the Q & A session, and from discussions around the event, that while WP may be the star, the GPL is the star-maker. Thanks to a recent WP dev blog post, I had only recently taken on board the full implications of the GPL for my custom theme development. Others who knew the general idea and import of the GPL also seemed to be taking from the event a new level of appreciation for, or an invigorating reminder of the radical nature of this licensing choice, of the leap of faith it demands and the important, challenging freedoms it offers.

I’ll do a little run-down of various aspects of the event and presentations that struck me here. (Note that most presentations have been uploaded to SlideShare.net, and I guess some might find their way onto WordPress.tv soon.)

WP as CMS

Freelance designer Jonny Allbut gave an excellent overview of the development process for setting a client up with a site using WP primarily as a Content Management System. It was an accepted grumble at the event that far too many people still see WP as a “blogging platform”. This is indeed its origins; but we all know that WP has now matured into a very flexible basis for sites that transcend blog conventions by a long stretch. And the other side of this grumble is that there was little if any doubt that this blog-centric view of WP is inexorably crumbling. The solidity of WP’s blog-related capabilities—tagging, comments, everything automatically available as RSS—are a boon to wider content management. And between widgets, plugins, creative themes and the occasional bit of unobtrusive hacking, WP is more than capable of an ever-growing range of web content tasks.

The best pointer I got from Jonny’s talk was learning about the possibility of custom taxonomies. When WP introduced tagging, it was wisely decided that instead of just adding a “tagging system” alongside the age-old “categories system”, a flexible meta-level “taxonomies system” would be created. Tags and categories are the default current taxonomies, but the system in theory can cater for any number of additional taxonomies.

This broke a few plugins, for a bit; c’est la vie. For my own part, while I recognized in passing the wisdom of this flexibility, my main interaction with it had been mild annoyance at the additional complexity necessitated in custom SQL queries to interact with categories or tags. Jonny gave me the flash of realization that the system is not just for extra taxonomies to be added in the future to the WP core—us developers can create our own taxonomies. Now I’m aware of having access to this lateral bit of architecture, my already bouyant confidence in “WP as CMS” has taken a big leap.

Scalability

Let’s not be unrealistic. WP isn’t the solution for every site. If it was, it would be the solution for nothing. Humongous, feature-heavy, absurdly complex CMS’s prove this. But while it won’t suite every situation, it’s clear that its potential is only just beginning to be exploited by the CMS market. Many businesses and organizations could pay less (a frightening amount less, truth be told), and get a better system by going for WP as opposed to a Swiss-army-knife-style “enterprise” solution.

Typically, this kind of adoption would follow in the wake of, develop alongside, or perhaps even catalyze, a re-thinking or re-structuring of the way a company or organization does stuff, with “opening up” as the core theme to this process. It’s an odd situation when you first face the fact that a client’s needs are best addressed through the development of a new WP plugin; and yet at the same time, thanks to the GPL, this plugin must also be GPL. Why not release it on WP Extend? How will the client feel about this? They pay you whatever for developing it, and then their competitors and everyone else can grab it for free.

It’s hard to overstate how crazy this situation can appear to the contemporary business mindset. And it must be remembered that you are, in fact, not obliged in the least to release your WP plugins. GPL merely requires that if you do, it’s released under GPL, too. On the other hand, it’s surprising how many people—overtly or in private—sense that this is perhaps a good way, maybe even the right way (at least a right way) of doing things. At worst, it’s refreshing, and the daily news now confirms our suspicions about the moribund state of business-as-usual. For the most part, I sense that those with most to lose are those with least actual value to offer.

In any case, how does all this translate into workable sites operating at a level way beyond the hobbyist blogosphere? How does the WP platform perform next to the bigger boys? Pretty damn well, it seems. Notable case studies of breakthrough WP deployments ranged from Puffbox‘s Simon Dickson’s coup of getting one of the least loved English institutions running on WP, to Simon Wheatley‘s hot-off-the-servers new site for one of the best loved English institutions (actually, the blog runs on WP, and the forum runs on WP sibling bbPress).

And David Coveney from InterconnectIT showed how WP can serve very well as a large-scale news site with telecoms.com. Not only did WP work, “it proved so robust that there was no need for an ongoing support contract from us for our code. This is often the case with our work and we make little money from support—while this may seem like poor business sense, we believe that building for reliability and performance helps us to keep our clients coming back to us time and time again.” I couldn’t agree more.

Some of my own clients have asked me at the start of the development of their new WP site about its scalability. How many users, posts, page views, whatever, can it be expected to handle? Even without some judicious caching—which is certainly still a wise move on larger sites—the answer here seems to be: “Enough.”

Search results & good content

I’ve never been interested in “advanced SEO“, personally speaking. I know the basics, how to code a site so that it looks good to search engines as well as humans. And, coming from a content-centric background, I always felt the bottom line was the old adage that “content is king”. Good writing is its own best advertisement. Professionally, I hoped that in the end my personal predilections tallied with the realities of getting well-ranked on search results. Was my judgement that the more esoteric end of SEO is unnecessary, ineffective, and a detraction from the real stuff dictated more by considered professional opinion or by the fact that in the end I just can’t be arsed with it?

Rarely have I felt more vindicated :-). Hearing from both Luisella Mazza, Google’s Search Quality Senior Analyst, and Nick Garner, SEO consultant for Betfair.com (a huge online betting site with a eye-watering £50m/week turnover), confirmed my suspicions. The message was, get your code right, use the basic monitoring tools, keep an eye on best practices, but above all: offer good content and—to quote Nick’s summary of Luisella’s responses when he grilled her privately about Google & SEO: “Don’t get hung up on SEO theory.”

Regarding WP and SEO, according to Google’s Matt Cutts (not present at this WordCamp), choosing WP gets you more than halfway there “out of the box”. A few choice plugins, used wisely, cover most of the rest of the ground.

The future of WordPress

It’s plain that the future’s pretty bright for WP—but what colour is it?

Matt talked about a few key goals for the near future, and they’re pretty exciting:

  • Merging WP and WP MU (“Multi-User”—basically a version of WP that can run thousands of separate blogs from one installation).
  • BuddyPress, a suite of WP plugins and themes that, together with WP MU, facilitates “roll-your-own social networking”. This is set to potentially be a major part of the WP world and—as everyone realizes that the content ownership policies of Facebook and the like are ridiculous—part of the wider web world as well.
  • An application of an “eBay model” to the Extend plugins repository. Basically, better facilities for the community to collectively filter, rate, review and work with plugins.
  • WP “handbooks”. A set of open-source guides to working with WP that are more focussed and accessible than the Codex.

Good stuff.

I want to round off by thanking everyone who helped put WordCamp together—it was just a fantastic event. Next year I hope I’ll share some of my experience in a presentation, and maybe get more involved.

And, with apologies to anyone I miss, a shout out to the great people I met there: Hwa and Dave, Tony Scott, Chi-chi Ekweozor, Dan Milward, Nick Garner, Vixx, Michael Atkins, Jason Stanley… oh, and everyone else. See you next year!

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