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How to Find the Best WordPress Alternative for You

Written by Coner Murphy in A speed gauge for optimization Optimization on September 07, 2022

WordPress used to be the go-to content management system (CMS) for the majority of websites. If you wanted a CMS, the standard answer was “use WordPress,” but those days are slowly disappearing with the multitude of new CMS providers entering the space. So, it begs the question: is one of the newer WordPress alternatives better for you? And how do you make the right choice?

How to Approach WordPress Alternatives

Finding the optimal alternative for your website requires more than your average listicle of CMS companies. Instead of suggesting individual alternative providers in this post, we’ll be covering different categories of CMSs to help you find the optimal solution. Because CMS providers, in general, tend to fall into specific categories, each with specific strengths and weaknesses, it’s better to compare these to decide which type of CMS you want to use. Then the search for a provider within that category will be much easier and more efficient.

In this post, we will cover the pros, cons, and use cases of four different types of CMS: monolithic, no-code/low-code, e-commerce, and headless.

Monolithic CMS

Before looking at the newer WordPress alternatives on offer today, let’s start with what type of CMS WordPress is: a monolithic CMS. This is your traditional all-in-one installation, with one platform that does everything from managing your website's content to dictating the technology running it, and WordPress isn’t the only one. So, its closest alternatives are also in this category.

Simply put, monolithic CMSs keep everything in one place (content and code), but as we’ll find out in a moment, this approach has its pros and cons.

Pros

One of the most popular reasons people choose to use a monolithic CMS is that it handles all of the core website functionality for you, like content editing, asset management, etc. Additionally, some monolithic CMS options also offer additional features outside of the core functionality, including website hosting, which can be a big plus if you don’t have the knowledge to set this up yourself.

In a similar vein, monolithic CMSs are traditionally easy to configure and set up. Just like WordPress, some alternatives in this category, like Ghost, have a large selection of community themes that allow you to fill in a few boxes with information and see your new site live in moments with no prep time or development needed.

Cons

Now, it’s likely that if you’re reading this post, you’re already looking for a WordPress alternative, so you probably already have your own pain points or issues with the monolithic CMS approach.

Let’s start with the cost. As your website grows in traffic and demand, more powerful servers and hardware will be needed to supply it. That extra hardware power doesn’t come cheap; it’s not uncommon for high-demand WordPress sites to cost hundreds of dollars per month, if not more.

While we’re on the topic of scale, let’s talk about how monolithic CMSs can become a pain point for your website’s development over time. Because your content, code, and more are all contained in one place, if someone wants to update a plugin or add a new page, everything needs to be checked and checked again to ensure nothing breaks due to a conflict.

Finally, out-of-the-box, monolithic CMSs don’t let you use the latest development technologies like Jamstack. Some monolithic CMSs can be modified to use the latest technologies, but the experience in the end isn’t as optimal as CMS categories that have been purpose-built for them.

Use cases

Monolithic CMSs present an intriguing all-in-one solution to users. Although they have many limitations, teams with smaller budgets who don’t need to put a huge emphasis on strategies like SEO and need to spin up a website quickly may find these providers useful.

Example providers

WordPress, Ghost

No-code or low-code website builders

No-code or low-code site builders are similar to the more traditional monolithic CMS, but they’re often more refined and simplified in terms of the user experience. In most cases, the vast majority of the code has been abstracted away from you because the product you’re using will typically do all the heavy lifting like generating the code and handling changes and deployments. In essence, the CMS handles all the work a normal development team would do for your website. So, you’ve just got to focus on designing and writing the content for your website and making sure it serves your business’s goals.

Pros

The pros of this type of CMS are its user experience and how friendly it is to use whether you can code or not. You can take ideas and convert them into great-looking websites with zero development, coding, or website knowledge required.

Cons

While they’re great for simpler websites, as your needs and business grow, you may find yourself needing features and tools that aren’t available or design customizations that are extremely difficult to implement. If the developers or the product team of the CMS don’t think a tool or feature is needed or will add value, it won’t be built, even if many users request it. In this respect, getting the custom solutions that growing businesses often require can be difficult depending on the provider.

Finally, similar to monolithic CMSs, costs can easily spiral out of control as your website grows and traffic increases. Unfortunately, with this type of CMS, your options are to painstakingly migrate to a cheaper platform or pay the price. And if you do choose the migration route, there may or may not be export tools available, so it could be a time-consuming, manual process.

Use cases

If a company is after a basic marketing website and lacks the budget for a developer, then this type of CMS can help them get their ideas off the ground. You can spin up a great-looking website and have your content go live in under a day. Of course, this does come with the downside of the potentially higher costs as you grow, but unfortunately, convenience has a price.

Example providers

Squarespace, Webflow

E-commerce CMS

Unlike the other two types of CMSs we’ve covered, which have taken more of a Swiss Army Knife approach to websites, e-commerce CMSs are the opposite: they’re specialized to be great at one thing in particular, which is, of course, e-commerce.

While WordPress has the plug-ins and add-ons to make e-commerce a possibility, actual e-commerce CMSs have been built from the ground up to make selling products online as easy and pain-free as possible. If the core of your business is e-commerce, wouldn’t you prefer a solution designed specifically for your business and not something that can do a bit of everything?

Pros

As covered above, e-commerce CMSs only have a primary purpose: to help people run their e-commerce businesses. They’re not ideal for running blogs or portfolios; they’re for shops and businesses looking to sell online.

This means e-commerce CMSs have all the knowledge, features, tools, and support to make your e-commerce website a seamless experience end-to-end, from the transactions and checkout to handling orders and shipping. You can focus on running your business instead of running your website.

Finally, you don’t necessarily need any coding or development experience to get started. Platforms like Shopify have taken e-commerce to the masses. No longer do you need to be (or hire) a web developer to get started (although as your business and needs grow custom development may come into play). Just create an account, and get selling.

Cons

E-commerce CMSs really shine in one area, online retail, but outside of that, they’re a bit lackluster in features and tools. So if marketing the e-commerce business is a strong consideration, like running a blog or a series of marketing pages, then this type of CMS might not have everything you need. There may be minimal features to get started, but eventually, you’ll need to add other solutions to customize your site.

Another drawback of e-commerce CMSs is the risk of migrating away from them as the site grows. If your website is handling hundreds or thousands of dollars in transactions per day and is your business’s key source of income, then it’ll be a nerve-racking experience having to migrate it. What happens if something goes wrong and people can’t purchase items? What happens to your business?

Now, you might be asking: why would you want to migrate? Everyone has their reasons, but one of the key reasons would be the cost. E-commerce CMSs can be expensive to run, especially as your website grows in value and demand, so some site owners will want to migrate to ensure more money ends up in their pocket and not the platforms’.

It’s worth noting that these drawbacks don’t mean that you can’t have an e-commerce CMS and manage effective content marketing, too. It’s possible to use this type of CMS in combination with the next category of CMSs, so that you get the best of both worlds.

Use cases

If the goal and primary purpose for a website is selling items online and running an online store, then this is the best type of CMS. But if you’ll want to accompany your store with high-quality marketing pages, as well, then you’ll need to consider a custom website that leverages both an e-commerce CMS and a headless CMS.

Example providers

Shopify, BigCommerce

Headless CMS

Headless CMSs are on the leading edge of technology in this space. No longer is the content of your website coupled closely with the code and architecture of your website. They’re not even stored on the same server anymore. To put it simply, headless CMSs take care of the content editing experience, content storage, and sending content to websites through APIs, while developers can build fully custom websites to display that content. That means that the website itself can evolve with the latest technology because it’s not controlled by the CMS.

It’s also worth noting that there are two sub-categories of headless CMS: the traditional headless CMS and the newer headless website builder.

Let’s start with the traditional headless CMS experience in which a developer defines a fixed template and lets people switch content in and out on the fly. This works, but it pins content teams into a corner because once the template is set, it can’t be changed without a developer’s assistance.

On the other hand, we have the headless website builder category, which provides flexibility and modularity to its users. In this type of headless CMS, content teams can build pages with custom building blocks created just for them. Once the website has been initially configured with the latest technologies by a developer and the building blocks are in place, any user can arrange the blocks how they wish to make as many pages as they desire in the editing interface that the headless website builder provides.

To keep the comparison to WordPress going, this type of CMS is almost the complete opposite. Unlike in WordPress, your content is no longer coupled to the code, database, or server. Because of this decoupling, there’s a greater level of freedom to build a website that works for you and not just one that pleases the CMS.

Pros

If you want to leverage the latest technologies (like Jamstack) natively then headless CMSs have you covered. In most cases, these CMSs have been configured from the ground up to work with these newer technologies. They’re also configured so that you can create your content in one place and let your developer connect it to your website, apps, and more.

You can design and build a high-quality website that provides major SEO and user experience gains and more, and the CMS will fit around it. The CMS doesn’t care what features or services you want to offer; it only cares about the content. Additionally, storing content in the CMS's cloud to be delivered from their servers can have significant performance gains to support your SEO goals.

In the case of a headless website builder, content teams will also be able to publish on-brand pages rapidly, because the design and code for every website section are already soundly in place and ready to use like website legos.

For businesses that want to grow and scale rapidly, this type of CMS is the ideal solution. It makes workflows for large teams much smoother in terms of building a consistent brand and in terms of coding websites with scalability in mind.

Cons

While headless CMSs are catching on in the development world, they’re still not as widespread as older types of CMSs, which means the support base and community (while tight-knit) aren’t as large as WordPress’s, for example. This means you could wait longer for issues to get resolved.

Unfortunately, if you’re not a developer or don’t have access to one, you also won’t get too far on your own just yet. Unlike the no/low-code CMS we covered earlier, you need a developer to set up this type of CMS, so while the developer experience of these new CMSs is great, if you’re not a developer, you’ll first need to work with one to get up and running.

Use cases

If you want to use the latest development technologies available to achieve SEO goals, you’re prioritizing the consistency and quality of your brand, and you want to be able to scale your business rapidly, a headless website builder is definitely worth the investment. It’s also an ideal way to add strategic marketing pages to a website that’s leveraging an e-commerce CMS for products and sales.

Example providers

Prismic

Get Started with a headless website builder

When ambitious businesses need to scale and grow through their websites, there's no better CMS than a headless website builder. Developers create a performant website with cutting-edge technologies and connect it to a customized website builder experience for content teams.

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TL;DR

In this post, we’ve covered four types of CMS: monolithic, no/low-code, e-commerce, and headless. Each type of CMS will have its own use cases, so to close out the post, I wanted to offer some recommendations of what type of user would be best suited for each type of CMS.

  • If you were looking to run an e-commerce business, then really there is only one choice, an e-commerce CMS.
  • If you were looking to set up a quick blog or marketing page on a small budget, then a no/low-code CMS can do the trick.
  • If you wanted to use the latest technologies to build a website bespoke to your business with little to no restrictions from the CMS, be able to easily reuse content, and have a single control point between various platforms like multiple websites or mobile apps, then a headless website builder would be best.

Finally, of course, we still have the traditional monolithic CMS. If you were interested in an all-in-one solution (and can handle the limitations and drawbacks placed on you), then it might not be time to switch from your current monolithic CMS after all.

In closing, I hope this post has helped you identify possible WordPress alternatives for you and your website and has helped you in your journey to an awesome website.

A portrait photo of Coner Murphy in a plaid shirt.

Coner Murphy

Web Developer, technical writer, and tech entrepreneur sharing my journey to financial freedom. Building PhyType and SaaS products in public.

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